The former sheriff of Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio, whom President Donald Trump pardoned after he was convicted of criminal contempt, was one. The National Rifle Association also got the title just days after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting. As did a top Republican defending the president against the Russia investigation.
For Trump, the word “patriot” has become as much a compliment — which he often doles out to his supporters, and especially controversial allies — as it is a defense of his policies and an attempt to move past disagreements within his administration when he is under fire.
Over the two years of his presidency, it’s become his one-word public relations play during crises, and a characteristic he defined — twice in tweets — with the help of a Mark Twain quote well before he ran for office.
In recent days, in particular, Trump has relied on “patriot” repeatedly, as he continues to sell the partial government shutdown — now the longest in US history — as a necessary means of securing funding for a wall along the southern border.
When asked about his message to federal workers missing their paychecks while he negotiates his top campaign promise, Trump has shot back every time with a portrayal of federal workers who would be understanding of his position.
“These are terrific patriots,” Trump said last week during a bill signing. “A lot of them agree with what I’m doing. And I hope we’re going to have the situation worked out. But they want security in our country, and so do I. That’s all we want. We want security. We want common sense and we want security in our security.”
Trump went on to say: “So many of those people are saying, ‘It’s very hard for me. It’s very hard for my family. But, Mr. President, you’re doing the right thing. Get it done.’ I’ve had so many of them. They’re patriots. They love our country, and they want to see it be done.”
The president had a similar message for farmers hurt by his trade war with China last year — and again this week for those affected by the shutdown.
“They want to hit the farmers because they think it hits me,” Trump said during a September Cabinet meeting about escalating tensions with China. “I wouldn’t say that’s nice, but I’ll tell you our farmers are great patriots. These are great patriots and they understand that they’re doing this for the country. And we’ll make it up to them and in the end they’re going to be much stronger than they are now.”
In tweets and at rallies, when he traveled to agriculture-heavy states ahead of the 2018 elections, Trump continued to hail farmers as “patriots.”
And now that farmers are also dealing with reduced services from the Department of Agriculture as a result of the shutdown, Trump again brought up their “patriotism” in speech before the American Farm Bureau Federation on Monday.
“In the meantime, the USDA is doing everything in its power to help farmers deal with the ongoing shutdown,” Trump said. “We thank you for your support and patriotism. And we fight to defend our nation. We are fighting very hard to defend our nation.”
Besides those hurting from his policies, Trump has also used the word to describe members of his administration with whom he has not been on the same page in his continued effort to push back on any suggestions of chaos in the administration.
When the president’s hunt for a new chief of staff didn’t go as smoothly as he expected, he hastily announced Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney in a tweet as his new acting chief of staff. The tweet also described outgoing chief of staff John Kelly, whom he had pushed out of the White House after a tumultuous relationship, as a “GREAT PATRIOT.”
The same phrase was also used for Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, when Trump was questioned by CBS News about Coats’ differing views on ongoing Russian efforts to interfere in US elections.
“He’s a great patriot,” Trump said. “He loves his country, and he’s only going to say what he truly believes.”
Trump, however, also continues to use it as the ultimate compliment, frequently labeling people on twitter who support him as patriots, including groups of supporters at rallies and Republicans he endorsed, from “America-First Patriot Matt Rosendale,” a Montana Senate candidate, to Rep. Devin Nunes, “a true American Patriot the likes of which we rarely see in our modern day world.” Other times, the title was reserved for the president defending more controversial allies, like when he pardoned Arpaio in 2017 or when he praised the leadership of the NRA last February.
It’s a more convenient definition of patriotism than how Twain defined it — and Trump enthusiastically tweeted years ago.