Two days before President Donald Trump commandeers the Mall to stage his grotesque celebration of American nationhood, the U.S. women’s national soccer team replicated the results of the original revolution, with a savvy and willful defeat of England.
It’s important to pause and contrast these two events: Trump’s efforts to rebrand the Fourth of July and the women earning a place in the World Cup finals. Trump’s blood-and-soil spectacle on the Mall is the culmination of an era in which the right has successfully hijacked patriotism for electoral gain, branding liberals and urbanites as inimical to real America. This U.S. team represents the charismatic refutation of that ugly variant of nationalism.
One of the reasons I’ve become so enamored with this team is that it has permitted me to feel an explosion of joy about the country, a sentiment that has felt especially alien these past few years. Earlier in the tournament, I went with my wife and two daughters to watch the team play in France. Before a game in Paris, we walked to the stadium in our jerseys, singing about our country, aware that denizens of the city might sneer at this display of unabashed Americanism. But at a moment when there are very good reasons to feel national shame, I felt the opposite, wearing that shirt.
Trump is hardly a deviation from the narrative of American history that forms the spine of Jill Lepore’s recently published book, This America. She shows how deep the chauvinistic strain runs in the nation’s past. During the past two decades, the right has made an art of cynically tagging Blue America as an enemy of the nation. Karl Rove elevated this theme in the political campaigns he ran on behalf of George W. Bush. “Liberals,” he blared, “saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers.”
Democratic political strategists were indeed soft in the face of Republican attacks. They pleaded with candidates to show up at NASCAR races and squelch their true beliefs about gay marriage. Enjoying arugula and driving Priuses were sometimes depicted, both in political attack ads and even in mainstream-media reports, as antithetical to the true spirit of the country.
But alongside this disturbing and ingrained pattern, Lepore traces another strain of American patriotism. She doesn’t abandon the field to white supremacists and warmongers. Instead, she makes a circumspect case for what she calls “civic patriotism”—a more expansive, cosmopolitan expression of affection for the nation. The U.S. women’s team is the living embodiment of that spirit.
That’s because this team is a reminder of the best of the American ethos—the promise of ever-expanding equality, the spirit of reform that yielded Title IX and laid the basis for American female soccer supremacy, the carnival of individuality that is the team’s roster. At a time of despair, the players represent a form of not-so-utopian hope: how a community of different backgrounds and sexual orientations relates to one another with familiar affection. A lesbian activist who protests police brutality has become a national hero. Draped in the Stars and Stripes, this team demonstrates how civic patriotism has an equal claim to representing the country.
It is fitting that it has done so at a World Cup. That is, the players are proving their superiority within the confines of an international institution, as opposed to a World Series or a Super Bowl, which falsely and provincially posture as global events. Indeed, there’s a long strain of right-wing commentators denouncing soccer as a foreign incursion, the world’s attempt to bend the United States to its own tastes.
That this team has stirred so much affection, and garnered such high TV ratings, is a testament to how cosmopolitanism has taken hold in a broad swath of the country. These players are a reminder of how, in the depths of a dark political era, it’s possible to love one’s country; they are an object lesson in how the values of liberal America can be patriotically trumpeted.
When Trump indulges in his self-aggrandizing celebration this week, I’m going to choose to think about Megan Rapinoe, with her arms defiantly spread in the air. I’m going to think about how the nation can still garner the world’s admiration, and how an idealistic vision of national community remains undefeated.