President Donald Trump is unhappy that figures from the world of televised entertainment are inserting themselves into politics. One smiles a little.
The case of Donald Trump vs. the players of the National Football League is emblematic of our political moment: At its heart is a very serious issue, but that issue is wrapped in so many layers of celebrity, stupidity, opportunism, social-media hysteria, and crassness that it is nearly forgotten.
Of course football players and other professional athletes should stand for the national anthem. Not, as the critics so often put it, because America has been good to them, but because America is good. That the American way of life generates so much prosperity that young men can grow vastly wealthy playing a children’s game is not the least of the nation’s virtues, but it is not the most important of them, either. The United States of America has been, and continues to be, a force for liberty, decency, justice, peace, and prosperity both within its own borders and around the world. “The Star-Spangled Banner” may be an infamously difficult song to sing, but the sight of the flag it celebrates has meant liberation — and life itself — to millions of people around the world, from those looking through the fence at Buchenwald to those looking over the railing of a ship at Ellis Island. That is why you stand for the national anthem.
To be an American citizen is to enjoy an honor beyond any title that a monarch can confer and a dignity beyond any emperor’s gift. And it is in recognition of that fact that we conduct our modest little republican ceremonies, singing the national anthem before football games and saying the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of the school day. We have no doubt that most of those kneeling in protest during the singing of the national anthem are sincere in their concerns, and that they mean to use their high-profile positions in the service of the public good as they perceive it. Goodness knows professional athletes have been in the news for worse reasons. But making a spectacle of themselves during the national anthem disrupts an all too rare moment of civic comity, a time to meditate on our blessings rather than our grievances. There are a dozen different ways athletes and other celebrities might be of good service and bring attention to the issue at the center of this controversy.
That issue, in case you have forgotten, is the condition of African Americans, particularly their experiences with the police. This conversation is marred by a great deal of loose and irresponsible talk about “white supremacy” and incipient fascism. (“The dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States,” Tom Wolfe observed, “and yet lands only in Europe.”) But police officers do make mistakes, and sometimes do worse than make mistakes. Prosecutors, too. This reality is why conservatives make such a fuss about due process, a concern to which our progressive friends have lately given short shrift.
We do not believe that simmering white malice is the reason for it, but black Americans are arrested and incarcerated in numbers far disproportionate to their share of the population. They also suffer from violent crimes much more commonly, especially when they reside in communities that are predominantly black. Black Lives Matters and the rest are wrong about a great deal and have not been entirely honest in their account of deadly police force, but their complaints are not manufactured entirely from their imaginations, either. The United States of America is a good country; it is not a perfect one. And while the United States has made a great deal of progress in the past half-century — and while it is a paragon of racial liberalism compared to much of the rest of the world — that is cold comfort to anyone experiencing injustice in the here and now, and it is only natural that this is felt most keenly by those who bear its burden most directly.
An America president with a sense of history might have made that point. President Trump instead chose to call the protesting athletes “sons of bitches” and to demand that they be stripped of their livelihoods. The president has conducted himself here in an unseemly fashion, to say the least, and has exhibited his remarkable knack for making everything he touches about him, which the NFL protests weren’t until he stuck his nose in. Protests of purported police racism have become protests of Donald Trump. Conducting this business to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner” has put President Trump in a comfortable position: him and the flag on one side, annoying protesters mucking up Sunday Night Football on the other.
The Left, desperate to galvanize a nationwide anti-Trump movement that will drive him from office, is probably going to be disappointed. Trump thrives on this sort of thing, and he is, in a sense, simply beating the Left at its own game: Attempting to deprive people of employment for holding unpopular political views has been a progressive hobby for years, as Brendan Eich and many others could testify. Still, Republicans should think better of getting into the same mob-rule habit, and presidents have — should have — more pressing business than the antics of unemployed quarterbacks and their admirers. The ratings of professional sports leagues are not the leading indicator to which the president should be attending.
Of course athletes have the right to protest. Their employers also have the right to set standards of professional conduct, and football fans have the right to change the channel. The president has the right to tweet. This is not a question of rights but a question of judgment, which was, unhappily, in short supply over the weekend.