The politicization of the stars and stripes predates Trump, by far. In the Vietnam era, military associations made the flag a fraught symbol. In the Reagan years, left-wing flag-burning protesters sparked Republican efforts to amend the Constitution, carving out the flag as an exception to free speech. But Trump, with his talent for political theater and his penchant for stoking deep partisan rifts, has managed to take the divide further than ever. His supporters brandished the flag alongside Trump slogans on car bumpers and in Twitter and TikTok handles. Members of the far-right Proud Boys staged antagonistic rallies where they’d wave American flags as a statement of division. Trump acted out his own embrace of the flag in a way that was both knowing and grotesque. When he finished his speech at the 2020 CPAC convention last February, Trump famously strutted up to a flag onstage, hugged it, kissed it, and mouthed, “I love you, baby.”
By that time, for many people on both sides of the political chasm, the flag had been re-cast as a kind of shorthand, an extension of the MAGA hat—sending an instant message of which side you were on, or inspiring stereotypes that pulled the country even further apart. “When I saw somebody with a flag bumper sticker or a t-shirt with a big flag on it, I immediately thought. … It’s a Trump nut job. A crazy person,” said California screenwriter Ed Kamen, who tweeted a similar sentiment when the election was called for Biden. Now that Trump seemed repudiated, through the mechanics of democracy, the flag suddenly meant something different to him. “My attitude’s changed about it now,” Kamen, an independent, told me weeks after the election. “I am proud of my country, I love my flag, I love my country. And it’s nice to see the flag again representing the country as a whole, instead of one section of it.”
But the election, like the flag, doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. Where Trump’s opponents see a triumph of democracy, his fiercest supporters see something different; fueled by right-wing media, they’re still complaining about fraud, coups and stolen elections. And that unwillingness to unite over the basics of democracy—to acknowledge that, whether you like the results or not, the system works—is unlikely to disappear when Joe Biden takes office. Trump’s rebranding of the flag as a wholly partisan statement has been, in a sense, a triumph in marketing. And a good marketing campaign is hard to undo.
Reverence for the flag is part of American history—and, fundamentally, part of human nature. During trench warfare, it wasn’t unheard of for soldiers to run through open fire to rescue a flag that had been left behind, says John H. Evans, a sociology professor at the University of California-San Diego. “Why would anybody risk their lives for an inanimate object?” he asks. Because, he says, it’s a stand-in for the nation as a whole. Social scientists call that association “civil religion”—the worship of secular objects that represent a national ideal. Think the flag, the Liberty Bell and the original Constitution, written on parchment with quill.
In normal times, those totems represent not just a shared identity, but a common set of beliefs about what the country means, says Ben Gaskins, a political science professor at Lewis and Clark College. For most of history, Americans have largely agreed on those ideals: God and freedom, capitalism and opportunity, a legal system and a common culture.
Those collective bonds were fraying before Trump hit the scene. To some on the left, for instance, the flag became a stand-in for every terrible act that had been done, through history, on the nation’s behalf. But the partisan divisions grew worse during the Trump administration. Gaskins points to polls that show that civic pride dropped precipitously among Democrats after Trump took office. A YouGov poll from 2018 showed a 26 percentage-point gap between Republicans and Democrats when asked if they felt patriotic. A 2018 Pew poll found that Republicans were twice as likely as Democrats to believe it’s important to fly the American flag.
And it wasn’t just a question of patriotism, Evans says: Trump and his supporters have also managed to shift the meaning of the flag itself. After all, he notes, there are also two ways to interpret the flag. It can be inclusive, representing a diverse group of people who unite behind a set of common principles. Or it can be exclusive, a symbol of nationalism—an “us” in opposition to a less worthy or virtuous “them.”
That was the message Trump often sent, as he spent four years in a warlike stance. And it’s not surprising that a master of branding would find a way to turn symbols into weapons. Before long, the American flag was one of many banners that came to represent Trumpism as a whole. Oversized Trump-Pence flags, unfurled at beach homes on the Jersey Shore and flotillas in Florida’s intercoastal waterway, were a way for Trump supporters to rub their political leanings in opponents’ faces. (In 2019, parents in Pleasantville, New York complained about a Trump 2020: “No More Bullshit” flag on a homeowner’s porch, next door to an elementary school—and noted that the flag broke US code by flying higher than an American flag.) At Trump rallies, some supporters brought the Confederate flag—a symbol of racial division, defiance and resistance to change. The “Don’t Tread on Me” flag sometimes made an appearance, asserting a link between Trumpism and the roots of American history.
