Editor’s Note: Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat, is a US Senator from Illinois. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Marching and chanting, grieving and kneeling, countless Americans have braved tear gas and rubber bullets over the past six weeks to send an unequivocal message to their elected leaders: that they will not stand idly by as racial injustice continues to tear at our country.
In this moment of national reckoning, and particularly as we celebrated Independence Day last weekend, I can think of nothing more patriotic.
These citizens understand that doing the tireless, often thankless work necessary to effect change is what American patriotism has always been about. Yet sadly, that fundamental understanding seems to be beyond the American president himself, who, day after day it seems, wraps himself in the flag in the morning but reverts back to tribalism by the afternoon. Who claims to have done more for our troops than anyone else yet who didn’t lift a finger amid the reported intelligence that Russia had put bounties on their heads, effectively shrugging his shoulders and claiming he was never briefed about it. Who seems to prize sycophancy over common decency, and who thinks that patriotism is proven by who stands up the tallest or sings the loudest when the national anthem plays rather than who embodies our nation’s values once the music stops.
In a time that cries out for real leadership, we’ve seen the opposite from President Donald Trump, as he’s used this moment to conflate patriotism with nationalism and democracy with autocracy, working to undermine the rule of law to serve his own interests.
The last few months have been a microcosm of his entire term, with him manipulating the levers of the presidency to try to silence those who oppose him, from the firing of tear gas to the firing of government officials who refuse to fall in line. Not seeming—or caring—to know the difference between president and tinpot dictator, he’s worked to pervert what our military stands for, showing an alarming kinship to a certain former leader who, when also faced with growing unrest, treated those protesting as traitors, threatening to use their own military against them. That leader of old was King George III: the man whose actions were considered so antithetical to what America should be that some patriots got together and declared independence from him 244 Fourth of Julys ago.
To Donald Trump, protesting is unpatriotic because, to Donald Trump, love for your country means undying loyalty to those in power. But anyone who knows our nation’s history understands that protesting and American patriotism have always been irrevocably intertwined.
If those Americans two and a half centuries ago had subscribed to Donald Trump’s definition of patriotism—of unwavering, unquestioning, unequivocal support for those in charge—the fourth of July would be just another summer day. Tea would have never steeped in Boston Harbor. And the quest for a more perfect union would have been supplanted by a determination to stick with the status quo.
Our nation exists because a group of citizens from a ragtag bunch of colonies refused to stay silent when they saw a wrong that needed to be righted. America was born out of an act of resistance, and America has become more American with every peaceful protest since, from those who sat-in at lunch counters in the 1960s to those who stood up to another President’s abuses one Saturday during Watergate, from immigrants like Lt. Col Alexander Vindman who risked his career to say that here, “right matters,” to those who’ve taken to the streets these past couple months, demanding that the country whose Declaration of Independence states that we’re all created equal actually treat Black Americans equally as well.
America has always been full of complications and contradictions. We’re a deeply flawed country, but what makes us unique is that we’re a deeply hopeful one, too. Hopeful that, with a little effort, we’ll one day live up to the promises made in our founding doctrine. That coming together in the streets can make a real difference. That we can learn from yesterday’s sins to bring about a better tomorrow
So in the echo of the Fourth of July, let’s remember that fighting back against injustice isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the most American act imaginable. Our nation was founded by a group of patriots who refused to blindly follow their leader—and 244 Independence Days later, it’s only by continuing to speak truth to power that, someday soon, we may all live free in that more perfect union envisioned by our founders.
This commentary was originally published on July 3.