About a month before the election, Curtis Woodall logged onto Amazon and ordered an American flag. The 72-year-old Vietnam War veteran and retired infantry soldier had taken his old flag down about a year into the Trump administration. “It hurt. It did,” Woodall said. But he didn’t want anyone in his neighborhood outside Columbia, South Carolina, to associate him with President Donald Trump’s racial rhetoric or anti-immigrant policies. He grew angry when he saw American flags on pickup trucks around town. “They’ve always got a Trump flag and the American flag,” he said. “And I said, ‘That’s bull. That is desecrating the flag that I served over 20 years with.’”
Now, at last, it looked like Trump might lose, so Woodall set his new flag on the dining room table and waited. When the election was called for Joe Biden, “I said, ‘Time for my flag to go up,’” Woodall told me by phone, a couple of weeks later. He sent me a photo of the flag, still hanging beside his garage, his own Dodge Ram pickup in the foreground.
Across the country, in their cautious euphoria after the election, foes of Trump have been embracing the flag in similar ways: unfurling it in front of their homes, waving it in the streets, or simply looking at it differently. The day Biden gave his victory speech, Nancy La Vigne, executive director of the Council on Criminal Justice’s Task Force on Policing, took out the flag she always flies on holidays and hung it outside her home in liberal Bethesda, Maryland. La Vigne meant the act as “an expression of pride in how the system of democracy actually works.” But as the hours went by and she noticed more and more flags around her neighborhood, she realized she was seeing something broader: A spontaneous reclaiming of a symbol that, in the Trump years, had come to represent only one side.