On the Uses of Symbols in Politics

There was a time, not so very long ago, when the sight of the stars and stripes filled me with pride….

Um, that’s bullshit. The American flag hasn’t inspired me to pride since Dwight David Eisenhower inserted the two words, “under God” into the pledge of allegiance in 1954. I was only SIX but that change still infuriated me, as it has ever since, because I knew that the god to which the pledge referred wasn’t the same god I didn’t worship.

Since 1954, I have NEVER recited the pledge of allegiance, sometimes avoiding meetings where I knew the pledge would be recited.

When you make a pledge of allegiance to anything, you only need to make it once because a pledge, once pledged, remains in force for the rest of your life. Forcing children to repeat the pledge on a daily basis is brainwashing, pure and simple, but it only works on people who believe in a certain kind of God.

In recent years, beginning in 2016, my attitude toward the flag has changed from mild annoyance to violent hatred. That’s when Trump started wrapping himself in the flag (both metaphorically and physically) to indicate his tight bond with America.

I don’t hate America. I love America fervently. I hate most symbolic representations that divide societies against themselves and citizens against each other.

The American flag has been adopted as a symbol by the Christian Right which, in my opinion, is nothing other than Nazism Reborn. There are now multiple versions of the Stars and Stripes, each of which has been adopted and promoted by a different group of haters.

There’s the black and blue version, which is often seen flying from the tail beds of over-sized pickup trucks, along with a Trump Banner from 2016, 2020, or 2024. The sight of those two banners together has polluted the purity of the Stars and Stripes forever for me.

Looking back through history, there’s a long list of symbols that have been used in war and politics that have lost their allure over the years for some people, while others consider them incentives to riot or to beat other people up.

The War Banners of the Israelites

You might think that the war banners of the ancient Israelites would have been in embossed with emblems such as the Menorah or the Mogan Dovid (Star of David), but those symbols only intersected with the Israelites much later on in their saga. Instead, each of the 12 tribes had its own banners. (For a detailed explanation follow this link although I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the material.)

The Christian War Banner

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Christians have used the Cross as their war banner for almost 1600 years, with different denominations using different motifs that incorporate the cross into the design.

Islamic Symbolism

You might guess that the armies of Islam used the crescent moon and star as their war banner and, in more recent centuries, they have done that, but Mohammad’s own armies following a plain black banner without ornamentation, or so we are told.

Greek Shields

Spartan wives used to send their husbands off to war, telling them to return with their shields…or on them. Each of the ancient Greek city-states had their own unique emblems worked into the shields, and there are several versions for some of the cities.

The Roman Eagle

The Roman Eagle was famous. Wherever the eagle went, civilization – the Roman version of civilization – followed. Each legion carried its golden eagle at the head of their column, and woe betide the general who did not come back with his eagle intact.

The Roman Fasces

The Roman Eagle was a purely military symbol. The Roman Fasces was both military symbol and a symbol of civilian authority dating back to the Roman Republic. The Fasces (which appears on the obverse of the US Mercury dime) was a bundle of sticks tied together with the Roman battle axe, which was the symbol of magisterial authority…and the symbol that Benito Mussolini adopted for his Fascist party, taking the name of the symbol as the basis for the party’s name.

The Nazi Swastika

Adolf Hitler was big on symbols. He liked them because, as Edward Bernays pointed out, symbols convey large amounts of information very efficiency once the symbol becomes widely recognized. He adopted the swastika because there are examples of the 15,000 year old symbol in 6th century German pottery. There are associations with the swastika in virtually every culture that has ever existed. (In fact, 1st century Jews were known to use the symbol in their ceramic tile work.) There was persistent myth in the Third Reich that the ancient Aryan people (who actually might never have existed) had migrated from Germany to Greece, which was why amateur German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann found them when he thought discovered the ancient city of Troy in 1871. (The city he discovered wasn’t actually Troy of Achilles, Ulysses and Homer; he was in the right place but on the wrong level.)

The Rising Sun of Japan

The Japanese name for Japan is Nippon (or Nihon), which literally mean “source of the sun” and their naval battle flag – the red disc with sixteen red rays emanating from the disc became one of the most hated symbols to come out of World War II,  The modern country’s national flag is a simple red disc on a white background, to distinguish it from the various versions of the Japanese battle flag (the Japanese Army’s battle flag only has eight rays) that raise extreme resentment in the countries that Japan overran during the Second World War. Today, the battle flag is sometimes associated with right-wing groups in Japan.

The Allies Had No Unifying Symbol

During World War II, there was no symbol for Allied soldiers operating together. Each country adopted its own identification badges. American troops adopted arm patches based on the American flag, beginning with the North African campaign. The decision to adopt the battle flag patch was apparently made by individual commanders. The only system wide symbol was the US badge with the letters U and S in a circular badge worn on one shoulder. The unit badge was usually worn on the other shoulder. By the Korean War, the flag shoulder patch was standardized on battle and dress uniforms.

The Republican Elephant and the Democratic Donkey

Republicans and Democrats have two time-honored emblematic symbols, both of which are becoming less frequently used.

The Democratic Donkey dates back to the election of 1828 that pitted incumbent John Quincy Adams against Andrew Jackson, the standard bearer for the new Democratic party. Adams repeatedly referred to Jackson as a “Jackass,” punning against his opponent’s last name. Jackson turned the slur around, embracing it and referring to himself and his followers as having the strength of mules, and Democrats have been associated with donkeys ever since.

