Donald Trump has suddenly started waging a war on sports figures, taking aim at those who have started the practice of kneeling instead of standing for the national anthem before games to draw attention to police brutality. (The question of why the national anthem is played at all before such events is a topic that I discussed earlier and argued that it should be abandoned but that is a digression.) When Donald Trump suddenly goes on a tear against what seems like a randomly selected target, one has to always ask oneself whether this is genuine grievance or whether he is using the issue to distract from some other issue. There have been suggestions that Trump, or at least his advisors, to distract people’s attention from failures or other setbacks. If that is the case here, what could that be?
The big item on the agenda this week is the Graham-Cassidy health care denying bill and Trump and the Republican leadership seem to be having trouble corralling enough votes to pass it. Then despite Trump’s dangerously bellicose rhetoric against North Korea, that country’s leader shows no sign of being cowed and this will place Trump in the position of being seen as someone who cannot carry through on his extravagant threats. (Recall the scorn healed on Barack Obama when his red line in Syria was crossed without any seeming response from him.) Another possible setback looms in the Alabama senate primary on Tuesday where the candidate he is supporting Luther Strange risks losing the Republican primary to an even more extremist candidate Roy Moore. (I know, I know, comparing degrees of extremism within the Republican party is becoming increasingly an exercise in pointless hair-splitting.)
If the sports controversy is being seen as a way of distracting people from mounting a vigorous campaign against the health care bill, it is not likely to be successful because the people who deeply care about health care issues are not likely to be sidetracked by a sport-related one.
But it is also the case that Trump is like a comedian who tries out his new material in small comedy clubs in order to find out what works and then uses the ‘good’ material on a larger audience. Take his rally in Alabama on Friday in support of Luther Strange. As this BBC reporter noticed.
Donald Trump spoke for nearly an hour and a half at his rally in Alabama on Friday. The audience of 10,000 was enthusiastic, but one of his biggest applause lines – outside of swipes at North Korea and Hillary Clinton – was when the president took aim at any “son of a bitch” in the NFL who protests during the national anthem.
The crowd went wild – and the president kept going, lamenting recent rule changes, in response to evidence of devastating brain injuries to players, that seek to punish the most ferocious hits in the game.
On Saturday morning, like an accomplished comic returning to material that tested well at a local comedy club, the president took to Twitter to fire off line after line attacking the NFL – and athletes in any sport who may have taken issue with his earlier comments.
This is a fight Mr Trump relishes. He knows his base will flock to him when he questions the patriotism of wealthy athletes. Lines about tax cuts and healthcare reform on Friday night were duds. No one cared much when he spoke of striking deals with Democrats.
The president knows his audience. And he knows how to change the subject.
Trump’s attacks seems to have actually strengthened the protest movement as 25 players from both NFL teams kneeled before a game yesterday. The NFL Players Association has come out strongly in support of the players and called on the NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and owners to condemn Trump. Even the multi-millionaire owners of teams, some of them Trump supporters, have not come out in support for Trump or heeded his call to fire players for not standing, likely because they would face walkouts, lawsuits, and other disruptions if they did. Kaeprnick’s mother called herself a ‘proud bitch’ in response to Trump calling her son a ‘son of a bitch’. There are a whole slew of games today and we’ll see how they turn out.
But Trump has not stopped with football. He has also started a fight with basketball and two of its biggest stars LeBron James and Steph Curry. Interestingly, while Trump has withdrawn the White House invitation to the Golden State Warriors because of pique that Curry said that he did not want to go, he has not as yet attacked James personally even though James called him a ‘bum’, the kind of personal insult that must be smarting since I cannot recall a major public figure publicly using such a term on a sitting US president. NBA union head Chris Paul of the Houston Rockets also taunted Trump, tweeting, “I doubt he’s man enough to call any of those players a son of a bitch to their face.” In his Alabama rant, Trump also condemned even the paltry measures taken to protect football players from traumatic brain injury, arguing that it was wussifying the game, the typical macho posturing of those who themselves are not at any risk of personal injury, so Paul’s jibe aimed directly at his manhood must sting.
This is not a trivial issue. As David Remnick points out what we have here is Trump using racial demagoguery because the protests began in response to police brutality against people of color and Trump knows that his base sees no problem with police assaulting and even killing black people. Many of the top stars in professional sports, especially in basketball, are black. As Remnick says:
In these performances, Trump is making clear his moral priorities. He is infinitely more offended by the sight of a black ballplayer quietly, peacefully protesting racism in the United States than he is by racism itself. Which, at this point, should come as no surprise to any but the willfully obtuse…
What Trump is up to with this assault on athletes, particularly prominent black ones, is obvious; it is part of his larger culture war. Divide. Inflame. Confuse. Divert. And rule. He doesn’t care to grapple with complexity of any kind, whether it’s about the environment, or foreign affairs, or race, or the fact that a great American sport may, by its very nature, be irredeemable. Rather than embody any degree of dignity, knowledge, or unifying embrace, Trump is a man of ugliness, and the damage he does, speech after speech, tweet after tweet, deepens like a coastal shelf. Every day, his Presidency takes a toll on our national fabric. How is it possible to argue with the sentiment behind LeBron James’s concise tweet at Trump: “U Bum”? It isn’t.
There is no getting away from it. The USA has an openly racist president. That is the reality that we must face.