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White House struggles to explain 'what sets us apart'

According to this White House, standing for a national anthem is what "makes our country special and unique." That doesn't make any sense.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks during a news briefing at the White House, in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks during a news briefing at the White House, in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017. 

Everything about yesterday's Donald Trump's "Celebration of America" event at the White House was bizarre -- including the developments that led up to its existence.

Following their Super Bowl victory, the Philadelphia Eagles were supposed to visit the White House, but when many of the players balked, Trump canceled the event and started lying about the team. The president's team accused the Eagles of engaging in a "political stunt."

The irony was rich. Trump World proceeded to replace the event for the team with an ostentatious display of over-the-top patriotism -- an issue the president, who's been deeply critical of the United States, has long struggled with -- featuring Trump gushing about his love of the military and the national anthem.

It didn't end there. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank noted, "Trump used his solemn patriotic address to give a campaign speech from the White House: urging the election of a Republican Senate candidate from Pennsylvania, taking credit for low unemployment and boasting that he has the approval of deceased Americans."

The result was a rare presidential display of patriotic spite. Trump whined that the Eagles don't love their country as much as he claims to, all because much of the team sees him as so odious, the athletes didn't want to be associated with him.

That their objections had nothing to do with the military or the Star-Spangled Banner was apparently lost on the obtuse president.

But what struck me as especially notable was the White House press briefing that immediately preceded the event on the South Lawn.

April Ryan asked Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders if Trump realizes that athletes who protest racial injustice are not showing disrespect for the flag or American troops. After a contentious back and forth, Sanders said:

"The president has made his position crystal-clear on this topic. He feels strongly that standing for our national anthem is something that we should do, something that matters to what makes our country special and unique, and what sets us apart. He's not going to waver on that. He's not going to apologize for it."

Let's put aside Trump's troubled history with patriotism. And let's also put aside the curious notion that patriotism should be measured less by commitment to American principles, and more by someone's willingness to participate in symbolic exercises.

What was amazing about Sanders' answer is how wrong it was. Standing for a national anthem does not "set us apart." The planet is filled with all kinds of countries with citizens who also stand for their national anthems. There's nothing "unique" about it.

Trump's spokesperson had it backwards: what does set us apart is our freedoms of speech and expression. In this country, those who take a stand -- or take a knee -- against racial injustice are not supposed to face politically imposed punishments, especially those directed by a president who has shared concerns about "how bad the United States is."

I'm glad this White House thinks our country is "special," though I wish the president and his team understood why.