WASHINGTON -- Patriotism, Samuel Johnson told us long ago, is the last refuge of a scoundrel. President Donald Trump just made it the last refuge of the jilted.
Here, on the South Lawn of the White House on Tuesday afternoon, there was to have been a celebration honoring the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, but it turned out very few Eagles actually wanted to be celebrated by Trump. So Trump, to spare himself the snub, disinvited the team because, he said, they disagree with him about standing for the national anthem -- even though all members of the Eagles stood for the anthem all season long.
Instead, Trump declared a “Celebration of America.” He ordered the U.S. Marine Band and the U.S. Army Chorus to “loudly and proudly play the national anthem” -- or, presumably, face court-martial if they played pianissimo.
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The result was one of the oddest White House events in recent memory. It lasted six minutes from “Oh, say, can you see” to the last “my home sweet home” in “God Bless America,” and Trump’s three-minute speech was interrupted at the beginning by a heckler.
“Stop hiding behind the armed services and the national anthem to attack your fellow citizens,” called out the man, who had taken a knee. At this point, several booed the heckler, but the confusion created the appearance that the president was being booed.
Trump used his solemn patriotic address to give a campaign speech from the White House: urging the election of a Republican Senate candidate from Pennsylvania, taking credit for low unemployment and boasting that he has the approval of deceased Americans.
After invoking “fallen heroes who never made it back home,” Trump said of those forebears: “Many of them are looking down right now at our country, and they are proud.”
In addition to channeling the dead, Trump channeled monarchs of yore, referring to himself in the third person: “The Philadelphia Eagles * disagree with their president because he insists that they proudly stand for the national anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military,” the man who received five draft deferments said in a written statement.
The real reason for Trump’s cancellation: Few players were planning to come to his party. “It’s a cowardly act to cancel the celebration because the majority of the people don’t want to see you,” tweeted wide receiver Torrey Smith, who played for the Eagles last season. “To make it about the anthem is foolish.”
Championship-winning players have in recent years snubbed both Trump and President Barack Obama by declining White House invitations. But canceling an event because of an anticipated snub is consistent with Trump’s you-can’t-fire-me-because-I-quit approach. He canceled a trip to Britain when it was clear there would be massive protests. He disbanded his corporate advisory councils as chief executives were resigning in droves.
In fairness, though, Trump has a history with eagles. During an August 2015 photo shoot for Time magazine, a 27-year-old bald eagle by the name of Uncle Sam lunged at Trump -- causing Trump to dive out of the frame.
Trump survived that frightening encounter and went on to become the arbiter of who is a patriot. NFL players who take a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality are not patriotic. They are “sons of bitches” who perhaps “shouldn’t be in the country” -- and staying in the locker room during the anthem as the NFL has proposed, Trump proclaimed, is just as bad. (The Eagles players didn’t do that, either.)
Before the event, the White House put out a statement saying “the vast majority of the Eagles team decided to abandon their fans.” But the 1,000 or so who came to the event were a suspicious group of football fans: almost all in business suits and only a few wearing Eagles paraphernalia. One attendee said all workers in the White House complex were invited to attend the event but were told to hide their credentials -- the better to impersonate Eagles fans.
One of the few who did show support for the Eagles was the heckler. “Let’s hear it for the Eagles!” he shouted, as audience members booed him.
The Eagles organization, for its part, shrugged off Trump’s antics, issuing a mild statement saying that “watching the entire Eagles community come together has been an inspiration” and calling an off-season practice for Tuesday.
Essentially, the team just ignored Trump. If only we all could do the same. But it’s hard to fly with the Eagles when the president is acting like a turkey.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.