Donald Trump has a thing for the American flag when he’s at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Last year, he hugged it on his way to the podium, an act widely remarked on in coverage of his appearance. This year, he restrained himself until the end of his speech, but then managed to top his previous performance by adding a kiss and mouthing repeatedly, “I love you, baby,” with an expression somewhere on the sexual arousal continuum. The crowd went bananas. Supporters like the anti-Muslim hate group ACT for America fawned on social media:
@profounddsprado is right, of course, that Trump’s flag stunt is highly theatrical, and that it’s targeted to his supporters. Trump rarely even pretends anymore to give a damn about people who aren’t with him. I also concur that the gesture is pretty disgusting. I’d like to use his observation that it is “not hard to read,” though, as the jumping-off point for a consideration of its broader significance. While I agree that it ain’t rocket science, the symbolism in the gesture is worth unpacking because it encapsulates both the densely layered nature of his relationship with his supporters and the threat he poses to the country.
The thought of Trump using a symbol is enough to make any English prof (even a recovering one like me) shudder. If no bigly wordsmith, though, he is a seasoned showman with an eye for what plays with certain audiences. Any action that involves an American flag, moreover, whether embracing it or burying it in a box or burning it, is by its very nature a symbolic act, since the flag is itself a symbol. When we recite the “Pledge of Allegiance,” we make our pledge to the flag itself, but more importantly to “the republic for which it stands” — the “imagined community” (to quote the scholar Benedict Anderson) whose borders are defined by its members’ shared belief in being “under God” and “indivisible,” and their shared desire to uphold the core values of “liberty and justice for all.” Though a preferred mode of disposing of worn-out flags, burning them can also be a form of protest against actions that run strongly counter to the community’s shared beliefs and values, and thus render the flag’s function as a symbol toxic. By the same logic, to embrace the flag should be a symbolic affirmation of those beliefs and values.
“Read” in this light, Trump’s embrace of the American flag at CPAC was particularly obscene, for of course neither he nor his administration have affirmed any aspect of the nation’s historical “imagining” of itself — at least not its best self as defined in its foundational documents (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution with its amendments, etc.), which the Pledge of Allegiance distills. Consider the setting for Trump’s stunt. He hugged and kissed the flag not during the SOTU, where he at least nominally addressed the nation as a whole, but at a strictly partisan political event. The clear implication was that his performance was for the benefit of a subset of the nation: his followers and enablers. The fact that he looked at the crowd in attendance while he mouthed, “I love you, baby,” forged an equivalence between them and the community the flag represents. The real America, the America that matters, his gesture told them, is comprised of people like them who are with him. One nation, divided, with liberty and justice for my friends.
Then there’s the act of embracing itself to consider. Though to his followers it might seem, as CNN political commentator SE Cupp asserted last March, a “quintessential way of showing his unapologetic patriotism” that isn’t “intellectual or complicated,” it’s worth noting that the gesture stands out in the context of patriotic appeals that employ the flag. The more common gesture of wrapping one’s self in the flag, for example, invokes a relationship to the imagined community the flag represents that is based on a sense of belonging. To wrap yourself in the symbol of a community of likeminded patriots is to declare your membership in that community, and also to shelter yourself within it, just as you might wrap yourself in a blanket when you’re cold. Trump’s embrace of the flag places him in a very different relationship to the community it represents, one in which he holds himself above or outside of that community. There are a number of different ways to interpret this relationship. Arguably the most benign interpretation is to see Trump casting himself in the role of patrone: because he is wrapping himself around instead of in the flag, the community it represents doesn’t shelter him, he shelters it. This role is in keeping with the sense of personal connection that he has established with his followers, garishly expressed at CPAC in the repetition of “I love you, baby.”
That latter phrase reminds us that Trump’s take on this role is not out of central casting. Quite the contrary, hugging his followers and telling them he loves them, even symbolically, dispenses with the hierarchical relationship we expect a patrone to have with his followers and replaces it with one based on reciprocity, or at least the appearance of reciprocity. Put more generally, the power dynamic in Trump’s relationship with them is fluid, or informed by an illusion of fluidity. He creates this (appearance of) reciprocity or fluidity in other ways as well. One is by soliciting his followers’ participation at his stoopid rallies, whether by asking rhetorical questions (“Do you think I could make a speech without live television?” “Didn’t we have fun fighting Hillary?” etc.) or starting their chants or inciting jeers and even violence against protesters and members of the press in attendance. A more basic means he uses to flatten the patrone-follower hierarchy is his willingness to speak and act in decidedly “unpresidential” ways. The carnivalesque upending of norms that this (appearance of) fluidity effects is obviously intoxicating, and has doubtless contributed to the durability of the bond. It has also helped make his more nefarious purposes palatable (more on this point below).
Trump’s manipulation of spectacle enhances his followers’ intoxication, and firms up their attachment to him in unsettling ways. Consider the foundational stunt of his presidency, his ride down the Trump Tower escalator in June 2015 to announce his candidacy. Its staging was indeed “not hard to read:” the descent from on high, the gaudy backdrop and blaring rock music, his trophy wife preceding him in a white strapless dress like a runway model in angel drag — it was a scene worthy of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s yet to be written musical about the Second Coming. What to Trump’s critics was mere “schtick” darkened by racist pandering, though, obviously played very differently to those whom the stunt hooked. Loyalty, love, even religious adulation radiate from the comments section to the C-SPAN video of the announcement on YouTube:
Again, not rocket science. Still, yikes.
Trump’s rallies evoke these feelings in a similarly potent way. Affording attendees the opportunity to enter the secure embrace of thousands of loud, like-minded supporters, as I wrote elsewhere, the rallies are a weird hybrid of revival meeting and monster truck rally. This bastardized immersive religiosity, mirroring as it does the emotive hive-mind of the megachurches (not to mention the far right’s hermetic media ecosystem), is the beating heart of the personality cult surrounding Trump. Seen in this context, his embrace of the flag at CPAC enacts more than the patrone’s assurance of protection. It shows Trump the deliverer embracing his chosen people.
Needless to say, central casting didn’t script this brand of deliverance either. The kiss and amorous look that accompany Trump’s embrace present a savior who’s an avowed sexual predator — the leader of the pack asserting his right to grab ’em by the pussy, or simply leave his scent on the people and things he claims as his own. And that proprietary claim points to the nakedly transactional nature of his relationship with his followers, which the cult’s faux-religiosity and his thuggish adolescent posturing obscure. In exchange for his deliverables — the federal judiciary, the spectacle of brown people in cages, the lib-baiting, etc. etc. — Trump asserts his right to dismantle the federal apparatus that (if imperfectly) has protected his followers and others from people like him, and to plunder the nation for his own benefit and that of his cronies. This is the dark heart of the pact his followers and enablers have made with him: stripped of the more innocuous symbolic roles that his CPAC stunt projects — sheltering patrone, tinseled messiah, alpha dawg — the figure hugging and kissing the flag is ultimately a grifter claiming the nation as his booty.
The ultimate obscenity of the flag stunt and the relationship it encapsulates is the amount of collateral damage they’ve inflicted on individuals and communities, as well as the nation’s cohesiveness and standing in the world. It’s an open question what reparations and other actions will be needed to begin undoing the damage and erasing the deep and growing stain Trump and his administration are leaving. Flushing the bastards out of office in November is merely a prereq. I find the idea of a purification rite centered on a symbolic flag burning appealing. But I’m not sure the nation has enough fuel stockpiled to do the thing right.