This summer, my vacation away from my internship was mainly spent floating on a boat in the middle of East Grand Traverse Bay, and between drinking copious amounts of Summer Shandy and basking in the summer luxury only northern Michigan guarantees, I decided to depress myself by reading a book that offered a stark contrast to the environment surrounding me. 

“In The Garden of the Beasts,” written by Erik Larson, recounts the life of the American ambassador to Germany during the ascent of the Nazi Party. In the book, early German patriotism eventually transforms into a blind racist nationalism, which, obviously, had dire consequences for the future of the world. Yet the book did more than recount the history of the origins of Nazi Germany — it detailed the dark and disturbing chronicle of an entire nation of people embracing a hellish demagogue in the hopes of “saving” their country.

Sound familiar?

The story — as told through the eyes of the American family living in Berlin — dragged me away from my temporary vacation and into the terrifying world of early Nazi Germany, in which the German populace slowly conforms and allows for the transformation of its country into the fascist state responsible for the most destructive war in history. The people come to embrace an egomaniacal narcissist who promised “to lead Germany to a new era of national greatness,” while being extremely vague about actual plans. They embraced a leader many regarded as a “clown” with “scattershot, impulsive style” — who used passionate patriotism to disguise his truly racist and deplorable rhetoric as a form of extreme love for Germany.

The lasting lesson I took from reading this book had to do with both the conformity of the German public and how patriotism played such a massive role in that transformation. The average German citizen willingly allowed for the subtle increase of violent xenophobic rhetoric until it became the acceptable norm of life, mainly out of fear of seeming unpatriotic among their fellow citizens. This idea was impressed upon me after finishing the book, and honestly has gone on to greatly influence both my writing and discussion toward the political climate within our country. I believe many of our fellow citizens use patriotism both as blinders to hide clear and present social injustices, and, even more disturbingly, as a bludgeon to force conformity for a dangerous political movement. And I believe this fervent patriotism has been injected with a stimulus that physically manifests itself within the candidate Donald J. Trump.

Critique of American life is often met by a verbal onslaught questioning the speaker’s level of patriotism. The simple utterance that refugees from Syria should be granted homes here, or that Colin Kaepernick has a point in attempting to address the systemic racism within the criminal justice system, suddenly labels you as a freedom- and liberty-hating fascist who is also a member of the Taliban. I myself often get into heated political discussions that have ended with the opposition retreating to the ignorant stance that I simply “hate” America.

To be clear, just because I don’t find the United States as “star-spangled awesome” as the lots of my fellow patriots who are heroically attempting to “Make America Great Again” does not mean I somehow “love” this country less than them. I instead believe it allows for me to love and appreciate it far more. In this country, I can address the issues that plague our nation. I can identify and recognize the dark history our nation has had from its birth claiming “land of the free, home of the brave” while simultaneously enslaving an entire race of people and murdering another. I can recognize the numerous problems we must overcome, from gender inequality to race relations. The importance of being able to speak out against problems despite being threatened by blind chauvinists is paramount to the progression of our nation.

“In The Garden of the Beasts” also detailed how patriotism was utilized as a bludgeon that was violently wielded by blind patriotic worshipers who dealt out actual violence for lack of proper reverence toward Germany. For example, not saluting to Hitler was often met with fierce physical beatings and Nazi and German flags were held to almost religious levels of worship. These historical occurrences are all disturbingly prevalent today within contemporary politics. The campaign of Donald J. Trump has mirrored these precedents — from the levels of aggressive xenophobia that are pathetically disguised as passionate love for America to the actual violence his campaign has caused, he and his followers have replicated the chauvinistic patriotism that infected Germany in the 1930s.

I don’t measure how much one loves this country by the size of their American flag lapel pin or by how many guns they own or even by how loud they chant “USA” at an NFL game — GMO-injected hot dog and Budweiser in hand. True patriotism factors in the implications of race, gender and the darker history of America. American patriotism is having respect not only toward fellow citizens but toward foreigners alike. That deeper and more profound love of our country requires an understanding that every person born on this earth has equal rights. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,” reads the plaque mounted below the Statue of Liberty.

I don’t disagree with the First Amendment right for many to express their love of America by practically worshipping it like a religion. They must realize, though, that the desire to shut down any form of criticism by patriotically shaming their fellow citizens feels to mirror the early years of Nazi Germany. Our nation is facing a potential replication of history — a replication the world cannot afford and which should be avoided at all costs.

Michael Mordarski can be reached at mmordars@umich.edu.

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