I saw a bumper sticker on a car adjacent to mine in the parking lot of my supermarket. “Proud American” it proclaimed. I stood at my trunk, motionless, as other shoppers moved quickly past, adjusting their masks and, in some cases, surgical gloves. I wondered when the driver had affixed that declaration to her car. When Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon? On Sept. 11th? When Barack Obama was elected President? When George Floyd was murdered? When more than 400,000 covid deaths were recorded? On January 6th?
I have no bumper stickers on my car, nor do I fly a flag in my front yard, but I am a proud American. As the child of immigrants, I am that walking cliché of loyalty and gratitude to a country that gave my parents the opportunity to build better lives for themselves and their children. They did not know the phrase “American exceptionalism,” but they intuited its meaning and thrived in its possibility.
And so did I.
However, over the last four years, I have been a sad, disappointed, embarrassed, and scared American as well.
Since before the 2016 election, we were assaulted with crass and ignorant bombast, homophobic and xenophobic rants, and an exhausting barrage of dangerous, divisive lies. Apparently, this was a welcome change from the boring elites who had run the country with decorum, intelligence, and responsibility but had ostensibly lost touch with the common man and had sunk the country into a swamp.
As apprehensive as I was of the potential damage his performance could wreak on the country, I believed that my fellow Americans would not fall for this huckster and his snake oil.
Well, maybe my fellow Americans didn’t fall for it – witness the popular vote – but enough others did.
So, over the last four years, we have lived under an ignorant, inept, nasty, amoral, self-serving demagogue. We have watched our country descend into fatal anti-Semitism, white nationalism, and racism, civic unrest, and general disrespect, all under the auspices of this administration. Our international reputation vaporized, and our internal divisions widened and hardened by the incessant disinformation campaign that was its hallmark. Our intelligence agencies were dismissed, journalists demonized, patriotism challenged, education ignored, health and well-being threatened, pluralism undermined by a president who swathed himself in the American flag and held up a Bible for a photo op.
On September 11, 2001, we abruptly learned that two oceans were not enough to protect us from terrorists. However, over the last four years, we have been repeatedly reminded that the greater threat to our security is from within, from white nationalist groups in particular. No one ever directly said that the president was part of that group. But his anemic remarks after Charlottesville, his call to the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” did not fall on deaf ears – on both sides.
His brazen attack on the electoral system – even before he lost both the popular vote and the Electoral College – is the zenith of domestic terrorism and the nadir of presidential politics. His incessant lies asserting fraud, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories were summarily dismissed by even his own court appointees. Ah, the irony is delicious there. Unfortunately, though, his base, his cronies, and his protégés refused to accept the rule of law. Once again, the guardian of the Constitution was abusing his oath of office, and his followers – professed patriots who literally used the flag as a bludgeon – followed suit. He incited an insurrection, and, like the spineless autocrats he emulated, he called his followers to march down Pennsylvania Avenue while he headed in the opposite direction to “enjoy watching” the subsequent desecration of the symbol of democracy.
Seeing the assault on the Capitol was alarming, like seeing the Twin Towers come down, but with more heartbreaking, heart-stopping implications. Hearing calls to “Hang Mike Pence” and threaten other law-makers; seeing a Camp Auschwitz T-shirt and a confederate flag in the halls of Congress; watching an Olympian protest a legal election; hearing a police officer scream as he was squeezed between a shield and a door; losing five Americans, regardless of whom they voted for; learning that rioters defecated and urinated throughout the building; watching lawmakers persist in their opportunistic attempts to overthrow a duly elected administration before it had taken office.
This is many things. But it is not patriotism. It is not blameless.
And it is not a success.
Two weeks later, on January 20th, Joseph R. Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn into office. Twenty-five thousand National Guard troops protected them. High barriers topped with razor wire surrounded them. A Field of Flags, instead of faces, greeted them.
The Constitution prevailed. Democracy endured. The will of the people persevered.
I’m proud to be an American again.