Last week President Donald Trump launched another war of words, this time with an assist from his chief of staff, Gen. John Kelly. Their target was Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.). After an ambush in Niger that saw four United States military personnel killed — including Wilson’s constituent, Sgt. La David T. Johnson — the congresswoman was present when Trump phoned Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, to give his condolences.
Wilson’s account of what followed has been disputed by the White House. She alleged that Trump was flip with the widow. “[He] knew what he signed up for,” Trump reportedly told Myeshia, referring to her dead husband. When Wilson went public with this account, the president claimed she’d “totally fabricated” the story, and orchestrated a series of assaults on the congresswoman’s character that continues to this day.
It’s hardly a surprise that Trump reacted this way. Far from aberrant, his petulance has become a fixture of American politics. What’s more remarkable are the forces his ire set in motion. So many death and lynching threats have poured into Wilson’s offices since Trump’s attacks — thousands via phone and fax, according to reports — that her own constituents can’t reach her. She’s also become the target of a smear campaign by Kelly, who falsely claimed she spent the 2015 dedication of an FBI building in Miami praising herself for securing its funding.
All of this speaks to the White House’s anxiety around protecting its brand of performative patriotism. Myeshia Johnson and her mother-in-law have both corroborated Wilson’s story. “What [Wilson] said was 100% correct,” Johnson told ABC News on Monday. The true version of what happened seems clear. But after weeks spent sparring with NFL players for refusing to stand during the national anthem, the Trump administration, by its own logic, cannot credibly claim to be patriots while admitting that Trump dismissed a soldier’s death.
Instead, they have opted to do what countless Americans have done before them when their behavior clashed with their purported ideals: They have lied, equivocated and slandered their critics. They’ve contorted their patriotism to make room for their hypocrisy. And it’s no coincidence that the butt of the administration’s attempts to save face have overwhelmingly been black people — perhaps the quintessential embodiments of where America’s ideals have failed.
Indeed, it’s hard to separate the Trump movement’s conception of its own patriotism from how deeply America has mistreated — and continues to mistreat — its black citizenry. For every argument that patriotism means standing out of respect for the flag or showing reverence for the military, there’s a story like white teenager Joseph Rakes using an actual American flagpole to attack black lawyer Ted Landsmark during an anti-busing rally in Boston in 1976, or of black soldiers returning to the U.S. from service during the Second World War, only to face Jim Crow and attacks from white citizens who objected to black men wearing the uniform.
The paradox at the center of America’s founding — a country established to preserve freedom, but built on the backs of slaves — is the sort of challenge such performative displays of patriotism have trouble withstanding. A recent example is the NFL protests. Where several black players have openly stated they are kneeling to protest racist police violence — a cause that should be uncontroversial — Trump has called for them to be fired; Vice President Mike Pence has spent thousands of dollars in public money to fly to an NFL game, only to leave immediately in protest against their protests; and conservative pundit Tomi Lahren has claimed willful ignorance over why the protests are happening to begin with.
“What exactly are you kneeling for?” Lahren asked indignantly on Fox News — as if the answer hasn’t been repeated ad nauseam for most of the past year.
For decades, in fact, the kind of white voters who brought Trump to power have affirmed their patriotism by contrasting it with black people who disagree with them: Donald Trump is a patriot; Colin Kaepernick, his unpatriotic foil. It’s how Muhammad Ali became “a disgrace.” John Carlos and Tommie Smith became “black skinned stormtroopers.”
Today, Wilson is the ringer. By disrupting Trump’s narrative — wherein his browbeating over the national anthem serves as proof of his superior patriotism — she has exposed the hollowness of his rhetoric. What use is Trump’s patriotism if it can’t accommodate basic respect for a dead soldier, or if he refuses to acknowledge — let alone work to solve — that 13% of the people he governs are disproportionately targeted for racist death?
The answer is the same it’s been for a long time. American patriotism — as it is commonly practiced — has little room for the sort of light Wilson shone on Trump, his supporters and those who share their politics. By doing nothing more revolutionary than telling the truth about the president’s treatment of the Johnson family, the congresswoman read Trump’s brand of patriotism for the house of cards it truly is. She performed a service that black Americans — especially black women — have been doing for centuries uninterrupted. And perhaps the greatest irony is that thousands of so-called patriots will hate her for it.