And after the summer’s racial justice protests and calls to “defund the police,” Trump ralliers started flying a “blue lives matter” flag: a black-and-white version of the American flag with one blue stripe, which had been created in response to anti-police protests in 2014. In three decades of work in criminal justice, La Vigne says, she’s never seen such divisiveness over the subject, or so little room for nuance from both sides. “It’s emblematic of the larger narrative that I really credit our outgoing president with—it’s just creating these divisions, making them bigger fissures than they already were,” she says. “He’s very skilled at pitting one group against another.”
As Americans retreated to their corners under Trump, the stars and stripes became a casualty. In extreme cases, people rejected it altogether: La Vigne once saw a tweet that showed a Confederate flag, a Nazi flag and the American flag, with text suggesting that they all had the same meaning. More commonly, people shied away from what they feared would be an association with the wrong side. In some liberal enclaves, an entirely new set of yard signs cropped up—acting as alternatives to the flag, allowing people to proclaim their belonging to a different American tribe. In Portland, Oregon, the progressive haven where he lives, Gaskins sees yard signs asserting beliefs about equality and human rights, access to clean water and racial justice. They’re “a way of trying to square both sides,” Gaskins says—declaring that “I’m proud of my country, there are things that I like about it,” but also that “there are things that need to be fixed.”
The more liberals and progressives detached from the flag, the more Trump and his allies embraced it. In some circles, it became harder and harder to see the flag in a nuanced way—and in rare cases, the confusion got violent. When far-right activists held a rally in Portland in the summer of 2018, a man who described himself as a “slightly progressive leftist” brought an American flag to the counter-protest, intending to send a message that the flag was for everyone. Black-hooded antifa protestors—people who were, nominally, on his own side—declared the flag a “fascist symbol,” ripped it from his hands, and clubbed him over the head, leaving him with a gash and a concussion. “It strikes me as the worst sort of political theater,” the man later told the Oregonian newspaper. The flag had become the ultimate prop, a stand-in for hate.
To people who grew up steeped in old-school displays of patriotism, this divisiveness over the flag has been cause for dismay. “It’s been branded as a sign of the Trump supporters,” says Tom LaRussa, 67, a retiree in Somers, Connecticut. “And it’s taken away from what I grew up with, like the Pledge of Allegiance, the flag code, all that stuff. They raised the flag on Iwo Jima and it meant freedom.”
LaRussa, like many Democrats and anti-Trumpers, spent the last four years in a state of agitation. He poured his frustration onto social media, and broke ties with a close friend who had become a die-hard Trump supporter. “I’m just so infuriated at the way this country has turned out,” he told me.
So when he watched cable TV on the night of Biden’s victory speech, and saw Democrats joyfully embracing the flag, LaRussa felt a glimmer of hope. “People were out in the streets. They were waving the American flag,” he recalled. “And I said to my daughter, ‘It looks like the American flags are back.’”
But Evans, the sociologist, says it won’t be easy to make the flag a unifying symbol again. It’s hard to rally around civil religion, he says, “in societies that are divided about who is really upholding the true standards of the nation.” And in post-Trump America, Evans predicts, that division is unlikely to end.
Mary Murray, for one, isn’t ready to put her flag up yet. The retired teacher, 63, grew up on a farm in Kansas, with Democratic parents who were involved in civil rights and instilled a particular interpretation of American values. When her sisters went off to college, her parents would invite their friends from overseas to stay at their farm for the holidays. “I was raised to believe the American flag stood for compassion,” she told me.
Murray took her own flag down a year into the Trump administration, after she saw news stories about migrant children separated from their parents on the southern border. A year or so ago, when Trump did something new to agitate her, she put the flag back up for a couple of months—but flew it upside down.
During the campaign, Murray was heartened to see Biden signs throughout her community near Fort Leavenworth, which is heavy with retired military. But she also couldn’t help but notice one neighbor’s Trump sign, hung high in a tree where it couldn’t be disturbed. “I wanted to get a paintball gun and drive by it, but my sons wouldn’t let me,” she said.
Now, as she watches the post-election news—Trump’s ongoing legal battles and transition intransigence—Murray’s anger hasn’t faded. “I think there’s always going to be Donald Trumpism out there,” she says. “I’m praying that they’ll grow tired and weary and not continue this crap. He is poison, and he has poisoned the American flag.” As for her own flag, she’s waiting for the nation’s fiercest partisan to depart. “I’m not going to put it back up,” she says, “until that leech is out of office, or in jail.”