President Trump might be more properly called President Troll. He’s the kind of smirking adolescent whose inane but nasty comments persuade sites to close their comments sections. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for those of us who believe the safety of the world depends on his removal from office.
The challenge is that Trump’s instinctive demagoguery—the product of his reptilian brain and many years of experience manipulating the media—is an effective base strategy. The louder the mainstream media roars in indignation, the more old, white reactionaries love it. And when base voters respond, Trump throws them another heaping portion of rancid red meat. Then the process begins all over again.
The opportunity is that now Trump isn’t just going after elitists, immigrants, judges, and other politicians but trashing the most revered individuals in our popular culture—professional athletes. It’s reminiscent of Sen. Joe McCarthy’s move in 1954 from attacking wimpy-looking college professors to calling the Army a bunch of communists.
The Army had a big weapon against McCarthy—enormous popular backing—and so do the gods of sport. LeBron James has 38.6 million followers, nearly as many as the president, and he’d have more if he tried. His “U bum” description of Trump’s racially tinged divisiveness was retweeted 633,000 times, with 1.5 million likes. If the Democrats are smart (a big “if”), they will seize this opportunity and get King James, Steph Curry, and other ticked-off superstars to lend their names to a huge voter-registration and get-out-the vote drive in 2018.
In the 2014 midterms, turnout was 36.3 percent, the lowest in seven decades. Even a small increase would mean the end of GOP control of the House and the likely beginning of impeachment proceedings. Imagine anti-Trump activists uniting with local athletes across the country under the message: “Throw U Bums Out!”
In the meantime, we need to better understand the patterns of Trump’s tweeting—the way he rips the scabs off our body politic.
These tactical tweets are often described as distractions, but that is incomplete. They do distract from news that hurts his popularity—the demise of the Graham-Cassidy Obamacare repeal; the way his reckless rhetoric about North Korea negates diplomacy and increases the likelihood of war. But their more important function may be to draw attention away from anything that might cause Trump problems with his base. Notice how we’re no longer talking about Trump playing footsie with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi on DACA, or backing away from his commitment to build a wall across the southern border, or withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, and the Iran nuclear deal. It’s like covering a military retreat with a withering volley of fire. And it works.
Trump said the football players who protested police brutality were “sons of bitches” only a month (seems like a year) after saying the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who protested in Charlottesville were “fine people.” He got away with the latter by changing the narrative to statues. This re-fashioning of a toxic issue took genuine skill. Trump knew that millions of older white Americans don’t appreciate being called racists just because they don’t want Robert E. Lee and his horse Traveler toppled from the town square. It plays right into their rejection of political correctness, a powerful theme for Trump during the campaign and one he still expertly exploits.
Now he is fuzzing up his racism with patriotism. By next Sunday or the Sunday after that, taking a knee or staying in the clubhouse during the national anthem will get old—for fans (many of whom already object), owners and even some of the dissenting players themselves, who will no longer receive the same support from their teammates that they enjoyed last weekend. After we get over the shock of Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones siding with their players over their buddy Trump, the value of standing up to honor the troops will surge back into the public debate.
The challenge for Trump-loathing sports fans who don’t have room to kneel in the stands is to integrate the resistance more seamlessly into “The Star Spangled Banner,” thereby making it harder for Trump to wrap himself in the flag. One way to achieve this would be for the linking of arms during the anthem that began on Sunday to become a widely used symbol of unity over divisiveness. Trump has said linking arms doesn’t concern him, but if it’s done by hundreds of thousands of spectators at a wide variety of sports and entertainment events, it will be viewed as a potent rebuke to his conduct in office. Think of it as “the wave” for our times.
If we’re going to connect with other people—important in the Trump era—we need to be willing to touch them once in a while, too. Linking arms avoids the churchy, sometimes clammy prospect of holding hands with strangers. It expresses solidarity while building the resistance wordlessly.
Trump will be beaten next year not with rage but a quiet King Jamesian determination to rid our politics of anyone in federal, state, or local office who still backs him. These Republicans must go, for they are enabling the endangerment of the world and failing the greatest character test of our generation.