A little over 240 years ago, two of my ancestors put on the uniform of George Washington’s Continental Army and marched into battle, willing to die if it meant bringing their fledgling nation inches closer to independence. Centuries later, in 1992, I followed in their footsteps and joined the Army.
Even knowing how my tour in Iraq would turn out, even knowing that I’d lose both my legs in a battlefield just north of Baghdad in late 2004, I would do it all over again. Because if there’s anything that my ancestors’ service taught me, it’s the importance of protecting our founding values, including every American’s right to speak out. In a nation born out of an act of protest, there is nothing more patriotic than standing up for what you believe in, even if it goes against those in power.
Our founders’ refusal to blindly follow their leader was what I was reflecting on this Fourth of July weekend, when some on the far right started attacking me for suggesting that all Americans should be heard, even those whose opinions differ from our own. Led by the Fox News host Tucker Carlson and egged on by President Trump, they began questioning my love for the country I went to war to protect, using words I never actually said and ascribing a position to me that I do not actually hold.
Mr. Carlson disingenuously claimed that because I expressed an openness to “a national dialogue” about our founders’ complex legacies, people like me “actually hate America.” One night later, he claimed that I called George Washington a traitor even though I had unambiguously answered no when asked whether anyone could justify saying that he was. Then he argued that changes to monuments of our founders “deserve a debate,” which, somehow, was different and more acceptable to him than the “national dialogue” that led him to question my patriotism just 24 hours earlier.
Setting aside the fact that the right wing’s right to lie about me is one of the rights I fought to defend, let me be clear: I don’t want George Washington’s statue to be pulled down any more than I want the Purple Heart that he established to be ripped off my chest. I never said that I did.
But while I would risk my own safety to protect a statue of his from harm, I’ll fight to my last breath to defend every American’s freedom to have his or her own opinion about Washington’s flawed history. What some on the other side don’t seem to understand is that we can honor our founders while acknowledging their serious faults, including the undeniable fact that many of them enslaved Black Americans.
Because while we have never been a perfect union, we have always sought to be a more perfect union — and in order to do so, we cannot whitewash our missteps and mistakes. We must learn from them instead.
But what I actually said isn’t the reason Mr. Carlson and Mr. Trump are questioning my patriotism, nor is it why they’re using the same racist insults against me that have been slung my way time and again in years past, though they have never worked on me.
They’re doing it because they’re desperate for America’s attention to be on anything other than Donald Trump’s failure to lead our nation, and because they think that Mr. Trump’s electoral prospects will be better if they can turn us against one another. Their goal isn’t to make — or keep — America great. It’s to keep Mr. Trump in power, whatever the cost.
It’s better for Mr. Trump to have you focused on whether an Asian-American woman is sufficiently American than to have you mourning the 130,000 Americans killed by a virus he claimed would disappear in February. It’s better for his campaign to distract Americans with whether a combat veteran is sufficiently patriotic than for people to recall that this failed commander in chief has still apparently done nothing about reports of Russia putting bounties on the heads of American troops in Afghanistan.
Mr. Trump and his team have made the political calculation that, no matter what, they can’t let Americans remember that so many of his decisions suggest that he cares more about lining his pockets and bolstering his political prospects than he does about protecting our troops or our nation.
They should know, though, that attacks from self-serving, insecure men who can’t tell the difference between true patriotism and hateful nationalism will never diminish my love for this country — or my willingness to sacrifice for it so they don’t have to. These titanium legs don’t buckle.
The hateful vision for America parroted by Mr. Trump and Mr. Carlson will not win. Their relentless efforts to drive wedges between us will not work forever. We are too resilient a nation, too diverse a people, to let them.
In his farewell address, George Washington not only recognized his own imperfections, he also urged Americans to “guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism” and be wary of excessive partisanship. In the generations since, too many patriots, including many in my own family, have sacrificed too much to let our guard down now.
So when Tucker Carlson questions the patriotism of those willing to sacrifice for his freedom, or when Donald Trump promotes those smears — after having threatened to veto a pay raise for our troops to try to ensure the military continues honoring Confederate traitors who took up arms against our Union — remember Washington’s words.
Remember that part of what has always made America not just great but good is that every American has the right to question those in charge. Anyone claiming to stand up for “patriotic” values should recognize that, because, without it, the country these impostor patriots claim to love so much would not exist.
Our nation deserves leaders mature and secure enough not to race-bait or swift-boat anyone who dares disagree with them. After these past four years, and especially after these past four months, it’s clearer than ever that we must choose public servants who will focus on the serious issues facing our country — from the spread of the coronavirus to systemic racism to foreign adversaries threatening our troops’ lives — rather than cynical bullies who use schoolyard tactics to distract from their own shortcomings.
So while I would put on my old uniform and go to war all over again to protect the right of Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump to say offensive things on TV and Twitter, I will also spend every moment I can from now until November fighting to elect leaders who would rather do good for their country than do well for themselves.
Tammy Duckworth (@SenDuckworth) is a Democratic senator from Illinois.
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