“Don’t Tread on Me!”: A History of Unhealthy Rhetoric

“Don’t Tread on Me!”: A History of Unhealthy Rhetoric

So if you google the history of the “Don’t Tread on Me” symbol and flag (often called the Gadsden flag), as I did last week, you’ll find a wide range of storytelling styles about it—most of which are either right-wing or very right-leaning “moderate” in nature. Today I’m going to unwrap some of these narratives from a rhetorical perspective, take issue with some of these interpretations, and discuss why this flag has been a strongly questionable symbol of militant masculinity from the beginning of this country. I will then talk about why it’s even more questionable in light of recent usages by the alt-right and the Tea Party. And yeah, I’ll also talk about why it’s particularly disturbing to see Christians flying this flag in light of major biblical narratives and themes.

This will take a few minutes to unwrap. Thanks for hanging in there with me.

My Background and Context

So yeah, as a reminder, as always, I’m talking about all of this as a communication professor who grew up as a pastor’s kid in a moderate denomination and now studies and teaches about stress, trauma, and conflict communication. Specifically in this piece, I’ll be drawing on my PhD concentration in narrative theory as well.

 And yeah, I think it’s also important to note going into this that one of my grandmothers traced that side of our family back to the American Revolution well enough to join the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Which is to say that I’m not critiquing a flag that’s traced back to that period as some sort of newcomer to this country, but as someone whose roots here go wayyy back to that time.

Diving into the Disturbing Pro-“Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden Flag Narratives

So yeah, that said, let’s dive into unwrapping this rhetoric about the ways the Gadsden flag. That’s the yellow one with the serpent and the “Don’t Tread on Me” symbol. It was created during the American Revolution, and has more recently been used by the Tea Party, the alt-right Patriot Movement, as well as others in the alt-right.

If you Google this flag’s history, you’ll get a fascinating range of narratives that don’t exactly cover the full continuum. Most of them go (begin sarcasm) ALL THE WAY from alt-right to right-leaning “moderate” (end sarcasm). These latter kinds really support the alt-right in ways the authors may or may not fully understand. The large majority of these, including a piece in the New Yorker from 2016, seem to peddle a sort of bemused narrative about how this quirky political cartoon by Benjamin Franklin got somehow taken over by the Tea Party and the alt-right in recent years.

The conclusions of these narratives vary, but yeah, very few suggest that the flag’s original use in its Revolutionary past should somehow be questioned in any way.

Sooooo Yeahhhh, These Easily-Googled Narratives Are Far from Neutral—and Nor Has the Gadsden Flag Ever Been

Let me—again, me as the first cousin nine times removed of a Revolutionary War patriot, as well as a scholar of stress, trauma, and conflict communication—say that yeah, I do think the Tea Party and their heirs have sort of twisted the narrative, but only a bit. And I don’t think the Gadsden flag was ever as quirky or neutral as it’s made out to be.

In fact, I’m disappointed in the implicit militant masculinity and white supremacy shown even in the false nuance displayed by the New Yorker piece that was published about this in 2016.

Further Up and Further In

But all of this is extremely interesting to me as a scholar even while I’m deeply disturbed by it.

Let me explain (no, wait, there’s too much: let me sum up—sorry, can’t resist a Princess Bride reference!).

See, this flag has been paired with the Confederate flag in recent usages by the alt-right. And many of these easily Googled narratives are pretty clear in acknowledging that the Confederate flag is neither neutral nor positive in its historical underpinnings. But the Gadsden flag is painted more positively in these accounts.

Whitewashing the Gadsden Flag’s Use in the Revolution, as It Were

So yeah, because this flag was created by this country’s founders during the American Revolution—which is seen to be an uncomplicatedly positive thing by most white conservative Americans—this flag is seen to be a happily quirky thing, at least initially.

That’s right—these narratives sometimes even frame it as something to be uncomplicatedly flown with pride—whatever those “negative progressives” might think! (end sarcasm)

The Right-Leaning “Moderate” Views

The more “moderate” (but really right-leaning) narratives, including the New Yorker piece and this one I actually like a bit better from a publication in Montana, frame it as something that was initially just fine. These narratives see no problem with the initial idea, which after all is fighting tyranny(!!!). (I talked about this kind of fear of tyranny as present in the Revolution previously here, which I discussed being called a “liberal Nazi” by a site troll a few years back.)

But, you know, this “moderate” narrative continues, thanks to those pesky alt-right extremist folks that have been using it for white supremacist terrorism and such, well… Aw shucks, some of us might not feel comfortable displaying it on our cars and such right now because of that. (insert massive eye roll)

Oh Wait, It’s Always Been About Aggressive Militant Masculinity

So yeah, time to cut through the crap and to the chase here. This symbol has always, going back to Revolutionary times, been a symbol of aggressive militant masculinity.

And, again, I say this as the pretty direct white descendant of Revolutionary war leaders. The Gadsden flag’s not that different from the Confederate flag, which was clearly in its initial documents in white supremacy and slaveholding. The Gadsden flag’s always been about aggressive militant masculinity.

