Colin Kaepernick’s protest during the national anthem is an event a more talented or personally disciplined racial demagogue than Donald Trump could have fruitfully exploited. Kaepernick’s gesture was rife for hostile interpretation. Kaepernick wishes to highlight police brutality and systemic racism, but his method opens him up to the interpretation that he is rejecting the country itself. One need only look at the carefully measured statements made by President Obama last fall to detect liberal nervousness about attaching the cause of police reform to counter-patriotic gestures. (“I want Mr. Kaepernick and others who are on a knee, I want them to listen to the pain that that may cause somebody who, for example, had a spouse or a child who was killed in combat, and why it hurts them to see somebody not standing … I also want people to think about the pain that he may be expressing about somebody who’s lost a loved one that they think was unfairly shot.”) Thirty years ago, George H.W. Bush constructed an entire presidential campaign out of his opponent’s veto of a law requiring teachers to lead the pledge of allegiance. Trump has been given a much larger opening.
But rather than seize the mantle of patriotism, Trump has oafishly ceded it to his opponents. He has set off a firestorm of race, sports, and patriotism that is going to end up burning him.
Trump began his foray into the matter with one of his man-on-a-barstool rants, lamenting how football has gotten too soft. “Today if you hit too hard — 15 yards! Throw him out of the game!’’ he told an audience in Alabama, “They’re ruining the game! They’re ruining the game. That’s what they want to do. They want to hit. They want to hit! It is hurting the game.’’
Here was a characteristic mix of Trumpian ignorance of science, willful distortion of the policy he is attacking (the NFL rules target blows to a player’s head, not “hitting too hard”), and a longing for the past implied by his “Make America Great Again” slogan. It was odd to hear a defense of football from the only American president — indeed, the only American, period — who single-handedly destroyed a viable professional football league. Trump pushed his argument into utter derangement by challenging players’ very right to protest. “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect … our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem,” he tweeted, “If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”
These comments had two swift effects, each disastrous for the president. First, it turned the question away from the style of the protest to the right to conduct it. The national anthem is a potent symbol of patriotism, but so is the First Amendment to the Constitution. “No, I don’t agree with [Trump], said University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh Saturday, “That’s ridiculous. Check the Constitution.”
Even pro-Trump coaches and owners began to issue statements attacking the president. “I’m pissed off,” said Rex Ryan. “I supported Donald Trump. [These comments] are appalling to me … I never signed up for that.”
Second, it turned the pregame drama into an anti-Trump protest. The pregame kneel has now become a spectacle of resistance, with dramatic gestures of white players joining black ones to oppose the crude attacks from the great orange bigot. Fans who might have complained before about politics being inserted into football — as if the bloated displays of military might attached to the NFL were not a form of politics — could no longer miss that Trump was now more likely than anybody else to politicize the game.
Compounding the blunder, Trump articulated no coherent message for his surrogates when, inevitably, they had to defend him. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin offered the lame defense that players “can have their First Amendment rights when they’re off the field.” That is a legally farcical statement made by the worst possible spokesperson. Mnuchin is a cartoonish plutocrat, a weenie who leveraged his wealth to marry a younger blonde who flaunts her wealth grotesquely, and has treated the government like the court of a French monarch. There is no worse candidate in the administration for a defense of virility and patriotism, but a modest effort in the way of message-crafting might have led to a less-absurd result.
Football has a deep place in American culture. Trump’s instinct in Alabama that Americans feel it is under siege, and that it could be weaponized, was a shrewd one. Incredibly, he has turned it into a weapon against himself.