Opinion

Division in Kansas and the country is on display this Flag Day — a birthday present to Donald Trump

June 13, 2021 3:33 am

President Donald J. Trump on March 2, 2019, at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Oxon Hill, Md. (Official White House photo by Tia Dufour, via Wikimedia Commons)

Monday is Flag Day.

At no time in living memory have flags been more important — or interpreted in such wildly different ways — as they are now in the battle for the political soul of the nation. From the Confederate flags at the “Unite the Right Rally” at Charlottesville in 2017 to random displays of hate in everyday life to the array of banners unfurled at the Jan. 6 insurrection, our passions and prejudices have been waving for the world to see.

I’ve been pondering how these colorful rectangles of cloth can evoke such deference and division.

If you think you’re immune to the power that flags hold over us, I invite you to go stand beneath the flags in the rotunda of the state Capitol at Topeka — or any similar display at state capitols across the country — and not have some reaction to the Stars and Stripes mixed among the others. The rotunda flags represent the European-centric nations or states that have claimed all or parts of what is now Kansas, beginning with the United Kingdom, and going on through France and Spain and Mexico and the Republic of Texas and ending with the 15-star U.S. flag of 1803, which flew at the time of the Louisiana Purchase. There is no First Peoples flag or symbol hanging with the others.

Flags in the rotunda at the Kansas Capitol represent the European-centric nations or states that have claimed all or parts of what is now Kansas. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

Back in civics class in junior high, I learned the U.S. Flag Code says the American flag should be treated as a living thing. It should be displayed only from dawn to dusk, unless proper lighting is available. It should not be worn as clothing, there should be no pictures superimposed on it, and when it’s reached the end of its life, it should be respectfully destroyed, preferably by burning (as opposed to burning it in protest, which in 1989 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a protected form of speech). It is the flag that my father, my uncles and my brother fought for.

While my pride in the American flag has been tempered over the years with shame over the darker periods in our history — that 15-star flag hanging in the rotunda also represents a nation founded on slavery — I still have a visceral reaction to the flag. If it touches the floor, I feel a bit queasy.

I had that same queasy feeling when I watched video footage of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists waving the American flag, among lesser banners, as they violently breached the U.S. Capitol. There were other flags, to be sure, including a Confederate flag that was paraded through the halls by an insurrectionist, many Trump campaign banners, homemade flags with crosses and skulls, and the yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden Flag — which, for $25, you’ll soon be able to get on a Kansas license plate to support a state gun rights group.

Clearly, flags are representative of current events in a way that doesn’t happen unless the nation is in peril. Flags were burned by protestors during the Vietnam War, of course. We rallied behind the Stars and Strips in the aftermath of 9/11, but seldom have our hopes and fears been so sharply defined by the banners we bear.

To come even close, you’d have to go back to at least World War II. That’s when AP photographer Joe Rosenthal, in 1945, took a photo of the flag raising over Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. The news photo is believed to be the most reproduced image in history, giving Americans hope during the hardest days of World War II. Prior to Rosenthal’s photo, you’d have to go all the way back to the Civil War, when our flags stood either for union and equality or slavery and insurrection.

Other flags are important, of course. The rainbow flag fluttered in solidarity from our front porch when same-sex marriage was declared the law of the land by the Supreme Court in 2015, and there’s a flag with a peace symbol hanging in the window of the room where I play my electric guitar.

Then there’s the Kansas flag, which is vexing.

Those who study flags are called vexillologists, and they know good flag design. The North American Vexillogical Association offers five rules: 1) keep it simple; 2) use meaningful symbolism; 3) use two or three basic colors; 4) no lettering or seals of any kind; and 5) be distinctive.

The Kansas flag violates all of them.

First, there’s the seal, and that seal is impossibly complicated. Let’s see, there are bison and First Peoples and a farmer plowing and a cabin and a wagon train. Oh, and there’s a steamboat and, in the background, mountains. While the steamboat and mountains are historically accurate — steamboat landings dotted the Kaw River and originally Kansas Territory ended at the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains in what is now Colorado — they’re just head scratchers to most folks today, and are unjustified as symbols of the state. The seal uses 10 or more colors to accomplish all this heritage celebrating, and throws in the state motto, “Ad Astra Per Aspera,” to boot. If you’re a native Kansan, you probably know what that means. The motto is above 34 — count ’em — stars, because Kansas was admitted as the 34th state. Oh, and there’s a sunflower above the seal.

The Kansas flag was adopted in 1927. It was designed by dressmaker Hazel Avery, who first made the flag for a Fourth of July parade in 1925 in her hometown of Lincoln, in north-central Kansas. In 1961, the explanation “KANSAS” was added at the bottom, to aid the confused.

The Kansas state flag. (Wikimedia Commons)

All of this thinking about flags reminded me of those infamous photos of Donald Trump molesting Old Glory at CPAC in 2019. Obviously, Trump has never read the U.S. Flag Code, because then he would know the flag, as a living thing, is not to be manhandled and slow danced to “God Bless the U.S.A.” The display made me sick, a feeling I experienced often during the Age of Trump. But his followers at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference seemed not the least bit disturbed, and even encouraged the buffoonery.

We should be wary of such dangerous appeals to nationalism, because authoritarians love flag-waving. The very people who are most likely to say the flag is sacred — the GOP, now the Party of Trump — are the ones engineering its desecration by gutting the most precious things it stands for.

Bizarrely, and chillingly, Flag Day is also Trump’s birthday.

If Trump and his vote-suppressing minions in statehouses across the country succeed in dismantling the impartial vote-counting legal machinery that makes democracy possible, what might future Flag Days look like?

Imagine that Trump is “reinstated” as president in August, as he claims will happen. Or that future elections will be decided by partisan third-party vote counters, or that a “Myanmar-style” coup will restore him to power.

Now imagine one more flag rising above capitol domes across the country, a flag that accurately reflects the efforts of Trump and his faithful foot soldiers to reshape America.

The banner would be different from what’s gone before. One of the first things to go would be the blue from the red, white and blue — because, you know. Blue. Too Dem, too liberal. So the canton of blue where the field of white stars resides has to be changed to another color. Red makes sense. Then it will be just the old Red and White, which works for the Party of Trump on a number of levels.

Next there’s the question of all those stars. Just one would make more sense. Remember the rules of vexillology. Simplify, simplify. In the end, the presidential flag commission (a commission of one) might just drop the star completely, because it competes with the only element of the flag that truly matters.

Trump’s face.

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than twenty books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category. Max teaches journalism at Emporia State University.

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