I Mean, It’s a Rattlesnake…

The symbolism is ridiculously clear: it’s a f*cking rattlesnake poised to strike. You simply can’t get a symbol that’s much more viscerally aggressive than that. The fact that the Founders were going off on some sort of “courtesy” inherent in giving a warning doesn’t take away from that.

No Taxation Without (White Male) Representation?

And let’s be clear: from the beginning of the flag’s history, the “me” on the “Don’t Tread on Me” motto referred only to white men. At best, those white men would likely have only included women and Black people by adding a parenthetical statement “(and my property)” in most instances.

It’s ironic: my white male forebears that were here during the Revolution were literally praising those aggressively shouting and throwing tea overboard regarding “no taxation without representation.” But yeah, they really only cared if they, as white (landowning) men got to be represented.

And I haven’t seen that change at all in their claimed heirs on the right.

Ummmm, but White Males Got Those Rights Hundreds of Years Ago—and Still Have Them

So let me be clear: the current Tea Party and alt-right movements have been claiming to inherit these same claims. But here’s the difference. They’re not trying to gain representation, even for themselves (other than through even more aggressive voter suppression and gerrymandering–all super healthy, right???).

See, though: they already have representation. Their original Revolutionary forebears fought for that, parentheticals and all, in the Revolution, and have maintained even the parentheticals sadly well throughout American history.

They have the vote, and the power. And they have had it systemically and politically for a long, long time. And they’re just trying to make sure no one else gets a say. Again, all super healthy, right?

Nope, definitely not healthy.

Sheesh—Not a Good Look When Analyzed

They’re not “the real patriots,” fighting against tyranny, these new right-wing folks.

Even the original Tea Partiers weren’t somehow purely fighting for everyone. But this new strand is even worse, because they already have the rights. They’re just fighting to make sure no one else gets proper equality with them.

<Squints.> I mean, that looks like what the founders did, sort of? But taking out the half-honorable, potentially worth fighting for parts, just leaving the unhealthy abusive parts.

Oops???

Even a Broken Clock…

So yeah, ironically, it seems to be the extremists who have been pairing the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag with the Confederate flag that have been the clearest on at least part of what this flag has meant from the Founding of the United States.

In short, I don’t see it as some sort of twisting of the original flag that extremists have been pairing it with the Confederate flag to denote militant masculinity and white supremacy. I see it as a continuation of the original meaning. Or at least taking the uglier strand of it and running with it.

Not Shocking When It Popped Back Up

And considering the original meaning regarding who was represented and who was not, well: it doesn’t shock me at all that the flag resurged in use by white men after former President Barack Obama was sworn in as the first Black president of the United States.

It doesn’t shock me at all.

The Tea Party’s Gaslighting of Us about Their Motives

And note, I say that as someone who hadn’t previously–at the time the Tea Party started–seen the racial motives behind the movement. See, I’d shifted from my earlier conservative voting conditioning to jump over the line to vote for President Obama. And I had all kinds of issues with the Tea Party’s stubborn refusal to play in the sandbox. But I still swallowed their gaslighting.

I see it now, though, and writing this history has helped the continuity of the symbol’s meaning come more and more clearly into view for me.  

Learning to Shed the Gaslighting of the Abusers

It would be easy, you see, for me, as I was raised, to excuse the terrorist acts this flag has been used for in pairing with the Confederate Flag as signs of extremism.

I know a lot of people who would do that, while saying that the ways it had been used by the more “moderate” political members of the Tea Party were the acts of the more “civil” sides of society. They would say they were sticking up for the “original patriotic rights” of those in mostly rural areas (mostly, admittedly, containing white people, but usually not the *richest* white people, you see!) that were in danger of being “trampled underfoot” by those “dangerous progressives.”

Standing Up for Rural Folks? Who, Wait, Already Have a F*ckton of Voting Power

And see, they would say, the reason we shouldn’t throw out the electoral college is exactly because those rural areas—you know, the ones whose votes for a Senate seat are worth up to 16 times those in some of our biggest cities—are in danger of being “trampled on.”

You know, those cities that contain a lot of minorities because they can only find places there, because of practices of redlining, or feel safe there, because of things like sundown towns and unhealthy policing in “whiter” areas that are often more rural.

Let’s Call It What It Is, Using Terms from Studies of Abuse

And this illustrates the biggest danger I see in the Gadsden flag being used in its newest-but-not-really-new way: it serves to portray white men, who are actually still at the top of the societal heap in so many ways, as victims engaging in reactive abuse.

If you don’t know what reactive abuse is, well—it’s a term from the study of domestic violence. It describes the way that when someone is pushed and pushed and pushed over and over and over again, by a bully and abuser, they will eventually fight back.

Because it’s a natural stress response to eventually fight back when bullied and abused.

Ummmm, No, These Tea Partiers and Alt-Right Folks Aren’t Being Abused by Progressives

But let’s be clear: Black people and women and immigrants, all of whose contributions have always kept this country afloat as much as or more than those of white men, and their allies who form the progressive wings of our politics, are not “abusing” conservative white men by asking for equality. And the original inhabitants of this land, who have been trampled underfoot, most definitely are not.

