Original Intent Patriotism
I’ve occasionally alluded to patriotism currently being exclusively limited to liberals, along with a narrow band of former Republicans. Not that all liberals are angels or brilliant. It has been a demonstrable virtue, at least of late, that Democrats actually cast out the money changers, the grifters, the liars, the morally corrupt. In Los Angeles a beloved Democratic City Councilman was roundly ostracized when it was discovered he had been taking kickbacks from developers (he was convicted and is serving time for his hubris). Donald Trump went with the Republican Party, which he proceeded to dismantle and reshape into the NPP (National Predatory Party) not as a matter of a common ideology, but because he understood that his brand would never fly with Democrats, but it might with a large portion of Republicans, particularly blue collar types that had been part of the Democratic coalition from Roosevelt up until Reagan, an actor.
Bill Lasarow, “Help Less,” 2023, digital collage
Thanks to a half-century of preparation from within, the then-Republican Party was both vulnerable to and primed for a takeover by a snake oil salesman, so he waded right in and took it. If you disagree with the NPP crowd you are not an American engaging in public discourse, but a traitor. The rule of law applies to thee but not to me. But, yes, there remain those homeless remnants of what was once the GOP, GOP patriots. They should form a PAC with that name, it’s very suitable: GOP Patriots. The charter members of such an organization would include Judge J. Michael Luttig, Liz Cheney, Nicolle Wallace, Bill Kristol, Max Boot and others who recognize that there are Liberal Patriots too, and they are just as entitled to having their views treated with respect as we are.
With this in mind, the present alignment of public interest is what I will call Original Intent Patriotism.
J. Michael Luttig, retired Fourth Circuit judge, testifying before the House January 6th Committee.
Courtesy of Getty Images
The Original Intent Patriotism of the Founders was all about the principles of justice distributed equally, of the individuality of the citizen protected not only by tolerance but by laws and the Constitutional framework they invented. All were to be nurtured by the natural rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Their Original Intent Patriotism imbued them with a sense of responsibility and a long term vision. They risked everything for these principles of independence and democracy.
George Washington famously retired to his plantation rather than accept a third term. That very real act is the singular touchstone of our Republic founded by fierce adherents to the Age of Reason, they understood perfectly that if people generally accepted the traits that they spelled out — division of powers, rule of law — they would learn to live together in all of their variety. Differences internally, but to an increasing degree internationally; those differences are the natural tools of both progress and tradition. They can only be put to common purpose in this way, given that competition is permissible, but there are rules of the road that are the primary realm of governance.
Jacques Louis David, “The Death of Socrates,” 1787, oil on canvas, 51 x 77 1/4”.
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
If, in a religious age, I can understand and accept the embrace of many of our Founders with Deism (not to mention Ben Franklin’s Quaker practice), it anticipated the universe that has since become visible to us in a time when humanity was just starting to get used to the expansive idea of the solar system. The Founders could not have anticipated that we revolve around one of 200 billion stars that make up our one galaxy — and there are loads of those (we don’t know how many. Yet), any more than they could have imaged the kind of firearms that just about anybody has access to at the present time. Or cars. Or computers. But the republic they defined, and how it was described by intellectual leaders such as Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, was implicitly directed throughout many of their documents toward a changing future to which adaptation is essential to a nation flourishing well beyond mere survival.
Happiness is a word they cast out freely because they sought to form a republic designed to align human need and the general welfare with how we empower both ourselves and others. With all that they put at personal risk in order to pursue these principles, they were patriots in word and in deed, and while a number of them made it to the far side of 1776, many suffered and many did not survive the ordeal of a major war.
Vija Celmins, “Untitled (Coma Berenices),” 1974, graphite on acrylic ground on paper.
Courtesy of the Rico Mizuno collection
If you regard such people as suckers because they suffered and died in the name of America, if you ignore the principles that they fought for, your chosen name is MAGA, and you are no patriot. You are a spoiled and entitled freeloader looking to be “saved” by a man utterly unworthy of your trust.
But does that mean that today the meaning of patriotism is to suffer or die in a war? The original intent of the Founders was to strike a balance between the security and stability of the state and the securement and protection of individual rights. Those rights impart dignity to the individual citizen and were regarded by the Founders as “God given.” More accurately in the modern world, they are “universal.” The dignity of each and every American may be a given, but it is also an ideal that the Founders clearly understood was a very long way off.
William Pope.L, “Trinket,” 2015. Courtesy of the New York Times / Photo: Emily Berl
The enormous bet on which they placed all of their chips was to place the trust of self-governance squarely in the hands of the citizens through the right to vote. They explicitly rejected the divine rights of kings and the overarching theocracy of a church. What had been the primary structure of both governance and moral authority for centuries of human history was suddenly, shockingly, violently altered with this new exception: The United States of America.
These were men (sadly they failed to follow Abigail Adams’ advice to “remember the ladies”), men who were respectful of authority but came to draw the line at monarchs and tyrants. If this was a radical departure in the late 18th century, they were nonetheless the product of centuries of intellectual, moral, and social preparation.
Emanuel Leutze, “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” 1851, oil on canvas, 10 x 21’.
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
When the moment came, they were ready, and their legacy is the foundation upon which we American citizens have continuously, and to great effect, built on that platform, a legacy that is both remarkable and quite imperfect. When we assume responsibility and accountability as the necessary price we pay for our participation, we act as patriots.
That sounds simple and attractive, but it isn’t. There are a whole lot of ugly actors out there who rest their false patriotism on a permission to act violently and with the rankest, most exclusionary favoritism. You aren’t rooting for or serving America by serving a singular group at the expense of everyone else. The ideal is for all groups to serve all groups. Truth is, we ain’t that close yet. But more of us are a whole lot closer than when I entered this world in the years immediately after the worst cataclysm that humanity had ever loosed upon itself.