To some, the American flag represents freedom, but the nation’s most enduring symbol is taking on partisan significance.Photograph by M. Scott Brauer / Redux

Most mornings, Jim Carr parks his Ford S.U.V. on a remote interstate overpass in the unincorporated community of Agate, Colorado. The view from the bridge is brown prairie: stacks of spooled hay, an abandoned backhoe. The blades of a sprawling turbine farm turn slowly in the distance. Carr’s vehicle is unmistakable: several years ago, he had the exterior covered in a vinyl “skin” made from a super-enlarged color image of an American flag.

Carr, who is in his early seventies, had spent hours searching the Internet for a flag photograph with just the right “flow.” To the skin he added medallions (“VIETNAM VETERAN”) and decals (“NEVER FORGET”). Above his “Purple Heart” license plate, he attached small replicas of the combat medals he said he received for serving in Vietnam, in 1968 and 1969, as a member of the 82nd Airborne; these include the Bronze Star and the Army infantryman medal, which is conferred on soldiers who fight the enemy closely enough, as Carr puts it, to “look him in the eye.”

One recent morning, traffic zoomed along I-70—eastbound to Kansas City, westbound to Denver. Carr, who has white hair and watery blue eyes, had on jeans and a T-shirt that referenced a benefit for veterans. Holstered on his left hip was a Colt nine-millimeter handgun—Colorado is an open-carry state. He raised the rear hatch of the S.U.V. and removed twenty-nine large flags, each of which was attached to a pole made of P.V.C. pipe. Most of these were American flags, but there were also banners honoring prisoners of war and law-enforcement officers. Carr went up and down the bridge, affixing the flags to either side of the overpass, where they lifted and flapped in the wind.

The array was an arresting sight for such a drab stretch of interstate. Motorists could see Carr sitting at the tailgate of his S.U.V., in a camp chair, waving. Draped over the back of the chair was his black-leather motorcycle vest, which was crowded with patches—“Brothers Forever,” “PTSD,” “Patriot.” He brought out a coffee thermos and a small Igloo cooler, which held his everyday lunch, a ham sandwich. At his feet sat a storage bin containing some of the Beanie Babies that he once collected by the thousands, as an investment. He now gives the toys to schoolchildren at Christmas and to families who stop by the bridge.

Carr had been flying his flags for the past forty-eight days, yet he still could not understand why some passersby gave him the finger. He owned an enormous “TRUMP 2020” banner but chose not to fly it for fear of appearing “political”—the country had become “so divided,” he told me, adding, “America is just so mad.”

The “Blue Lives Matter” banner he displayed—a modified American flag with one blue stripe, honoring the police—no doubt angered those who favor “defunding“ law-enforcement agencies. The idea of demanding greater police accountability had intensified since the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Yet Carr assumed that the flag that he had worn into combat was mutually understood as a symbol of national unity. He said, “These flags represent freedom.”

When Carr was in the eleventh grade, in Georgia, he dropped out of school and ran away: “I didn’t like home life. I had four sisters—I couldn’t get along with anybody.” Enlisting in the Army straightened him out. “If I hadn’t went into the Army I’d probably be in a chain gang somewhere—in prison or something—because I was mean.”

After the war, Carr came home “messed up.” He told me, “I couldn’t get nothing organized.” He tried nursing school, but he quit and eventually became a self-employed electrician, preferring the solitary work of fixing other people’s homes. He got married and raised three children. (“And none of  ’em’s in jail.”)

Around 2005, Carr saw news reports that members of Westboro Baptist Church, a Christian splinter group in Topeka, were demonstrating at military funerals. The church members equated U.S. casualties in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with divine punishment for America’s tolerance of homosexuality. Their protest signs said, “GOD SENT THE IEDs” and “PRAY FOR MORE DEAD SOLDIERS.”