Cartoonist Thomas Nash revived the use of the donkey emblem attacking President Grant announced intention to run for a third term…but he used an elephant to represent Grant as a fumbling, bumbling and clearly exhausted candidate. He depicted the Democrats as a donkey wearing a lion’s skin seemingly poised to kick Grant’s elephant off the cliff he was on. (Nash, a staunch Republican himself, apparently didn’t believe that anyone should have more than two turns…or, perhaps, the staunch opponent to Reconstruction might have believed that the only way to get rid of Reconstruction would be to get rid of Grant, which might have been true. Grant didn’t run again, and Reconstruction came to an end.)

Today’s Republicans explain that their mascot represents “intelligence, dignity and strength.” Democrats aver that their mascot represents “work, diligence, and humbleness,” although neither characterization lines up well with the modern versions of those parties which might better be described as “lawless outlaws” or “arrogant intellectuals.” (You can decide which description applies to which party, because you really can’t go wrong either way.)

Seriously, how serious can you get about a political party whose time honored symbol is a donkey or, in other words, a horse’s ass.

Let’s face it. The Republicans have the strong (well as strong as an elephant, as the saying goes), wise old elephant who never forgets. The Democrats have a donkey or a mule, which doesn’t inspire patriotism, courage, self-assurance or any other positive attribute.

Let’s be fair to the donkey. Donkeys are amazing animals. Smart, affectionate, strong, durable, surefooted and nimble…but they don’t symbolize strength or courage. (Ever heard of Hannibal’s war elephants? Ever heard of a war donkey?)


Candidates have been selling straw hats with their names on them for more than 150 years, but the MAGA hat is something new.

The acronym for “Make America Great Again” was always annoying to me because America is exactly as great as it ever was, greatness being a combination of the natural resources we enjoy, the unique geography of the country, the inventions we invented, the industries we created, the discoveries we have found, the wars we have waged, the diseases we have conquered, and the culture we have built together.

Well, America was great until Donald Trump got his hands on us, because, in order for his slogan to make any sense, he had to convince America that we aren’t as great as we used to be. In other words, he had to tear us down in order for his campaign slogan to make any sense, which means he had to lie a lot, something he continues to do on an hourly basis around the clock, day after day. It has become a standard element in his rhetoric that America ain’t what it used to be, ignoring the fact that America today is better than yesterday’s America but isn’t as good as tomorrow’s America will be, unless Trump wins re-election.

The MAGA caps perform two very important functions for Trump.

Wearing the MAGA caps identifies Trump followers to each other at a single glance, like a red badge of courage, without the actual blood. This identification builds up the Trumpers’ self-confidence because there is safety in numbers. Coincidentally, the red caps make it difficult to get an accurate headcount of the attendance at Trump’s rallies because they create a group identity that belies the range of opinions represented by the attendees.

At the same time, those MAGA caps – along with the flags, banners, and bumper stickers – intimidate people who are opposed to Trump, in the same way that openly carrying firearms intimidates other citizens who are not armed. People of color, immigrants, sexually diverse people, people who face physical and mental challenges are all intimidated by those fucking MAGA caps UNLESS the person wearing the cap matches one or more of their own “deviant” characteristics, which is not likely to happen all that often.

The widespread, grassroots efforts at voter intimidation can be seen quite clearly when you start counting bumper stickers and yard signs for Biden, because there are virtually none of either out there….but there are plenty of Trump banners and Trump stickers. Since it is clear that at least 70 million people intend to vote for Biden, it is also clear that many of them feel intimidated by the Maga Maggots.

Mailers, Bumper Stickers and Yard Signs

We have a municipal election coming up next week, and the yard signs are all over the place….for the mayoral and city council candidates, but not for Biden or Trump. (The presidential lineups have already been lined up.) As a matter of fact, candidates for local office often do not identify themselves as Republicans or Democrats.

In fact, on the basis of my own informal survey, bumper stickers and yard signs have lost their appeal. No one wants to drive around with a Biden-Harris bumper sticker for fear that something might happen to their car, either in the supermarket parking lot or while they are actually in it…but I’m not seeing very many Trump stickers either.

Biden voters are afraid of being targeted by Trump voters, but Trump voters aren’t afraid of those weak-kneed Biden voters (although we are seeing fewer Trump stickers recently.)

Democrats are afraid. They are afraid of Republicans and they are specifically fearful of MAGA Republicans…and those fears are not unfounded.

If you pat down a MAGA partisan, you’re liable to find a couple of guns, some extra magazines, brass knuckles, switchblade knives. Now, in most cases, the MAGA person who confronts you might not be armed, but you have no way of knowing that.

If you pat down a Democrat (present company excepted), all you’re going to find is some lint in their pockets because not only do Democrats not carry firearms, they also discourage the carriage of firearms. It’s one of the biggest issues that Democrats are going to have to come to terms with this year, along with abortion, immigration, and woke-ism.


“EMBLEM” politics is a bad thing, because it reduces the political discourse to the level of epithets and name calling. If everyone would simply stop using them (which obviously isn’t going to happen) we might be more able to see each other as people, rather than enemies.