Last season, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt at games during the national anthem, in silent protest of police violence against black Americans. He has explained his reasons, repeatedly. It has been controversial, a topic of constant conversation in sports media and among fans of professional football. And it has existed largely outside of partisan politics, until now.
On Friday, during a political rally in Alabama in support of Sen. Luther Strange, President Trump slammed players like Kaepernick and encouraged NFL owners to fire them for their actions. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’ ” the president said to a cheering crowd of supporters. “You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it but they’ll be the most popular person in this country.”
It is impossible to know if this was an outburst—another utterance from Trump’s almost unrestrained id—or something more calculated. What we can say, however, is that it’s revealing. Revealing of the president’s priorities, revealing of his essential political persona, and revealing of just who is included in his vision of America.
Trump continued this barrage on Twitter. “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!” Later, Trump dismissed claims of racism in his particular focus on black athletes and public figures. “This has nothing to do with race,” he said. “This has to do with respect for our country.” Players responded, using their Twitter feeds to challenge and critique Trump. And on Sunday, more than 200 performed some form of Kaepernick’s protest, rejecting the president’s rhetoric even if they obscured the actual point of the kneel, which was to challenge police brutality.
These events have at least one obvious takeaway: They underscore the vital role of racist grievance in President Trump’s message and rhetoric. His attacks on black athletes are of a piece with the “birtherism” that jump-started his political career. His belief that the protesting players are ungrateful—that they were given their success (“privilege”) and have no place to complain—recalls his demand for Barack Obama’s college transcripts and his view that the president was an unqualified product of affirmative action. As Jelani Cobb argued for the New Yorker, this language is euphemism for an old charge against prosperous blacks who dared speak against unfair treatment: uppity.
But embedded in Trump’s rhetoric is an even older idea, one that goes beyond questions of social standing to the fundamentals of belonging and citizenship. Look again at the way Trump talked about the protests. He introduces the subject by defining an “us.”
Luther and I and everyone in this arena tonight are unified by the same great American values. We’re proud of our country. We respect our flag.
He then defines a them, the “somebody” who “disrespects our flag.” He continues on these lines. “That’s a total disrespect of our heritage, that’s a total disrespect of everything that we stand for.”
He says this before an almost entirely white audience, in a state known for its rigid racial polarization, about a group of black players whose strongest support is found within black communities. In that context, Trump’s repeated use of “our”—our flag, our heritage, our country—takes on a racial tint. It ceases to be the inclusive “our” of most presidential rhetoric and begins to sound like an exclusive one, where the flag, and the nation’s heritage, belongs to white Americans alone. He attempts to turn a protest against police violence into a protest against this version of America itself. If you consider it alongside his response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia—when he defended monuments to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson by analogizing them to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson—or next to his larger policy agenda of exclusion and harassment toward Hispanic immigrants and Muslim Americans, then “our flag” takes on an unmistakable tone.
This notion, that the United States is first and foremost a white country, and that only whites are entitled to full political equality, is as old as the nation itself. Arguably, as philosopher Charles Mills contends, it is embedded in the Enlightenment liberalism that informs the whole idea of America. At the very least, this idea has been expressed throughout American history. “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President; it shall be a government for white men,” declared Andrew Johnson in the wake of emancipation and the end of the Civil War.
Although modified from its 19th-century form, this racist chauvinism is an explicit part of Trump’s political persona. It’s seen particularly in his objects of public derision, how he only holds up nonwhites to attack them. And we may be witnessing it in how he reacts to crisis.
At this moment, Puerto Rico is in the midst of catastrophe. The latest hurricane to plow through the Atlantic Ocean, Maria, has left the island and its 3.4 million residents in desperate straits. Clean water is increasingly scarce, the power grid is nearly completely devastated, and the storm destroyed most connections, even phone and internet, to the outside world. Absent major intervention, many people will die. And yet Trump is silent, more concerned with blasting the NFL than marshaling Congress to assist American citizens caught in one of the worst disasters since Katrina.
Perhaps this is just an oversight. But then look at who is suffering in Puerto Rico. Spanish speakers. Brown-skinned people. The kinds of Americans who have been on the receiving end of the president’s most harsh, disdainful rhetoric. If Trump’s disdain for Colin Kaepernick (and Barack Obama, for that matter) are informed by his racist vision of citizenship, then why should his neglect of Puerto Rico be any different?