At a recent gathering of conservative leaders, the president of the United States of America reportedly took a moment to congratulate himself on his public crusade against professional athletes taking a knee during the national anthem.
“It’s really caught on. It’s really caught on.” Trump said, followed by “I said what millions of Americans were thinking.”
Off the bat, I have mixed feelings about CNN publishing a story based solely on the account of “a person who attended the event.” Nonetheless, I tend to believe it went down as reported since 1) neither The White House nor Trump himself have issued a #FakeNews denial that I’m aware of and 2) the self-congratulatory tone completely falls in line with everything we’ve come to expect from Trump. (Plus, the quote even includes that weird tic in which he repeats phrases that he wants to resonate.)
Moving forward with the assumption that the story is accurate, this is yet another example of the president’s bottomless war on civility. Most presidents aim to unite the nation around them (at least ostensibly and publicly), but this one brags about his ability to get one group riled up against another. Out loud.
Trump seems proud of the fact he could foment enthusiastic anger (“Great anger,” in fact) from his target audience — almost like he was still producing a reality television show and just scored a bump in social engagement among males 18-to-24.
The president isn’t wrong when he says this thing has “really caught on.” It certainly has. A search through the #TakeAKnee hashtag on the Twitters shows how Americans regard millionaire athletes who peacefully opt-out of standing for the national anthem. (Spoiler alert: they’re mostly against it, and passionately so.)
According to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll 58% of Americans agreed with the statement that “professional athletes should be required to stand for the national anthem at sporting events.” That number zooms up to 86% among Republicans, while only reaching 39% among Democrats.
Trump is evidently proud of the cultural divisions he was able to sow, but this is hardly an accomplishment. In fact, eliciting an emotional response from an audience with a shared demographic profile, narrative of history, and media diet is a freightening easy thing to do. (The target audience in this case being the third of the nation which makes up the approval-rating-floor that Trump just can’t find a way to sink below.)
Rallies (that is, a self-selected audiences with a shared political outlook) are the world’s easiest places to generate applause. See any speeches at a national party convention, and no matter how flat the delivery, misguided the logic, or flat the jokes, it will get a response. (Remember the raucous applause Clint Eastwood received for that weird chair performance at the 2012 GOP convention? At least, inside the stadium?) Hell, see any rock radio station summer fest where the DJs just scream “party” “weed” “beer” to blind excitement and cheers.
In fact, eliciting an emotional response from an audience with a shared demographic profile, narrative of history, and media diet is a freightening easy thing to do.
The power of emotional excitement within the confines of an echo chamber of a like-minded crowd is a potent force.
This “trick” has been used throughout history. Sometimes with explosive results. In fact, there’s even a term for the type of leaders who lean on this tactic: demagogues.
Trump is being truthful when he describes his national anthem rhetoric — complete with its racial dog whistles and reliance on simmering cultural resentment — as speaking for “millions of Americans.” But speaking to the anger, fears, and resentments of any particular group isn’t some brave or noble act. It’s the complete opposite.
Choose any demographic, tweak some of the nouns, and you will create the same effect. It’s the dark art of political ad-libs. Humans follow the person who will stand against the thing they fear.
There are any number of wedge issues Trump could have taken on to stoke the emotions of his base of older, whiter, rural-er Americans. The prospect of well-moneyed professional athletes (mostly of color) from the nation’s most popular pastime (indeed, it is probably important to note: the nation’s most popular televised pastime) appearing to disrespect the anthem, our beloved military, and everything right in the world just happened to be the most accessible.
Without putting too much thought into it, you could probably imagine some future wedge issues he could take advantage of: He could isolate the danger of some lyrics from a recent hit rap song, he could complain about the plot of an upcoming controversial film, he could place some small-town liberal arts professors’ impolitic words on blast.
These cultural boogeymen have all been tapped before by forces on the right and could certainly be used again. In fact, there’s a better-than-average chance that we’ll be seeing some of the very issues mentioned above in the near future.
