America once again finds itself where it has been so often since the day Donald Trump descended an escalator to a podium at the tower named for him to announce his presidential candidacy: pulled into the vortex of partisanship as a master publicist plays notes of division and dispute.
President Trump’s continued stoking of debate over football players kneeling during the national anthem — and the way the subject has dominated public discussion — raised anew the question that surrounds many Trump controversies: Is this part of a plan? Does he believe he gains political advantage from playing off national divisions on topics as fraught as race relations and patriotism? Or does the resulting chaos deliver personal satisfaction to a president who often appears bored with the more humdrum aspects of his post?
Eight months into Trump’s presidency, there’s no answer. But regardless of his motivation, Trump’s impact on the national psyche has been profound.
It is hard to remember a time when everything wasn’t polarized, but it was not that long ago. There were, to be sure, differences of opinion, sometimes on topics as serious as war and sometimes fiercely fought. But never has partisanship spread so widely across the nation’s mass culture.
A steadily lengthening list of aspects of American life —entertainment awards shows, sports, the theater — are caught in the spin of Trump, apolitical ventures suddenly made political by the intercession of the commander in chief. Opinions on topics as disconnected from politics as the quality of Meryl Streep’s acting have been swept up in the partisan divide.
Trump has benefited from growing polarization in America; his most ardent fans love him in large part for the enemies they share. But he also has fueled the move to the poles.
His actions in the case of the NFL players offered a textbook example of how the 45th president operates.
He raises an occurrence that may be in the news, or, as in this case, one that already had mostly faded from view. He eggs on his followers and appalls his opponents. Each responds, further alienating the other. He often plays on race— as was the case Friday, when he judged a few black players in pungent terms before an almost all-white audience in Alabama, a state where ghosts of civil rights battles still reside. And he never, ever admits miscalculation.
Trump’s highest-profile fights have served to fuel the cultural divide that pits his most fervent supporters, white men and rural residents, against what he describes as “elites.” In November, he took on the multicultural cast of the Broadway hit “Hamilton” after some members of the audience booed when Vice President Mike Pence attended a performance.
The cast members had not joined in — in fact, distanced themselves from the booing — but that did not stop Trump from demanding an apology from them “for their terrible behavior.” That allowed Trump, a billionaire then living in a gold-adorned 5th Avenue home, to claim affinity with those who view New York as one of those places, like California, that disdains them.
“A perfect culture war,” UC San Diego political science professor Thad Kousser said at the time.
Similarly, the NFL debate has energized Trump’s supporters; television and social media howled through the weekend about the protests. As NFL teams linked arms in unity, some of their fans screamed in anger.
On Monday, Trump pushed the issue for a fourth day.
“Courageous Patriots have fought and died for our great American Flag --- we MUST honor and respect it! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” he declared in one of several morning messages on Twitter.
Later in the day, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders refused to budge from the argument that the president was completely right, down to defending his use of the term “son of a bitch” to refer to athletes who, in many cases, have donated time and millions of dollars to their communities. Like Trump, she defined the players as protesting about the national anthem, not during it.
The athletes have repeatedly said they mean no disrespect to service members or national symbols, seeking only to bring attention to the treatment of African Americans by police and others. Trump and his allies have sought to recast those symbolic actions into a feud over patriotism, and to question whether protests involving any American symbol negate love of country.
“It's always appropriate for the president of this country to promote our flag, to promote our national anthem and ask people to respect it,” Sanders said Monday.
She was asked whether it was also appropriate for athletes to exercise their 1st Amendment rights.
“I’ve answered your question,” she replied.
Like Sanders, the president has cast the sideline protests as an age-old choice: America, love it or leave it. The protesters have argued that they wish to make America better; Trump will not accept that argument, even though his campaign theme of “Make America Great Again” presumes that the current state of the nation includes flaws.
Ironically, the protests occurred where they originally did because the athletes adopted the same strategy often used by Trump — taking advantage of the highest-profile situation they could to make their claim. Protesting on the field, before a game, is akin — at least in terms of visibility — to the candidate insulting Mexicans during his nationally televised presidential announcement or using other high-profile venues to attack a Mexican judge or the Muslim parents of an Army captain killed in Iraq.
Trump has not been consistent in his view of patriotism. Two years ago, he famously asserted that former prisoner of war and Sen. John McCain was “not a war hero…I like people who weren’t captured.”
He also repeatedly praised Muhammad Ali, who was vilified in 1967 when he refused induction into the Army on grounds of his religious beliefs and the mistreatment of African Americans. Ali was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title and kept out of the ring for three years. His refusal to kowtow to a definition of patriotism is not dissimilar to the stance taken by Colin Kaepernick, who as a San Francisco 49ers quarterback started the NFL protests. (Like Ali, his occupation suffered; he is a free agent and has not been picked up by any pro team.)
Several years ago, Trump tweeted a quote by Ali that referred to the will it took to take a stand: “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”
As a candidate — and now a president — there’s little doubt that Trump willingly takes risks. Some of the controversies he has plunged into have pushed well beyond the comfort zone of many of his supporters.
The campaign attack on the family of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004 while trying to prevent an attack on his soldiers, was one such instance. Trump came back to the attack time and again, apparently intent on trying to seed animosity toward Muslims even as his efforts drove down his standing in campaign polls.
By contrast with some of his earlier fights, however, this one features a greater degree of equality — at least in access to the media — between Trump and his opponents. The morning after Trump took on the football players, he criticized Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry for his reluctance to attend a celebration of the team’s NBA championship at the White House. Trump publicly uninvited the team.
Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James, whose team the Warriors had defeated to claim the championship, defended Curry and called Trump a “bum.” James’ statement was retweeted 655,000 times — 10 times more than Trump’s comment.
Another attempt at division by Trump — in this case, between football fans and NASCAR loyalists — seemed to backfire a bit as well. Early Monday, Trump responded to word from NASCAR officials that the organization would not countenance protests.
“So proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans. They won't put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag - they said it loud and clear!” Trump said.
Less than half an hour later came a tweet from Dale Earnhardt Jr., for years stock car racing’s most popular driver.
“All Americans R granted rights 2 peaceful protests,” he tweeted, then added a quote from another president from a long ago era, John F. Kennedy: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”