On Friday night, President Donald Trump began a full frontal assault against NFL players who refused to stand during the national anthem – deriding them as “sons of bitches.” On Sunday night, he was still at it, tweeting: “Sports fans should never condone players that do not stand proud for their National Anthem or their Country. NFL should change policy!”
Over those intervening 48 hours, a national controversy erupted – with professional athletes asserting their right to express their First Amendment freedoms, team owners expressing their support for their players and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell condemning Trump’s “divisive comments.”
So, why would Trump continue to poke at the players and, as he did Sunday night, call for the NFL to change its policies to ban any sort of protests surrounding the anthem?
The most basic (and right) answer is because he knows that, for his base, this fight is a winner for him. Here’s why:
1. The players are rich. Remember that Trump, despite being a billionaire, sees himself (and is regarded) as the voice of the Average Joe. And he knows that lots of Average Joes resent how much money these players make for playing a game.
2. The players are playing a game. Spend 10 minutes talking about football (or any pro sport) with a group of people, and I guarantee that you will hear someone (if not several) say something like: “Man, they get to play a game for their job. I’d do that for free.” (Obviously points No. 1 and No. 2 are closely tied.)
3. The players are (mostly) black. Trump insisted on Sunday night that “this has nothing to do with race.” But that simply doesn’t fly. The vast majority of the players in the NFL are black. Ditto the players in the NBA, whom Trump also went after over the weekend. Trump knows that. And he also knows that when he uses phrases such as “our heritage” to describe what’s allegedly under assault in the anthem protests, many of his supporters see that in racial terms. You don’t simply get to repeatedly flick at racial animus – in the campaign and as President – and then plead total innocence when those code words trigger a reaction.
4. Trump can paint this as a battle for patriotism. The anthem protest was begun last year by then-San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who cited concerns about the deaths of African-American men at the hands of police as the motivation for his stance. Trump has seized on the protests as some sort of slap in the face to the military, which it’s not. By painting the players as insufficiently loyal to the country, Trump can make an appeal to patriotism – a powerful emotion not just in his base but in the country.
This is, of course, an incredibly oversimplified argument. The flag represents America – and America represents the right to express your views without fear of retribution. Patriotism isn’t just following orders because the President (or anyone else) tells you to. It’s about loving the country enough to fight for it to be a more perfect and equal union.
For Trump then, attacking the NFL – and the reaction from the players, the media and even the team owners – is a natural. Not only does he always do better when he has an active opponent on which to focus his energy, but it’s also an opponent that embodies many of the resentments and anger of the people who support him.
“Who do these rich, pampered athletes think they are?” his supporters will say. “They’ve got an easy life – why don’t they just shut up and play football?”
Sen. Ted Cruz, no ally of Trump’s, nonetheless summed up that sentiment in an interview Sunday at the Texas Tribune Festival. “I am not a fan of rich, spoiled athletes disrespecting the flag,” Cruz said.
Finally, there is an element of distraction here – of changing the subject or the landscape on which the national conversation is happening.
Last week was dominated by revelations about the ongoing special counsel investigation into Russia – most notably that a focus is now on Trump and his actions in firing former FBI Director James Comey and meeting with top Russian officials in the Oval Office days later. The last-ditch GOP attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act looks to be foundering. And late Sunday came the news that senior White House strategist Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, used a private email address to communicate with other administration officials.
For Trump, a fight he can frame as all about patriotism and pampered athletes is better ground on which to stand than any of those storylines. And it’s not close.
So, Trump leans into the criticism – knowing that his base will love it and it might just also take the focus away from stories he’d rather not talk about.
None of that “why” behind Trump’s doubling down deals with the fact that we’ve never had a modern president like this one who is so willing to weaponize patriotism and lingering racial tensions and stereotypes to score political points.
Trump may well score some of those points. That point-scoring overlooks the long-term damage Trump’s tactics could well do to our democracy. That’s what we should be spending more time thinking about.