(This isn’t to necessarily say that this is only a phenomenon of the right— I’ve been known to get swept up by those looking to use emotion to rally the snarky know-it-all urban male demo.)
The more interesting question surrounding this whole thing is why Trump is seeking to foment divisions from the highest office. Is the sanctity of football something he really cares about and feels compelled to protect from his bully pulpit? If it is, then this is a recent development.
Is this NFL fixation a transitory obsession based on a segment he saw on Fox & Friends? Possibly. Trump has a well earned reputation of live-tweeting from the hip based on the last thing he saw on TV.
I fear, however, that this fomenting of division is the mark of something far more deliberate and devious.
But, Why Though?
Trump’s most ardent intellectual apologists rationalize his seemingly chaotic style as masterstrokes within a grand three-dimensional chess game that has only two players: Donald J. Trump and The Universe.
The tl;dr summation of the argument could be layed-out as such: What appears to be the actions of an increasingly delusional toddler-king are actually parts of a master strategy — the same type of persuasion techniques he’s used to accumulate both fame and fortune in his pre-political life. (Let us put aside the fact that Trump was a failure in business, often. Or that much of the nation considered him to be a punchline until he happened to stumble his way into an entertaining reality program geared for a general audience.)
I actually think there may be something to this hypotheses. I think these constant pan-cultural beefs are less reactions to Fox & Friends fodder (though they may be the initial inspiration) than they are part of a grander scheme.
I should also admit to you that part of me wants this interpretation of the president’s actions to be true. I did not vote for Donald Trump and continue to be appalled by his assault on American institutions and norms. Still, a part of me holds on to the hope that everything the country has been subjected to over the past two years was just part of a master plan to work around a broken government bureaucracy needlessly mired in two-party gridlock.
I want to believe that he is only cynically placating his white rural base with emotional cultural issues so that he will have the political freedom to implement the changes needed to help the metropolitan coastal America from which he and I both spring. This is something no Democrat I know of could accomplish.
Unfortunately, if there is any truth to this interpretation of Trump’s behavior, his plan so far has been an abject failure. Despite having majorities in both houses of Congress, this administration has no legislative achievements of note. While he has managed to maintain near-ecstatic popularity among his base, his approval among the gen pop has rarely stepped above 40%. These are not metrics of success.
So why continually push these cultural buttons when it is so obviously not working for him? Should he want to gain legislative support in the mid-terms or win a second term, angering and alienating large swathes of the national electorate would not appear to be a winning strategy.
There is reason to believe that #kneegate is all a smoke screen to obscure yet another failure to repeal Obamacare. If that’s the case, it was actually successful, at least temporarily — the legislative failure was removed from the front burner of the news-cycle. *Poof*
However, the use of this well-worn tactic also belies a level of desperation. It’s as if he senses the need to alter the political landscape for something else coming down the way. Something big.
The real reason behind these decisive actions is potentially far darker and craven. It is possible that Trump’s plan has shifted ever since Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation has picked up steam.
If this is the case, it would be in Trump’s interest to keep his base constantly energized so that they are a reliable (apologies for the pun) trump card he can pull out should Mueller’s investigation lead to some inconvenient conclusions.
A rabid base consisting of a third of the nation that only gets their information from the same few media outlets could easily be weaponized (I mean that both figuratively and literally) should Trump’s presidency be challenged. If some type of high crime is uncovered (and, to be fair, that is only an if at this point), Trump will not exit office in a manner that will leave the nation whole.
Or as longtime Trump confidante Roger Stone puts it, if Trump is impeached, “You will have a spasm of violence in this country, an insurrection like you’ve never seen.”
Perhaps the apologists are correct and Trump is indeed seeing the entire game of play stretched out before him. If this is the case, then this political chess master evidently sees something coming down the line so dangerous to his administration that the only viable strategy he can think of is burning the entire board, table, and house to the ground.
Have fun, everybody!