For those keeping score at home, Donald Trump is winning.
I know. He just got killed on the latest Obamacare-repeal attempt. And he looks like a fool, if a madly dangerous one, in his brinkmanship game he’s playing with the Little Rocket Man and his North Korean nukes. He’s hard-pressed to explain why he has basically ignored storm-ravaged Puerto Rico and why, when he finally broke his Twitter silence on the devastation, he hit the island territory for not paying its debts. (We know who has a history of not paying debts, but that’s for another column.)
Yes, Trump seems to be losing. He remains historically low in the polls. He can’t get anything passed in Congress. He admits he might have picked the wrong candidate in the Alabama Republican primary, endorsing the establishment candidate over the Trump-based favorite, Roy Moore, the crazy Ten Commandments guy who thinks there are American cites ruled by Sharia law.
But Trump is winning. It just depends on what your definition of victory is. If it’s appealing to the base, and only appealing to the base, Trump is probably ahead.
But if it’s keeping the culture wars burning — regardless of which side is ahead — then Trump is definitely winning.
And so we go to the latest chapter, the unlikely move to slam those mostly black football players who are protesting racial injustice by taking a knee during the National Anthem. The issue was last season’s issue, but Trump brought it back to life because, well, he needed it. He was in Alabama Friday night holding a rally for Luther Strange in the Republican primary. He’d been forced into supporting Strange by Mitch McConnell and other Republican losers. He knew that’s not where the base was. Going after Colin Kaepernick was where the base was.
So he resolved an uncomfortable situation by going to his comfort zone, which was to slam someone or something unpopular with the base. A protest by black people would do. He ignored the cause of the protest — racial injustice — and substituted patriotism and the flag. He got the intended roar of approval and then went further, calling for owners to fire the sons of bitches. More roars. And then he went further still, hitting the NFL for cracking down on hard hits that cause brain damage. More roars?
The reaction was, well, huge — and, of course divided. You saw it. You saw the kneels, including those by 32 Broncos. You saw the locked arms. You heard the boos.
Trump said arms were locked as a show of national solidarity. Yes, it’s what he said. Trump tweeted about the boos and the “great anger.” Yes, he wants people angry. He said the NFL ratings were down over the weekend because of his tweets. They were actually slightly up after counting the Cowboys game on Monday Night Football. You heard from Broncos fans vowing to sell their season tickets because Broncos players were brave enough to kneel. According to one report, the Broncos say no season-ticket holder has actually asked for a refund.
It’s not like Trump is hiding any of this. Speaking to a group of conservative leaders at the White House Monday night, he said enthusiastically of his NFL commentary, “It’s really caught on. It’s really caught on.”
It’s not so shocking that he did this. After all, this is the birther candidate who, long ago, entered into the culture wars by calling for the execution of the since-proven-innocent Central Park Five. But that he went there so soon after Charlottesville, when he claimed there were very fine people marching with neo-Nazis, seemed a little extreme, even for Trump.
Of course, Trump insists that the controversy is not about race, but about patriotism. To believe that, you have to believe that the hyper-nationalistic-fighter-jet-flyover NFL is somehow promoting subversive behavior. But he gives the game away by winkingly praising mostly white NASCAR. And by tweeting that even if he had disinvited Steph Curry and the reluctant NBA champion Warriors from visiting the White House, the National Hockey League champion Pittsburgh Penguins were coming.
You don’t have to be to great at arithmetic to know that picking NASCAR and the NHL over the vastly popular (whatever the ratings) NFL and NBA is not a mathematically correct choice. But Trump isn’t out to necessarily win the culture wars. He just wants to keep them going.
It’s time to remind everyone that this is not what presidents generally do. The great James Fallows has written a piece for The Atlantic on how Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, two presidents not unused to division, handled the Tommie Smith-John Carlos raised-fist protest at the 1968 Olympics. According to Fallows’ research, they said exactly nothing. They didn’t exploit the controversy, knowing how dangerously raw emotions were.
Look, you can blame racism on ignorance and fear. I don’t question Trump’s ignorance on policy. But in the matter of racial politics, he knows as much as George Wallace knew.
Someone tweeted poll numbers from the 1960s on freedom riders and sit-ins and demonstrations in general. The American public overwhelmingly rejected those protests. But we just passed the 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine, when nine kids faced violent mobs who were trying to stop them from integrating Central High. Eisenhower sent in the troops to enforce the law. What do you think Trump would do if faced with a similar situation?
It’s never easy to know what Trump would or will do, which is what makes him so dangerous. Even as he was tweet-bombing the NFL, he still found time to bump up the North Korea crisis by tweeting that Little Rocket Man and his foreign minister “won’t be around much longer” if they continued their provocations. Let’s just say that most world leaders probably weren’t diverted by the NFL story. According to The New York Times, global reaction to Trump’s tweet ranged from nervous disbelief to sheer terror.
You can’t blame the world for being nervous. I’m guessing that at least half of Americans wake up each day feeling the same way.