I arrived on Western Carolina University’s campus as a freshman in 2002. The deadly attacks on New York City and Arlington, Virginia (only a few miles from my home) were less than a year in the rearview. We already had boots on the ground in Afghanistan, and President George W. Bush was ramping up calls for regime change in Iraq.

In the midst of all this death and war, Toby Keith’s song “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” was released, only a couple months before I arrived on campus. For many, it was the defining anthem of the moment.

It had verses like:

American girls and American guys
We’ll always stand up and salute
We’ll always recognize
When we see Old Glory flying
There’s a lot of men dead
So we can sleep in peace at night when we lay down our head


Justice will be served and the battle will rage
This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage
And you’ll be sorry that you messed with
The U.S. of A.
‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass
It’s the American way

Growing up inside the DC Beltway, I scoffed at the song, which I saw as corny, flag-waving militarism. My hard-left skater perspective was one of rebellion against all the traditional American authorities. When in doubt, the military, the police, the teacher, the preacher, the whole America system, were corrupt, imperialist, and exploitative. When we’d assert these strongly held beliefs, sometimes adults would push back. But in the liberal bastion of Northern Virginia, you could see in their eyes that they kind of agreed.

But arriving in the mountains of North Carolina, the opposite assumptions were often at play. There was a confidence in many of the people — even, surprisingly, the college students — in the institutions that had guided their upbringing.

They wore crosses around their neck and clothes emblazoned with their high school mascots. They respected the police and the military and gave them the benefit of the doubt. They were patriotic and were proud of their hometowns and their families. Of course, those are generalizations, but these things were much more evident in Sylva than in Fairfax County.

But even before I arrived on campus, my views were beginning to shift. I started to think that, even if the US was usually in the wrong, whoever attacked us on Sept. 11 went way too far and deserved some retribution. Over college, while most college kids were getting more distrustful of the institutions, I was doing the opposite, coming to realize how important many of these pillars of our civilization are.

I never went out and bought a Toby Keith CD, but he is a symbol in my mind of the confident culture of that era, where young patriotic men were willing to join the military and risk their lives to bring hell down on anyone who would dare attack the American way of life.

Does that America still exist?

But it seems many of today’s conservatives have lost faith in that American way and its institutions.

A January 2024 article from military.com cited the major recruitment problems in the nation’s armed forces, especially among whites and Southerners.

“The shift in demographics for incoming recruits would be irrelevant to war planners, except it coincides with an overall shortfall of about 10,000 recruits for the Army in 2023 as the service missed its target of 65,000 new soldiers,” the article stated regarding the drastic drop in white recruits. “No other demographic group has seen such a precipitous decline, though there have been ups and downs from year to year.”

Among the reasons given for the drop, they said “some Army officials interviewed by Military.com pointed to struggles by recruits from the South to meet service standards.” One unnamed military official they quoted said, “There’s a level of prestige in parts of conservative America with service that has degraded.” They cited perceived “wokeness” and a left-wing agenda as contributing to this degraded view of military service. An article for the conservative website “The Federalist” responded to the news with a blunt: “White Men Don’t Want To Join An Army That Tells Them They Aren’t Wanted.”

Anyone paying attention to right-leaning media in recent years shouldn’t be surprised. The confident, patriotic attitude expressed by people like Toby Keith is not what it used to be. Conservatives now are more likely to call you a warmonger for funding allies in Ukraine, Israel, or Taiwan than they are to threaten to put a boot in anyone’s ass or light up an enemy’s world like the Fourth of July.

It’s not just the military that has lost their trust. These conservatives are likely very skeptical of their local public schools and libraries, and maybe even the police, certainly the FBI. They are even more distrusting of the universities. Church attendance is dropping, especially since COVID.

As a conservative, I share a lot of the cynicism towards these institutions. They’ve largely been taken over by left-wing ideologues who want to shut out certain people and certain ideas using DEI and cancel culture.

But where does that leave us? If we experience another attack at the level of 9/11, are there enough patriots loyal to the American system to defend it? As the nation remembers the life of Toby Keith this week, it’s hard not to wonder if Keith’s America has passed away as well.