A Flagging Democracy
Updated: Jan 17, 2021
I recently walked by a small home near my neighborhood that was adorned with three flags: an American flag, a Trump 2020 flag, and a Gadsden flag. The last was tacked haphazardly to a garage door. I wondered if the homeowner had engaged in flag impulse-buying and hadn't considered the disorienting effect of so many flags (or the space required to display them all simultaneously).
A rise in campaign paraphernalia of all kinds isn't unusual at this point in an election cycle. There are plenty of yard signs too, although these seem understated this year compared to their larger, waving counterparts. U.S. politics has always been a blood sport and displaying support for a favored candidate is not new. I've been wondering about the political flags though, especially some of the more aggressive designs. Could they be an evidence of some next level of tribalism? Is flying a political flag together with a national flag a common practice in other democracies? I can think of a certain reich where one actually transitioned into the other...
When I studied abroad in Denmark, one of the many cultural lessons I received was on the use of the Danish flag. In the year I visited Denmark, the September 11th attacks still loomed large and American flags flown back home represented solemn resolve, remembrance of sacrifice, and general patriotism. I learned that the Danish flag was more of playful symbol. Its image could hang in miniature by the hundreds from garlands and was a popular birthday party decoration. As a Boy Scout who had been admonished for even touching the American flag to the floor, the use of the Danish flag as a cheerful symbol of celebration was interesting (and a bit refreshing).
Like most national emblems, the American flag has been used throughout our country's history as a symbol of celebration, solidarity, and protest. It's been burned, flipped upside down, flown in tatters from pickup trucks, and used as a prop by politicians. Altering the design of the American flag to conflate it with a cause is also not new, and the "thin blue line" flag is one such variation that is becoming more prominent. All of these actions are permissible in a society that values freedom of expression.
Symbols like flags have always interested me. When I walk by a flag, I wonder about the owner's purpose. What does the flag-flier hope to signal with their display? Who is the signal for and how does the response of their audience factor into their flag choice?
I've already mentioned national flags and some of their potential symbolism. Another class of flags are ones that signal belonging to a certain tribe but not in an aggressive way. That is, a non-member of the tribe wouldn't be discouraged from conversing with the flag owner. Sports flags and military flags fall into this category (although I realize I might be underestimating antipathy that exists between certain sports fans). Perhaps political flags could be categorized this way once.
Many "non-standard" Trump campaign flags are similar to this last category in that they are mostly signals to other Trump voters. But unlike traditional campaign displays that are designed to raise awareness for a candidate while also avoiding offending potential voters, Trump campaign flags seem to revel in antagonizing those who are not part of their group (see especially the "make liberals cry again" flag below). Trump has been one of our nation's top trolls for about decade now; it's no surprise that his base has also learned to delight in that pastime. Other Trump flags celebrate the singularity (and insularity) of their group, almost in the manner of a t-shirt for an obscure rock band or TV show with a cult following. The "Trump as Rambo" flag is an example of this.
I wonder about the "no more bullshit" flag each time I see it because it uses a word that I'm required by my school's code of conduct to reprimand my students for using. This one serves the dual purpose of firing up a certain type of Trump voter while also "triggering" liberal voters with its edgy language. I work with adolescents and I recognize this sort of posturing from hallway squabbles and bathroom scribbles. The "bullshit" flag seems like it should give actual conservatives pause, but of course most of them learned to continuously ignore their erstwhile principles a few years back.
Sometimes the meaning of a flag shifts over time. A Trump flag in 2016 seemed much more akin to a political yard sign and I usually registered it as a person excited about their preferred candidate. But over three years into Trump's presidency, seeing even the most simple Trump flag starts a chain of emotions and assumptions about the owner. The "black lives matter" flag and the "thin blue line" flags are two other flags that have recently saddled intense political implications that they didn't seem to have before.
The street I live is mostly free of political displays (besides the American flags that fly from almost every porch). I'm grateful for this detente because I know that the area I live in is decidedly "purple." Although I know that a political alignment is only a small part of most people's lives, I think I would struggle to see past certain displays even in the case of my neighbors. I acknowledge that this is a sad admission. Flying a highly political flag or hosting a small colony of yard signs could be viewed as a courageous act, especially in this unpleasant political environment. I do believe it is important to be able to stand up for your beliefs on crucial issues. But this assumes there is someone willing to listen to your arguments on the other side. If our country is to move beyond this polarized moment, symbols that carrel us into immutable groups and openly antagonize our neighbors are liabilities. For now, I'll stick to just the one flag. I hope it remains a symbol of our country's most aspirational impulses and even unity, even though the latter seems to be fraying before our eyes.