The Democrats’ winning midterm campaign message would seem simple enough: Trump is bad and must be opposed. Yet at the moment the party risks being associated with a somewhat less attractive message: The American flag is bad and must be opposed.
Last week, left-wing Democrat Ayanna Pressley ousted long-term incumbent Michael Capuano from the John F. Kennedy/Tip O’Neill House seat in the Democratic primary while praising the NFL anti-flag protests, which her opponent called “wrong.” Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke says — in Texas! — that there is “nothing more American” than kneeling for the national anthem. The judicious center-left New York Times columnist David Leonhardt notes in his daily newsletter that “the anthem is a trap for Democrats.”
That Nike rolled out Colin Kaepernick as its new spokesman not only knocked a couple of billion dollars off the value of the company, it also amounts to an in-kind campaign contribution to the Republican party. The Left and its base of activists, pundits, and (increasingly) woke capitalists simply can’t let this issue go, much less acknowledge that its flag-dissing is conceptually flawed. Demonizing a huge population based on stereotypes derived from the actions of a few of its members is exactly the kind of anti-American impulse that liberals once stood so valiantly against.
The Kaepernick-led anthem protests were wrong-headed to begin with. Try to follow this logic: The misbehavior of a few police officers means the police in general should be reviled. And if we revile the police the entire American project is to be rebuked by protesting the anthem. Martin Luther King Jr., by contrast, said his stirring vision was “deeply rooted in the American dream.” He called upon us to live up to American ideals. That isn’t Kaepernick’s message.
Now the protests have gone meta: They’re not about policing, they’re about Kaepernick. They are protests about a protester. A mediocre quarterback turned accomplished flag-troller is a hero to the extreme left, and because the extreme left wields gargantuan cultural power his story receives fawning treatment that, to a swing voter in Missouri or Indiana or Montana, seems out of touch or absurd or even enraging. Leonhardt cites an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that shows voters find the flag protests to be inappropriate by an eleven-point margin, which almost surely understates the gravity of the problem for Democrats. For one thing, the poll’s question was phrased to nudge respondents toward sympathy for the protesters. For another, you can be sure that the unemployed quarterback, like the similarly jobless Hillary Clinton, rolled up huge margins of support in population centers like New York City and Philadelphia and Chicago, which means he lost big in the areas that are politically contested.
Nike’s net approval rating plunged an astonishing 34 points last week, the kind of polling shift you wouldn’t expect to see unless Air Jordans were proven to cause ankle cancer. Keeping Kaepernick front and center in the national discourse is a bad move for a sneaker company, a bad move for the pundits and activists who cheered it, and a bad move for any Democratic office-seeker. If voters get it into their heads that this November 6 is about whether you should kneel or stand for the national anthem, it won’t work out well for Democrats in the short or long term.
President Trump is a political genius in much the same way that Wile E. Coyote is a mechanical genius, but he has proven that he has some lizard-brain, WWE-tinged sense of how to push the public’s buttons. And Republican strategists are saying that this is as good a shot as any they have of changing the subject from the bedlam in the White House. It may not be long before Trump starts literally wrapping himself in the flag while wearing flag shorts, à la Rocky IV.
Do the anthem protests matter when it comes to deciding which political party to vote for? It’s hard to see how they do. But the stuff that does matter is complicated, boring, frustrating. And voters are neither patient nor entirely rational in the first place. Thanks to the Trumpification of national discourse, which turns previously mild-mannered politicians into wannabee Howard Beales and is costing us more collective IQ points than a national mandate to drink lead-infused tea, voters appear to be growing less rational by the hour. Some not insignificant percentage of the public got excited about Trump in part because they were under the impression it was no longer okay to say “Merry Christmas,” after all.
Democrats would be wise to decline to take Trump’s bait here, and to inform the public that they’re on our side, not with the petulant millionaire athletes and the newly crowned king of Nike endorsements. The entire controversy is an opportunity for the party to prove it stands with a broad swathe of the country, rather than the elites who disgust so many ordinary Americans.
But, then again, the Democrats rarely miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.