Two weeks after the sacking of the U.S. Capitol, many are wondering what does it mean to identify as a patriot. For decades, the term has been used by the right, including by the modern militia movement. Analysts say this usage is a way for such groups to associate their militant views with the founders of the republic and to justify their challenge to authorities they consider illegitimate.
This is a powerful rhetorical tool, says Carolyn Gallaher, an expert on the far-right at American University. “The term patriot has always been used in many respects to exclude people you don’t want to see in the body politic.”
As the nation reels from the mayhem of Jan. 6, it faces the thorny task of how to handle self-described patriots who love their idea of America too much to see it change. And rebuilding American institutions will take trusting a government many feel alienated by, and trusting fellow Americans at a time when differences in politics feel jarring.
“I understand people wanting their grievances addressed, and I feel like that’s what they are doing more than defending the country,” says Don Sapp, a Black construction worker in Georgia. “But I don’t share those grievances.”
Leaning against a fence near the stoop of the Georgia State Capitol, a man who goes by Nadir Xena and his friend Shadow call up to National Guardsmen standing above. “How’s your day going?”
Some of the troops chuckle.
Mr. Xena is in fatigues and combat boots. His partner wears a red bandanna as a mask; a streak of purple runs through his hair. Both are white. Like many gathered at the statehouse on Sunday, both had long rifles slung over their shoulders. But unlike the National Guard troops, these two armed men weren’t there to defend. They were there to protest what they call “tyrannical government”; to do their duty as American patriots.
“They’re trampling all over the Constitution while they’re laughing at you,” says Mr. Xena. “I feel like we are doing our duty being out here, being armed.”
Nearby in Decatur, Georgia, Don Sapp, a Black construction worker, had heard about the threats to the Capitol and the troops mustering to protect it, and searched for words to describe it. One in particular was confusing.
“What’s a patriot?” he asks. It’s not a rhetorical question. He wants to know.
Two weeks after the sacking of the U.S. Capitol by a mob of self-described patriots, many other Americans may want to know too. Yet as with so many concepts in this polarized era, the word fits the eye of its beholder. Patriots are thought of as those who defend America, but shared ideas of America are difficult to find.
“I understand people wanting their grievances addressed, and I feel like that’s what they are doing more than defending the country,” says Mr. Sapp. “But I don’t share those grievances.”
Crystallized in the Capitol raid, and the armed protests nationwide last weekend, is a countrywide identity crisis not seen for decades. Americans of all stripes are willing to protest what they see as injustice. But Americans who take to the streets today see radically different things – from centuries of systemic racism to threats to gun rights and, currently eclipsing all others, the Trump-engineered myth of a stolen election on Nov. 3.
Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Construction worker Don Sapp stands at the downtown plaza in Decatur, Ga., on Jan. 17, 2021 as National Guardsmen and state troopers fortified the gold-domed capitol in nearby Atlanta. Like many Americans, he has been asking what it means to identify as a patriot in the current political climate.
As the nation tries to recover from the events of Jan. 6, reconciling these conceptions of patriotism – with divisions as deep as the country’s founding – may prove crucial, lest America risks being torn apart, not by enemies outside, but by self-described patriots who love their idea of it too much to see it change. And that also means rebuilding trust in public institutions.
“We should be waving the flag and saying this is what America can be and should be,” says Carolyn Gallaher, a political geographer and expert on the far-right at American University. It’s about “taking the discourse [on patriotism] back.”
A natural fit for conservatives
But to take it back, Americans must first understand that “patriot” has not historically been a word of unity. For decades, in fact, the term has been an unofficial name tag for much of the American right.
The moniker is a natural fit, says John Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. Conservatives value tradition and tend to express their patriotism through symbols and rituals, such as the American flag and national anthem. A term so associated with the country’s origins suits an ideology nostalgic for the political idealism of its founding.
But its use has grown more complicated since the McCarthy era, when the word became a political fault line, says Professor Gallaher. At that time, suspected communists, civil rights activists, and anti-war protesters were deemed unpatriotic – and un-American. Since then, left-leaning groups have mostly avoided the term, while those on the right embraced it.
“The term patriot has always been used in many respects to exclude people you don’t want to see in the body politic,” says Professor Gallaher.
That sorting gave birth to the Patriot Movement, an upswell of anti-government groups in the 1980s and a godfather to the modern militia movement. Then and now, such groups rely on an iconography of the republic’s founding: pictures of early presidents, quotes from the Constitution, sometimes dressing in Revolutionary War garb while staging protests.