Outraged veterans started showing up at the funerals en masse, on motorcycles, to provide protection and emotional support to the families of the dead. They flew American flags on their choppers and drowned out protestors’ chants by revving their engines. These counter-demonstrators became the Patriot Guard Riders, a nonpartisan group with chapters nationwide. The Riders required only that members demonstrate “unwavering respect for those who risk their very lives for America’s freedom and security.” An early leader once said, “We show families in grieving communities that America still cares.”

Carr joined the Riders around 2015. Honoring fellow-veterans gave him a sense of purpose and peace. He attended up to six funerals per week, driving as far as Oklahoma. He traded in his motorcycle, a Can-Am Spyder, for the S.U.V., and planned to devote his retirement to paying tribute to as many veterans and first responders as possible.

When the coronavirus pandemic—“this corona crap”—started, public-safety measures went into effect. The Guardian Riders “mandated everything on us: we have to stay six feet apart, you have to wear a mask, you can’t talk to the family,” Carr told me. “I said, ‘You know what? You take your regulations and shove ‘em up your ass.’ ” After Carr quit the Riders, he thought, “Now what the hell am I gonna do?” He said that God then told him, “Find a bridge and set your flags.”

Colorado, with a population of nearly six million, has been called a political microcosm of America: voters almost evenly represent Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. The state voted Republican in six of the ten past Presidential races, but urban voters in Denver and Boulder pushed the past three elections to the Democrats. Hillary Clinton narrowly defeated Trump in Colorado, in 2016. Polls show Joe Biden with a double-digit lead there. The former governor, John Hickenlooper, the Democratic challenger to Republican Senator Cory Gardner, who is running for reëlection, stands a strong chance of flipping the seat and, potentially, control of the Senate.

Carr was an ardent Trump voter in Trump country, an hour east of Denver. But on the bridge he occasionally felt lonely and glum. “The first thing I get is people flipping me off, and not blowing their horn and liking what I’m doing,” he said, on the morning that I met him. One of his largest signs clearly stated the spirit of his mission: “SALUTE TO AMERICA.” Despite his fixed income, Carr had commissioned the message and framed it (more P.V.C. pipe). Occasionally, a passerby made a donation that allowed for the upkeep of his solitary operation: a fifty-dollar-bill in a thank-you card, a wadded-up hundred. Carr kept the cash in a Ziploc bag in his vehicle, near a roll of duct tape and another handgun. Whenever he talked about the donations, he got emotional. He said, “We have to stand together!” He seemed to both sense and reject the idea that Trump has made it hard to do that.

The town of Palm Beach, Florida, limits its flagpoles to a height of forty-two feet, and its flags to four-by-six feet. In 2006, Trump, at his private club there, Mar-a-Lago, erected a flagpole that stood eighty feet tall. He raised a flag that measured at least fifteen-by-twenty-five feet—a square footage greater than that of some New York City apartments. Neighbors complained; Trump defied municipal orders to scale back, then sued the town for twenty-five million dollars, claiming infringement of his constitutional and civil rights. He reportedly argued that he needed such a mammoth flag in order to “appropriately express the magnitude” of his “patriotism.”

More than a hundred thousand dollars in municipal fines accrued. The press reported that Trump ultimately agreed to shorten the flagpole by ten feet and relocate it to a less visible spot, and to give a hundred thousand dollars to charitable causes, including a veterans’ organization. The Washington Post revealed, in 2016, that he paid these expenses using money from a nonprofit foundation funded with other people’s donations. The arrangement may have violated laws prohibiting “nonprofit leaders from using charity money to benefit themselves or their businesses,” the newspaper noted.

In 2016, the N.F.L. player Colin Kaepernick declined to stand for the pre-game playing of the national anthem, saying that he could not “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.” Trump won praise from his political base by condemning Kaepernick as un-American.

