It’s been a month since President Donald Trump traveled to the heart of the deep south and before a raucous rally of mostly white Republican supporters, called on NFL owners to fire any “son-of-a-bitch” who dares bend the knee during the national anthem. The would-be God-Emperor is still tweeting about it, when he’s not busy berating female politicians of color or exploiting Gold Star military families.
Trump was referring to former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem before games last year to protest the disproportionate number of black men killed in police shootings as well as the deteriorating economic conditions many black communities are facing nationwide. These are, of course, the same causes championed by controversial civil rights group Black Lives Matter.
Kaepernick was joined in silent protest by several black players on other teams last season, not that anyone in Trump’s base needs reminding what color these sons-of-bitches are. According to Trump, these millionaire black athletes aren’t using their elevated status to draw attention to their community, which by all accounts is in dire straits. Instead, these ungrateful sons-of-bitches are disrespecting the flag, the country and the brave men and women in the military who fight and die for their freedoms.
Beyond the explicit racism, this is the sort of obvious bait-and-switch rhetorical device that caused Samuel Johnson to deem patriotism the last refuge of the scoundrel and George Orwell to imagine the future as a boot stamping on a human face forever.
It’s encouraging that the NFL has so far refused to implement Trump’s decree to sanction players who bend the knee—the president has tweeted his displeasure. It’s entirely discouraging that vast swaths of America, mostly white males, have bought Trump’s graceless sleight-of-hand lock, stock and barrel, if TV ratings, opinion polls and Facebook posts can be relied upon.
When it comes to Trump, they’d rather lick the boot stamping their own face than acknowledge the claims of Kaepernick and others who bend the knee before the sovereign, seeking some modicum of social justice. I don’t think boot-licking is too strong of a metaphor. The president of the United States is calling for a private corporation to fire its employees for not exhibiting blind obedience to flag and country. What else do you call supporting that?
Authoritarianism is one word that comes to mind, and I was warned about the possibility back during the campaign, when I was a lukewarm supporter of what I then thought were Trump’s genuine populist leanings. Since he’s assumed the presidency, he’s gone out of his way to demonstrate that he actually is the rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and serial liar the Huffington Post always claimed he was, in the editor’s note at the bottom of every Trump story posted during the campaign. Add authoritarian to the list. So much for fake news. They were spot-on from the beginning.
During the run-up to the election, I was highly critical of Black Lives Matter, particularly during the primaries, when BLM members commandeered the stages at Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley events. Poor O’Malley had the audacity to suggest “all lives matter,” which might have been the beginning of a useful dialogue, had he not been shouted down by BLM activists.
I understand concepts such as white privilege and systemic white racism, and I recognize that they exist, they’re tangible, measurable across a wide number of social variables, from life expectancy to personal income to incarceration rates. But this sort of rhetoric doesn’t play well with members of the white electorate who don’t consider themselves racist and deny that racism still plays a major factor in America.
Colin Kaepernick’s kneel-down protest was the antidote to all that. In a nation where it’s never the time to talk about race, he found the one moment where he could get a word in edgewise, without having to say a thing. All he did was take a knee during the national anthem prior to the start of an NFL game, while half the stadium was rushing back and forth between their seats and the concession stands for refreshments.
Kaepernick later explained what he was protesting to the press, using typical BLM lingo, but he never really went on about it at length. He just kept bending the knee, an idea he says was given to him by a former Green Beret, who explained that’s how fallen colleagues are sometimes honored. While you’re all holding your hands over your hearts thinking about America, Kaepernick is saying, please consider, if only for a few seconds, the plight of the young black men in this country who are gunned down by police at a disproportionate rate compared to other races.
Make that was saying because Kaepernick, despite possessing skills that could prove useful to any number of NFL teams at the present moment, remains unemployed after declaring free agency and leaving the San Francisco 49ers in the spring. Last week he filed a lawsuit against the NFL, accusing team owners of colluding against him because of his protest, an alleged violation of the league’s labor contract.
Nevertheless, the NFL player protests will continue, in no small part thanks to Trump, who, if he was half the populist he once claimed to be, would be busy working on a plan to rebuild black urban communities, like he promised during the campaign, instead of race-baiting black athletes on Twitter.
I’m not going to call anyone names if they’ve abandoned the NFL because the president of the United States says the players are disrespecting the troops. I’ve already tried it. Name calling doesn’t work. All I can tell you is that I’m an honorably discharged Navy veteran and that’s not the way I see it. In fact, this is precisely the sort of despotism I was supposedly defending this country against.
To me, the choice is clear. I’ll take bending the knee to licking the boot every time.