Op-Ed: This flag is your flag, not Trump’s

Vietnam War veteran and peace activist David Armstrong carries an American flag in the distress posi
Vietnam War veteran and peace activist David Armstrong carries an American flag in the distress position during a Families Belong Together march and rally on Saturday in Pullman, Wash.
(Kai Eiselein / Associated Press)

President Trump loves to cast himself as the protector of the American flag. He was born on Flag Day. He has literally hugged the flag during multiple public appearances. As he campaigns for Republicans leading up to the midterms this fall, he’s likely to pick another fight over whether NFL players are standing sufficiently proudly on the sidelines during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

But even as he wraps his presidency in the Stars and Stripes, he defiles that banner, transgressing against the very values and national unity for which it is supposed to stand.

That’s why Trump’s opponents should cease allowing him or his allies to claim the flag or other symbols of patriotism without a fight. This Fourth of July, and throughout the 2018 election campaigns, the loyal opposition should assert their far superior claim to the U.S. flag.

If the American flag stands for cruelty, depravity, corruption and the proposition that might makes right, then Trump is a fine standard bearer.

Under the red glare of Wednesday night’s fireworks, I’ll be thinking back on two illustrative moments — the most and least patriotic that I witnessed in person last year.

When Trump ordered a ban on travel to the United States by people from seven Muslim-majority countries, I stood in a crowd of protesters outside the international terminal at LAX. Some around me were there because they had family members or friends trapped abroad. Many others knew no one affected, but felt outraged at the religious prejudice that motivated it. The ban was a blow to the core American value that all humans are created equal and have an unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. For me, the climax of the protest was when the crowd — composed of people of myriad races, religions and national origins — joined in a heartfelt rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It was as stirring a civic display as I have seen, for it was rooted in the values of the Declaration of Independence.

The least patriotic display I witnessed in person happened six months later, during last year’s Fourth of July celebrations. From a dock in Newport Beach, I watched a dozen college students partying aboard a sailboat that flew an American flag from the mast and a blue and white Trump flag beneath it. Even as families with young children passed within earshot, the students began to yell drunkenly and with profanity, “We’ll do it live!” — a reference to a viral video of former Fox anchor Bill O’Reilly berating his producers. It felt like America at its most decadent: spoiled-rotten young people, some in U.S. flag bathing suits, making crass jokes beneath the banner of a former reality TV star.

GOP elders bear more blame than those young people: They’re the ones who elevated to the presidency a man who stood accused of sexual misconduct, who exploited charity for personal gain, who lavished praise on autocrats and dictators. No surprise then that in office Trump governs in a manner contrary to truth, justice and the American way.


Enter the Fray: First takes on the news of the minute from L.A. Times Opinion »

Since last Fourth of July, the Trump administration has lashed out at America’s democratic allies in Europe and Canada while cozying up to strongmen in Russia, Turkey, the Philippines and beyond. He dramatically intensified the separation of parents from children at the southwestern border, hoping that inherently cruel policy would deter migrants from seeking jobs or asylum in this country. Despite campaigning as an America First noninterventionist, he launched missile strikes on Syria without congressional permission, flagrantly violating the Constitution. His family business continues to benefit from his role in public office and his administration’s prerogatives. His personal attorney was exposed taking lucrative consulting gigs from corporations and foreign entities with hugely significant business before the U.S. government. He lashes out at the press, an institution explicitly protected by the 1st Amendment, as “enemies of the people.” He pardoned Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who violated the civil rights of U.S. citizens.

That’s merely the short list.

If the American flag stands for cruelty, depravity, corruption and the proposition that might makes right, then Trump is a fine standard bearer.

But if it stands for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, for the idea that all humans are created equal, for Lady Liberty welcoming newcomers, for loyalty to democracies rather than autocracies, then I hold this truth to be self-evident: Opponents of Trump are the rightful guardians of the flag. Members of “the Resistance,” dissident conservatives, Black Lives Matter protesters — they all should wrap themselves in red, white and blue, not only as a matter of political strategy, but as a matter of substance, too.

It is their inheritance more than his.

Conor Friedersdorf is a contributing writer to Opinion, a staff writer at the Atlantic and founding editor of the Best of Journalism, a newsletter that curates exceptional nonfiction.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion and Facebook.


A cure for the common opinion

Get thought-provoking perspectives with our weekly newsletter.

You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.