White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks during a news briefing at the White House, in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017. 
Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

The politics of patriotism takes an ugly turn in the Trump era

Donald Trump, annoyed by Democratic reactions to his State of the Union address, told a group of supporters this week that Dems had adopted an “un-American” posture. The president added, “Can we call that treason? Why not? I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”

The White House later said the comments were “tongue in cheek.” Whether one is inclined to accept the explanation or not, Trump’s comments were not an isolated incident.

[White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders] questioned the patriotism of Democrats who sat on their hands during Mr. Trump’s discussion of the thriving American economy. “Democrats are going to have to make a decision at some point really soon,” Ms. Sanders said. “Do they hate this president more than they love this country? And I hope the answer to that is, ‘No.’”

Meanwhile, Trump’s re-election campaign yesterday unveiled a new attack ad, saying Democrats are “disrespecting our country” – and for proof, the commercial points to Dems failing to enjoy the president’s State of the Union address. The Republican National Committee reportedly created a related ad of its own.

This has reached Capitol Hill, too. Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-N.Y.) said yesterday that Democratic reactions to the State of the Union were “un-American,” adding, “And they don’t love our country.”

There are a few basic truths that are worth keeping in mind as the Republican line continued to get more ridiculous.

First, it’s really not uncommon for the opposition party to sit silently during a State of the Union address. Democrats’ reaction to Trump was pretty normal, all things considered, especially after Barack Obama was heckled by a House Republican during an address to a joint session in 2009.

Second, the president read from his trusted teleprompter last week, “I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people.” Anyone who thought Trump was being sincere with these remarks should probably know better now.

But even putting those points aside, when officials start playing dangerous games with the politics of patriotism, no one benefits. When the White House and members of Congress suggest a major political party doesn’t love the United States, it not only undermines the discourse and the prospects of future negotiations, it also opens the door to ugly consequences.

Dissent is a staple of a free society. The sooner the president and his cohorts remember this, the better.