Last month, white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched in a torchlight parade in Charlottesville, chanting “Blood and soil!” and “Jews will not replace us.” After violence broke out the next day, a white supremacist drove his car into peaceful counter-protestors, killing one.
After all that, President Donald Trump professed to find very fine people on both sides of the conflict.
After Vladimir Putin interfered directly in our national elections by hacking campaigns, running surreptitious ad campaigns and apparently trying to break into our voting systems, the normally blunt and confrontational Trump has once again gone milque-toast, failing to find the words needed to issue a full-throated or even half-throated condemnation of the Russian dictator.
Ah, but speaking to a raucous crowd in Alabama Friday night, Trump finally found a target worthy of his venom and bile:
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’ You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it — they’re friends of mine, many of them — but they’ll be the most popular person, for a week, they’ll be the most popular person in this country, because that’s a total disrepect for our heritage, that’s a total disrespect of everything that we stand for, OK, everything that we stand for.”
Trump then turned to the issue of the NFL’s falling ratings, which he attributed in part to the shadow cast by his own popularity, and in part to excessive concern for player safety given the astonishingly high rate of brain damage done by football.¹ He showed not an iota of concern for that heavy toll.
“But you know what’s hurting the ratings more than that? When people like yourselves turn on television and you see those people taking the knee when they’re playing our great national anthem. The only thing that you could do better is if you see it, even it’s one player, leave the stadium. I guarantee you things will stop. Things will stop. Just pick up and leave.”
So what do we have here?
We have the president of the United States angrily attempting to dictate to businesses whom they should and should not employ, and demanding a boycott of that business if they do not comply with his wishes.
We have him using the awesome majesty of the office to try to shut down peaceful protests about an issue of deep public concern, in this case the unfair, unjustified use of force by law enforcement against minorities. He is attempting to squelch dissent, and it is that right to publicly dissent that is truly “our heritage” and “everything we stand for.”
We also have Trump, our president, casually applying the term “son of a bitch” to U.S. citizens in a public speech before thousands of listeners and millions watching on TV. People who would slap their kid across the mouth for uttering those words in their presence now stand and cheer wildly when their president says it. That’s how quickly our public discourse and standards of decency are degrading thanks to this man.
Note also how deftly and instinctively Trump separates “we” from “they,” and “people like yourselves” from “those people.”
Which people? You know which people. This is barely coded race-baiting, and by using the national anthem and the American flag to cloak his own ugliness, Trump does them far more disrespect than a player on bended knee ever could.
As Trump noted, he does have friends and supporters among NFL owners, some of whom made major contributions to his campaign. Yet to its credit, the NFL has issued a statement highly critical of Trump’s statement.
“Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said.
It’s going to be interesting. Thanks to Trump, what Colin Kaepernick began as a one-man protest against police brutality is now likely to blossom into something much larger, a demand for basic respect and human dignity. Because people who protest, peacefully, using whatever stage they have earned, are not sons of bitches to be condemned from on high; they are people who want to make this a better country and are willing to stand up for what they believe. Even if you happen to disagree with the cause they champion, you should respect them as American patriots.
“Justice is the end of government,” Alexander Hamilton told us. “It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.”
¹ I cannot recommend highly enough this discussion of the CTE problem with NFL Hall of Famer Cris Carter. The honesty, dignity and passion with which Carter addresses the issue are deeply touching.