Russell Kirk wrote a famous book called “The Conservative Mind.” What should the conservative mind think about Trump and the NFL? I don’t know. I don’t think there is a conservative mind. I think there are many minds, some of which call themselves conservative.
But you will always hear from people who assert that there is One Conservative Mind (usually theirs). Jonah Goldberg has a name for these people: “True Conservative, Inc.”
Anyway, I will tell you what this conservative — moi — thinks of the Trump-and-NFL affair. And it will contain sentiments you will recognize as conservative, even flagrantly so.
I never had any use for Colin Kaepernick’s stunt. I don’t like this exploitation of national-anthem time. I also believe in safe zones — zones free of politics, such as concerts and games. I’m semi-famous for it (though only semi-)! An essay on safe zones is included in my recent collection, Digging In.
Kaepernick really disgusted me when he wore a shirt touting Fidel Castro — and socks depicting cops as pigs.
At the same time, I counseled benign neglect, borrowing Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s (radioactive) phrase from the late ’60s. Starve Kaepernick of attention. Don’t feed him, or it. Let him do his thing, and the rest of us will do ours. This is America. What the hay. (“Hey”?)
The issue was dying out. There were just a few embers. Then Donald J. Trump got into it, of course. He is an arsonist in American politics. We used to call Sharpton & Co. “racial arsonists.” The president is his own brand of arsonist. (Actually, Trump and Sharpton are a lot alike, as I’ve argued before: two New York media creatures.) Also, Trump insists on being at the center of attention, always.
There’s an expression for such men: “the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral.”
You heard Trump, revvin’ up that crowd: “Get that son-of-a-bitch off the field right now! Out! He’s fired!” Blah blah blah. Roar roar roar. And that changed everything.
We Americans are a patriotic lot. We’re also a cranky, independent-minded, nonconformist lot. We don’t like to be told what to do, especially by Authority. We don’t like to be bossed around. So, pre-Trump, kneeling meant one thing — and then it meant a big middle finger to the Man, a.k.a. Trump, a.k.a. POTUS.
Context is everything. Everything. It took Donald J. Trump to make anti-kneelers sympathetic to kneelers. Indeed, he turned some anti-kneelers into kneelers themselves.
He crudifies everything he touches — including conservatism, including patriotism. There is a difference between patriotism and jingoism. Between patriotism and crude nationalism, crude flag-waving.
If Trump is so all-fired patriotic, why does he repeatedly equate the United States with Putin’s Russia? (“What, you think our country’s so innocent?”) Why did he trash an FBI director to two of Putin’s reps in the Oval Office? And so on.
American nerves were raw before Trump became president, and he has rubbed them rawer. It’s what he does. He may not have substantive achievements, but he’s got grievance and Kulturkampf, as Bob Tyrrell says — culture struggle, or culture war — and that keeps him going. The whole country is responsive to Donald J. Trump. The whole country is in the throes of Trump fever.
I, once more, quote James L. Buckley, writing in 1974, when he was a senator, and America was experiencing a “crisis of the regime”: “A crisis of the regime is a disorder, a trauma, involving every tissue of the nation, conspicuously including its moral and spiritual dimensions.”
On a lower plane, I think of a book title — the title of a campaign book. We are now fighting over the flag, and Germond and Witcover’s book in 1988 was called “Whose Broad Stripes and Bright Stars?”
Let me close with what is possibly my favorite story about patriotism. It involves Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly. Kelly spent most of his life as a Marine. Also, he had a son killed in Afghanistan. (Robert Kelly.) Before his confirmation hearing to be homeland-security secretary, someone pointed out to Kelly that he was not wearing an American-flag lapel pin. Kelly answered, “I am the American flag.”
Perfect. Just perfect. Carry on, y’all.