By Robert Reich
We recoil in horror as Putin and his forces wreak havoc and death on Ukraine — before our eyes and in real time. Both Putin and Ukraine President Zelensky repeatedly invoke “nationalism” and “patriotism,” but Putin’s nationalism and patriotism are manufactured to justify this brutal and unprovoked aggression while Zelensky’s words explain astonishing sacrifices now being made by ordinary Ukrainians to protect their freedom, democracy, and homeland.
Donald Trump uses the same words, too — as do his acolytes in the Republican Party. His version of national patriotism is closer to Putin’s than to Zeleneky’s.
Trump-Republican patriotism is about triumphing and dominating. Although America is a nation of immigrants, Trump’s goal is to keep immigrants out. “A nation ‘without borders’ is not a nation at all,” he has said. It is also about keeping America first. “The American People will come first once again,” he says. Trump-Republican patriotism is zero-sum, just as is Putin’s when it comes to Ukraine (or any other nation that was once part of the Soviet “empire”) — either we win or they win. And who or what is America for Trump Republicans? Essentially, white and Christian.
Trump Republicans demand symbolic gestures of patriotism, such as standing for the national anthem and saluting the flag. But they don’t ask for personal sacrifice because they reject any notion of the common good. They view the nation as a site for self-centered transactions with no deeper and more enduring meaning than immediate self-gratification — a zone of self-promotion and narcissistic extravagance, where individuals can extend their ambition through iPhones and selfies and other technologies of instant gratification.
Zelensky patriotism is the opposite. It isn’t founded on zero-sum superiority or exclusion, or on symbolic gestures, or on exaggerated notions of personal ambition. It’s based on common sacrifice for the common good.
At times in our history America has come close to Zelensky patriotism. We have understood the need for mutual sacrifice — of everyone taking on a fair share of the burden of keeping America going. That includes volunteering for local school boards and city councils, blowing the whistle on abuses of power, and paying taxes in full rather than seeking loopholes or squirreling money abroad. Sometimes it has required the supreme sacrifice. (We are, after all, the descendants of Nathan Hale — soldier and spy for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, who famously declared just before being executed by the British in 1776 that his only regret was having “but one life to lose for my country.”)
America’s form of Zelensky patriotism does not pander to divisiveness. It confirms and strengthens the “we” in “we the people of the United States.” It celebrates our diversity, and fights to uplift the voices of America — Black people, women, gay and trans people, younger Americans. It believes that America should welcome refugees and others fleeing from violence or seeking a better life, as memorialized in Emma Lazarus’ famous lines on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
America’s form of Zelensky patriotism doesn’t hate our government. It recognizes that government is the means by which we come together to solve our common problems. We don’t like everything our government does but we work to improve it rather than attack or undermine it.
We have never fully lived up to these patriotic ideals, of course, but they have fueled our commitment to social justice. The films of Frank Capra, the poems of Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes, and the songs of Woodie Guthrie, express loving devotion to America while turning that love into a demand for justice.
“This land is your land, this land is my land,” sang Guthrie.
Let America be America again,
The land that never has been yet —
And yet must be — the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine — the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME —.
Human beings flourish through their attachments to communities and societies, and their dedication to fairness and social justice — not through selfish acquisition or domination of others.
In the years ahead, America will choose which national patriotism we practice — the exclusionary and boastful version peddled by Trump with its shallow displays of national pride and narcissism, or the type we’re now witnessing by Ukrainians, forged in a profound sense of common good. I may be wildly optimistic but I believe we will choose Zelensky patriotism over its odious alternatives.