The optics of the mass protests across the NFL on Sunday were striking. Of the roughly 200 NFL players who knelt or sat during the national anthem, only a handful of them were white. So when Donald Trump told a scrum of reporters that his attack on players who kneel in protest has nothing to do with race—a position he doubled down on in a Monday morning tweet—the president was either lying, or he’s dimmer than we thought. We’re going to go with the former.
Right from the outset of Trump’s sweeping anti-NFL campaign, which kicked off when he called any player who doesn’t stand for the national anthem a “son of a bitch” who should be fired by his team’s owner simpy for exercising their First Amendment rights, the specter of race loomed large. “You know what’s hurting the game?” Trump asked a predominantly white Alabama audience on Friday. “When people like yourselves turn on the television, and you see those people taking the knee when they are playing our great national anthem.”
His language was telling. Trump deliberately framed the issue as an “us vs. them” narrative, the “us” being the hard-working, patriotic white people who deserve to be entertained by the “them”: privileged, ungrateful, young black millionaires.
It was another remarkable example of Trump’s trademark politics of division, which crested after the violence in Charlottesville. Trump is keenly aware that Colin Kaepernick took a knee to protest police brutality and racial injustice against black Americans. He also knows that the majority of his base rejects Black Lives Matter as a legitimate social movement. By targeting the NFL’s payers, Trump has left little room for speculation as to what side of the fence he falls on.
This isn’t just another example of Donald Trump lashing out at a perceived enemy. Trump’s attack on African American athletes—he went after Steph Curry over the weekend, too—is something far more sinister and insidious.
This is the president purposely dividing the country in order to capitalize on the same racial tension that helped propel him into office. Maybe he was reeling from another failed attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare. Or maybe he was fearful that Charlottesville had faded from the public consciousness, and he needed to remind his neglected base not to worry because yes, he’s still a racist.
Perhaps the most flagrant example at Trump stoking the flames of a culture war appeared on—where else?—Twitter Monday, when he sent out a tweet praising NASCAR and its fans for condemning Sunday’s protests. “They won’t put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag – they said it loud and clear!“ Trump wrote. By praising a sport that’s most popular in the South, and whose owners and athletes are predominantly white, Trump is drawing a literal line across the continental U.S.
Despite the mounting evidence, those in Trump’s orbit backed the president’s claim that his issue is with athletes disrespecting the flag, and that any mention of race is erroneous.
“He’s in a bubble here because he knows he’s not a racist. His friends know he isn’t,” Trump’s longtime friend Chris Ruddy told Politico. “He sees himself standing on the high ground of the truth. But the media are telling the rest of the country a different story about him.”
At Monday’s press briefing, White House Press Security Sarah Huckabee Sanders was unequivocal in her defense of the president’s motives. “This isn’t about the president being against anyone, but this is about the president and millions of Americans being for something, being for honoring our flag, honoring our national anthem and honoring the men and women who fought to defend it,” Sanders said.
When asked if the president was trying to incite a culture war, she said that if players really want to protest police brutality, “they should probably protest the officers on the field that are protecting them instead of the American flag.“
Trump and his supporters know deep down that no athlete that kneels during the national anthem is “protesting the American flag,” as Sanders put it. But Trump’s political rhetoric has always been based on convenience, not facts. What Trump fails to realize is that by deliberately inflaming racial tensions, he’s inadvertently helping Kaepernick achieve his original goal. The issue of racial injustice in America is once again at the forefront and it’s not going anywhere.