President Trump’s assault on athletes, particularly prominent black ones, is is part of his larger culture war. Divide. Inflame. Confuse. Divert. And rule. Photograph by Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty
Every day, and in countless and unexpected ways, Donald Trump, the President of the United States, finds new ways to divide and demoralize his country and undermine the national interest. On Tuesday, he ranted from the lectern of the U.N. General Assembly about “Rocket Man” and the possibility of levelling North Korea. Now he has followed with an equally unhinged domestic performance at a rally, on Friday evening, in Huntsville, Alabama, where he set out to make African-American athletes the focus of national contempt.
In the midst of an eighty-minute speech intended to heighten the reëlection prospects of Senator Luther Johnson Strange III, Trump turned his attention to N.F.L. players, including the former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and asked a mainly white crowd if “people like yourselves” agreed with his anger at “those people,” players who take a knee during the national anthem to protest racism.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these N.F.L. owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired!’ ” Trump continued. “You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s gonna say, ‘That guy disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it. They don’t know it. They’re friends of mine, many of them. They don’t know it. They’ll be the most popular person, for a week. They’ll be the most popular person in the country.”
“People like yourselves.” “Those people.” “Son of a bitch.” This was the same sort of racial signalling that followed the Fascist and white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. It is no longer a matter of “dog whistling.” This is a form of racial demagoguery broadcast at the volume of a klaxon. There is no need for Steve Bannon’s behind-the-scenes scriptwriting. Trump, who is desperate to distract his base from his myriad failures of policy, from health care to immigration, is perfectly capable of devising his racist rhetoric all on his own.
In these performances, Trump is making clear his moral priorities. He is infinitely more offended by the sight of a black ballplayer quietly, peacefully protesting racism in the United States than he is by racism itself. Which, at this point, should come as no surprise to any but the willfully obtuse. Trump, who began his real-estate career with a series of discriminatory housing deals in New York City, and his political career with a racist calumny against Barack Obama, has repeatedly defined his Presidency with a rhetoric that signals solidarity to resentful souls who see the Other as the singular cause of their troubles. Trump stokes a bilious disdain for every African-American who dares raise a voice to protest the injustices of this country.
And lest there be any doubt about his intentions or allegiances, Trump tweeted this afternoon, “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, you’re fired. Find something else to do.”
In addition to urging the N.F.L.’s owners to fire any politically impertinent players, Trump also disinvited the N.B.A. champions, the Golden State Warriors, from visiting the White House after one of the team’s stars, Stephen Curry, voiced hesitation about meeting with the President.
Twitter was alight with players and others rushing to the support of those on the receiving end of Trump’s barbs.
“Going to the White House was a great honor until you showed up!” LeBron James said. Many professional athletes tweeted in the same spirit as James, and even the N.F.L. commissioner, Roger Goodell, who has hardly been stalwart in the interests of his players, issued a statement calling Trump’s comments “divisive” and showing an “unfortunate lack of respect” for the league and its players. Compared to the N.B.A. commissioner, Adam Silver, who has been consistently anti-racist and supportive of the players’ right to protest, Goodell is a distinctly corporate figure, whose instinct is nearly always to side with the owners. (At least six N.F.L. owners each contributed a million dollars, or more, to Trump’s Inauguration fund, including Woody Johnson, of the Jets, Robert Kraft, of the Patriots, and Daniel Snyder, of the Redskins.)
Trump has experience in professional sports—with boxing, as a casino operator; with football, as an owner. (And if professional wrestling counts, the man is practically a charter member of the W.W.E.) In the eighties, he was the owner of the New Jersey Generals, a team in the ill-fated United States Football League, which played its games in the spring. He was reportedly interested in buying the Buffalo Bills as recently as three years ago.
And yet his sympathy for the players is minimal. Not only does he try to isolate them as ungrateful anthem-defiling millionaires, he also could not care less about their health. No matter how many reports are issued making clear that the sport has left countless players suffering from all manner of neurological diseases, Trump is unimpressed. C.T.E. injuries in football seem to be no more a reality to him than climate change.
At a rally in Lakeville, Florida, during the Presidential campaign, Trump aroused the crowd by insisting that the N.F.L., which has hardly gone to great lengths to protect its players, was “ruining the game” by inflicting penalties on players who, say, hit the quarterback too late. “See, we don’t go by these new and very much softer N.F.L. rules. Concussion? Oh! Oh! ‘Got a little ding in the head—no, no, you can’t play for the rest of the season.’ Our people are tough.”
What Trump is up to with this assault on athletes, particularly prominent black ones, is obvious; it is part of his larger culture war. Divide. Inflame. Confuse. Divert. And rule. He doesn’t care to grapple with complexity of any kind, whether it’s about the environment, or foreign affairs, or race, or the fact that a great American sport may, by its very nature, be irredeemable. Rather than embody any degree of dignity, knowledge, or unifying embrace, Trump is a man of ugliness, and the damage he does, speech after speech, tweet after tweet, deepens like a coastal shelf. Every day, his Presidency takes a toll on our national fabric. How is it possible to argue with the sentiment behind LeBron James’s concise tweet at Trump: “U Bum”? It isn’t.
David Remnick has been editor of The New Yorker since 1998 and a staff writer since 1992. He is the author of “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.”