The Memo

The Memo: Trump stokes culture wars over national anthem

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President Trump has stepped into the center of the nation’s culture wars again — and one big question is whether it will be to his benefit or detriment.

Trump disinvited the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles from a White House visit on Monday evening, saying the team was no longer welcome less than 24 hours before the event was due to take place.

Instead, Trump held a brief ceremony that the administration billed as a “Celebration of America” at the White House on Tuesday.{mosads}

Trump has returned again and again to the NFL issue, complaining about players who have protested racial injustice by taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem.

To his supporters, he is standing up for patriotic values against cosseted athletes and a broader liberal culture that backs them. To his detractors, he is taking a racially charged stance and stoking white resentment by assailing a sports league in which most players are black.

The pro- and anti-Trump camps did find one area of common ground on the specific question of the Eagles event. There was wide agreement that Trump had little choice but to rescind the invitation after it became clear that only a small number of Eagles players were willing to attend.

“This is not a disinvitation. They have chosen not to go,” said Grant Farred, a Cornell University professor who has written widely about sport and race. 

“The majority of players have said no. This is an embarrassment of Trump and they have forced his hand,” Farred added approvingly.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that the Eagles franchise had participated in a “political stunt” in which most of the players “backed out at the last minute.”

At the Tuesday event, the president offered a rationale for why people should stand for the national anthem — even though no Eagles players took a knee during the 2017 season.

“Maybe it’s about time that we understood we stand to honor our military, and to honor our country, and to remember the fallen heroes who never made it back home,” Trump said. 

Earlier in the day, Trump had taken aim at the NFL itself, which recently announced that players who took to the field for the national anthem would be required to stand. The new edict contained a loophole of sorts, in that players can remain in the locker room during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” if they wish.

“NFL, no escaping to Locker Rooms!” Trump tweeted earlier on Tuesday.

Trump’s feud with the NFL is long-running.

Last September, a rally ostensibly in support of then-Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) was overshadowed by Trump’s suggestion that NFL owners should fire players who take a knee. Trump said the situation would change for the better if owners responded to such protests by saying, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired. He’s fired!” 

The heat of his rhetoric on that occasion drew particular controversy, given the heavily white demographics of Trump’s base and the makeup of the NFL, where about 70 percent of the players are African-American.

There has also been a broader disdain for Trump from a number of athletes.

Basketball star LeBron James weighed in on the Eagles controversy Tuesday, saying that whether his Cleveland Cavaliers or the rival Golden State Warriors wins the NBA championship this year, “no one wants an invite anyway.”

Among the overall electorate, however, Trump’s stance may be to his benefit — one reason why he consistently returns to the topic.

“It’s controversial, but it has helped him with his base. Standing up for the national anthem is not a losing argument,” said Rick Tyler, a GOP strategist who is often critical of Trump.

Tyler added: “I think the issue would have gone away a long time ago, but he has kept it going because it makes his base happy.”

Another GOP operative who declined to be named was even more certain that there were electoral benefits to be reaped from Trump’s approach.

“The national anthem thing is a straightforward winner and powerful for the midterms,” this source said. 

Referring specifically to Trump’s jabs at the NFL about “escaping to Locker Rooms,” the operative added, “He just blew up the owners to show he is not on the side of the bosses.”

Trump has in the past taken credit for falling TV ratings for the NFL, even though skeptics caution that the drop-off in audiences may be attributable to several factors.

There is, however, significant polling evidence that Trump is on the winning side of the issue. A recent HuffPost–YouGov poll, for instance, indicated that 49 percent of Americans feel it is inappropriate to kneel during the national anthem, against 35 percent who believe it is appropriate. 

Conservative strategist Keith Appell pushed back at the idea that Trump’s stance was designed to reap political benefit — even though it may have that side effect.

“I think he genuinely is upset about it,” Appell said. “But I think the public is too. If we want to talk in political terms, this doesn’t hurt him at all, not one bit.”

Appell also contended that media coverage that framed the issue purely as one between Trump and NFL players is overly simplistic. 

He said there were ways that the players could have made tangible changes with less controversy — for example, by visiting local police departments to make their case. The whole furor, he said, has been a public relations debacle.

“The attendance figures and the TV ratings are evidence that many football fans and Americans in general were just turned off by what they perceived to be northing more than self-righteous grandstanding while on the job,” he said.

But there is a huge chasm between that view and those who say it is Trump himself who has deepened divides on racial issues, from the NFL to Charlottesville, Va. — a pattern that some see as a grave failure in a president’s perceived obligation to be a unifying figure.

The fiercest critics argued that Trump’s stance on the NFL is simply the latest attempt to seek dividends from inflaming racial tensions that came to the fore during the tenure of former President Obama, the nation’s first black president.

“American racism never goes away. It ebbs and flows,” said Farred. “Trump is not stoking anything that hasn’t been like embers smoldering for at least eight years now.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags Donald Trump Luther Strange

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