Donald Trump’s enemies repeatedly make the mistake of overestimating the persuasive powers of decency, civic-mindedness, and patriotism. Time after time, Trump opponents have rallied under the banner of these high-minded concepts, hoping that calls to idealism would counter Trump’s duplicity and sleaze. It’s one of Trump’s key insights that such noble words mean little in a polarized polity where a sizable chunk of the Republican base is willing to set aside the virtues inculcated by the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in the interest of keeping their preferred party in power.
On Monday, it was reported that Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a national security official who listened in on the controversial phone call of July 25 between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, was set to testify in the impeachment hearings against Trump. A draft copy of his opening statement obtained by The New York Times made clear that Vindman shared the fears of an anonymous whistle-blower that Trump was leveraging military aid to Ukraine to coerce Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden and his family.
On paper, the 44-year-old Vindman seems like an irreproachable source. He’s a decorated Iraq War veteran. As a career military man, he can’t easily be portrayed as a politically motivated opponent. But that’s exactly what Trump and his most passionate media supporters have been doing. Trump has referred, without evidence, to Vindman as a Never Trump Republican (a group he recently described as “human scum”).
Fox News host Laura Ingraham zeroed in on the fact that Vindman is an immigrant from Ukraine, having come to America with his family when he was 3 years old as part of the great wave of Soviet Jewish refugees. Pointing to a report that Vindman was advising Ukrainian officials on how to deal with Trump’s erratic lawyer Rudi Giuliani, Ingraham claimed, “Here we have a U.S. national security official who is advising Ukraine while working inside the White House, apparently against the president’s interest.” John Yoo, a guest on Ingraham’s show and a leading apologist for torture in the George W. Bush administration, chimed in by saying, “Some people might call that espionage.” Yoo later walked back those remarks in a typically dishonest way.
Rudy Giuliani himself described Vindman as a “US gov. employee who has reportedly been advising two gov’s.” On CNN, former Republican representative Sean Duffy said, “It seems very clear that he is incredibly concerned about Ukrainian defense. I don’t know that he’s concerned about American policy.”
Liberals and Never Trump conservatives expressed shock at the scurrilous assault on Vindman. New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg tweeted, “I think the shock, if not the surprise, is over the smear that he can’t be trusted because he’s an immigrant.”
MSNBC host Joe Scarborough asked, “Will Republicans on Capitol Hill trash an Iraqi War hero who was awarded the Purple Heart, when he shared concerns about America’s national security? Is the Trump Personality Cult more powerful to them now than a war hero’s patriotism?” The answer is that a few Republicans in Congress have come to Vindman’s defense, most notably Senator Mitt Romney and Representative Liz Cheney, but most have kept a careful silence.
National Review senior editor Jay Nordlinger, a stalwart Trump critic, tweeted, “A short while ago, men such as Robert Mueller, William Taylor, and Alexander Vindman would have been pin-ups for (us) American conservatives: decorated combat veterans; patriots; straight arrows. The urge to prop up Trump changed all of this. A heartbreaking and infuriating era.”
But is the Trumpist attack on Vindman really so unprecedented? There’s a long, sordid history of the political right hurling mud at soldiers in the service of partisanship. Nor should this surprise us. One of the core convictions of the political right is that they are the embodiment of the true America. If you start from that premise, then anybody who challenges the right, even a decorated soldier, is disloyal. Patriotism, in this view, can never be guaranteed by mere heroic service; it always has to be maintained by ideological fidelity.
Gen. George Marshall was one of the great heroes of World War II, a leading mind behind the Normandy invasion and the author of the eponymous plan that rescued a devastated Europe from possible Communist influence. In 1951, Senator Joseph McCarthy attacked Marshall in terms that strongly implied he was a traitor, someone who had consistently taken the side of the Soviet Union over America. Dwight Eisenhower, Marshall’s former comrade in arms, kept a low profile and refused to defend Marshall. Even after winning the presidency the following year, Eisenhower’s words on behalf of Marshall were cautious. They carefully left out references to McCarthy.
More recently, John Kerry’s stellar military record didn’t prevent right-wing operatives from spreading dishonest Swift Boat attacks on him in the 2004 election.
Trump’s own rise amply demonstrates how little actual military service counts. It’s not just that Trump benefited from draft deferrals during the Vietnam War on the dubious grounds of bone spurs, but also that he slandered those who did serve or sacrifice. Trump infamously said John McCain, the survivor of five and half years as a prisoner of war during which he was tortured, was “not a war hero.” In 2016, Trump criticized Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of a soldier killed in Iraq.
Trump’s critics are baffled by how Republicans who claim to love our troops can tolerate such cruel disrespect of soldiers and their families. But this misunderstands the nature of right-wing patriotism—or, rather, right-wing nationalism. For the right-wing nationalist, leaders like Trump are the essence of the nation, the living avatar of American identity. Therefore, anyone who challenges Trump is a traitor—not just to the man but to the nation. Laura Ingraham made a telling remark when she accused Vindman of going “against the president’s interest.” The president’s interest is the national interest, because the president is the nation.
The larger fallacy that liberals and Never Trump conservatives have fallen into is thinking that patriotism is a shared value that can be drawn on to overcome political disagreement. The theory is that if you produce an undeniably patriotic person, such as Colonel Vindman, they can serve as a voice of unimpeachable authority to settle controversial matters—like impeachment.
But patriotism can’t be divorced from politics. Patriotism is a value whose meaning is not hard and fixed but in fact deeply contested. Trump’s supporters have an idea of America that includes fanatical loyalty to a Republican president whatever the evidence against him. Trump’s opponents can’t rely just on the testimony of heroic soldiers to defeat him politically. They have to take his version of nationalism head-on and show that it is in fact a perversion of patriotism. A figure like Vindman is useful for providing evidence for impeaching Trump, but the larger battle against Trumpism requires an articulation of a full-bodied patriotism that draws on shared ideals that go beyond individual heroism.