A few weeks ago, there was nothing left of Colin Kaepernick’s ill-advised national-anthem protest except a few dying embers. Now the twin bellows that are President Trump’s lungs have blown a blast of pure oxygen into the fire. Suddenly, it’s going stronger than ever.
If you’re an NFL fan, you can only be aghast at what Trump has done. His side — our side, the side that said you shouldn’t insult the flag because of the mistakes made by some police officers — was winning. All Trump had to do to secure this small but important victory was keep his mouth shut. Kaepernick had suffered the twin humiliations of being forced to recant his position last spring by promising to end his pregame protests and being snubbed by every NFL team this summer, which left him free to spend the opening weeks of the season protesting injustice from his couch. Copycat demonstrations were dwindling out.
Now, thanks to Trump, Sunday brought the spectacle of more dismaying national-anthem protests than ever before. Players were taking a knee from coast to coast. We were presented with the mind-boggling spectacle of Patriots players being booed by Patriots fans for being unpatriotic.
Or maybe they were just backing the First Amendment. Or expressing solidarity with fellow athletes such as NBA superstar Stephen Curry, whom Trump blasted in a tweet. Or simply expressing the sentiment that the president of the United States should stay out of their business. Trump gave them a pile of reasons to politicize the presentation of the flag.
How can anyone who wanted the NFL to shed its political baggage possibly back Trump this time? Football, and sports in general, had for many years served as a welcome refuge from questions about race. The link between Black Lives Matter and taking a knee during the National Anthem brought racial resentment to the field of play. Trump made that much, much worse.
Trump’s latest move may, as Rich Lowry has suggested, benefit him personally. Broadly speaking, he and the flag are on the same side. But it would benefit him personally if every American were forced to serve Trump-branded wine and steak for dinner once a week. What damage is he doing to the rest of us in the cause of furthering his own party-of-one agenda? If you wince at the way it seems that every awards show, late-night comic, and even horror story is obsessed with Trump, why would you back Trump baiting the NFL and the national anthem to also become all about him? “I never signed up for that,” said Trump supporter Rex Ryan, the former New York Jets and Buffalo Bills coach who is now an ESPN analyst.
Those of us who didn’t vote for Trump because we’re more conservative than he is — not to mention more patriotic, being appalled by his suggestion that John McCain is a loser for allowing himself to get captured — are in the position of perhaps being associated with him simply by standing for the national anthem. Now non-radical liberals, people who would never (as Kaepernick idiotically did) wear a Castro T-shirt or socks depicting police as pigs and who would ordinarily never show disrespect during the national anthem, are tempted to scowl at the flag because Trump has stamped his brand all over it. The simplest, most unifying things become divisive in the age of Trump. America is a lot surlier and more disputatious than it was just a few days ago. This is not progress.
Barack Obama was frequently, and rightly, criticized for wading into cultural areas he would have been better advised to avoid, as when he made himself part of the Trayvon Martin case by saying, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” He suggested Christians had little moral standing to oppose Islamist terror because of the Crusades. He repeatedly issued off-hand insults when saying things like, “Typically, when people feel stressed, they turn on others who don’t look like them.” The White House formed a partnership with the Academy Awards when Michelle Obama called the 2013 Oscar for Best Picture.
Trump has gone much farther down this road than Obama did. Comparing Obama’s culture war to Trump’s is like comparing a sword to a tank. One did real damage. The other is far worse. Obama chose to do the things that made him an incredibly divisive president. The response to that on the part of those who opposed him shouldn’t be, “Let’s have our guy be even more divisive.”
America doesn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t be the case that we have a president who seizes on disputes from pop culture and entertainment and makes them into sources of national irritation. Football shouldn’t be a political football. May the next president have the wisdom to mollify, de-escalate, and lower the volume. May the next president make America normal again.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.