Reuters

When President Donald Trump gave his State of the Union address earlier this week, chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” broke out several times among the lawmakers in attendance. This wasn’t a new phenomenon in the Trump era. At last year’s State of the Union, the “U-S-A” cheer broke out when Trump extolled the Capitol building as “the monument to the American people,” and then again at the end of the speech. This time around, the chant was even more prominent—and its use was more politically fraught.

How, exactly, did we get to this juncture, where intoning the initials of our country has become such a flash point in American politics? And why did members of Congress sound like a rowdy crowd at a national sporting event?

When Trump delivered his expected line, “Members of Congress, the state of our union is strong,” he heard the “U-S-A” refrain from Republicans in the audience and responded, “That sounds so good.” He might have been more surprised to hear the chant coming from the Democratic side of the aisle as well, when he acknowledged the record number of women elected to Congress in 2018. (Emily Cochrane of The New York Times noted on Twitter that when the “U-S-A” cheer started, some tried to show their gratitude to Speaker Nancy Pelosi with a “Thank you, Nancy” chant that didn’t catch on.) As Lisa Ryan observed on New York magazine’s The Cut, “The moment could potentially be read as some members attempting to reclaim a chant that has become synonymous with MAGA rallies and Trump’s demand for a border wall.”

But that fleeting moment of reclamation was followed by a more MAGA-style use of the “U-S-A” chant. Republicans repeated it when Trump condemned Venezuela’s Maduro regime and then declared, “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country”—as network cameras zoomed in on the reaction of Senator Bernie Sanders (whose brand of democratic socialism is a far cry from Maduroism). The cheering support of Trump’s applause line underscored how foreign-policy posturing could be turned into a taunt of domestic political opponents, carrying a not-so-veiled implication of anti-Americanism for the likes of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who don’t view socialism as a dirty word.

The “U-S-A” cheer has evolved over the years. Sporadic mentions of such chanting can be found in press accounts going all the way back to World War I. The earliest examples approximate the “rah rah rah, sis boom bah” style of athletic college yells. Paul Emory Putz, a history lecturer at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, shared an example from the Daily News of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, from June 5, 1918, describing a patriotic rally at the Bethlehem Steel plant. A “most capable cheer leader” led the employees in “the Bethlehem company yell”:

Putz also uncovered a mention of a “U-S-A” chant a couple of years later at a more expected venue: the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. During the preliminary events, the Associated Press reported, “Americans in the grand stands and amphitheaters made their presence known by dominating the cheering.” The chant made by Americans in the stands went: “U-S-A, U-S-A, A-M-E-R-I-C-A!” As at Bethlehem Steel, the crowd was egged on by a “cheer leader,” in this case Gustavus T. Kirby, president of the United States Olympic Committee.

“U-S-A” cheers would become a staple at Olympic Games. During track and field events at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Adolf Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, captured chants of “U-S-A” in footage for the documentary Olympia. But the cheer really heated up during the Cold War, at international athletic competitions that pitted the United States against the Soviet Union and other Communist states, such as at a baseball game against Cuba at the 1963 Pan American Games. The chant’s Cold War resonance could be heard beyond sports, such as when it was used by students at an anti-government demonstration in Czechoslovakia in 1969 before authorities cracked down.

Czechoslovakia, as it happens, would serve a more prominent role in the chant’s popularization during the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York, as the American men’s hockey team staged its improbable run to the gold medal. Team USA’s upset victory over Czechoslovakia in the second round solidified its exciting underdog status, as “U-S-A” was roared over and over again by the home crowd. Those roars grew louder when the Americans knocked off the Soviet powerhouse team in stunning fashion.

That “Miracle on Ice” game cemented the “U-S-A” chant into common sporting usage, but it wasn’t always such a feel-good refrain. In the summer of 1993, the New York Yankees hosted a series with the Toronto Blue Jays when the two teams were locked in a pennant race. Yankees fans “turned ugly,” the AP reported, with the crowd booing the visiting team during batting practice and chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” at them. (The Blue Jays, the AP reporter noted, did not actually have any Canadians on its roster, though it had plenty of Americans, along with Dominicans and Puerto Ricans.)

Pro wrestling also brought the cheer to the fore, used by rabble-rousing stars like “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and Hulk Hogan, who played up patriotic story lines against opponents with cartoonish foreign personas. And speaking of cartoonish, the cheer has often been used for comic effect on The Simpsons, particularly by Homer at inappropriate moments.

As a political expression of national pride divorced from its athletic roots, the “U-S-A” chant reached its zenith after 9/11. Most famously, when George W. Bush visited first responders at Ground Zero, the crowd’s cheering of “U-S-A” crescendoed as Bush responded, “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” Ten years later, when U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, the news was greeted with “U-S-A” chants in many places—including at baseball games.

Trump, the proud “nationalist,” has basked in the glow of pugnacious “U-S-A” chants at his rallies, and it is difficult not to hear the State of the Union cheers as an echo of these jingoistic outpourings. Democrats in attendance seemed to try to split the difference—not joining in except when they could appropriate the chant for their own purposes to celebrate the influx of women joining the ranks in the House. That act of reappropriation, however, was lost in some right-wing circles—such as on the website Townhall, which covered the moment with the disingenuous headline, “Wow: Trump Got Democratic Women to Give a Standing Ovation AND Break Into USA Chant.” The lesson may be that chanting “U-S-A” does not lend itself well to irony, but a once-simple refrain has now undoubtedly become weighted with multiple, at times conflicting, political meanings.

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