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Un-American: The Fake Patriotism of Donald J. Trump, John J. Pitney Jr.

Reviewed by Verlan Lewis

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How can a man who hugs the American flag in front of thousands of adoring fans be un-American? This is the question that John J. Pitney Jr. answers in his new book on The Fake Patriotism of Donald Trump. As a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College, a lifelong conservative, and a former opposition researcher for the Republican National Committee, Pitney is the right man for the job. Professor Pitney begins the book by teaching his readers the most important features of the American political tradition and then proceeds to meticulously demonstrate, point by point, how Donald Trump’s entire life, including his short-lived political career, has been a repudiation of everything that makes America great.

Many political scientists, most of whom see the world very differently than Pitney and are more critical of America’s founding and history, may be tempted to assume that President Trump—with his racist rhetoric, history of sexual assault and misogyny, and scapegoating of immigrants—personifies the American political tradition. They would be wrong. While racism, sexism, and nativism are certainly a part of America’s past, they are not unique to the United States. They are found in countries all over the world and throughout history. What makes the United States of America great is that it is explicitly and self-consciously founded on the idea of equal natural rights. America, according to Pitney, is a set of ideals rather than a race, ethnicity, religion, tribe, or language. To truly be an American is to embrace the founding ideas of God-given natural rights, human dignity, self-rule, and limited government. As Pitney demonstrates with mountains of evidence, and insightful analysis, President Trump is un-American because he tramples these ideals.

In Chapter 1, Pitney identifies the American creed with the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The Declaration begins with a claim about “self-evident” truths, and so a belief in, and commitment to, truth is the first pillar that Pitney identifies in the American creed. The first truth mentioned in the Declaration is that “all men are created equal,” and so a belief in, and commitment to, human equality is the second article of faith that Pitney identifies in the American creed. The American Founders established the U.S. Constitution in 1787 in an attempt to “secure the blessings of liberty” through, as John Adams said, “a government of laws, not of men.” Thus, for Pitney, a respect for, and commitment to, the rule of law is another crucial ingredient in the American creed. The Founders of the American polity hoped to form, in the words of John Winthrop, “a city upon a hill” that was committed to the justice of God rather than merely the advantage of the stronger, and so a belief in America as a force for good in the world (sometimes called “American exceptionalism”) is the fourth part of the American creed. The Declaration finishes with the signers pledging to each other their “lives,” their “fortunes,” and their “sacred honor,” and so, for Pitney, patriotic service and sacrifice is the final pillar of the American creed. Chapters 2–6 take up each of these five parts of the American creed in turn and demonstrate, in excruciating detail, how Trumpism represents the antithesis of Americanism.

In Chapter 2, Pitney explains how Trump, with his cavalier attitude that “truth” is simply the assertions of the strong and his dismissal of the possibility of objectivity, is the political embodiment of postmodernism. Whether it was his business career in New York real estate, the “birtherism” that launched his career in the Republican Party, his bald-faced lies about election results, or his promotion of outrageous conspiracy theories, dishonesty is the hallmark feature of Trump’s character. It is true that politicians are infamous for stretching the truth, but “it is impossible to think of a president who has lied so blatantly about so many things” (p. 43).

As Pitney points out, Trump’s mendacity helped usher in a “post-truth” age in which Republicans are willing to delude themselves on behalf of their leader. “A 2017 survey found that 47 percent of Republicans thought that Trump had won the [2016] popular vote. About two-thirds said that millions of undocumented immigrants had voted” in the 2016 election (pp. 33–34). Since the publication of Un-American, Trump’s repeated lies about the 2020 presidential election led 72 percent of Republicans to say that they do not trust the results of the 2020 election despite all evidence—verified by Republican, Democratic, and independent election officials and judges— indicating that Joe Biden won both the popular and electoral college votes in an overwhelmingly free and fair election. The most radicalized of Trump’s followers, incited by one of his many lies-filled political rallies, stormed the Capitol Building during the counting of electoral college votes by Congress in an attempt to overthrow the Constitutional results of the 2020 presidential election. As Pitney correctly notes, “People are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts… Without a shared understanding of reality…, genuine deliberation is impossible” (p. 43). Trump’s rending of the American social fabric through his unprecedented dishonesty for his own selfish purposes will be his lasting legacy.

Chapters 3 and 4 meticulously document Trump’s frequent and well-advertised dismissals of the Declaration’s claim that “all men are created equal” and the Constitution’s elevation of the rule of law as seen through his racism and authoritarianism. In Chapter 5, Pitney examines Trump’s antagonism toward the idea of American exceptionalism. In 2013, Trump joined Russian president Vladimir Putin by denouncing, in an op-ed for the New York Times, President Barack Obama’s endorsement of American exceptionalism. Trump continued to criticize American exceptionalism and defend Putin in an interview on Fox News: “Other nations and other countries don’t want to hear about American exceptionalism. They’re insulted by it” (p. 96). Trump, as a moral relativist, is quick to denounce American exceptionalism by claiming that America’s human rights record is equivalent to the most authoritarian dictators around the world. For example, when Trump “said in an interview that he wanted to get along with Vladimir Putin, Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly cautioned him that Putin is a killer. Trump did not care: ‘There are a lot of killers. Do you think our country is so innocent?’ Then, he repeated his disgust toward America again for emphasis: “Do you think our country is so innocent?’” (p. 99). Pitney details Trump’s love of authoritarian strongmen (not only Putin but also of Chinese Communist Party leaders, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Un, Rodrigo Duterte, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Mohammed bin Salman) based on Trump’s belief that “might makes right” and justice is the advantage of the stronger. Pitney also shows how Trump used the office of the presidency to enrich himself and his companies through his corrupt relationships with foreign leaders.

In Chapter 6, Pitney quotes extensively from among the American Founders to argue that the president’s character matters. “John Adams famously wrote: ‘Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.’ At the Virginia ratifying convention, Madison asked: ‘Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks—no form of government can render us secure’” (p. 119). According to Pitney, Trump’s personal vices cannot be separated from his governing. Comparing the current president with previous incumbents, Pitney notes that America’s best presidents were great because of their personal virtue and morality. “Washington was great because of his moral strength and commitment to duty, concepts that are foreign to Donald Trump. When he toured Mount Vernon in 2019, he… voiced puzzlement as to why Washington did not name the estate after himself: ‘If he was smart, he would’ve put his name on it. You’ve got to put your name on stuff or no one remembers you.’… It is hard to think of another president who was so indifferent to fairness, so bereft of sympathy, and so shameless in his lack of self-control. The problem is not just that he is a bad man who does bad things, but that he is oblivious to moral concepts. When he writes ‘Bad!’ in a tweet, he is merely referring to something that fails to serve his interests” (p. 121).

Pitney’s book is important and effective because it dissents from the two dominant political tribes in America. To Trump’s “conservative” Republican supporters, who claim to be patriots that love America and its Founding, Pitney shows with devastating detail how Trump represents the antithesis of everything they claim to believe in. To Trump’s “liberal” Democratic opponents, who claim that America is fundamentally racist, misogynistic, and nativist, Pitney shows that the American creed formulated by the Founders is actually committed to natural rights, human equality, self-rule, and limited government. Trump is not the embodiment of the American political tradition. In truth, he is the most un-American president in history.

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