As the Utah Territory launched a bid for statehood in 1862, Brigham Young — speaking as the proposed governor — made his case in The New York Times: “(Utah) will, with equal patriotism, adopt such measures as will best sustain our Government,” he said, appealing to the territory’s “tried and firm supporters of the Constitution and every Constitutional right.”

A century-and-a-half later, Utah is certainly tried and firm in many regards — but how we define “patriotism,” or how we view support of the Constitution, could use some reevaluation. 

A case in point is Mitt Romney. The Utah senator headed to Washington Tuesday, and while waiting for his flight, was verbally harassed by a group of self-proclaimed “Utah Patriots.”

“You’re a joke. An absolute joke,” a woman shouted at him. “It’s a disgusting shame.”

He was greeted on his flight by more of his jeering constituents, chanting “traitor” and calling for him to retire.

All in the name of patriotism.

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The outrage against Romney is an accumulation of years of frustration from Trump’s Utah base. Romney spoke openly against the president during the 2016 primary, voted for his impeachment and has been Trump’s biggest critic in the GOP for the past four years. Even so, Romney votes with the president nearly 80% of the time.

In his own eyes, Romney is just a man following his conscience. Apparently, in 2020’s hyperpolarized political state, that makes you a traitor.

Perhaps we’d all do well to reconsider what it means to be a “patriot.” Ron Paul, the father of Romney’s congressional colleague Rand Paul, said that “real patriotism is a willingness to challenge the government when it’s wrong.” In his farewell address, George Washington warned the young country to “guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.”

Guard, we shall. Who are the patriots, and who are the pretenders? Is rallying in the streets and decrying the results of a fair election an act of patriotism? Is refusing to concede, and shredding our nation’s trust in its electoral system? How about harassing an elected official who, in a position of power, is speaking up against these things?

While Romney’s approach is certainly quieter and less flamboyant, patriotism is not measured in volume or vileness. Oxygen is still flowing, Romney’s fellow airline passengers should recall, even if you don’t see the bag inflate.

“We have a Constitution, the constitutional process is clear,” a calm Romney responded to a filming, heckling constituent. “I’ll follow the Constitution and I’ll explain all that when we meet in Congress this week.”

Reason is on Romney’s side. As his companion in the Senate, Mike Lee, told his colleagues in a letter, “With respect to presidential elections, there is no authority for Congress to make value judgments in the abstract regarding any state’s election laws or the manner in which they have been implemented.” And even if there was, there would be no need. 2020’s presidential election was the most secure in American history.

How long Romney’s fellow airplane passengers kept up their chant — and what transpired for the rest of the four-hour flight — is unknown. But their roles in Washington are distinct — Romney, the work of a patriot, and protesters, the work of pretenders. To paraphrase their flight attendant: in the case of an emergency, assess your own patriotism before harassing others.

Coincidentally, Romney’s act of patriotism comes 125 years, to the week, of Utah’s statehood. In our junior senator, we have nothing more than Young’s promise to the federal government, personified: a “tried and firm (supporter) of the Constitution and every Constitutional right.”