Trump weaponized the American flag. Will it ever be a unifying symbol

This previous weekend, Individuals all throughout the nation flew the American flag in celebration of July 4th. It’s a shared symbol of our nation’s freedom, however the that means behind the stars and stripes is more and more fragmented.

Once I have a look at the flag, as a designer, I see a assortment of visible parts: stars, stripes, colours in an asymmetrically designed composition. It’s a piece of graphic abstraction—it conveys concepts moderately than occasions or objects. As we’re taught in grade faculty, the stars symbolize the 50 states and the stripes symbolize the 13 authentic colonies. Nonetheless, that’s typically the place our shared settlement on its that means ends.

[Photo: Getty]

Folks interpret the flag and reply to it as far more than the strains, shapes, colours, and geometric composition convey. It doesn’t have one goal that means—aside from symbolizing “America”—however as a substitute, welcomes interpretations and permits everybody to infuse it with their very own perspective. The constellation of stars and stripes will stay constant, however we’re the ones who apply that means to them.

The primary iteration of the flag was created throughout the American Revolution, designed to represent a courageous, fledgling Republic preventing for her independence. 13 colonies, striving for his or her unity as one nation and preventing for freedom from England. Since then, the American flag has all the time communicated a message of power throughout wartime. Take into account the iconic picture of American troopers elevating the flag on Iwo Jima. Throughout each battle the United States has been a a part of, the flag has conveyed a nation united in opposition to overseas enemies, upholding the virtues codified in our Structure.


All through historical past, the flag has been burned in protest, heralded throughout Olympics, draped over coffins, and used to assert victory in wartime. It lives on bumper stickers, lapel pins, place mats, T-shirts. It has turn into a commercialized symbol, mass produced at scale for particular person use. It flies at roadside relaxation stops, hangs on porches throughout America, and for these with distinctive dedication, is tattooed on their our bodies.

[Photo: iStock]

This yr marks 20 years since 9/11. In the years following the assault, the American flag was in all places, particularly in New York Metropolis. There have been a number of flags on each block, hanging from stoops, blowing from brownstone home windows. It carried the similar that means in the West Village of Manhattan as it did in Wyoming, Wisconsin, or Wetumpka, Alabama. Folks flew the flag in assist of the lives misplaced, New York Metropolis’s restoration, and American freedom. It was a symbol of unity and solidarity inside our nation.

A mere 20 years later, the that means of the flag has fractured as soon as once more, its that means illusive. It not capabilities as a unifying system for our nation, however as a method to categorize folks by their political leanings. At his rallies, former President Trump and his supporters waved the flag excessive, whereas railing in opposition to immigrants, threatening the media, and denouncing anybody who didn’t assist them. On one unusual however memorable event, Trump hugged the flag tightly, grinning from ear to ear along with his eyes closed, whereas he kissed it and stated, “I love you, baby.”

Embracing the flag throughout Trump’s presidency may really feel such as you had been additionally embracing his racist, hateful feedback. In 2019, Republicans had been twice as seemingly as Democrats to say that flying the flag was important to being a good citizen. For a lot of, the flag grew to become a symbol of division.

[Photo: Unsplash]

The flag was outlined via the Flag Decision of 1777 as “13 stripes, alternate purple and white; that the union be 13 stars, white in a blue subject, representing a new constellation.” Purple symbolized hardiness and valor; white symbolized purity and innocence; and blue represented vigilance, perseverance and justice. (It’s additionally value noting that the shade symbolism has morphed over time. Former President Ronald Reagan claimed the purple stands for the blood misplaced from patriots and that each one of the colours symbolize “the qualities of the human spirit that Individuals cherish.”)

There have been no different design tips and no particular visible necessities besides the above language. When you can, think about a world earlier than reproducible imagery, earlier than the Industrial Revolution, earlier than computer systems, earlier than model tips: All the things was made by hand, which by its very nature meant it was unimaginable for any type of mass standardization. This allowed flag makers to provide no matter they needed, so long as it abided by the above language, which led to an abundance of variants throughout this time. The kinds diverged however the that means was the similar: A brand new nation had emerged.

However finally, a standardized flag was wanted to indicate what land, and what ships, belonged to the U.S. Two variations had been developed: one to be used on land and one for at sea. The sequence of purple and white alternated for every design. The naval flag had a purple stripe on prime, which elevated visibility in opposition to the sky for ships at sea. This grew to become the foundation for our current flag. Since then, 37 stars have been added as new states joined the nation. On July 4, 1960, the present iteration of the flag was launched when Hawaii grew to become a state.


[Photo: NASA]

As a designer, I’m reminded that the relationship between visible imagery and its that means is ever evolving, all the time incomplete, and filled with nuance. There isn’t any singular or completed that means to a piece of design. The cross, which is now universally used, was not utilized in the early Christian period, as it was seen as a ugly reminder of execution. The swastika, which is deeply linked to Nazi Germany, is a symbol of divinity in Hinduism and Buddhism to this very day. Earlier than the Nazis claimed it, it as soon as meant good luck.

As an American, I ponder if we’ll ever get to a place the place the that means of the flag can be a number of; the place we will see our full historical past—with our struggling, our failures, and our triumphs—and agree on one factor: that it holds multitudes. Similar to our nation.

Sue Walsh is a principal of design at SYPartners and is on the college at College of Visible Arts in the MFA Design and Persevering with Training Departments.