“Among a people generally corrupt, liberty cannot long exist,” Sir Edmund Burke famously wrote in his 1777 Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol, regarding the Crown’s troubles with the upstart American colonies.
Up to now, I had thought Burke’s quote was perhaps the most appropriate to describe our nation’s slide toward unprincipled, transactional, cultish governance.
The United States has become the proverbial frog sitting in water being brought to a boil slowly enough that it does not jump out until it’s too late. Each day brings new and bizarre official behavior intended to stretch the boundary and normalize what has previously been considered impropriety. It’s a strategy aimed at dividing, confusing and weakening everyone until we accept whatever we are told to accept—perhaps even a shooting on Fifth Avenue.
By strategy, I don’t mean some deeply prescient, genius version of multi-dimensional chess. This is the strategy of a bully and abuser—callous, instinctive, opportunistic and reactive—pummeling all around him in search of the path of least resistance, like rushing water.
Abusers rely on enablers, and we have plenty of those—the cynical, seeking federal favors; the angry, nursing grievances and plotting revenge; true believers, enjoying the thrill ride of newfound power. All are in the same boat, oblivious to the fact that their turn will come to be swamped by the flood.
Now, it seems that Donald Trump has decided to test the waters for installing compulsory public displays of allegiance in a land that was founded upon and has always cherished liberty—often in the extreme. Consider, for example, our high tolerance for the inevitable dangers and misuse of gun rights.
Speech and expression can also be dangerous and even misused, but we must maintain a high tolerance for language and protest with which we disagree. If we deny that First Amendment right for some, we lose it for all.
Compelling free people to stand a certain way during a song, to punish silent/peaceful protest, to coerce feigned loyalty and allegiance—these are the ways of dictators. Remember that Kim Jong-un executed North Korea’s second-highest official for clapping “half-heartedly” for him in public, calling it treasonous.
When push comes to shove and the fates of millions of lives hang in the balance, we need voluntary allegiance, genuine unity and presidential leadership that deserves—not compels—those qualities.
Try to imagine Patrick Henry, in 1775, rising to announce: “Give me liberty, or give me compulsory public displays of allegiance!”
If Americans are forced to choose between Trumpism and liberty, my bet is on liberty.