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In Athlete Anthem Attack Donald Trump Fumbles His Culture War Drive
Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast
Another Knee-Taking Take

President Trump Fumbles His Culture War Drive

What discernible difference is there between HUAC demanding that Hollywood studios fire “un-American” writers and actors and Trump calling on NFL owners to fire kneeling players?

Michael Tomasky9.25.17 5:25 PM ET

You’ve got to hand it to Donald Trump. I mean, he’s turned NFL owners, of all people, into defenders of the First Amendment.

These are people who’ve devoted their lives first to making fortunes and second to plowing them into the ultimate adolescent fantasy toy—an NFL franchise. We may fairly wonder whether men who made millions in packaging material (Bob Kraft, New England), Hardee’s and Denny’s franchises (Jerry Richardson, Carolina), wallboard advertising (Dan Snyder, Washington), and sale of a cogeneration plant to Enron (Robert McNair, Houston) have spent much time contemplating the Bill of Rights.

But the owners stepped up Sunday. Cautiously, but they did it. The statement by McNair—and in fairness, he’s involved with a lot of educational and cultural philanthropy, so he seems to have a view of the world that’s broader than money and football—was compelling, especially so considering that he presides over a team in Houston. “The comments made by the President were divisive and counterproductive to what we need right now,” it read in part. That’s not bad, for a 79-year-old rich white Texas football team owner.

We don’t know where this is headed—whether, for example, the number of kneelers will spread and spread with each successive Sunday, or whether this was a one-off thing to send a message to the White House. But it’s clear enough what’s at stake. This is about two competing visions of society and ideas about patriotism.

Trump’s vision is of a society where the rules are the rules and those who break them—at least some of them—must be repudiated, scorned, and even denied livelihood. I was thinking about this Sunday, and it’s hard to see what distinguishes Trump’s remarks in Alabama last Friday and the kinds of things that used to be said by Joe McCarthy and the chairmen of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

What discernible difference is there between HUAC demanding that Hollywood studios fire “un-American” writers and actors and Trump calling on NFL owners to fire kneeling players? Absolutely none.

Likewise, his idea of patriotism reduces it to the bluntest of gestures and makes patently false allegations about the motives of dissenters. Colin Kaepernick and the others didn’t start kneeling to disrespect soldiers or veterans, or in protest of any war. They started kneeling to protest the frequent shootings of young black men by police. You can like that or not like that, but it has nothing to do with the military. Trump is, as usual, lying and being a demagogue.

And of course he’s being a racist, too. No, as he protested Sunday, he didn’t mention race. He didn’t have to. Smart demagogues haven’t explicitly mentioned race for a couple generations now.

The other vision is of a society where of course there are rules, but when people break or challenge them to appeal to the very principles those rules are intended to maintain, we should, even if grudgingly, respect that. For my own part, I never cared much for this whole kneeling business, because I always figured it would spark exactly what has happened here; that is, we’re not having a conversation about police shootings, we’re having a conversation about kneeling. But there are a lot of things I don’t agree with that I recognize people have the right to do. And that leads us to the other idea of patriotism, which is that love of country doesn’t mean love of symbols or wars, but of the principles in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Trump could have raised this issue in a way that would have put the league and the owners in more of a bind, simply by being more circumspect in his rhetoric, appealing to the owners’ collective sense of patriotism, which is surely a lot closer to his than to Kaepernick’s. But if he did that, he wouldn’t be Trump. So he made his case, his appeal to the collective id of Duck Dynasty America, in a way that outraged even conservative multi-millionaire football owners.

Because of that, this disgraceful episode may yet prove to be a civic blessing. This week, I’d imagine, we’ll start to see polling on all this. One is tempted to think the worst of our fellow Americans in these situations. On the other hand, if even the very Republican club of NFL owners saw the offense in Trump’s remarks, maybe that means that most regular Americans will see it, too.

There was a guy quoted in a Times story I read Monday, a 61-year-old man with an Italian surname from White Plains. He said he was a Republican who voted for Trump, but he had a measured view of things. Of the kneelers, he said: “I understand what they’re trying to get at, I just think there are better ways of expressing yourself.” And of Trump, he said, “I think this is a battle he doesn’t need to get into.”

I hope, and cautiously believe, that this man represents the consensus. If he does, then it means that more and more Americans are learning who and what Donald Trump is. God knows, he keeps showing us.

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