Donald Trump, who has a disturbing history of praising brutal dictators, possesses no better than a Twitter troll’s understanding of what it means to be an American patriot. He spent the weekend trolling the NFL over the players protesting police violence during the national anthem, though any other president would have been attending to the millions of fellow citizens suffering in Puerto Rico; and the NFL athletes who defied him by taking a knee Sunday in solidarity with protests against police killings had the high ground, as good students of American history will understand.

When the Founding Fathers affixed their signatures to the Declaration of Independence, the first act of political courage in United States history, the American flag as we know it did not yet exist. And it would be more than a century before the Star Spangled Banner was adopted as the national anthem. Yet the Founders were not deficient in love of country for lacking the Stars and Stripes. In bravely dissolving political bonds with Britain, Thomas Jefferson set forth the premise of the United States, the core ideas around which his countrymen rallied: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

These original patriots risked death and pledged their sacred honor to those truths, for which they are properly honored, even in spite of their serious failures. Now as then, allegiance to those Founding principles is what defines a patriotic American, not whether he or she stands or kneels while an anthem about the flag is performed.

The anthem and the flag are symbols, interpreted differently by people; in fact, their meaning can change for the same people in different moments (as for the African American who sang the anthem at an NFL game Sunday and kneeled for its last notes).

A person can salute the American flag with tears of affection in his eyes; if he deprives others of life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness, he is still a bad American.

These men are bad Americans:

Jeff Christensen / Reuters

Holding the Stars and Stripes aloft changes nothing.

And though I love the Stars and Stripes, regarding it as a symbol of what’s best about the Founding and the ongoing process of perfecting it, and respecting all those who’ve fought honorably beneath it on behalf of liberty, I regard anyone for whom it carries a different meaning as a good American, no matter how different or wrongheaded their perception, if they champion life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

That is the test.

Now consider the athletes kneeling in protest during the national anthem. Anyone paying attention knows their core grievance: the killing of black Americans by police officers. There are people, like Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute, who will tell you that neither the fact that American police officers kill many more people than their analogues in other countries, nor the fact that African Americans are killed in disproportion to their numbers, is proof that many killings are unjust.

For our purposes, we needn’t even decide that controversy on its merits.

It is enough to know that athletes like Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James disagree; that they earnestly believe many innocents are killed by police officers; that scores of their fellow athletes concur; that millions have earnestly reached the same conclusion.

Most people understand that much. They may be averse to kneeling black athletes, believing them to be disrespecting the flag or the troops (though neither is their intention); but they grant that the athletes really do think black people are being unjustly killed, and that they are kneeling in hopes that laws around policing are reformed.

Consider what that implies. The athletes, kneeling together in public protest of what they believe to be unjust killings, are pledging their honor and risking their fortunes in political protest; their grievance is that the government is failing to secure the rights of Americans; in particular, it is failing to protect their lives and liberty.

They are kneeling in an effort to defend the very core of the Declaration of Independence. No political act is more patriotic than petitioning government for that purpose. If you dislike their tactics, apart from their message, consider them imperfect; I won’t object so long as you then ask yourself if you find it easy to forgive Thomas Jefferson for the imperfection of owning slaves while advancing life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but hard to forgive young black men for merely kneeling while they try to advance life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in their time.

That double standard is indefensible.

If Trump honored the principles of those athletes while contesting the underlying facts about policing, it would be possible to see both the president and the protesters as patriots hashing out a disagreement rooted in different takes on a complicated issue. But Trump is the converse of the protesters: Like a man who displays his marriage certificate in an ornate frame on a prominent wall, then parades his mistress in front of his wife and the mother of his children on the slopes of a posh ski resort, Trump adopts the posture of honoring the rectangular cloth bearing red, white, and blue, then denigrates the self-evident truths and principles behind it.

Even as protesters objected that people of color are too often unjustly deprived of life or liberty by police officers, Trump pardoned a sheriff found by a court of law to have violated the constitutional rights of Americans. Over the objections of civil libertarians who understand the connection between property rights and the pursuit of happiness, the Trump administration announced a return to asset forfeiture policies that deprive Americans of money, cars, and houses without due process, when they have not been convicted of any crime, on the mere suspicion of police officers.

Trump profanes that which is sacred in America’s civic tradition as flagrantly as one might expect of a man who went on Howard Stern’s radio show and gave the shock jock permission to call his daughter “a piece of ass.” It isn’t clear that anything is sacred to him; he shows more regard for how the size of his fortune is perceived than for  any ideals.

Those substantive failings are why Trump ought to be anathema to any constitutional conservative, too many of whom credulously fall for his culture-war demagoguery.

They ought to think more carefully about the matter at hand.

Kneeling before the flag is not how I would choose to protest. A nation of 300 million will always be rife with political ignorance; messages will always filter down imperfectly to large cohorts; better to avoid that which is easily misunderstood when a slightly different form of protest would better convey the core message to the masses. The social scientists who write about the effects of seeming to profane sacred symbols and what activates latent authoritarian tendencies across countries are not lying; respectability politics was not used in the civil-rights era out of weakness or folly. The subject of the protests is grave enough to repeat tactics that work best.

But I hope I would’ve knelt in solidarity with my fellow players if I was in the NFL Sunday, because it is far better to get the theatrics wrong in defense of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, than to master theatrics as adeptly as a reality-TV star, then marshal them to intentionally divide Americans against one another by shit-posting on Twitter, all while transgressing against life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

This is my flag and yours:

Jim Young / Reuters

Trump can say he loves it all he wants; he doesn't deserve it.

A patriot is no more disqualified by kneeling before that flag than one is made by merely standing before it. What matters are the values behind the gestures. Foremost among Americans, Trump disrespects the flag with degraded values and a selfish comportment. If you think I misjudge him, ask yourself, would Trump avoid a war then criticize a POW for getting captured if he was a political rival? (He already did.) If America could be made great again by Trump giving up his Twitter, would he make the sacrifice? (Ha!) Having no reputation for honor, would he risk his fortune, or even dedicate as much as Mitt Romney has tithed, in order to stand up for civil rights? (He never did.) The flag is degraded every time Trump marshals it as a prop. Compared to the kneeling athletes of the NFL, Trump’s patriotism is weak.


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