Presidents’ Day and America’s troubling nationalism

Presidents’ Day and America’s troubling nationalism
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Presidents’ Day is a time to reflect on presidential speeches and how they have changed over time.

In 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his farewell address to the American people. Recall that Eisenhower had been a West Point graduate, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during WWII, and a Republican. What did he talk about in his last message to the American people?

While he praised America, he also pointed out the rising power of what he termed the Military-Industrial Complex, a large peacetime military establishment, aligned with “an armaments industry of vast proportions” that could “endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

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What makes this speech different from speeches given by the current president is that Eisenhower was willing to point out our flaws, explain them clearly to the people, and suggest how we might improve as a nation. What we hear now is a chorus that derides those who are not automatically inclined to always “support the troops,” and considers those who question the need for ever-increasing military budgets as less than patriotic or even suspect. The military-industrial complex may even be more influential now than in Eisenhower’s day, yet presidents tend to promote glorification of military power, while no longer mentioning the potential, negative influence of this tremendously powerful lobby.

 

I recall that the change in substance and tone began in the 1980s, with President Reagan. Rather than focusing on the key problems facing America, presidential speeches started to sound more like a Roman triumphal march, emphasizing American might and glory. The key message of speeches stressed that only America was brave, selfless, and hardworking.

Reagan would use people in the galleries to highlight America’s best and brightest. While no one saw anything wrong with pointing to the valor or sacrifice of average Americans, these personal vignettes began to serve nationalistic ends that always highlighted American superiority.

Reagan would also use the Cold War conflict to highlight American values, while concurrently denigrating the USSR. We came to see the word in increasingly either-or terms. You are either with us are and good, or you are against us and are bad. No doubt, these stark contrasts existed prior to the 1980s. The fight against fascist totalitarianism in WWII is a case in point.

However, the patriotic circus that presidential speeches, like the State of the Union addresses, have become, promise to stifle national introspection, and prevent us from looking at ourselves honestly.

Lest you think that only Republican presidents are to blame, Presidents Clinton and Obama also joined in the patriotism and promotion of American exceptionalism started by Reagan, turning presidents into cheerleaders-in-chief.   

Nothing says this more than when, during President TrumpDonald John Trump2020 Democrats spar over socialism ahead of first debate Senate passes .5 billion border bill, setting up fight with House 'Teflon Don' avoids the scorn of the 'family values' GOP — again MORE’s first State of the Union address last month, many members of the Congress enthusiastically blared out “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” over-and-over, after the president extolled American sacrifice in WWII.

Trump’s reference to WWII turns the chants on their heads, since it was the hateful nationalism of Nazi Germany, and militaristic Japan, which forced the Allies into WWII in the first place.

Moreover, we may now have an actual triumphal march in Washington D.C., if Trump gets his way and a military parade takes place, even though we have won no war. How did we get to a point where the president’s most important yearly address has become nothing short of a blatant nationalist catharsis?

Patriotism is a good quality, and as a former Air Force officer I commend it; but blind allegiance to flag and country is foolhardy and potentially dangerous.

If presidents used nationalism to promote American reflection, prosperity and unity, then it would be a wonderful thing. However, this new chauvinistic jingoism deprives us of necessary self-criticism and encourages us to see others as inferior. Instead of greatness, this hyper-nationalism has historically led to militarism, hatred and decay.

What we need on Presidents’ Day is to ask ourselves, do we want our presidents to always put on an elaborate show masking our problems, or do we want them to speak honestly and wisely to all of us?

Peter M. Sanchez is a professor of political science at Loyola University Chicago, and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. He spent 15 years as an officer in the U.S. Air Force.