“Red-state populism versus football” is a fun, unexpected cultural match-up. Criticize Trump if you like but don’t you ever pretend he’s not giving us the best bread-and-circuses. Really terrific!
Wasn’t this supposed to be “tax reform week” for the GOP? Here’s what a well-known political commentator had to say in 2013 about Obama screwing around with politicized sports:
Imagine citizen Trump’s reaction to Obama ignoring a humanitarian disaster in Puerto Rico in order to Twitter-fart about the NFL. The Birther tweeting during that week would have been [finger kiss] magnifique.
Trump should shift gears and call for shutting down the league over CTE fears. That would arguably be the greatest troll in an historically illustrious career in trolling. In the meantime, everything you need to know about the current political moment is contained in this fact: His NFL tweets are a bigger deal today than him insulting the unstable leader of an enemy nuclear power, which his natsec people explicitly told him not to do, and warning them that an extinction event is approaching if they don’t change their tone.
This is twice now in a week that POTUS has gambled on longshots to enhance his political prestige. The first was him doubling down on Luther Strange, a likely loser in Alabama’s Senate runoff on Tuesday night and a figure disdained by his base as a handmaid to Mitch McConnell. Now he’s throwing his weight behind an NFL boycott. His bet on Strange was odd in that there’s really no chance of a clean win — if Strange upsets Moore then MAGA nation will be pissed, if Strange loses to Moore then Trump’s influence over the base is in question. His bet on the NFL boycott is stronger in that ratings are already down and will probably decline further as players take the bait and begin protesting in solidarity with Kaepernick in droves. Even if the NFL hunkers down and stands with the players, Trump has placed himself on the side of the flag and the national anthem in pitting himself against them. Hard to lose in that position. If you want to be extra cynical, you might even reason that his gamble on Strange led directly to his gamble on an NFL boycott, with the latter a way to atone to populists for the former.
Ben Sasse noticed the shrewdness of Trump’s NFL comments last night and begged the players not to reward him for it:
You have the right to protest Trump tmrw. But aren’t there better ways than kneeling before the flag soldiers died to defend?
— Ben Sasse (@BenSasse) September 23, 2017
btw, Trump wants you to kneel–because it divides the nation, with him and the flag on the same side. Don't give him the attention he wants. https://t.co/ic5Vc9oGyB
— Ben Sasse (@BenSasse) September 23, 2017
Is that right? Think it through. If they kneel in solidarity with Kaepernick and in opposition to Trump, Trump wins. But if they ignore his baiting and refuse to kneel … he also wins, because they’ll have left Kaepernick marginalized and allowed Trump to dictate the terms of what is and isn’t an acceptable form of protest. Anyone who’d let a politician use reverse psychology to maneuver them into when and how to demonstrate is signaling that they care less about their cause than about spiting that politician.
To the extent the protests grate on fans on the right, I think it’s less the kneeling itself that does it than the commentary-class pressure to admire the protests that does. Kneeling during the national anthem is as low-key as a gesture of dissent gets; picture players turning their backs on the flag or wearing “Cops = KKK” t-shirts or whatever by comparison. Michael Brendan Dougherty is right that it should be *easy* for both sides to understand and respect what motivates the other in this case, notwithstanding Kaepernick’s douchier criticisms and the right’s issues with Black Lives Matter. But it’s not easy because the professional commentary on it won’t treat it as easy. It’ll run almost entirely one way, in favor of the protests, and it’ll run hot with sanctimony, which in turn will encourage a backlash and needless polarization. Whether Trump wanted to exploit that backlash deliberately or whether he just has a gut sense of which cultural grievances resonate, he gets mileage politically by dint of the fact that he’s willing to loudly oppose the groupthink of his own “class.” A political ecosystem that lets him thrive on stuff like this is an ecosystem out of balance.
Speaking of which, here’s Trump supporter Rex Ryan complaining of the president’s comments, “I never signed up for that.” Say what? Dude, this is exactly what you signed up for. This is Trump in his element, wrapping himself in the flag and picking a culture-war fight that lets him be ostentatiously and profanely “politically incorrect.” The white-identity-politics juice he gets from taking on a bunch of famous black athletes only makes it that much sweeter. This is Populist-Nationalism 101. What the hell did Ryan think he was signing up for? Exit quotation from former Trump staffer A.J. Delgado, wondering why her cohorts on the right are so easily triggered:
"Kapernick is wrong to protest police/the system just bc of a few bad apples!"
"I'm going to boycott the NFL over a few players."
— A.J. Delgado (@AJDelgado13) September 24, 2017