Politics & Policy

Trump and the NFL Protesters Picked the Wrong Fight

Once again, one is left asking, “What is Trump doing?” Having navigated hurricane season with a certain aplomb — and having avoided attracting any lightning for a while — the president’s approval rating was slowly ticking up. In the meantime, he looked to be recovering his agenda. He was making progress on tax reform, had put his eccentric stamp on his administration’s foreign policy, and had even cut some deals with the Democrats. And then, as was inevitable, he reverted to his favorite role: the cranky TV critic at the mid-scale Queens bar.

Ideally, Trump would have said nothing at all — in a republic such as ours, the best presidents are quiet, and they stick to their realms with assiduous care. But if he had to weigh in — and he’s Trump, not Coolidge, so he did — he would have done so more wisely than this. He would have had more sense than to issue belligerent instructions; he would have declined to use terms such as “allowed” and “fired”; and he would have limited, not exacerbated, the firestorm. He would, in addition, have come across as less impotent. The defenses of his choices have been predictable — “he fights!”; “he stands up!”; “he’s crushing political correctness!” — but they have also been wrong. Trump’s is not the way to reduce “politicization,” or even to dissect it for a supportive silent majority. Trump’s is the way of the brawler, and brawlers makes bar fights much worse and much messier. For all of their sanctimony, it remains the case that the media, Hollywood, and the music industry have little political purchase. Mess with a film star or with Jim Acosta and nobody really cares. But sports — sports are a different matter. Sports drive conversation in a way that Netflix and CNN never will. Sports are invited into the living room, into restaurants, into everywhere. The president just took himself hostage to a deep and swirling current. I can’t imagine it’ll end well.

And what of the protesters who have raised the president’s ire? Irrespective of the merits of their cause — and, for what it’s worth, I think they’re confusing some genuinely terrible incidents for a “structure” or a “trend” — it strikes me that they, too, are going about this in precisely the wrong way. The most successful movements in American history have elected to laud America and its ideals, and then to complain about exclusion or hypocrisy or a failure to consummate vows. This, eventually, was the course Frederick Douglass took. It was the course that MLK took, with his soaring talk of a defaulted-upon “promissory note.” It was the course taken by the suffragettes. To appeal to America at the outset of an indictment is to ensure that the skeptical listener hears the subsequent criticism as “we want in” rather than “we want out.” In taking the opposite path, Kaepernick and co. have made a serious tactical mistake — a mistake that will stunt any growth they hope to enjoy. Before the details of their charge were ever known, they were seen disparaging the core symbols of the nation — symbols for which many have died and bled, and which are often taken as proxies for the Constitution, the family, and even for God — and, in some cases, they were seen praising the dictator of a perennial American foe.

It is no more my role to instruct the aggrieved how to protest than it is President Trump’s; the First Amendment is not, and must not, be mine to police. But if I wanted to prevail here, I wouldn’t have taken this course. In concert with the White House, the protestors have by their rhetoric all-but guaranteed a stalemate. And the losers of the fallout will be everyone stuck in between.

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