Trump Flags and American Rhetoric

by Hanna Carney //

I had the wonderful opportunity of driving through nothing but rural areas on my way from Indianapolis to Kansas City. The scenery was breathtaking. There is nothing as refreshing as seeing Trump flag after Trump flag—you can’t get that in the city. “Keep America Great,” “No More Bullshit,” “Fuck Your Feelings!” It’s comforting to know that patriotism still exists in our country. *Cue warm and fuzzy feelings*

All jokes aside, I’m afraid that the Trump flag is going to linger long after President Trump leaves office. First, his refusal to accept the results of the election will undoubtedly encourage his supporters in the delusion of voter fraud and that he is our true president. Second, the Trump flag has morphed into more than a symbol of support for a political candidate. As Paige Williams argues in The New Yorker, it has become a “rhetoric of threat” about “fighting and winning” as his flag symbolizes white supremacy, transphobia, xenophobia, nativism, and other forms of discrimination. We see this pattern of evolving, nuanced rhetoric in other flags. For example, the blue line flag has evolved from a symbol of support for law enforcement to a denunciation of the Black Lives Matter movement. The Confederate Flag represents more than “respect” for the Southern heritage; it is a defense of slavery and racism. I got into a small debate with some coworkers the other day about the implications of Trump flags and flags in general. One guy seemed to think flying one of his flags is no different than having a political yard sign or t-shirt. I would argue differently.

Trump’s campaign has rekindled a blind acceptance of the American flag as a living thing, or, at least among his supporters. On November 29, 2016, He tweeted:

Trump doesn’t call for punishment for those who burn an American flag yard sign, or for burning swim trunks decorated with the stars and stripes. He calls for the imprisonment or loss of citizenship for those who burn the flag. It is more than the symbol itself that he values—it’s the canvas that displays the symbol. This year at CPAC, Trump hugged and kissed the American flag onstage, mouthing “I love you, baby.” His Twitter tantrums and humanization (and borderline sexualization) of the American flag emphasizes the notion that a flag is a body, and it is a crime to bring harm to that body (never mind the thousands of lives lost from COVID—protect the flag!). It is no coincidence that many Trump’s supporters love waving their Trump flags. As instigated by their president, it is a living symbol of their righteousness. To be fair, some Biden supporters also have political flags. However, unlike some Trump supporters, these people do not aggressively endorse the Biden flag to be an extension of the American flag’s body and of patriotism itself.

As instigated by their president, it is a living symbol of their righteousness.

The Trump campaign was sure to have the infamous MAGA slogan burned into our brains—“make America great again.” MAGA implies that if you are not pro-Trump, you are not pro-America; the Trump party is the American party, and if you think otherwise, you’re not patriotic. As Petula Dvorak explains in The Washington Post, this way of thinking may have led to the American flag being “hijacked by the political right” for the past four years as it was “equated with a support of Trump and a rejection of the Democratic Party.” In other words, the Trump flag became the new American flag and vice versa. A couple hundred-thousand liked and retweeted Donald Trump Jr.’s tweet that reads, “Why do you never see an American flag on a house with a Biden sign in the front yard?” Well, Jr., perhaps those who are in-tune to the state of our country recognize that America is far from great, and probably never was. 

Flying a flag is a form of communication. It sends a message. If I were to drive that same highway between Kansas City and Indianapolis on January 20th, would all of those Trump flags be gone? Maybe, but maybe not. Trump leaving office will not ensure that the ideology he has instilled in his supporters will miraculously dissipate. I don’t think any of us will be surprised if Trump flags continue to wave for years to come in defiance of democracy. This American advent is far from over.