It was a saddening spectacle when the Boston Red Sox were invited to the White House to honor their World Series win and nearly all of those who showed up were white. A slate of black and Latino players, plus Puerto Rico–born manager Alex Cora, pointedly declined to attend. Cora made it clear in statements that this was an act of political opposition.
Naturally the media blamed the target of this calculated mass protest. “Did Donald Trump honor the Red Sox or the ‘White’ Sox?” asks columnist Edward Montini in the Arizona Republic, adding, “Trying to pretend that President Donald Trump has not caused a widening racial and ethnic divide means not believing what you can hear with your own ears and see — clearly — with your own eyes.” MSNBC guest and former Joe Biden chief of staff Ron Klain said, “I bet [Trump] was happy today that he was able to say that the white players were here and players of color weren’t. That’s the kind of division he fosters deliberately.”
The Red Sox boycott is the latest discomfiting incident of professional athletes, especially black and Latino ones, declining to participate in routine White House ceremonies honoring champions. When Clemson’s college-football team was invited to the White House, 74 percent of the team’s players of color “declined the ‘honor,’” Montini points out. The Golden State Warriors and Philadelphia Eagles refused White House invitations en masse, forcing White House cancellations of events planned to honor them.
Nobody likes to see a glaring race divide in America. Nobody, I suppose, except progressives, who are cheering all of this acrimony and calling for more of the same. Elizabeth Warren praised Cora. The supposedly nonpartisan media is having a chin-stroking moment of reflection, saying, “Isn’t it unfortunate, what Trump has done?” Notes the Washington Post, “What had once been feel-good ceremonies at the White House have become pitched moments of cultural reckoning.”
True, but let’s call this what it is: Top athletes, especially top athletes of color, are insulting the president of the United States. They have every right to do this, but let’s at least get the direction of the animosity right. Trump doesn’t invite just white athletes to the White House. The racial resentment in these ceremonies is being flung at him, not by him. The athletes, not the president, are racializing these ceremonies.
Before I deal with the “Trump is uniquely bad” argument, an obvious point: These feel-good photo-ops for jocks are nonpartisan. Everyone used to understand this. Participating in a White House ceremony does not constitute an endorsement of a president, much less agreement with all of his policies. Before the Trump era, only a handful of athletes had ever been conspicuous no-shows at White House events to honor them, and most of them hastened to clarify that they had non-political reasons for missing the events. These days everything must be scrutinized for political content. Dave Zirin of The Nation is assailing Tiger Woods for accepting a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Trump, saying it amounted to “to kiss[ing] Trump’s ring.”
Trump has broken norms in many ways, but the feedback loop is apparent. His ideological enemies consider Trump’s behavior to be a license to abandon their own norms. The media are hostile in unprecedented ways, so Trump attacks the media in unprecedented ways, which makes the media even more openly hostile. Nonpartisan awards ceremonies turn into unhinged anti-Trump roasts. The formerly good-natured ribbing at the White House Correspondents Dinner becomes so sulfurous that the comedy portion has to be canceled, and Robert De Niro shouts the f-word at the Tony Awards. Reporters can hardly get through a tweet without editorializing about their dislike of the president, and TV news has invented the snark chyron. When President Obama was saying, “If you like your health-care plan, you can keep it” 37 times, I don’t recall CNN ever snark-chyroning him with, “OBAMA REPEATS UNTRUTH ABOUT KEEPING YOUR PLAN.” Obama’s health-care whopper was more consequential than all of Trump’s untruths and lies put together, given that it was critical to the passage of the biggest legislation since the 1960s.
To cast Trump as uniquely polarizing, hence uniquely deserving of unusual social calumny, is to ignore statistical trends. Americans are simply getting more and more susceptible to polarization, determined to go nuclear on every passing remark: Remember “s***hole countries”? As spinach was to Popeye, so social media is to political outrage. Gallup tells us that of the 15 most divisive years of presidential polling they’ve ever recorded, 14 of those years have been since 2005. (The 15th happened during the Clinton administration.) George W. Bush was the most polarizing president ever, until he was supplanted by Barack Obama, who was supplanted by Donald Trump. It may be that every president turns out to be the most polarizing president ever, for a while.
Shattered norms can prove difficult to glue back together, and “Two can play that game” is a phrase that must be unfamiliar to many of our friends on the left, including many who play actual games for a living. Should a Democrat be elected president next year, Trump fans are going to be angry and bitter. They’re going to be looking for ways not only to undermine his successor but to embarrass and humiliate that person for the most trivial things — and they’ll have plenty of precedent from the Trump era to cite. Is this the way people on the left want it to be, or would they like to take a deep breath, quiet their hysteria, and start behaving normally again? It’s vital that there be at least some tranquil gardens of nonpartisanship in our civic life, places where we can agree to check our cudgels at the door and talk about sports or movies or our kids. The Left is determined to bring hollering mobs into every one of these redoubts and pollute them with unnecessary rancor and spite. As progressives trample all over respected traditions, “He started it” makes a poor excuse.