The Olympics are typically a boom time for jingoism: patriotic fervor heightening among Americans of all stripes with each gold medal for Team USA. But this year, we’ve seen an unlikely faction of Americans rooting against our athletes: conservatives.
During a late July rally, President Donald Trump claimed that “Americans were happy” about the women’s soccer team losing to Sweden — a loss that he blamed on “wokeism” turning the squad “demented.” Tomi Lahren called Team USA “the largest group of whiny social justice activists the Olympics has seen in decades,” accusing them in a Tuesday Fox News segment of engaging in “typical leftist so-called activism.” And after the men’s basketball team lost to France, Newsmax host Grant Stinchfield said he “took pleasure” in their defeat.
“The team is filled with anthem kneelers — and I find it ironic that they’re willing to put USA on their chest when, in the not so distant past, they would kneel for the anthem. Somebody ought to go up there and just rip USA off their chest,” said Stinchfield, who briefly went off the air earlier this year after insinuating that Jewish Americans are foreigners during a monologue.
These attacks on Team USA are not just culture war red meat; they are a reflection of a rising tendency in the conservative movement to reject America itself. In this thinking, the country is so corrupted that it is no longer a source of pride or even worthy of respect. In its most radical versions, you even see cheerleading for revolution or civil war.
Conservative anti-Americanism still pays lip service to love of country: Its proponents declare themselves the true patriots, describing their enemies as the nation’s betrayers. But when the cadre of traitors includes everyone from election administrators to Olympians to the Capitol Police, it becomes clear that the only America they love is the one that exists in their heads. When they contemplate the actual United States — real America, if you will — they are filled with scorn.
“They see no role or place for themselves in America now,” says Paul Elliott Johnson, a communications professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies conservative rhetoric.
What’s striking about this strain of anti-American thought is how pervasive it is. Naturally, you frequently hear versions of it from rank-and-file conservatives and the carnival barkers of the right-wing echo chamber — but it doesn’t stop with them. Its most refined and troubling versions come from the highbrow thinkers of the Trumpist right; leading conservative politicians put their stamps on it.
While not entirely new — this has been bubbling up for years now, especially since Trump’s rise — the recent flare-up amid the Olympics and the January 6 hearings only underscores that influential elements of the American right seem past beyond the point of no return. These conservatives do not believe in sharing America with those who disagree with them. Forced to confront the country’s political diversity in the Biden era, they are choosing to turn on America rather than accommodate themselves to its reality.
How the right’s hyper-patriotism curdles into anti-Americanism
In the Jewish community, many of us have a suspicion of non-Jews who are a little too outspoken about how much they like Jews. These “philo-Semites” often end up being funhouse mirror anti-Semites, spreading stereotypes in the name of praising us. Trump’s infamous comment about Jewish accountants — “the only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes” — is a perfect example.
Conservative anti-Americanism is a little like this. It’s a hyper-patriotism gone sour: a belief in a fictional ideal of a perfect right-wing America that’s constantly betrayed by reality, leading to disillusionment and even disgust with the country as it actually exists.
Trump’s 2016 address to the Republican National Convention, which promised “a straightforward assessment of the state of our nation,” painted a picture of a country on the verge of collapse. “The attacks on our police and the terrorism in our cities threaten our very way of life,” then-candidate Trump said. “Our roads and bridges are falling apart, our airports are in third-world condition, and 43 million Americans are on food stamps.”
This dark depiction of the state of the country has become a hallmark of the Trumpified GOP, and Democrats’ 2020 electoral victories only deepened the conservative sense of betrayal at the hands of their countrymen. In late July, Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance warned that “we have lost every single major cultural institution in this country” — and suggested that America “has built its entire civilization” around selfish, miserable people. Earlier that month, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said “I look at Joe Biden’s America, and I don’t recognize the country that I grew up in.”
The Olympics have brought out this sense of alienation from America on the right. When conservatives see American athletes representing values at odds with their vision for the country, they don’t back Team USA in the name of patriotism — they turn on the icons of the nation itself.
Queer female soccer stars demanding equal pay, Black basketball players kneeling to protest police brutality, the world’s best gymnast prioritizing her mental health over upholding the traditional ideal of the “tough” athlete — this is all a manifestation of the ascendancy of liberal cultural values in public life. And an America where these values permeate national symbols, like the Olympic team, is an America where those symbols are worthy of scorn.
“So much of the self-perception of the American right is about losing the culture war. And that, specifically, is where some of this overt anti-Americanism — especially from the grassroots — is coming from,” says David Walsh, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Virginia who studies the history of the right.
That disdain has also seeped into the right’s recent rhetoric toward an institution that conservatives have typically celebrated: law enforcement.
When Capitol police officers testified to the House about their experiences during the 1/6 attack, ostensibly pro-police conservatives vilified them. Fox’s Tucker Carlson laughed at Officer Michael Fanone’s claim to experience “psychological trauma” after the attack; fellow host Laura Ingraham gave out mock acting awards to the officers, implying their experiences were fake or ginned up.
The willingness to attack police officers who defended an attack on the seat of American government gets at the through-the-looking-glass ugliness of contemporary right-wing patriotism.
Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that leading elected Republicans have “concocted a version of events in which those accused of rioting were patriotic political prisoners and Speaker Nancy Pelosi was to blame for the violence.” Their base is listening: a recent poll from CBS-YouGov found that over half of Trump voters believe it’s appropriate to describe the events of January 6 as an act of “patriotism.”
The intellectual home of the anti-American right
This kind of anti-Americanism isn’t just the province of Fox News provocateurs and base voters. It’s also prevalent in the movement’s most intellectually rarefied corners.
The hub seems to be the Claremont Institute, a think tank based in Southern California, and affiliated institutions like Hillsdale College. Claremont is undoubtedly the most radically pro-Trump of any major right-wing intellectual institution, its thinkers most willing to defend both his presidency and his false claims of a stolen election. Claremont’s output in the past year has been astonishingly radical, all but openly calling for regime change and rebellion.
“Increasingly,” historian Joshua Tait writes in The Bulwark, “these [Claremont] patriots appear to actively hate America and their fellow citizens.”
In a May podcast, Hillsdale College lecturer and former Trump administration official Michael Anton chatted with entrepreneur Curtis Yarvin — a self-described monarchist who wants to appoint a Silicon Valley CEO king of America — about their shared desire to topple what Anton terms the American “regime.”
During the episode, Yarvin muses about how an American strongman — whom he alternatively calls “Caesar” and, more honestly, “Trump” — could seize authoritarian control of the US government by turning the National Guard and FBI into his personal stormtroopers. Critic Damon Linker identifies this politics, which meets with little pushback from Anton, as “broadly coterminous with fascism” — and it’s hard to see where he’s wrong. The pining for a strongman stems from disgust with an America Yarvin and Anton no longer recognize, a country they describe as a “theocratic oligarchy” controlled by a cadre of progressive “priests.”
In the American Mind, Claremont’s blog, writer Glenn Elmers declares that “most people living in the United States today — certainly more than half — are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.” If Trump voters and conservatives do not band together and wage “a sort of counter-revolution” against these “citizen-aliens,” then “the victory of progressive tyranny will be assured.”
Elmers intimates that violence will be a part of this struggle. “Learn some useful skills, stay healthy, and get strong,” he advises his fellow conservatives. “Strong people are harder to kill.”
And an essay in the Claremont Review of Books by scholar Angelo Codevilla describes a country whose government is clinging to “an illusion of legitimacy” after “a half-century of Progressive rule’s abuse” has demolished American society.
“The War on Poverty ended up enriching its managers while expanding the underclass that voted for them. The civil rights movement ended up entitling a class of diversity managers to promote their friends and ruin their opponents,” Codevilla writes. “There is no end to what the Left can do because there is so little that conservatives do to fight back.”
Over email, Tait tells me that Claremont has become the foremost center of anti-American right-wing thinking in large part because of its “sacralized view of American history as an ideal regime.”
Even among conservatives, generally a nostalgic bunch, Claremonters are particularly inclined toward veneration of the unique wisdom of the country’s founders and early America. This makes them particularly inclined towards a sense of political betrayal — and the same kind of hyper-patriotic anti-Americanism that motivates anti-Olympian, pro-Capitol riot punditry.
A sense that the country has strayed because of liberalism has long been a core part of American conservatism. But this idea has become particularly dominant now due to the influence of both the Trump presidency and longer-term trends — most notably demographic change and defeats on culture war fronts like same-sex marriage.
Barack Obama’s 2008 election victory, powered by an expanding minority population and a left-ward tilt among the young, convinced many Republicans that they might well be consigned to permanent minority status. The left’s subsequent total victory in the central culture war topic of the 2000s, same-sex marriage, led many conservatives to believe that they had no power over a culture whose values were tilting inexorably leftward.
Combine all that with liberal dominance in mainstream American culture — Hollywood, media, academia, and even a growing share of corporate America — and you have a recipe for rising conservative alienation from the country they claim to love.
Part of Trump’s political genius was his ability to harness this sentiment among the conservative elite and rank-and-file and make a movement out of them.
There’s a reason that the most famous intellectual case for Trump is Anton’s “Flight 93” essay — a 2016 argument that a Trump victory was the only way to avoid national suicide. It revealed the sense of desperation that animates the modern right, a deep-seated fear of losing their country permanently.
During his initial campaign and presidency, Trump tapped into this sentiment by explicitly dividing the country into good Americans that supported him and his people and bad ones that did not. He found that there was a market in his party for a style of politics that eschewed unifying bromides and high-minded patriotism in favor of division and cruelty; he made it okay to say openly that you just hated the other side and didn’t want to share the country with them anymore.
Trump was all the permission that many in the conservative movement needed to finally express what it really felt about the American experiment. After his defeat, the sense of marginalization that animated his original campaign has come roaring back — a feeling of utter alienation manifesting in vicious attacks on the country’s symbols and government.
“For most parts of the right, there was this idea that you could still redeem the country — that you could reverse these long-term trends by political organizing, electing conservatives to political office, etc.,” Walsh, the UVA scholar, tells me. “Today, there is this move away from even the trappings of the American democratic tradition — and I think that is linked to the broader sense that this country can no longer be redeemed.”