Photo by Luke Michael

Defining Patriotism

Brennan Randel
4 min readJan 9, 2021


There is no doubt that the occupation of the United States Capitol by pro-Trump insurgents was a planned insurrection, designed to disrupt the 2020 election certification in an ill-fated effort to install President Donald Trump for a second unearned term of office.

The mob, called “American Patriots” by at least one senior government official, delayed the certification to the following day but ultimately failed in preventing it.

The insurgents, unsurprisingly, also considered themselves patriots.

In a piece by The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel admitted to breaching the Capitol and roaming the Senate chamber in tactical gear that included body armor. Lt. Col. (Ret.) Larry Brock, Jr. is an Air Force Academy graduate and combat veteran who thought of himself as someone who deeply loved our country.

“Brock’s family members said that he called himself a patriot, and that his expressions of that identity had become increasingly strident,” wrote Farrow.

The “patriot” moniker confuses me. How could anyone think this band of would-be election marauders are patriots? And further, what exactly makes someone a patriot?

It might be easier to say what isn’t patriotism than what is.

For instance, parading through the Capitol with a Confederate flag? Not patriotism.

Breaching the Capitol and bringing zip-tie handcuffs presumably to abduct elected officials? Not patriotism.

Inciting a crowd outside the Capitol that has been told baseless and disproven lies about the election for months? Not patriotism.

So what, then, is patriotism? I believe we should look to the preamble to the Constitution as our starting point.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

It makes sense to find inspiration in the founding document of our Republic. If our behaviors and pronouncements work to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” then I believe we can rightly call them patriotic.

It follows that certain symbols or acts shouldn’t define patriotism. Traditional symbols of American pride — such as the American flag and the national anthem — can be used by movements that suppress individuals’ rights and promote self-interest instead of the common interest.

Meanwhile, acts of defiance or disrespect towards American symbols and government can be used in pursuit of the ideals enumerated in the preamble. Kneeling for the national anthem, criticizing the federal government, and even violating the law are all acts — depending on one’s goals — that could be considered patriotic.

As I watched the chaos unfold on Wednesday, tears welled in my eyes.

Crying? Over what — some hooligans in the Capitol? Quit it, you baby!

But it wasn’t just some hooligans in the Capitol. As ineffective as it ultimately was, it was still an armed attempt — they brought pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails — to thwart our democracy.

The scene was a jarring visual, representing the deadly consequences of elected leaders lying to constituents to inspire seditious acts. It represented a profound dereliction of the oath of office by unpatriotic Americans.

Our Constitution — including its preamble — is not perfect, and perfect men didn’t draft it. Many Founding Fathers were slaveowners, and slavery was written into our founding document.

But because of patriotic civil rights leaders who bled and died for righteous causes, slavery ended, women were given the right to vote, and Jim Crow laws were overruled. This was made possible because the Constitution gives the people — We, the People — the right to petition the government and fight to form a more perfect union.

Let’s honor these patriotic Americans by standing up for what is right and opposing at every turn those who seek to undermine the rule of law, our democratic principles, and the ambitions laid forth in the introduction to the Constitution.

We can start by telling the truth. Sen. Mitt Romney said it best during his speech opposing his Republican colleagues’ attempt to reject the certified votes submitted by battleground states.

“The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth. That is the burden, and the duty, of leadership.”

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The views expressed are those of Brennan Randel and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or any government agency.



Brennan Randel

“To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”