In Donald Trump’s America, it seems that anyone who speaks against the president, even if they are speaking for their country, will be accused of treachery. These attacks, reminiscent of others waged in our nation’s past, reveal how little today’s conservative commentators understand patriotic devotion.
Even before Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman was sworn in to testify before Congress in the impeachment proceedings on Oct. 29, right-wing pundits and the president himself accused this decorated, Purple Heart veteran of disloyalty.
The night before, Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham and guest John Woo suggested that Vindman may have committed espionage as a double agent who served both the Ukraine and the United States. They were joined by a cacophony of right-wing zealots and legislators who suggested that Vindman was unpatriotic. For his part, Trump branded him a “Never Trumper,” sans evidence.
These claims echo those made 100 years ago, as Congress enacted one of the most tightly controlled immigration policies the country had ever seen. A series of legislation — from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the Johnson-Reed Act — rested on the presumption that some immigrants could not assimilate. These immigrants were ostensibly different from the rest of us, in that they lived with divided loyalties.
During World War I many immigrants from war-torn areas were seen as likely saboteurs whose allegiances could not be guaranteed. Immigrants were put in an impossible situation: They were expected to show their devotion to the country but because of fear-based misunderstandings would never be seen as truly loyal. These claims made Americans distrustful of all immigrants.
Challenges to loyalty also came up during the Red Scare of the 1920s and McCarthyism in the 1950s, as thousands of Americans were accused, blacklisted, and even imprisoned due to reckless allegations based on flimsy or nonexistent evidence.
Now these same sorts of claims are being used to diminish Vindman’s testimony. Former Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wisconsin, suggested that Vindman’s loyalty was not to the United States but to Ukraine, from where he emigrated at age 3, declaring, “We all have an affinity to our homeland where we came from. Like me, I’m sure that Vindman has the same affinity.”
Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade also took part in this slanderous assault, suggesting that Vidman “tends to feel simpatico with the Ukraine.”
Such assertions redefine patriotism in toxic ways: What matters is not serving one’s country in line with the Constitution, but remaining loyal to the current administration. Patriotism has been contorted into something profane.
Trump and his allies hope to capitalize on the fear of divided loyalties. They aim to undercut Vindman’s testimony by highlighting his foreign ties. These claims are then amplified by a network of far-right social media users who act as if repetition can make accusations of disloyalty true.
Meanwhile, Trump is fighting against accusations of disloyalty that he refuses to address. His motives are crystal clear: self-preservation. Yet, in his case, the GOP stalwarts and right wing pundits see nothing to criticize.
Leslie Hahner, a scholar who lives in Waco, Texas, is the author of “To Become an American: Immigrants and Americanization Campaigns of the Early Twentieth Century.” This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.