And people who are actually trying to reach out to fix a few problems we have may not be perfect, and may be not making as many strides as many of us would like, but they’re not the real problems here either. In fact, it’s the obstructionists flying the Gadsden flag that are blocking the progress while blaming the other party for it.

A Classic Case of Abuser Logic; Sigh

So yeah, in domestic violence terms, this use of the flag–and those who wouldn’t fly it but think that progressives are “as bad as” the extremists who are using it for violence on the right–is once again, a classic technique of domestic violence abusers on a large scale. The technique is called DARVO. That acronym breaks down to “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.”

In other words, abusers tend to work super hard to avoid taking the blame for their abuse. And one tactic they use to gaslight people is to deny the blame and pretend that the abused person is really the abuser.

Soooo yeah, that’s exactly what these “modern Tea Party” folks that have taken over the Republican party have been doing since a Black man got elected to the presidency. They’re using the Gadsden flag as a very clear symbol of their other tactics as they work to maintain power instead of to fight back against abuse. And blaming the historically abused parties seeking equality for somehow “abusing” them.

It’s classic DARVO technique.

Okay, So Let’s Talk Christian Nationalism for a Little Bit…

Before I go, one important final note I want to say here regards how conservative Christians have allied themselves with the Patriot Movement and others, which led to crosses and prayers being involved in the January 6 insurrection.

See, as I’ve noted many times before, historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez has outlined really well in her book Jesus and John Wayne how white Evangelicalism, specifically, has become increasingly overtly militantly masculinist since World War II. (I’ve talking about this book’s outlines of militant masculinity a lot in the last year, but particularly here and here.)

And I can see nothing better than the message of the Gadsden flag to show how incredibly far from major Christian narratives this movement, and Christian nationalism in the US throughout its history, has strayed.

Soooo Yeah, Supremacy and Aggression Were Part of the Curse, Not the Plan

See, in Genesis 3, the serpent is cursed by God to have enmity between his offspring and Eve’s. It is clear there that patriarchy, as well as this enmity and aggression between the snake and humans, is theologically a result of the Fall, not a part of the regular created order at all.

And, in fact, it’s important to note that this passage is seen by many orthodox Christian traditions as a foreshadowing of a different way as brought by Jesus Christ. In the Christus Victor atonement theory that has been most popular with early Christianity as continued in the Eastern Orthodox church and other strands of Christianity, Jesus is seen to have metaphorically crushed the head of the metaphorical serpent Death by rising from the grave and ascending to heaven to rule.

Ummm, Jesus Wasn’t Actually Violent—He Was Assertive

Importantly, Christ didn’t crush this metaphorical serpent’s head through a violent act, but was killed through a violent act, by humans who saw his message of radical love and justice as a threat.

Not That There Aren’t Weird Biblical Narratives…

Now, don’t get me wrong—the Bible is a complex and unsettling book, and as any biblical scholar worth their salt will tell you, there’s plenty of evidence in the Bible, if you’re looking for it, of abusive fight responses (especially, as it happens, by men) that use God as their warrant for it.

Not shockingly, those who try to do this have also found evidence in the Bible for the importance of maintaining slavery.

But yeah, there are hundreds and hundreds of verses in the Bible about taking care of the poor and marginalized, and entire books of prophets “punching up” by  taking kings and religious leaders and others who abuse their power to task.

Abuse Your Neighbor as Your…No, Wait, That’s Not Quite How It Went…

Because yeah, there are plenty of people in the Bible that do the equivalent of abusive “punching down” in society with the Gadsden flag message. And in the Bible, outsider figures like the prophets and Jesus keep rising up to do things differently and to call others to do the same.

And Diana Butler Bass, in her excellent book A People’s History of Christianity, has shown how the same two strands of Christianity have continued throughout the history of the church, much the same as they have in the United States.

I think it’s clear which strand Christian nationalism has joined with in the States these days.

Let’s Clear the Webs of the Gaslighting from the World, Friends!

So yeah, that’s pretty much all I have time and energy for today. Thanks for sticking in there with this analysis. I know after writing it I understand better and better why it’s important to keep assertively speaking up on behalf of equality.

I also understand better why it’s not at all shocking that the Gadsden “don’t tread on me” flag has been used to punch down in recent years. And this analysis has really helped me see beyond the disingenuous gaslighting of the narratives that were trying to normalize the use of the Gadsden flag as somehow in any way “patriotic,” especially when used to abuse others.

And those who excuse the demonization of those seeking equality in this country, whether or not they fly the Gadsden or Confederate flags, are not helping matters, and are frankly complicit in the issues.

I hope after reading this you’re as clear and willing to continue to fight back against anyone who argues that “don’t tread on me” and its attendant rattlesnake flag is some sort of nuanced and neutral statement, much less anything ethical or good in its current usage. If that’s the case, they’re clearly seeking to whitewash the Gadsden flag’s past and current contexts in unhealthy ways.

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality!  Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to continue to speak up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.

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“Don’t Tread on …

by DS Leiter Time to read: 14 min
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