Far-right groups use this imagery, in part, as ballast for their ideas, says Professor Gallaher. Associating their philosophy with America’s founding is an effort to monopolize patriotism itself. If they own what it means to be an American, they can justify any action.
“The perception of fear”
For precedents, Americans can look abroad to extremist Islamist groups that co-opt religious symbols, says Javed Ali, a former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council.
“Far-right extremists have weaponized symbols and images that have a positive connotation and made them into symbols and images that create the perception of fear,” he says. “Patriotism is being weaponized to justify violent action the same way that Islam was weaponized by ISIS and Al Qaeda to justify violent attacks.”
Certainly not all self-described patriots support the mayhem on Jan. 6. Paul Cangialosi, a self-described “constitutional libertarian” and militia member in Nelson County, Virginia, condemns the violence that took place at the Capitol and thinks inciters should be prosecuted.
National Guard and Georgia State troopers stand guard outside the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Jan. 17, 2021.
Still, he thinks Congress has forgotten the people it represents, and was long overdue for a wake-up call.
“A patriot’s role is to try to rein the government back in and try to force it back into the box it belongs in,” he says. And that role “eventually gets to the point where it becomes more than philosophical.”
Mr. Cangialosi, an outspoken gun-rights activist, is not yet at that point, but he knows his line. If the government during President Joe Biden’s administration comes for his AR-15 military-style rifle, he says, he is willing to fire it. (President Biden has said he supports a ban on the sale of such rifles and tighter regulation of their ownership.)
“To me that’s part of being a patriot,” he says. “I’m not afraid. I’m gonna speak my mind. And I’ll let the chips fall where they may.”
Love of country – or Trump?
The Constitution outlines a method of self-government – democratic elections – meant to give frustrated citizens an avenue for reform. But many citizens today feel too estranged from the system to act inside it, especially with a former president who sabotages its legitimacy.
As the Republican Party came to orbit President Donald Trump, patriotism for many has become a matter of loyalty to him, says Professor Pitney, a former researcher at the Republican National Committee. As the two merged, some of his supporters have adopted some of his worst tendencies in the name of national pride.
“He is inflaming and directing some bad currents that have always been there,” says Professor Pitney. “Patriotism should be about love of country and he’s making it about hatred of countrymen.”
And hating fellow Americans makes it even harder to resolve differences peacefully.
The Constitution doesn’t address the issues Americans are facing now, he says, because America wasn’t meant to get to this point. Self-government should be citizens’ political arena – rather than, say, a Hobbesian state of nature, where people use force to get what they want. When a democratic system falters, says Duke University law professor Darrell Miller, so do the laws, norms, and bonds that prevent violence.
“As we saw on Jan. 6, there’s always some cohort that thinks that a legitimate government is a tyrannical government – and that the time for revolution is now,” he says.
An inclusive idea
Avoiding more rollback in this era of beleaguered democracy will be difficult, but not impossible. Rebuilding American institutions will take trusting a government many feel alienated by, and trusting fellow Americans at a time when differences in politics feel jarring.
But even as far back as Shays’ Rebellion in the early years of the republic, when 4,000 Massachusetts farmers revolted against what they saw as an unsympathetic, tax-heavy state government, America has faced internal revolts. It took the state government mustering a militia to subdue the self-described patriots, but high tensions abated with time.
And the Civil War will always be a reminder for what happens when they don’t. Then as now citizens couldn’t agree on what it meant to be American. It’s high time, says Professor Gallaher, for the country to get it right and adopt a more inclusive idea of patriotism.
That inclusiveness appeals to Rachel Goodloe, who was born abroad to Ecuadorian and Brazilian parents. Last weekend, on a visit to Austin, Texas, from San Diego with her husband, she seemed perplexed by the sight of armed protesters at the state Capitol.
To Ms. Goodloe, who became a U.S. citizen when she was 13, patriotism means “honoring your country, loving your country, respecting your country and your fellow Americans.” What happened at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, she adds, wasn’t patriotism. “That’s terrorism.”
That said, she believes that peaceful protesters, including self-styled patriots, have the right to gather. “That’s the beauty of America. We’re all allowed to have your opinions and your feelings of who should be the president.”
Staff writer Henry Gass contributed reporting from Austin, Texas.