The word ‘patriot’ has a particular meaning to many Americans. But some of them took their idea of patriotism a bit far on January 6.
First published in February 2021.
Despite Donald Trump’s seeming lack of interest in the project, a number of his followers around the US have been flirting with the idea of forming a breakaway party of the right to challenge the Republican establishment. Most of these have names which use the word “patriot”.
In Florida, former Republican voters registered the American Patriot Party of the United States — or TAPPUS, for short – while at the end of January a spokesman for the former president denied reports he was planning to fundraise in cooperation with a group calling itself the MAGA Patriot Party National Committee.
Patriot was a word that surfaced repeatedly during the assault on the US Capitol in January, being repeatedly invoked to define the identities and motivations of those who invaded the nation’s legislative heart. Ivanka Trump herself praised the participants on Twitter as “American Patriots” – though she deleted her tweet after being challenged by other Twitter users for her use of this word.
A Trump supporter. | Flickr-Anthony Crider
“Patriot” is a common enough word, but its modern use is often nebulous. A simple dictionary definition of a patriot is “one who loves and supports his or her country”. So you could call anyone who expressed their love for their country a patriot – no matter where or when they lived. In the US context, though, until relatively recently the word has been used most frequently in relation to New England – and especially Boston – in the era of the American revolution.
“Patriot” has long been a convenient shorthand for those American colonists who supported or participated in the revolution, as distinct from the “loyalists” who hoped that the North American colonies would remain part of the British empire. New Englanders, particularly those who live in or around Boston, like to think that their city and region holds a special place in the history of the revolution, and thus of the United States. It was the home of leaders such as Paul Revere, Samuel Adams and John Hancock. It was also the site of the Stamp Act riots, the Boston Tea Party and the Battle of Bunker Hill.
The region’s sole National Football League franchise is the New England Patriots, who are based in Boston’s southern suburbs. The team’s mascot, Pat Patriot, is depicted as a revolutionary-era soldier, wearing a Continental Army uniform and a tricorne hat. On the third Monday of April, Massachusetts, Maine and Connecticut celebrate the state holiday known as Patriots’ Day, in commemoration of the opening battles of the American revolution, which took place at Lexington, Concord, and Menotomy (now Arlington), Massachusetts.
The holiday is marked by re-enactments of these battles, and, more prominently, by the Boston Marathon. The 2016 film Patriots’ Day was so titled because its subject was the 2013 terrorist attack on the marathon.
What, then, is the connection between a regional tradition of remembrance of the revolution and the crowds of Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol Building? In 2016 a small but assertive group which called itself Patriot Prayer emerged, holding pro-Trump rallies in liberal west coast enclaves such as Portland, Oregon. But the term did not gain wide usage among white nationalists and other members of the alt-right until 2020, when it became a popular way for Trump supporters to describe themselves.
Kyle Rittenhouse, the Illinois teenager who shot three people at a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was hailed by Trump supporters as a patriot. Since November’s presidential election, the word has been employed repeatedly among those who believe that the Democrats stole Trump’s victory.
Trump supporters travelling from Louisville, Kentucky for the rally on January 6 referred to their group as a “patriot caravan”. Meanwhile the husband of Ashli Babbit – the air force veteran who was shot and killed by Capitol police during the invasion – praised her as a “great patriot to all who knew her”.
Another Trump supporter. | Flickr-Anthony Crider
On the far-right Breitbart website, someone commenting on a story quoting Donald Trump calling for a “peaceful” transfer of power attracted a large number of approvals when they left the following comment:
“There will NEVER be ‘reconciliation’. We have irreconcilable differences, and the fight has just begun. We need to disown the RNC until they support the Patriot Party.”
The word “patriot” has an obvious appeal. It’s difficult to argue against a person or group’s love of their country and their willingness to take action to defend it. That’s particularly significant when, in the case of the alt-right, it believes that its nation’s core values are threatened.
But we might view white nationalists’ embrace of the term as inspired less by American history than by the 2000 Hollywood film The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson – himself one of Hollywood’s most ardent conservatives. Gibson’s character enters the War of Independence only reluctantly to protect one son and avenge the death of another. In other words, for unimpeachable motives.
But is it a stretch to apply this conception of the “patriot” to those who, like Babbit or the “QAnon Shaman”, stormed the Capitol because they believed that the Democrats had “stolen” the election? From the point of view of someone who believes the QAnon conspiracy theory that the Democratic Party elite were behind a vast paedophile ring threatening innocent children, perhaps this really did seem to be an act of patriotism.
Samuel Johnson famously claimed that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel,” but – as is so often true – the reality is undoubtedly far more complex.
▫ Dr Natalie Zacek, Senior Lecturer in American Studies at the University of Manchester. She is completing a book on horse-racing in the 19th-century United States.
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