The Corner


The Dominant-Sport Theory of American Politics

Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook (Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY Sports)

I think it’s safe to assert that President Trump has an unfortunate tendency to do and say (and tweet) embarrassing things. When he does, we all join in the condemnation, and often it’s not so much for the substance as for the style. The president of the United States should be dignified, measured, slow to anger; name-calling, threats, and abuse are best left to candidates for county legislature.

All true, and I have joined in the tut-tutting. Yet I can’t help noticing that the people making these criticisms are mostly a bunch of white guys born in the 1960s. I came along near the start of that decade, so I’ve seen a few cultural shifts in my day, and the first one came via early-1970s headlines proclaiming “Baseball No Longer the National Pastime,” after polls showed that football had become America’s most popular sport. Pundits lamented football’s rise (“violence punctuated by committee meetings,” in George Will’s memorable phrase, though he was certainly no stranger to the press box at Redskins games), and indeed, the change coincided with a trend toward greater complication, bureaucratization, and crudity in American life. After brushing off the 1980s soccer scare, football remained unchallenged for decades.

But now football is losing fans for a number of reasons, and David French has written a splendid summary of why basketball, specifically the NBA, continues to rise in popularity. While I am absolutely sure that this was not David’s intention, his article goes a long way towards explaining why Donald Trump may be shrewder than we like to admit. As David points out, on top of the players’ breathtaking skills, the NBA has a culture of showmanship that is in sharp distinction with the NFL, which took decades to soften its anti-celebration rules, and baseball, where you’ll get knocked down if you pump your fist while rounding the bases. A while back, Nelson George glorified basketball’s taunt-and-flaunt style as the “black athletic aesthetic,” and while Donald Trump is one of the whitest men on earth, he has clearly absorbed the essentials of this climate of thought. The chief factors of the black athletic aesthetic have been summarized as intimidation, humiliation, and improvisation, which together give a pretty good description of Trump’s style of governance.

Ironically in view of their respective ages, Obama may have been the last 20th-century president, while Trump is the first 21st-century one. His ignorance of virtually every subject connected with his current job is comprehensive, but, like the hedgehog, he knows one big thing. I’ve said before that Trump is playing tic-tac-toe while his opponents are playing four-dimensional chess, and tic-tac-toe is what wins elections. Another way to put it: Trump’s loudest conservative critics grew up in a baseball world, and America in 2018 is a basketball world. Or: Trump is to Obama as the NBA is to the NFL.


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