Can The American Flag Be Reclaimed From Trump? It’s Complicated

Photo: Erin Scott/Bloomberg/Getty Images.
When Sharron Paul, a New York-based writer, actress, and comedian, heard that Donald Trump had lost the presidency, a huge smile plastered itself across her face for the rest of the day. Nothing could disrupt it — even the sight of something that had become more and more disturbing to her over the last few years: people in the streets, jubilantly waving the American flag. 
Throughout the administration of President Donald Trump, whenever Paul saw someone waving the American flag, she says it felt "threatening and mocking to anyone who didn't subscribe to a 'MAGA' attitude." But, Paul tells us, on Saturday, everything changed. "Right before Kamala Harris took the stage, reality finally hit me — a Black woman is really about to be the Vice President of the United States. Seeing the crowd hanging out of their cars, waving their flags with joy, didn't disturb me," she shares. "I realised it was the first time I ever recall feeling that way."
Under Trump and his "America First" rhetoric, the American flag — already an inherently problematic symbol of nationalism — had become further twisted thanks to its embrace by fascist fringes within our political landscape as an emblem for Blue Lives Matter. But as Democrats took to the streets across nearly all major US cities this weekend and the audience cried as Harris spoke directly to Black women in her victory speech, the American flag was reclaimed by many of the same people who have avoided looking at it for the last four years. Paul says, "I saw genuine joy emitting from those people waving their flags." And she’s not the only one. 
"The flag doesn't belong to one party over another, it belongs to all of us," Dana Piccoli, editor in chief of Queer Media Matters, tells Refinery29. But, she acknowledges, it hasn't felt that way since Trump was elected. "There was a feeling in the last four years, at least to me, that the flag represented an America that wasn't unified. An America that wanted to isolate itself from our allies, that didn't represent freedom and equality for all citizens." For Piccoli, it was also Biden and Harris' victory speeches that brought those feelings into focus. "I didn't realise how much it would mean to me to see that little pin on Biden's lapel or the flag waving in the background. It felt like this precious thing had once again been given to all the people," she says. "I felt proud of my country again. I felt like I could hold my head high again for the first time in a long time."
Feeling pride in America again was something echoed by Paul, who recalls the time during Barack Obama's initial campaign for president in 2008 when Michelle Obama was criticised when she said: "For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback." Paul says, "It was controversial to so many people, but I don't think many Black Americans took any issue with it. It felt like a matter of fact."
Christie Hudson, a Seattle native, who is currently based in a red county outside Houston, TX, noticed an immediate shift in how she viewed the American flag after Biden was announced as the projected winner on Saturday. In her neighbourhood, flags were popping up everywhere. She actually tried keeping count, spotting 18 in just a minute of driving. "If the election's outcome had turned out differently, I would view those flags as ominous, threatening, but instead, I felt immense joy and pride," she shares. 
Hudson says she's now looking forward to that renewed feeling of hope when she sees the American flag since she no longer associates it with "extremist Trump supporters who used it as a symbol that only protects and represents those who look and think like them." Piccoli is also ready to re-embrace the flag because it reminds her of the progress our nation is capable of. "After DOMA was struck down, I started seeing a lot of Pride flags waving alongside American flags. It gave you serious 'we the people' feels. Like, now these two things were connected. My queerness and my humanness were finally really being recognised by my country," she says. Seeing the rainbow flag next to the red, white, and blue once again on Saturday was so moving for Piccoli and her wife that they decided they would hang both up outside their home. "To me, it's a way of saying, 'I am here, I am an American, I am a proud LGBTQ person, and the two things exist together.'"
Not everyone, though, is ready to display the flag yet; even if the shadow of hatred that's hung over it these past four years has been lifted, it's still complicated. Paul says her feelings toward the cloth symbol have shifted a little, but she won't be going out of her way to embrace it. "You won't find me wearing a red, white, and blue evening gown anytime soon. I may just be slightly less wary when I see one in someone's yard, car, or on their sleeveless tee. Maybe," she explains. "I don't foresee myself doing any reclaiming."
The truth is the flag's association with oppression started well-before Trump became president, and it has echoes of America's colonialist, expansionist, and racist history embedded within its stars and stripes. The Proud Boys and Boogaloos definitely aren't the first groups to commit hate crimes underneath it, and they probably won't be the last. Vatika, an artist known online as @pLbble, says their feelings toward the American flag have gone unchanged since the election. "Although it's nice to see the left and Democrats trying to reclaim the flag, it doesn't change the systematic oppression that still exists under it," they share. "The flag is supposed to symbolise unity and justice, but where was the unity and justice these last four years and even before Trump's presidency?"
Biden's win will not erase the times white nationalists terrorised people — especially within marginalised communities — under the flag in recent years. His victory doesn't magically break down the racist systems upon which our country was built. The American flag hasn't been a symbol of hope for many people for a long time now, so is there any real chance that might change? 
For some, the answer to that is clear. "I feel very uneasy whenever I see the American flag emoji in someone's Twitter bio or name. Does that individual actually believe in unity or is it a warning to minorities like me that the individual may be against us? From my experience, it's always the latter," says Vatika. "I will not accept the American flag until true justice is served for all the Black lives that have been murdered by the police who have this exact flag on their uniform, until Indigenous Americans get their land back, until immigrants don't have to struggle just to seek asylum, until the LGBT+ community has full rights, until women and femme-aligned individuals can choose what they want to do with their bodies. I will wait for the country to truly unify before ever flying a flag myself."
But for others, even if they don't have any plans to display the flag themselves, they understand those who have the impulse to do just that. "More power to those that do," Paul says. "I have no intention of ordering a giant Old Glory off of Amazon. I have an American flag bandana somewhere in my home that I've worn as part of a costume for a Fourth of July show. Maybe I'll unbury it for another show in the future."

More from Living

R29 Original Series