President Trump’s supporters are voicing confidence that his attacks on protesting professional athletes will pay off politically.
Many Republicans believe Trump’s comments will energize a base fed up with protests by millionaire players that many can’t afford to go see, pushing back against the notion that the fight will turn more Americans against the president.
“The coastal elites and reporters are out of touch with the majority of Americans. They just see this as another protest. That's where they are wrong. It's not,” said GOP strategist Curt Anderson. “For most Americans, not standing for the national anthem is dishonorable. Period. Plain and simple.”
The White House on Monday defended Trump, saying his criticism of players who kneel during the national anthem was about supporting the flag, not about race.
“It’s always appropriate for the president of the United States to defend our flag, to defend our national anthem,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at her Monday press briefing.
She denied that there was a racial component to the controversy, saying that the “focus” of the protests “has long since changed.”
Few of Trump’s critics were buying the White House’s arguments.
Many noted that Trump’s choice of targets suggested a racial component given that about 70 percent of NFL players are black.
Trump triggered the controversy during a rally in Alabama for a Republican Senate candidate on Friday by calling out former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for kneeling last season to protest police brutality against minorities and racial inequality.
Trump described those kneeling for the national anthem, who are predominantly African-American, as “sons of bitches,” and said it would be great if their team owners fired them for the protests.
A day later, Trump doubled down on the criticism and also disinvited NBA star Stephen Curry from a White House visit, starting a new fight with a different predominantly black sports league.
On Monday, he took time to cheer on NASCAR, a predominantly white sport, after two team owners warned their drivers against anthem protests.
Trump supporters were encouraged the attacks would pay off for Trump no matter the racial animus.
The top-selling NFL jersey on Monday belonged to Alejandro Villanueva, a Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman and U.S. Army veteran who broke with his team Sunday and stood for the national anthem just outside the tunnel at Heinz Field.
A Quinnipiac poll conducted last October showed a majority of Americans disapprove of athletes who refuse to stand for the anthem. In a sign of the racial divide, however, three-quarters of African-American adults approve of the protests.
Trump showed no sign he was interested in letting up on the issue, beginning the day with a series of tweets about the anthem and flag.
“The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!” he wrote in one.
Some Republicans who dislike the athletes' protests nonetheless fear that Trump’s criticism will backfire given his provocative language.
“It is not a divisive statement to ... say Americans should stand during the national anthem. That’s not divisive,” said GOP strategist Austin Barbour.
“But it’s the way the president said it, using ‘SOB,’ it turned his comments into a divisive statement,” he said.
“I have friends who voted for and love Trump but are furious at him,” said Barbour. “These are Southern football fans. They don’t want anything screwing with their weekends, but now they can’t turn on the TV without a debate about it and the reactions from players and owners, and it’s all in your face.”
Trump’s decision to revive the controversy over anthem protests comes just as he was seeing a modest recovery in the polls.
The president’s approval rating bottomed out in mid-August amid the blowback over his equivocating response to a violent white supremacist march in Charlottesville, in which he said there were “very fine people” on both sides of the protests.
Some operatives believe Trump risks squandering the gains made since that disaster by engaging in yet another racially charged fight at a time when his administration is facing tough legislative battles on health care and tax reform as well as a humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Maria.
Critics questioned why the president has condemned African-American athletes who protest more eagerly than he has white supremacist groups.
The sports world has reacted in an overwhelmingly negative way to Trump’s comments.
More than 200 NFL players — or about 1 in 8 — did not stand up for the national anthem this past week, according to a count compiled by The Associated Press. Three teams stayed off the field entirely. By comparison, just six players protested during the anthem the week before.
NBA star LeBron James, one of the most recognizable athletes on the planet, said Trump’s response shows he is woefully out of touch with the country he leads.
“The people run this country. Not one individual — and damn sure not him,” James said at the Cleveland Cavaliers’ media day event.
Washington Wizards player Bradley Beal called the president a “clown,” and Washington Redskins cornerback Josh Norman said Trump “is not welcome in Washington, D.C.” San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called the president’s behavior “disgusting” and “comical.”
Even some Trump fans criticized his comments. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who has a personal relationship with the president, called his comments “divisive.”
But the nation’s two largest veterans groups backed Trump, casting protests of the national anthem as an affront to the troops. And the president’s closest allies are betting the fight is a political winner.
The pro-Trump outside group America First Policies is amplifying Trump’s position, running digital ads it says have reached close to a million people urging people to “take a stand, not a knee.”
“This has nothing to do with race,” said America First Policies spokeswoman Erin Montgomery. “It’s about doing the job you are paid — and paid very well — to do. It’s about respecting the fans that pay your salary. And it’s about respecting the incredible country that made it all possible.”