Olympic gold medalist Lindsey Vonn is a liberal. That’s why it was easy this week for a CNN interviewer to steer the skier into a comment dismissive of President Trump. Vonn was asked what it would be like at the Winter Olympics in South Korea to represent an America run by President Trump. Vonn replied that she hoped “to represent the people of the United States, not the president.” She later said that she wouldn’t attend a White House ceremony with other Olympic athletes, much as Boston Patriots quarterback Tom Brady declined to visit President Obama’s White House in 2015.
“I’m not trying to be negative in any way,” Vonn insisted later. “I’m trying to be positive.” but that’s not what Trump supporters heard. Fox News host Ainsley Earhardt called Vonn’s stance “very un-American.” Conservative commentator Tomi Lahren went further:
What about the Americans who are Trump supporters or who voted for President Donald Trump? Are we not Americans? Does she not want to represent us? I think that these athletes . . . say things that not only disrespect the president of the United States, but disrespect so many Americans that are supporting the president, that are supporting their country. It’s like Patriotism is so foreign to them, they just can’t stand it.
I disagree. While I certainly wouldn’t join Vonn in boycotting a White House invitation were it ever offered to me, Vonn’s attitude is in line with one of the finest traditions in American history: the belief that the nation and its government aren’t always the same thing.
Vonn seemed to be reaching for that when she said:
I take the Olympics very seriously and what they mean and what they represent, what walking under our flag means in the opening ceremony. I want to represent our country well. I don’t think that there are a lot of people currently in our government that do that.
Having spent some of my childhood in Europe, I have long observed a fundamental distinction between how most Europeans feel about their government and how most Americans do. In Europe, public opinion tends to conflate the nation and the state. People see the state or government as speaking for the entire country and acting on its behalf.
Of course, Americans are rightly compelled by our government to obey its laws, and most are inclined to support the nation in a time of war. But Americans also have a great deal of skepticism about the government and doubt whether it has only the interests of the country at heart and should automatically be believed.
Americans have a great deal of skepticism about the government and doubt whether it has only the interests of the country at heart.
The American Revolution established a country that was supposed to have a limited government deriving its powers from the people. The people had inherent rights, and the Tenth Amendment especially makes clear that many rights not listed in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights are reserved to the states that created the federal government. The Founders wanted the Constitution to protect the people from an overbearing or abusive government such as the one they had just fought to separate from — Great Britain. The people were viewed as a distinct entity, separate from the individuals temporarily charged with administering the government. As blogger Josh Loposer of Absolute Rights observed in 2012:
Americans are great people. By and large, Americans are smart, innovative, caring, and generous. What’s more, the vast majority of us are honest.
But can any of these same things be said of our government? I think you know the answer to that already. . . .
The government and the people (the country if you will) are two entirely separate entities, with separate rules and separate objectives.
We, as Americans, produce wealth; the federal government takes it. Washington, D.C., has even become America’s wealthiest city. What is it that they produce there again? Oh that’s right, commerce-killing bureaucracy.
So how have our political leaders been able to peddle their lies so successfully for so long?
The answer to Loposer’s question is that so many of us are indoctrinated on an almost daily basis in the belief that the nation and the government in Washington are the same. Federal employees are told that their actions aren’t just legal but are for the common good and that only knaves and malcontents would question what they do. Public schools no longer teach civics or much history about the Founding.
In his farewell address before he left office in 1989, Ronald Reagan presciently warned:
We’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important. . . . I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual.
In the more than quarter-century since Reagan issued his warning, the situation in schools has only gotten worse. Not only are young adults completely unaware of how our founding documents were steeped in the idea of a limited government, they often don’t realize that the people are supposed to be sovereign over that government.
No one can know what Ronald Reagan would have thought about Lindsey Vonn’s comments, but those I’ve talked to who knew him well believe that he wouldn’t have been at all offended. The late Peter Hannaford, a longtime Reagan speechwriter, once told me:
Reagan always believed in country first, the federal government second. For him, the common sense of the American people should inform the government not the other way around.
Somehow I think Reagan would have laughed off Lindsey Vonn’s refusal to visit the White House, while agreeing with her that her primary responsibility at the Olympics is to represent the people of the United States — not the occupant of the White House.
— John Fund is NRO’s national-affairs correspondent.