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In a polarized US, how to define a patriot increasingly depends on who’s being asked

“Patriot” has become infused in political rhetoric and school curriculums, with varying definitions, while being appropriated by white nationalist groups

Former President Donald Trump
Former President Donald Trump arrives to boars his airplane for a trip to a campaign rally in Waco, Texas, at West Palm Beach International Airport, Saturday, March 25, 2023, in West Palm Beach, Fla.Evan Vucci (AP)

Millions of Americans attended parades, fireworks and other Independence Day events on Tuesday, celebrating the courage of the nation’s 18th century patriots who fought for independence from Great Britain and what they considered an unjust government. Those events also will honor the military and those who sacrificed in other conflicts that helped preserve the nation’s freedom over its 247-year history.

That is only one version of a “patriot.” Today, the word and its variants have morphed beyond the original meaning. It has become infused in political rhetoric and school curriculums, with varying definitions, while being appropriated by white nationalist groups. Trying to define what a patriot is depends on who is being asked.

The original patriots

While the word’s origins come from ancient Greece, its basic meaning in American history is someone who loves his or her country.

The original patriots come from the American Revolution, most often associated with figures such as Sam Adams and Benjamin Franklin. But enslaved people who advocated for abolition and members of native communities trying to recover or retain their sovereignty also saw themselves as patriots, said Nathaniel Sheidley, president and CEO of Revolutionary Spaces in Boston. The group runs the Old State House and Old South Meeting House, which played central roles in the revolution.

“They took part in the American Revolution. There were working people advocating for their voices to be heard in the political process,” Sheidley said.

The hallmark of patriotism then, he said, was “a sense of self-sacrifice, of caring more about one’s neighbors and fellow community members than one’s self.”

Patriotism has had more than one meaning

In some ways, the view of patriotism has always been on parallel tracks with civic and ethnic nationalism, historians say.

“Patriotism really depends on which American is describing himself as patriotic and what version or vision of the country they hold dear,” said Matthew Delmont, a historian at Dartmouth.

Opposition to government and dissent have been common features of how patriotism has been defined, he said. He cited the example of Black military members who fought in World War II and advocated for civil rights when they returned. They also saw themselves as patriots.

“Part of patriotism for them meant not just winning the war, but then coming home and trying to change America, trying to continue to fight for civil rights and to have actual freedom and democracy here in the United States,” Delmont said.

For many white Americans who see themselves as patriotic, “They’re thinking of other white Americans as the true definition of Americans,” Delmont said.

How the definition has evolved

Far-right and extremist groups have branded themselves with American motifs and the term “patriot” since at least the early 20th century, when the second Ku Klux Klan became known for the slogan “100% Americanism,” said Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.

By the 1990s, so many antigovernment and militia groups were using the term to describe themselves that watchdog groups referred to it as the " Patriot movement.”

That extremist wave, which included Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, faded in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But many such groups resurfaced when Barack Obama became president, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which closely tracked the movement.

Since then, many right-wing groups have called themselves “patriots” as they’ve fought election processes, LGBTQ+ rights, vaccines, immigration, diversity programs in schools and more. Former President Donald Trump frequently refers to his supporters as “patriots.”

How white nationalist groups see it

The term works as a branding tool because many Americans have a positive association with “patriot,” which hearkens back to the Revolutionary War soldiers who beat the odds to found the country, said Kurt Braddock, an American University professor and researcher at the Polarization and Extremism Research & Innovation Lab.

One example is the white supremacist militia group Patriot Front, which researchers say uses patriotism as a sort of camouflage to hide racist and bigoted values. Some white nationalist groups may genuinely view themselves as pushing back against tyranny — even if in reality they are “very selective” about what parts of the Constitution they want to defend, Braddock said.

Gaines Foster, a historian at Louisiana State University, said patriotism at one point was seen as a civic nationalism that held the belief “that you’re an American because you believe in democracy, you believe in equality, you believe in opportunity. In other words, you believe certain things about the way the government works, and that’s a very inclusive vision.”

He said the violent Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol was the most dramatic example of how the view of patriotism has shifted in recent years, saying “people began to lean less toward a commitment to democracy and more to the notion in the Declaration of Independence that there is a ‘right of revolt,’ and that becomes patriotism.”

How patriotism gets linked to conspiracy theories

Bob Evnen has been active in Nebraska Republican politics for nearly 50 years and was instrumental a decade ago in enacting a requirement for the Pledge of Allegiance to be recited in schools. The measure doesn’t force students to participate, but does require schools to set aside time each class day for the pledge to be recited.

He pushed for the pledge policy to be included in the state’s social studies curriculum standards, despite criticism from some lawmakers and civil rights organizations who labeled it “forced patriotism.”

The intent, he said, is “to teach our children to become young patriots who have an intellectual understanding of the genius of this country and who feel an emotional connection to it.”

“Somewhere along the line, we lost that — to our detriment, I believe,” Evnen said.

Now Evnen is Nebraska’s secretary of state overseeing elections and he is sometimes the target of election conspiracy theorists — usually fellow Republicans. They have made unfounded accusations of election rigging across the country and often question his patriotism for disagreeing.

Evnen finds those accusations maddening. To him, patriotism is unifying around “the idea of liberty and freedom and of self-governance.” He said today’s national debate on what constitutes patriotism flies in the face of reason.

“They’re now just personal attacks in an effort to shut down debate,” he said. “Anyone who strays from orthodoxy is labeled unpatriotic.”

Patriotism is a hot button in schools

In Idaho, Gov. Brad Little and Superintendent of Public Instruction Debbie Critchfield, both Republicans, announced in June that the state had purchased a new “patriotic” supplemental history curriculum that would be made available, free, to all public schools.

“It’s more important than ever that Idaho children learn the facts about American history from a patriotic standpoint,” Little wrote on Facebook. He said the lessons would help to “truly transform our students here in Idaho.”

Little’s office referred questions about the supplement to the state’s education department.

“The Story of America” curriculum was developed by conservative author and former Reagan-era education secretary Bill Bennett. In a 2021 press release, Bennett said the curriculum was needed because “an anti-American ideology that radically misrepresents U.S. history has infiltrated our education system and misled our kids.”

It’s difficult to compare the supplemental curriculum against the lessons that Idaho schools currently use because each district selects its own texts and lesson plans.

The new curriculum emphasizes that talking about American history and teaching the subject should be done with the intent to “cultivate a respect and love of your country,” Critchfield said.

“It’s not to change history, but to honor the history we had,” she said.

Democratic state Rep. Chris Mathias, a member of the House education committee, hasn’t seen the supplemental curriculum yet, but said history lessons should teach the good and the bad, and discuss — without shaming — the uncomfortable aspects of history.

Saying one curriculum is “patriotic” suggests that others currently in use are not, he said.

“I would really like to know if that’s true,” said Mathias, who previously served in the U.S. Coast Guard. “As a military veteran, I think a lot of people disagree on what it means to be devoted to America. I think a lot of people think that blind devotion is the same thing as patriotism. I don’t.”

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