Johnson, Trump and Twain

By Roger Bowen

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) famously wrote that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” I doubt Donald Trump has ever read Johnson, and if he has, I doubt that he understands the meaning of Johnson’s famous quotation. Indeed, Americans who are proud nationalists also are likely to misunderstand Johnson.

True, Johnson was a Brit and unfamiliar with American culture where patriotism is a word of approbation: to call someone a “patriot” in America is to compliment them.

But patriotism is also frequently confused with nationalism; in fact, the two terms are often conflated, which may explain why Trump criticizes anyone whose views on the fundamentals of what it means to be an American differ from his own, which themselves are far from clear. And only occasionally does Trump let his guard down, abandon the teleprompter and admit point blank that he is a “nationalist.”

Consider that any American can be a patriot without being a nationalist. How?

By being loyal to the democratic ideas that infuse our national charter as well as our culture. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped make this point in 1943 when he stated: “Americanism [patriotism] is a matter of the mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry. A good American is one who is loyal to this country and to our creed of liberty and democracy.”

Loyalty to country and loyalty to the ideas the nation represents can come into conflict. Trump, and many other young people at that time, did not, for example, want to be drafted during the Vietnam War. Trump was able to get four deferrals from his draft board before getting a medical exemption for having bone spurs in his feet. Many young people in the 1960s and early 1970s were not so fortunate, so they either left the country or went underground, or went to jail. Not all, but certainly many of these youngsters believed their primary loyalty was to the nation’s commitment to liberty and democracy rather than to the particular U.S. government of the time (Johnson, then Nixon). Castigated by some American nationalists as traitors or cowards, they were also equally hailed as patriots for putting principle over politics.

“My nation, right or wrong” captures the attitude and outlook of nationalistic Americans, while patriots will aver instead, “I support my nation when it lives up to its values of liberty and democracy.” In the first instance, nationalism means blind loyalty; in the second, it means an open-eyed endorsement of basic democratic principles. American humorist Mark Twain put it succinctly: “Loyalty to country ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.”

Nationalists are tribal while patriots are critical thinkers; nationalists will mindlessly obey orders of superiors, while patriots will not hesitate to question whether orders issued reflect our nation’s values. Nationalists butchered poor villagers, mainly women and children, at My Lai in Vietnam of 1968, or sent Jews to the death camps in the 1930s and ’40s, while patriots either disobeyed such orders or actively lent assistance to the intended victims.

Patriotism is not about wrapping oneself in the stars and stripes or blowing off fireworks on July Fourth or telling critics of nationalists to “go back to where they came from,” but it is about caring for your neighbors, questioning illegitimate/undemocratic policies and practices and promoting critical thinking in our public schools.

Samuel Johnson was more likely referring to nationalism, not patriotism, as “the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Scoundrels tend to glorify the symbols of the nation — flag, military, Pledge of Allegiance, etc., rather than question whether such symbols mean as much to the nation’s soul as the virtues of democracy and liberty.


Roger Bowen of Prospect Harbor has published op-eds in the New York Times, Newsday, The Nation, The Irish Times and The Japan Times.

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