It is usually a mistake to ascribe Donald Trump’s ravings to the news media or through Twitter to deliberate strategy. But Tuesday morning, the president-elect sent a missive that reeked of deliberate calculation, threatening to revoke citizenship for flag-burners:
This is an unusual “issue” for the president-elect to highlight, given the dire conditions he claims the country faces. The odd protester has torched the odd flag every so often for decades. The Supreme Court in 1989 held that burning the flag constitutes political speech, and thus cannot be banned. Republicans have occasionally used the issue as a cheap political stunt, since a majority of the public viscerally opposes flag-burning. To that standard tactic, Trump added the new Trumpian touch of proposing to revoke citizenship for violators, which would make his unconstitutional proposal even more unconstitutional, and also more attention-getting. And he did not send this one in the middle of the night, as he often does, but at 6:55 a.m., a moment probably calculated to seize the morning news cycle.
But why would he choose to pick this strange fight? Here is a case where the common complaint that he is distracting the public from unflattering stories rings true. Proposing a flag-burning ban is a classic right-wing nationalist distraction, and Trump has a number of ugly stories from which to distract: his plan for massive, unprecedented corruption, the extreme beliefs of his appointees, a controversy over a recount that highlights his clear defeat in the national vote.
Trump does not want coverage of his plans to enrich himself and his family or to strip the safety net. A fight over patriotism and citizenship frames the president-elect as the champion of American nationalism — giving a kind of legitimacy that overcomes his defeat in the national vote, much as standing on the rubble at Ground Zero erased all complaints about George W. Bush governing from the right after losing the national vote. There may not be flag-burners to fight at this very moment, but surely the president highlighting the issue will encourage protesters to burn flags in defiance, drawing media attention. Thus the opposition will demonstrate that their hatred for Trump is actually hatred for the country. And he will proceed to enrich himself and his party’s donor class.
Trump’s flag-burning tweet is a frightening moment not because his proposal stands any chance of enactment, but because it reflects one of the few signs that his dangerous and authoritarian politics is calculated, and not merely crazy.