In 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia, a white-supremacist rally featured the American flag, but most of the marchers carried Confederate flags and swastika banners. After one of the white supremacists plowed his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of peaceful protesters, killing one of them, Heather Heyer, the far right appeared to rebrand, according to Bethan Johnson, a University of Cambridge scholar and a fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. Calling the rally “a catalyst for rapid change within the overall politics of flag-waving in the radical right,” she noted that some members of the far right were rejecting swastikas in favor of the American flag, perhaps partly so that any attack on them would appear to be an assault on the United States itself. Johnson wrote, “Scientists have found that Americans report to feel a sense of pride and reverence towards the American flag and, vicariously perhaps those who walk beneath it. In fact, so sanctified is the idea of the flag that the American government has codified regulations regarding the display of national flags, going so far as to state that the American flag not only represents America, but ‘is itself considered a living thing.’ ” One white nationalist had said, “If an American flag can draw more people close enough to hear our message, it is our duty to make use of that tool.”

This past February, Trump, while on stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference, crudely hugged and kissed an American flag while mouthing the words, “I love you, baby.” In June, it was reported that his Administration had relocated the P.O.W./M.I.A. flag from atop the White House to a less prominent position, angering advocates for prisoners of war and military service members missing in action. The Democratic senator Jack Reed used the opportunity to point out that Trump had no trouble promoting the Confederate flag.

Recently, Trump suggested a mandatory year in jail for anyone who desecrates the flag. (Burning or otherwise desecrating the flag is protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution, which Trump had cited in his defense of the flag at Mar-a-Lago.) In August, Trump held the final night of the Republican National Convention, for the first time American history, at the White House; aides built a stage on the South Lawn and loaded it with fifty-four American flags.

Throughout the summer, flag-decked Trump flotillas coursed down rivers, and across lakes. On Etsy, venders sold American flags superimposed with Trump’s name and face, and with such messages as “Trump 2020: Fuck Your Feelings” (sixteen dollars) and “FUCK TRUMP: If you like Trump, well fuck you too” ($19.99). At the enormous Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, in Rapid City, South Dakota, in July, one local resident, Joe Lowe, was bothered to see such vulgar manipulation and misappropriation of the nation’s symbol. “It’s just disrespectful,” he told a news station. “My dad died for the country and my uncle died on the battlefield. They fought for the county, for the United States of America, not the United States of Trump.”

Jim Carr, on an interstate in Agate, Colorado, where he has set up an array of American flags and banners honoring prisoners of war and law-enforcement officers.Photograph by Paige Williams

The flag has represented different ideas at different times in American history: during the Revolution, it was a sign of radical democracy, though the eagle was the more dominant emblem; in the eighteen-forties, it stood for anti-immigration politics; during the Civil War, it was used by both anti- and pro-slavery causes; in the eighteen-nineties, the Pledge of Allegiance was created, and waves of immigrants were given flags as part of their “Americanization”; during the Vietnam era, it was seen as a pro-war symbol. Immediately after 9/11, the flag had a more unifying presence; with the invasion of Iraq, during the Presidency of George W. Bush, it also became synonymous with the U.S. military.

In 2003, Woden Teachout, a graduate student at Harvard who was finishing her doctorate in American studies, took an American flag to a protest of the Iraq War, in Montpelier, Vermont. Teachout, who was with her sisters, Zephyr and Dillon, noticed that the other demonstrators couldn’t figure out whether she was “part of the protest or a counter-demonstration.” Teachout later said that for her the flag was “a symbol of democracy—people in the streets, talking to their government,” but that others were using it as “a very strong pro-war symbol.”

Teachout, who now teaches at the Union Institute and University in Cincinnati, wrote a book, “Capture the Flag: A Political History of American Patriotism,” exploring how the American flag “moves from one meaning to another.” She noted that during the civil-rights movement, Medgar Evers gave American flags to six hundred schoolchildren in Jackson, Mississippi, where he was the state field secretary for the N.A.A.C.P. Marching through town, the students met a line of police officers, sheriff’s deputies, and state troopers, who took the flags. The sight of American flags ultimately discarded “in the dust and in the dirt” became a powerful symbol, Teachout said, of how Black citizens’ “American rights had been trampled throughout the segregated South.”



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