Thursday, September 7, 2023

A "Trump or Death" flag makes its debut at Yankee Stadium, and online merchants discover a market for similar "swag"; is America a sick country or what?

Yankee Stadium fans get an eyeful of a "Trump or Death" flag


Has America gone over the edge? That question arises in the wake of reports that a "Trump or Death" movement has taken hold on our shores. The first sign of such a sobering development -- at least that we know of -- came Wednesday night (9/6/23) when a group of Trump supporters unfurled a "colossal"  TRUMP OR DEATH flag from the upper deck at Yankee Stadium during a rendition of "God Bless America" as the homestanding New York Yankees took on the Detroit Tigers. A video of the unveiling can be viewed here. The irony is that the flag made its appearance in perhaps the most anti-Trump city in America. New Yorkers, of course, have seen Trump operate up  close for years, so his con-man act is well-known to them. Based on current polls, a lot of other Americans apparently are easily duped.

For the curious, "Trump or Death" flags, signs, and other "swag" can be purchased here.

What to make of these peculiar events? As an avowed liberal who thinks Trump is both a despicable human being and an existential threat to our country, I find them . . . well nauseating is one word that comes to mind. But I'm not the only one feeling pangs of concern. A leading voice on the right -- National Review senior political correspondent Jim Geraghty -- expressed similar feelings. 

You might remember National Review as the magazine that, since it's founding in 1955 by William F. Buckley Jr., has been a leading voice for conservative thought and governance -- at a time when conservatives and the Republican Party had thoughts, and actually seemed to care about governance. With the emergence of Donald Trump, those quaint notions appear to have been  kicked to the curb, in favor of what exactly? A cult of "personality," bluster, and incompetence -- not to mention mounting criminal indictments.

I'm not alone in harboring such thoughts Jim Geraghty, of the esteemed National Review, seems to be thinking along the same lines. Under the headline "Who Embraces the Slogan, ‘Trump or Death’?" Geraghty writes:

On the menu today: What does it say about our country that there is a market for flags that declare, “Trump or Death?” Why do some fans of the former president find that an effective or inspiring rallying cry? And are they play-acting in the role of revolutionaries, or do they mean what they say?

Over at Politico, there’s an article spotlighting a poll result finding that 62 percent of adults believe that the trial in the pending federal case against Donald Trump for mishandling classified documents should occur before the GOP primaries and well before the general election.

But what caught my eye was the article’s illustration photo of dueling protesters from when Trump was arraigned in Manhattan, including a protester who’s holding a flag declaring “Trump or Death.” It’s not a homemade flag; there are at least three different versions of it for sale online. One features the skull from The Punisher wearing a MAGA-style cap that reads, “Take America back.” Another adds the slogan, “The choice is clear.”

The man holding the flag in the photo spoke to New York magazine reporter on the day of the protest:

“This is my new favorite flag,” says Dion Cini, who is holding a flag that says “Trump or Death” outside Trump Tower on Monday morning. “It doesn’t necessarily mean my death; it could mean your death.”

Cini, a South Brooklyn resident who sells MAGA merch and medical software for a living, had organized a “homecoming” for the former president ahead of his arraignment Tuesday to face charges related to the alleged hush payment for porn star Stormy Daniels. Cini was hoping for a strong turnout. Roger Stone had amplified his rally announcement, urging followers to keep it “peaceful and legal.” But in a city that loathes Trump, just a handful of his supporters actually showed up. They were far outnumbered by the police and Secret Service on Fifth Avenue — who were rivaled in number by the press on the scene.

Elsewhere that day, Cini declared, “This is not against Trump, the indictment is against America.”

The Trumpers seem to have a problem when one of their own sword-bearers  admits the slogan hardly is a model of clarity. But I suspect these people should not be dismissed as jokesters or quacks. Geraghty expounds on that idea:

This view is not that different from French king Louis the XIV’s declaration, “L’√Čtat, c’est moi,” the assertion that “I am the state” — although perhaps Trump supporters would insist that Trump the man and America the country are one and the same, and that an indictment of the former represents an unjust legal pursuit of the latter. As Trump keeps insisting, “In the end, they’re not coming after me. They’re coming after you — and I’m just standing in their way.” (For what it’s worth, I think Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg is pursuing a Looney Tunes legal theory, in which Stormy Daniels did not commit a crime worthy of prosecution when she blackmailed or extorted Trump, but Trump did commit a crime worthy of prosecution when he paid her because he was being blackmailed.)

Despite the fiery rhetoric, Trump’s arraignment in Manhattan passed without incident; neither Cini nor anyone else got violent that day. Quite a bit of coverage from that day noted that despite the fears of a rerun of January 6, you could walk a block in any direction, and it was just another weekday in New York City.

But I’m more struck by the existence of a market for Cini’s “new favorite flag.” (There’s a perfectly good one with stars and stripes that is my favorite, thank you, and I don’t see any need for a replacement.)

