“Rebellion against authority is as American as apple pie.”
This was my response as I spoke with a woman who was bragging about how much of a rebel she was against the standards of society. She was proud that she refused to follow the expectations of our culture. When I pointed out to her that her attitude was actually following the American cultural norm of challenging authority, her look conveyed to me that I would be better off dead or gone.
President Donald Trump pushed the buttons of National Football League athletes and Democrats in a similar fashion last week when he criticized those who kneeled during the national anthem at football games. Before his tweet, only four players had knelt. Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand had been roundly criticized. After the tweet, more than 250 players, coaches and owners protested against the tweet by challenging the president’s words.
Black athletes see kneeling for the national anthem as their way of protesting historic inequality toward blacks and minorities. The ideals of “all men are created equal” ring hollow to them after many episodes of police violence toward black males all over the country. Trump claims he sees their kneeling as disrespectful to the flag and the nation and therefore unpatriotic.
Doesn’t the president realize that the more he criticizes those NFL protesters, the more they will come together against him? Perhaps that is his point. Perhaps he really doesn’t understand the nature of our American psyche. Or, perhaps his tweets aren’t about creating divisions in the nation. They may be more about getting people talking about Donald Trump. The more attention the better.
I found this button pushing to be true when I first started my teaching career at Sumner High School in 1975. I had come out of a very authoritarian organization and was used to being told what to do. When I used that similar approach with my teenaged students, I encountered a great deal of pushback, which surprised me. I had to learn to get them to do what I wanted by asking them, not telling them.
When I bring this issue of rebellion up as a cultural norm to American students — males mainly — in my civics and government class, they all wholeheartedly agree. It’s dangerous for a president to tell Americans they can’t do something. Our rebellious attitude was ingrained in our culture during the period leading up to the American Revolution and codified by the Declaration of Independence.
I remember being at a pep assembly at the Sumner gym and reacting very strongly to two students who sat during the national anthem. I was furious that they disrespected the flag and the nation. When I asked them why they refused to stand, they told me it was because they were Jehovah’s Witnesses and they believed they should not put the nation above God. I understand the anger some feel over not respecting the flag, but I also understand the importance of respecting First Amendment freedoms.
When attending college in Britain as a minority American in my early 20s during the Vietnam War, I was shocked to realize most Europeans did not share my American attitudes. I naively assumed that everybody thought the same as I did. I experienced a major epiphany. I felt like wearing cowboy boots and a cowboy hat to defend my American ideals against the Europeans who were attacking my country and its decisions.
When I read of the Russian campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election by buying advertising on Facebook, I saw their tactic was not to support one candidate over the other as much as it was trying to create divisions over race, religion and politics through attacking the tectonic fault lines of our nation. The greater the divisions, the weaker America was going to be in foreign relations. It was a clever strategy with a deep understanding of American culture.
Perhaps one of the gifts of Donald Trump is to make us aware of our own national character: rebellion against authority is as American as apple pie. We need to learn not to let our foes push our country’s hot buttons to divide and conquer us.
Richard Elfers is a professor at Green River College.