Barack Obama delivered the finest speech of his presidency on March 7, 2015. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, and the nation’s first black president stood before the Edmund Pettus Bridge to offer a masterful affirmation—of the heroes who marched for freedom, of their righteous cause, and of the underlying “American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge.” “It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress,” Obama said, “who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo. That’s America.”
The speech was, among other things, a remarkable gift to American liberalism, casting the tradition of progressive protest as core to the nation’s character. It also made clear the president’s conception of American exceptionalism and love of country. As his former chief speechwriter Cody Keenan tweeted on Sunday, referencing the above passage from Obama’s speech:
Today, America is governed by a man who, as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote recently in The Atlantic, “made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own.” Donald Trump launched his unlikely political insurgency with the racist lie that Obama wasn’t born in the United States, and as president, Trump is working to dismantle Obama’s signature policy accomplishments: the Affordable Care Act, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, and detente with Cuba. Trump is finding negation more difficult than anticipated, and yet the project remains his raison d’être.
But Trump is also trying to undo Obama’s legacy in more subtle, yet equally pernicious ways. The president’s days-long, still-ongoing rant against black athletes who protest systemic racism by kneeling during the national anthem is not merely his picking a fight for fight’s sake, or launching a culture war to appeal to his white nationalist base. Trump’s tirade is a direct assault on the idea, frequently promulgated by Obama, that protest is patriotic. That is, it’s an attack on Obama by proxy—a rejection of the values the 44th president spent eight years espousing from the White House.
Barack Obama handed his right-wing critics a gift early in his first presidential campaign: He refused to wear a flag pin on his jacket lapel. “My attitude is that I’m less concerned about what you’re wearing on your lapel than what’s in your heart,” he said in October of 2007. “You show your patriotism by how you treat your fellow Americans, especially those who serve. You show your patriotism by being true to our values and ideals. That’s what we have to lead with is our values and our ideals.” Conservatives pounced, and by May of 2008, Obama was wearing a flag pin. “Obama may make it sound like just a random fashion choice, but there is a large swath of Americans who take symbols like the pledge of allegiance, the national anthem, and, yes, the flag in its many iterations very seriously,” Jay Newton-Small wrote for Time.
Obama may have relented in this instance, but he nonetheless redefined patriotism as president. CNN writer John Blake surveyed that legacy last October, writing, “No other president has talked about patriotism the way Obama has. It’s a type of patriotism many nonwhite Americans can finally see themselves in.” Blake cited the Selma speech, as well as Obama’s remarks at the dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, when the president said, “This is the place to understand how protest and love of country don’t merely coexist but inform each other—how men can proudly win the gold for their country but still insist on raising a black-gloved fist, how we can wear an ‘I can’t breathe’ T-shirt and still grieve for fallen police officers.”
When Obama was asked last year about Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who began the kneeling protest, he treaded carefully. At a news conference in early September, he said Kaepernick was “exercising his constitutional right to make a statement. I think there’s a long history of sports figures doing so.” He was asked again at a CNN town hall later that month. “I believe that us honoring our flag and our anthem is part of what binds us together as a nation,” he said. “But I also always try to remind folks that part of what makes this country special is that we respect people’s rights to have a different opinion.” The president said protesters should “listen to the pain that that may cause somebody who, for example, had a spouse or a child who was killed in combat and why it hurts them to see somebody not standing. But I also want people to think about the pain he may be expressing about somebody who’s lost a loved one that they think was unfairly shot.”
This was a trademark answer from Obama: He showed profound empathy for both sides in a vitriolic debate, and employed stark language to help them see from the other’s perspective, and to bring them together over their shared pain. Without having to say it, Obama’s message—to the military family and police protester alike—was apparent: You’re all patriotic Americans. Trump’s message is precisely the opposite, imposing a litmus test on all Americans: You’re only patriotic if you stand for the national anthem and honor the flag.
But there’s also a racist dimension, as there always is with Trump, to his definition of patriotism. “It’s impossible not to be struck by Trump’s selective patriotism,” The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb wrote on Sunday. “It drives him to curse at black football players but leaves him struggling to create false equivalence between Nazis and anti-Fascists in Charlottesville.” It is striking indeed, but all too characteristic. Coates described birtherism as “that modern recasting of the old American precept that black people are not fit to be citizens of the country they built.” It’s little wonder, then, that birtherism’s chief proponent reflexively attacks black athletes as unpatriotic, and wants to erase his black predecessor’s inclusive, constitutionally faithful understanding of patriotism. For Trump, patriotism comes in only one color.