Designing a new flag doesn’t cost that much; you could invent a country or movement and design your own flag for it for anywhere from $70 to a couple hundred dollars, depending upon the size. But clearly at least one flag company, and perhaps several, realized there was a decent-sized market for people who want to wave a “Trump or Death” flag at rallies and elsewhere.

As Geraghty makes clear, the Trump slogan is a rip-off of one of the most famous speeches in American history:

The rallying cry is no doubt inspired by Patrick Henry’s remarks at the Second Virginia Convention on March 20, 1775, at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Va. It is a rallying cry that few presidents, CEOs, or head coaches could equal:

They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance, by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations; and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.

Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

Of course, the options offered by Patrick Henry in 1775 were quite different from the ones offered by Cini and other Trump supporters now.

What are you willing to die for? Choose carefully, because you only get one life on this Earth, and only so many trips around the sun.

One can’t help but notice that fanatical loyalty to Trump often turns out badly for his most ardent supporters. Lin Wood just chose to retire his law practice rather than face disbarment. Sidney Powell and five other lawyers must pay a total of more than $152,000 in sanctions for what a judge ruled was “a historic and profound abuse of the judicial process.” More than 1,000 people have been arrested for their roles in the January 6 riot, and more than 650 defendants have pleaded guilty or been convicted so far for their actions that day.

Cini suggested the slogan “could mean your death.” That’s not that far away from the philosophy of Cesar Sayoc, the nutjob who admitted to mailing 16 improvised explosive devices to 13 victims throughout the country, including eleven current or former U.S. government officials.

If you insist upon placing the choice of “Trump or death” before the rest of the country, and will accept no other terms, recognize that there are high odds that the rest of country will refuse to be intimidated into electing someone they detest. The answer may well be, “Let’s go with death, then.” The wavers of that flag think they’re emulating Patrick Henry and the Founding Fathers, but they’re much more like the British redcoats, effectively declaring, “You must accept that our guy will rule, or we will kill you or die trying.” “My way or I kill you” is a fundamentally un-American philosophy and is the modus operandi of al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Iranian mullahs, Vladmir Putin, Xi Jinping, and every other tinpot dictator, autocrat, and tyrant around the world.

The full embrace of a “my guy or we kill your or we die trying” really ought to spur an “are we the baddies?” moment. Then again, some people may well get a thrill out of being the bad guys.

I think a lot of people in our society get a thrill out of anger — literally:

As you become angry your body’s muscles tense up. Inside your brain, neurotransmitter chemicals known as catecholamines are released causing you to experience a burst of energy lasting up to several minutes. This burst of energy is behind the common angry desire to take immediate protective action. At the same time your heart rate accelerates, your blood pressure rises, and your rate of breathing increases. Your face may flush as increased blood flow enters your limbs and extremities in preparation for physical action. Your attention narrows and becomes locked onto the target of your anger. Soon you can pay attention to nothing else. In quick succession, additional brain neurotransmitters and hormones (among them adrenaline and noradrenaline) are released which trigger a lasting state of arousal. You’re now ready to fight.

If anger has a physiological preparation phase during which our resources are mobilized for a fight, it also has a wind-down phase as well. We start to relax back towards our resting state when the target of our anger is no longer accessible or an immediate threat. It is difficult to relax from an angry state, however. The adrenaline-caused arousal that occurs during anger lasts a very long time (many hours, sometimes days), and lowers our anger threshold, making it easier for us to get angry again later on.

Bob Dylan sang, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. . . . Well, it may be the Devil or it may be the Lord. But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Everybody needs a cause to believe in, something to give their life meaning and purpose and a sense of direction.

Maybe enough people have sufficiently empty or frustrating lives that they choose to reimagine themselves as the second coming of Patrick Henry, preparing to fight another American Revolution, against a government they deem despotic, elections they label rigged, and evil conspiracies lurking around every corner. In this vision, their lives are exciting, thrilling, dramatic, and enormously consequential. In Trump, they have a king to fight for — and Trump himself gets reimagined as Rambo, a superhero, or a war hero.

There’s some of this on the other side, too. There was more than a little painful truth in that October 2020 Saturday Night Live sketch, depicting impassioned Trump critics wondering what they would do without him. “My entire personality is hating Donald Trump. If he’s gone, what am I supposed to do? Focus on my kids again? No thanks.” The #Resistance of the Trump era no doubt chose the name to emulate the French Resistance against the Nazis.

The mundane duties of work, parenthood, family, and community can be dull, frustrating, wearisome — even Sisyphean. There is rarely any final victory, any sense that the work is done and we can celebrate an ultimate and lasting triumph. Even those who have outwardly successful lives sometimes struggle with a feeling of unfulfillment, a sense of wondering, “Is that all there is?” The corner office, the nice house, the fancy car — there are few things in life that will make us happy for very long; satisfaction must come from the journey, not just the destination.

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