President Trump fans the flame of the anthem issue, burning the owners

If there was any sense that the anthem issue would go away with the NFL’s new rule, that vanished on Monday.

President Donald Trump put out a statement that was nothing short of flammable, uninviting the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles a day before their scheduled visit to the White House:

“The Philadelphia Eagles are unable to come to the White House with their full team to be celebrated tomorrow. They disagree with their President because he insists that they proudly stand for the National Anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country. The Eagles wanted to send a smaller delegation, but the 1,000 fans planning to attend the event deserve better. These fans are still invited to the White House to be part of a different type of ceremony – one that will honor our great country, pay tribute to the heroes who fight to protect it, and loudly and proudly play the National Anthem. I will be there at 3:00 p.m. with the United States Marine Band and the United States Army Chorus to celebrate America.”

This is basically a touchdown dance for the president – a celebration of his perceived victory on this issue. The NFL has decided to penalize players who protest (through their teams, at least) and that is something Trump feels he has successfully pushed for. (He’s not wrong.) The Eagles will be cast as losers on the issue, and the fans who show up will see the winning side. It’s a celebration of the flag and the military and the country – let’s not diminish that – but it’s also a political medal ceremony, with Trump on the top step of the podium.

Whether you love or loathe the president, you can see how he identifies cultural fault lines and turns them into trenches. In the anthem issue he has found a chasm – one of the largest in America today – and he is happy to take a backhoe to that rift. This is the cultural version of his Mexico border wall, and rest assured he’ll continue to construct it as long as he is in office.

The NFL protests, and Eagles like Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long who have given them much of their voice, were never about the national anthem. But that’s of little concern to the president or the millions who agree with him on this topic. To him and many Americans, standing for the anthem is a way to show loyalty to the country, the soldiers, the police and certainly to the president himself. “Make America Great Again” is a call to patriotism and nationalism, and to kneel before the flag is blasphemous.

Chris long, left, stands in support of Malcom Jenkins during his social protest. (AP)
Chris long, left, stands in support of Malcom Jenkins during his social protest. (AP)

Is the president being divisive? Absolutely. Yet to him, the divide was created solely by players who kneeled. To him, he is simply taking up for a vision of America that has been besieged. To those who dislike Trump, this day at the White House is a shot across the bow. To those who love Trump, this is self-defense.

The real losers in this are not the players, who can say they were right in their belief that the power structure is there to suppress and humiliate them. That’s the strange and sad efficacy of what the president is doing here: He is both playing the victim and augmenting the victimhood of the protesters. If they retaliate in any way – let’s say by taking a knee on Week 1 of the regular season – he can watch the trench grow wider and then fight back harder. The more anger builds, the more support he will get – albeit from those who already back him. Compromise is not his ally.

That makes the NFL owners the real losers. The president emerges heroic to his masses, the players emerge heroic to theirs, and the owners have to watch the pitched battle overshadow and threaten their beloved business. This is fine with Trump, as he has been an NFL dissenter since his USFL days. He surely wasn’t pleased when Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie called his presidency “disastrous.” So this is his latest, greatest dose of vengeance. Trump probably thinks he is smarter than all of the owners, and he might well be right.

It’s long been clear this is not about football, nor even about the anthem. This is about liberty. For the players, it’s about the liberty to protest and defend their brethren who have been unfairly brutalized and killed by police. For the president, this is about liberty with a capital L and the need to defend the country as a whole. It’s both fitting and demoralizing that this battle has reached a new zenith in Philadelphia, home of the Liberty Bell. “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof,” reads the inscription, from Leviticus. It was used as a rallying cry for those abolitionists who sought to end slavery. Yet some choose to pay less attention to the message of the bell, and more attention to the crack.

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