This August, it will have been four years since Colin Kaepernick, then-quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, began choosing not to stand for the national anthem before NFL games. It’s worth remembering that Kaepernick did not announce his intentions in a press release, or an extended Twitter thread. He just stopped standing. It took a while before an NFL.com reporter finally noticed and asked him about it after an exhibition game on a Friday night.
It’s impossible to know how people would have reacted to Kaepernick’s decision had we not been two months away from a presidential election in which one of the participants was Donald Trump. But everybody freaked out over that August weekend. Kaepernick dominated cable news, his own players union chief openly disagreed with him, and by Monday, Trump had already started braying about how Kaepernick should “find a country that works better for him.” You sensed weakness in the NFL’s reaction the second it came down. “Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the national anthem,” the league said — exactly the sort of mealy-mouthed statement tailor-made for Trump to jump all over. He’s been going on about Kaepernick and the NFL ever since.
But Kaepernick’s banishment from the league — and it shouldn’t be classified as anything other than that — left Trump without one of his convenient villains. The NFL has since apologized to its players for how it treated Kaepernick and the protests he helped spark (though there haven’t been any apologies forthcoming to the man himself). And now, public sentiment has shifted so far toward the ex-QB and his cause that there are two massive media conglomerates making stories about his life. In 2016, Trump could push the NFL around; in 2020, he can’t. (When Roger Goodell is standing up to you, you are at a moment of profound weakness.)
As we’ve seen over the last two months of virus surges, ill-fated grasps at cosplay totalitarianism, and plummeting poll numbers, Trump’s attempts to revive his aged magic tricks in this election year have the increasingly desperate look of an ’80s rocker trying to fit into old leather pants and belt out a faded power-ballad hit without popping the buttons. But this is the only tune he knows how to sing. So, astonishingly, on Monday morning, he did this:
There is something inherently demoralizing about still having to dissect the rotted logic of a Trump tweet, more than three years into his endless presidency. And the simplest explanation for this one surely remains the most accurate: This guy is really racist. But Trump’s message is probably still worth unpacking, because it speaks to just how much he appears to have lost the ability to read the room. Going after Bubba Wallace isn’t like going after Colin Kaepernick in 2016; it’s like going after Tiger Woods in 2005. It might even be stupider than that.
To review, on the off chance that you, New York reader, are not up on your NASCAR: Bubba Wallace is the only Black full-time driver in the notoriously good ol’ boy world of American auto racing. He was also one of the leading voices, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, pushing the sport to ban the Confederate flag from its events. (NASCAR, unlike most other major American sports leagues amid the pandemic, has been up and running for a few weeks now.) This led to a backlash from some — maybe even most — of the sport’s fans, including a few who rented a plane to circle above a NASCAR event displaying the flag and the phrase “DEFUND NASCAR.” The sport stuck to its stance, and Wallace was widely heralded and embraced by his fellow drivers. (One NASCAR truck series driver — who had never finished higher than ninth in a race — quit because the flag was banned and widely mocked for it.)
But then the story took a dark turn: A noose was discovered by a member of Wallace’s team in the stall for his car at Talladega Motor Speedway in Alabama. The NASCAR community instantly rallied around Wallace (including NASCAR legend Richard Petty, a man who had said in 2016 about Kaepernick, “Anybody that doesn’t stand up for [the flag] ought to be out of the country. Period.”) At that day’s GEICO 500, all the drivers walked alongside Wallace’s car, leading to a moment as moving as any in NASCAR’s history:
Note, already, how dramatically NASCAR’s embrace of Wallace contrasts with the NFL’s initial reaction to Kaepernick. And that embrace extended to leadership, not just Wallace’s colleagues. As NFL reporter Mike Freeman noted back in 2016, “Texts coming in from coaches, players, front office execs from around the league on Kap. So far every player backs him. No coach/exec does.”
But what happened next mattered even more. After an investigation, it turned out that the noose had in fact been in that stall since October of last year, which led some NASCAR fans (and, needless to say, Trump supporters) to believe that the controversy was ginned up by an overeager Wallace staffer, or even Wallace himself. But NASCAR once again did not waver: It announced its full investigation, released a photo of the noose (which was absolutely, 100 percent a noose, and not one that appeared in any other driver’s stall, according to the NASCAR investigation) and quoted its president Steve Phelps saying, “Bubba Wallace and the 43 team had nothing to do with this. Bubba Wallace has done nothing but represent this sport with courage, class and dignity. It is offensive seeing anyone suggest otherwise.” One NASCAR official told The Wall Street Journal, “We certainly know the difference between a simple hand loop and a noose.”
In other words, NASCAR not only didn’t feel Wallace (who, again, never saw the noose in the first place) owed them an apology, it never took issue with the initial story. NASCAR — an institution whose then-CEO publicly backed Trump in 2016 — has clearly drawn its line in the sand: It supports Wallace, the Black Lives Matter movement, and getting rid of the Confederate flag. It quickly rallied to Wallace’s defense after Trump’s tweet, too. The best-selling merchandise in Nascar.com’s shop right now is Wallace gear, with the #blacklivesmatter hashtag in huge letters right across the front. (Even larger than the sponsors’ logos!) NASCAR, in this moment, is notching some of its biggest television ratings in years. Wallace is the best thing they have going right now. Wallace isn’t standing against his league’s wishes and values: He’s representing them.
That Trump does not realize this — that he thinks Wallace can in fact be his new Kaepernick — shows how truly lost he is right now, how little skill he apparently has to read a room anymore. If Trump is trying to use Wallace as another bit of ammo in his culture war, he will be doing it with a rapidly dwindling army of supporters. While a (declining, but real) majority of NASCAR fans are against banning the Confederate flag from events — though younger fans are mostly in support of the ban — Wallace himself remains beloved by NASCAR executives, drivers, and fans. There is a loud, vocal minority of NASCAR fans who yell “Hoax!” at Wallace online, something Wallace has admitted “pisses him off.” But the idea that the noose was part of some Jussie Smollett–style setup existed only in the fever dreams of conspiracists, or racists, or both. You know: people like Trump.
There is nowhere for Trump to go with this. NASCAR doesn’t believe the noose was a hoax; the FBI doesn’t think it was a hoax; the vast majority of the sport’s fans don’t think it was a hoax. (It wasn’t a hoax.) The president is talking to no one but himself. It is one thing for Roger Goodell to no longer need to kowtow to Trump. It is quite another for NASCAR to follow suit. Trump isn’t just wrong about Bubba Wallace; he’s wrong about the viewpoints of wide swathes of people who used to be his supporters. The president is now looking at a sports organization whose founder ran George Wallace’s presidential campaign — and which is now far more enlightened than he is on race. If there’s anything positive to come out of this whole sorry episode, it’s that Trump has only hastened that divide.