WILMINGTON, Del. – If there was one enduring symbol of Joe Biden’s nationwide election night party Saturday night, it was the American flag.
In the riverfront district of Wilmington, near the parking lot from which Biden delivered his speech to the nation, flags flew everywhere. There was the Big Flag, a massive Old Glory hoisted between two cranes and visible from the interstate. It flew for a week as the ballot counting agonizingly continued, ripping at least twice, and becoming a temporary Wilmington landmark.
An American flag bigger than a barn door hung on the side of the Chase Center, which served as the backdrop for the victory speeches delivered by Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. Another draped vertically off the nearby wall of the Daniel S. Frawley minor league baseball stadium. One more, about a story high, was suspended from the side of the nearby Westin hotel.
But perhaps its most evocative use came from everyday people.
Across the country, as Americans flooded into the streets in celebration of Biden’s victory and President Donald Trump’s defeat, flags bobbed over the heads of the crowd. In Wilmington, campaign workers handed out hundreds of American flags to supporters. Some were large, affixed to poles about 10 feet long and meant to be waved overhead dramatically, “Les Misérables” style.
And many, many more were small – handed out in batches of two or three to as many supporters, held in their hands or stuck in a back pocket. As the festivities continued at the drive-in rally, Biden fans popped out of sunroofs to wave their own flags.
“This is the pivotal time in our country when this needs to be the flag for everybody,” said Delaware state Sen. Stephanie Hansen, D, who came with her family to support Biden on Saturday night in a vehicle bedecked with American flags. “It’s no longer a conservative flag. It’s not a liberal flag or a Republican agenda. It’s a flag for everybody.”
The American flag often becomes a cultural flash point during uncertain times, and these times are no exception.
For some on the left, the flag has been less a symbol of national unity than shorthand for a power structure that’s left behind many newer Americans, Black Americans and women.
Conservatives have at times been more eager to embrace the national banner – something President Trump literally did in February when he hugged and kissed an American flag onstage at the Conservative Political Action Conference, saying “I love you baby.”
Like some Republicans before him, Trump has vowed to punish flag-burning with jail time or loss of citizenship.
But some of his supporters, particularly in this campaign, have favored another symbol: a version of the American flag that is mostly black and white and features a single blue stripe in the middle to represent the “Blue Lives Matter,” pro-police stance intended as a rebuttal to the Black Lives Matter movement. Others have proudly waved blue or red “Trump/Pence 2020 Make America Great Again” campaign banners.
On Saturday, by plan and happenstance, Democrats staged their own intervention. Biden’s campaign promise to “restore the soul of the nation” would start with a major display of the American flag, offering it as a symbol that partisans on both sides of the ideological divide could support.
During an elaborate fireworks display and light show after the speeches, the grand finale involved hundreds of lit drones forming a gently waving American flag in the sky as bursts of light exploded around it. Biden and Harris watched with American flag pins affixed to their jackets.
For some Biden supporters, the flag-waving was a way to celebrate unity, much in the way flags sprouted everywhere after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. For others, it was meant to show Republicans that backers of the new Democratic president-elect are also patriotic.
“We wanted to make sure the world knew that Democrats are Americans and we love our country,” said Paul Calistro, 63 of Wilmington, who had nine American flags affixed to the borrowed gray pickup truck he drove into Biden’s car rally Saturday.
He’d been giving away large American flags all night to fellow Biden supporters.
“Just because we do things differently or see things differently, doesn’t mean we’re not proud to be Americans,” Calistro said.
Biden’s use of the flag can also be read as a message to some in his own party that they should follow his lead and see the star-spangled banner as beyond politics. Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats to believe that it’s important to fly an American flag, according to a 2018 Pew Research poll.
Some at Biden’s rally said that, over the past four years, they’ve frequently been ashamed and embarrassed by Trump’s behavior, dampening their own feelings of patriotism and its symbols. Biden’s election changed that for some.
Carrie Casey, 49 of Wilmington wore a red, white and blue fluffy plastic necklace that she’d picked up for the event at a local party store – saying she suddenly felt much more optimistic about the country now that Biden was heading to the White House, and as a result had gone shopping for party favors that showed pride in the country.
“He’ll be able to unite the country,” Casey said of Biden. “So it made me feel patriotic again.”
Her 15-year-old daughter wasn’t quite as ready to embrace that. Casey said her daughter brought a Black Lives Matter banner and a rainbow flag to the Biden event, but not the red, white and blue. “She just gets really worked up about what she’s seen,” Casey added.
Biden’s backers wanted to be clear that they have their own sense of what it means to be patriotic.
“I think the flag gives you the right to kneel,” said Michael Norris, a 54-year old veteran, referring to the criticism Trump and his supporters have leveled at sports figures who kneel during the national anthem or before the flag in protest of the treatment of Black Americans by police. He wore a flag-themed face mask at Saturday night’s rally and had one of the Biden-gifted American flags sticking out of his back pocket.
Brooke Thaler, who teaches journalism in Connecticut but has roots in Wilmington, said one of her students is writing a piece exploring how the American flag became more of a symbol of the right.
“How did that happen?” Thaler asked at the Biden event. “It seems as if one party and one side of the country has taken the American flag and made it theirs. And now we took it back.”
No, she said. That last comment didn’t seem quite right.
“Not just, ‘We took it back,’ ” she said, correcting herself. “Now it can be back to a unifying symbol for our whole country.”