He’s done it again. Bigger and brasher than before, Donald Trump has annexed a controversial topic with his mouth and his Twitter account and milked it for his pure demagogic purposes.
A mere two weeks ago, taking a knee at a football game during the National Anthem to protest racial injustice occupied a sliver of our media diet. Most news accounts tracked not the protests by players but the cowardice of NFL teams in their refusal to sign Colin Kaepernick, the free agent quarterback who originated this novel dissent during the 2016 preseason. Now, thanks to Trump’s intervention, in which he has called for the firing of NFL players who kneel, his ideas about compulsory displays of patriotism have become Topic A. That why you’re reading about Kaepernick’s knee everywhere. That’s why I’m writing about it.
Trump isn’t alone in insisting that we limit the varieties of political protest to a menu of his liking. In 2005, then-senator Hillary Clinton co-sponsored a bill to punish the burning of the U.S. flag under some circumstances with a $100,000 fine. But where Clinton’s demagoguery was a one-off, Trump’s is a recurring series. Throughout his campaign and into the first eight months of his presidency, Trump has routinely pandered to his supporters by issuing manipulative appeals to their emotions and their prejudices. He’s defamed the press, joked about police brutality, praised white supremacists, demonized Muslims and immigrants, trashed African-Americans and Mexicans, accused the father of one political opponent of having participated in the assassination of John F. Kennedy and called for the prosecution of another, and pardoned a racist law officer who criminally defied the courts.
As his acts of demagoguery go, Trump’s NFL pronouncements are small beer. As vile as his flag-waving statements are, they make no dent in our free-speech traditions. No NFL owner will now dare punish kneelers, and some have vocally supported their right to express their views. No police officer will visit your home this fall to make certain you stand and salute when the ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ plays through your TV set. You’re still free to burn a flag, as long as you own it, or a cargo-container of flags, if that’s your thing. Nothing has changed except that Trump has riled his opposition and stirred his faithful who have dug his race-baiting of Jemele Hill, Steph Curry and the NFL protesters. If forced to choose between supporting the president or black athletes, most Trump supporters will happily go with him no matter what the argument.
By draping himself in bunting, the president seeks to equate “respect” for the flag with respect for members of the military, the police and, of course, with respect for Trump. Has there ever been a president less worthy of our respect? Less qualified to lecture us on the concept of respect? He’s a softshell crab of a man, picking and poking other people until he draws blood, but howling in pain when anybody touches his paper-thin skin.
How did we get here? Why are we arguing over what posture free people must assume during the playing of a song? Playing the anthem at American sporting events wasn’t always routine. It became entrenched in the sporting scene thanks to a fluke at Game 1 of the 1918 World Series (Cubs vs. Red Sox). That series came during the early months of U.S. involvement in World War I, as this ESPN magazine piece explains, when the playing of the anthem by a military band during the seventh-inning stretch inspired a patriotic and uproarious sing-a-long that made national news. The Cubs had the song repeated during the next two games to good effect, and when the series moved to Fenway Park, team management moved the tune to a pregame ceremony to honor wounded soldiers. “Other major league teams noticed the popular reaction to ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ in 1918, and over the next decade it became standard for World Series and holiday games. In subsequent years, through subsequent wars, it grew into the daily institution we know today,” ESPN reports.
The presentation of the national anthem at football games was once a simple affair, played by a marching band or performed by a singer. In recent years it has grown into a laborious event often weighed down with heavy military symbolism. Giant U.S. flags and military color guards take the field; military parachutists drop from the sky; military jets fly over; fireworks illuminate the night. Since 9/11, another dose of compulsory patriotism has been forced on MLB fans in the form of “God Bless America,” played at many parks during the seventh-inning stretch. At Yankee Stadium, observance of the song was enforced by security guards who prevented fans from moving around the stadium during the song. Not until the ACLU sued were the fans set free.
The flag has always been great cover for scoundrels who would abuse its power. They know that patriotism exerts such a strong force in American life that they can always elicit a warm response from voters by gesturing in its direction. This national reflex probably explains why Clinton co-sponsored the flag-burning law—she knew it would appeal to reactive patriots and wouldn’t anger her loyal supporters enough to cause them to defect. Trump will keep tweeting and talking about the “disrespected” flag and the protesters until the cheering ends, which will be never.
Softshell crabs will never comprehend that that the only patriotism that is truly patriotic is that which is chosen, not dictated by the president. If you love liberty and free-thinking, the NFL protests should be received as a blessing. The alternative that Trump proposes, compulsory patriotism, all but defines totalitarianism, as the Supreme Court eloquently expressed in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, a landmark case about whether a school can compel students to pledge allegiance to the flag.
In 1943, in the violent throes of the global struggle against fascism, Justice Robert Jackson wrote for the Court: “To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous, instead of a compulsory routine, is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds.”
As for those who would say today that the kneelers are offending a sacred American symbol, Jackson had words for them, too. “Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much,” he wrote. “That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.”
I consider it a market failure that I can’t have fresh softshell crabs all year long. Send crabby thoughts Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts eat mussels, my Twitter feed favors clams, and my RSS feed scuttles across the floor of silent seas.
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