Trump’s NFL comments will hopefully backfire
“In life, there’s the beginning and the end. The beginning don’t matter. The end don’t matter. All that matters is what you do in between” – John Carlos
HE currents of history swirl around us constantly. Most of the time we’re barely cognisant of it. We think of ourselves as purely living in the here and now. It’s rarely ever true. Every so often we’re pulled up short, pulled out of the story we tell ourselves and confronted with the cold hard-reality of life on this little blue dot floating free in the cosmos.
One comforting story we tell ourselves is that of the inevitability of progress. Bit-by-bit, inch by-inch, generation-by-generation we rise. We gain more rights, we gain more freedoms, and once we’ve gained them we don’t lose them again. If only it were true.
Upon Barack Obama’s election as US president many of us saw it as a banner day for race relations in that country. There was talk about a post-racial presidency. What’s happened since then has shown the folly of any such assumptions. As William Falkner wrote, the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past.
The opposition to Obama took on a racialised complexion almost immediately with the birtherism conspiracy theory – pushed by none other than the present office holder, Donald Trump. It was an obvious attempt to de-legitimise the first black president.
The treatment of people of colour by the police, meanwhile, prompted the birth of the black lives matter movement. Far from marking an end – and Obama never claimed his election was anything other than a step along the road – race relations seemed to become increasingly fraught in the United States.
On the night of the 2016 election CNN commentator Van Jones described Trump’s victory as a white-lash, a white back-lash against the rise of people of colour in the States.
Trump’s demagoguery and racism were and are an undoubted part of his appeal and, with people like Steve Bannon by his side, he’s cultivated that ever since. He called white supremacist protesters in North Carolina “very fine people” and never misses an opportunity to criticise people of colour who dare to criticise him.
He and his White House targeted an African American sports reporter Jemele Hill and called for her sacking because of her criticisms of Trump. Since then Trump has continued to race-bait with a series of comments and tweets against black footballers who have ‘taken the knee’ during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner before NFL games. Trump called them ‘sons of bitches’ for refusing to stand for the national anthem. He called for them to be sacked. The man who values his right to self-expression highly is so threatened by the expression of others not like him that he wants to shut them down. There’s nothing new about any of this – either in the necessity to protest or the desire of those in power to keep their privileges for themselves.
The opposition people like Colin Kaepernick have faced would be more than familiar to US Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos who found themselves booted out of the Olympic village at the 1968 games following their famous black-power salute on the winners’ podium. Smith and Carlos scarified for something greater than themselves (something Trump couldn’t possibly conceive of doing). They were willing to suffer the consequences. Kaepernick too has suffered, he’s without a club at the moment.
For all that it’s depressing that such protests need to be held, for all that it’s depressing that Trump and people like him (two Nascar team owners made similar remarks) react they way they have, there’s hope that people are still willing to do the unpopular thing.
Polling suggests that the NFL protests are much more widely disapproved of than approved. When the entire Dallas Cowboys took a knee on Monday evening in solidarity with others who have, they were widely booed from the stands.
Even so it feels like this time Trump has overplayed his hand. The criticisms of him by people like Steph Curry and LeBron James have stung. There was even a negative reaction from within the world of Nascar to those owners’ comments. Dale Earnhardt Junior, whose stock-car credentials are impeccable, sided with the NFL players. Those who were once reviled – Carlos and Smith and many others before them – later become rightly lauded for their courage and bravery. As Harry Enten wrote on fivethirtyeight: “The NFL protests may be unpopular now, but that doesn’t mean they’ll end that way.” By behaving the way he has Trump is hopefully ac- celerating the process. It would be typical of the man’s incompetence if his cack-handed attempt to drive a wedge between people instead had the effect of bringing them together.