Mentioning U.S. military cemeteries in France and my town of Riverdale Park, Maryland in the same sentence, or even the same piece of writing – that’s got to be a first. But due to the overlap of Veterans Day today with the hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I hostilities, both shed some light on the confused, often downright incoherent, and just as often hypocritical nature of America’s heated, intertwined political and philosophical battles over identity, nationalism, and related issues.
The military cemetery angle is clear enough, due to President Trump’s controversial decision to forego attending yesterday’s Armistice Day ceremony at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial outside of Paris. Mr. Trump’s administration attributed the decision to bad weather and the logistical complications it created. I’m no expert on these matters (chances are, neither are you) and for all I know, rain and the herculean task of moving American presidents in foreign countries may have genuinely rendered his initially announced schedule unrealistic. I also suspect that a major role was played by the simple exhaustion of a 72-year old man following a whirlwind last few weeks of criss-crossing America for speeches at campaign rallies aimed at electing Republican candidates in this month’s midterm elections.
Nonetheless, even though this event wasn’t the only, or even the main event on the Trump schedule, or even the only scheduled cemetery visit, I believe that the President should have sucked it up and attended. (Just FYI, he did wind up going to a second such ceremony today.) As a result, I have some sympathy for the critics’ charges that Mr. Trump’s decision undercut his high profile claims of championing patriotic values.
But I don’t have total sympathy, and here’s why: because these presidential opponents generally have a pretty dodgy, and thus often double-standard-infused, record on patriotic values themselves. Why else, for example, would they be so apoplectic about the President’s self-description as a “nationalist.” Many have not only equated this viewpoint with something they call “white nationalism” (a concept whose fatal internal contradictions are, revealingly, ignored only by them and by the fringe neo-Nazi types who have adopted it). They’ve also attacked it for clashing with the idea of diversity, as opposed to “inclusion,” and for asserting (in the words of France’s President, Emmanuel Macron), “our interests first, who cares about the others?”
At best, however, that’s a bizarre critique for at least two reasons. First, the United States exists in a world of other political units that are known as “nation-states,” and inevitably, their “national interests” (another term that’s not the least bit controversial) won’t always coincide. These interests aren’t always in conflict, either, and when they’re not, inclusion – in the form of fostering international cooperation in order to advance shared goals or repel share challenges – is a fine idea. But when these interests don’t coincide, and can’t be reconciled via diplomacy, inclusion can easily become a formula for delusion, and for harming U.S. interests. And Macron to the contrary, at that point, any national leader deserving his country’s trust would put their “interests first” and not care terribly “about the others.”
Second, Mr. Trump’s actual use of the word had nothing to do with jingoism or chauvinism, much less racism. Indeed, it had everything to do with promoting an entirely reasonable U.S. foreign policy goal. Here’s his description of the term: “All I want for our country is to be treated well, to be treated with respect. For many years other countries that are allies of ours, so-called allies, they have not treated our country fairly, so in that sense I am absolutely a nationalist and I’m proud of it.”
And here’s where Riverdale Park, Maryland comes in. This morning, the town held its annual Veterans Day observance. It took place at a pretty little patch created near the town center, complete with a memorial and a big American flag. Ever since I moved to the town in 2003, I’ve attended this ceremony nearly every year, along with the Memorial Day ceremony (when I was in town, which has usually been the case), and was proud to do so. This year, that streak came to an end.
I’m boycotting, and will continue to boycott, because earlier this year, as I’ve described, the town decided to permit illegal aliens to vote in local elections (along with 16-year olds). It’s a free country, and the decision is Constitutional, but it mainly rankled because, as I also wrote, during the debate, supporters of the idea made plain as day that they not only had no regard for the idea of citizenship, and of the community of values it has represented throughout our country’s history. They stated repeatedly their convictions that that community, along with the Constitution that organized its government and enshrined into law the liberties Americans enjoy, are nothing more than racist and sexist constructs concocted by a claque of dead white males determined to perpetuate their dominance and that of their descendants. Moreover, the town’s endorsement of non-citizen voting unquestionably represented endorsement of that perspective.
And these are folks – and the municipality – claiming to honor those currently serving in the military, and those who have lost their lives defending this political system? Sorry, but I found that proposition stomach-turning, along with the idea of taking part in this sham.
Further, these convictions are hardly confined to Riverdale Park. Polls – not a perfect measure of opinion, I know, but the best we have – show consistently that patriotic feelings are declining sharply among the American public as a whole, and among Democrats, liberals, and the young in particular – the last three categories are coming to dominate Riverdale Park’s population. (See, e.g., here and here. And according to the Gallup survey, the latter two trends predated Mr. Trump’s election as president.)
I have no evidence that most or even many of those with low patriotism levels have chortled at the President’s decision to skip the military cemetery ceremonies. But I’ll bet the number is more than a few. Ditto for a high correlation between the Trump cemetery critics and staunch opponents of his immigration policies – due to the President’s insistence that the United States as a sovereign nation, and even more important, one precious enough to be worth defending, has an absolute right to control its borders and decide who and how many are granted admission.
There’s no obligation for any American to feel patriotic, and there’s certainly no obligation to like President Trump. Is it too much to ask, however, that Veterans Day, and associated professions of love of country, be made exempt from political football-dom?