If President Trump wanted to discourage NFL players from protesting during the national anthem, his harsh words clearly backfired. Once confined to a handful of players like former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, now whole teams are protesting or staying in the locker room during the pregame national anthem.
Of course, Trump did find praise in many corners. On Friday night, a crowd of Alabama voters cheered when Trump asked them, "Wouldn't you love to see one of the NFL owners when somebody disrespects the flag, to say 'Get that son of a bitch off the field'?" But it put the NFL owners — who, based on Kaepernick's continued unemployment, are in many cases not wild about these protests — in the position where they had to support their players.
After all, the sitting president of the United States — who has plenty of his own racial baggage, such as the birther conspiracy theory about the first black president of the United States — had essentially demanded that mostly white NFL owners crack down on the political speech of mostly black players, as they protest the way African Americans are treated by the police. And he had done so at a campaign rally in the state that repeatedly elected George Wallace governor and voted for his segregationist third-party candidacy in the 1968 presidential election.
Trump is adamant that his stance "has nothing to do with race." And it is true that millions of Americans find these national anthem kneeling protests offensive for reasons that have nothing to do with race. But in the context of all this history, the president had to know his comments would be viewed through a racial prism.
Moreover, Trump elevated the protests and created incentives for more players to participate. He personalized the issue. He made taking a knee during the national anthem almost a referendum on his presidency, at a time when more than half the country disapproves of the job he is doing.
None of this will make the player protests any more effective, however. If the object is to increase awareness of the plight of young black men at the hands of our country's law enforcement system among a heavily conservative and white audience, engaging in protests that this demographic overwhelmingly sees as disrespectful to the flag and military veterans will almost certainly yield the opposite result.
Trump understood that he was speaking for many Americans when he called on the NFL to enforce respect for the flag, channeling their genuine outrage at seeing the images they regard as symbols of valor and sacrifice treated instead as symbols of injustice — in exactly the same language they might use when talking about it themselves.
But both Trump and the protesters are making the same fundamental mistake: They are treating American patriotism and concern for racial justice as a zero-sum game. This will end badly for everyone — except for white nationalists.
Trump is reinforcing the perception common in communities of color that the highest levels of government are populated by people who don't care about minorities. And he appears to be doing so to gin up cultural outrage that will conceal a lack of Republican legislative accomplishments.
The protesters may be less cynical in their motives, but they appear to be mostly preaching to the choir and causing their intended audience to tune them out. Just as many who cheer Trump are blind to kneeling athletes' concerns, these protesters are not hearing the concerns of people of all races who have served in the military or law enforcement — including some of their own teammates.
This method of protest is self-defeating on its own terms. Why concede the flag to Trump? Why not present arguments for justice and equality as America living up to its stated principles rather than as something that conflicts with those principles?
Trump's argument is also self-defeating, at least if he were to care more about his stated goal of reviving American national spirit more than communicating his base's anger. The flag and anthem are valuable symbols, but Trump's alleged political project can only succeed if we view ourselves as one America.
Sports have been a source of national unity. NFL locker rooms are miles ahead of other areas of American life in terms of racial diversity and cooperation. If they become as polarized as our politics, it will come at a real social cost.
Even politically, the current debate is a huge setback from when Tea Party conservatives were working with liberal Democrats on criminal justice reform and ending police militarization.
The last thing this country needs is another television program where people with different viewpoints talk past each other at a loud volume. Let's all take a deep breath and just listen to each other for a moment.