Why Trump’s Alabama speech about referees and flag protests made perfect (racist) sense

President Trump took the stage in Alabama on September 23rd, 2017, to rally support for Senator Strange in the GOP Senate runoff that ended Tuesday night.

We’ve seen speeches like this before, in which an unrestrained Trump boasts bigly and meanders from theme to theme wildly, working the crowd into applause with lines that would never leave the mouths of the politicians who preceded him. As someone whose work and research focuses on immigration policy, the most notable speech of this sort was Trump’s presidential announcement, in which Trump moved rapidly from Isis to China to the “rapists” Mexico is bringing into the U.S to hotels in Syria to Obamacare to Obama golfing to the “dead” American Dream. I remember watching the crowd and twitter-verse applaud the immigrant hatred trump was nurturing in a way that I found equal parts terrifying and appalling.

So when Trump spoke in Alabama, I expected much of the same: rapid theme-switching amid an ignored teleprompter, all accompanied by completely unfounded vitriol thrown at an assemblage of minority groups.

But when I saw the transcript for the 90 minute Alabama speech, one short segment stood out to me as particularly disconnected:

Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!” (emphasis mine)

Of course, it’s shocking to hear the President of the United States call someone — anyone really — a son-of-a-bitch. But it’s not just the name calling that was notable. Trump called those kneeling to protest police brutality sons-of-bitches, and then called upon their employers to fire them.

But then President Trump followed it up in the next few breaths with a jab at NFL referees:

The NFL ratings are down massively. Now the number one reason happens to be they like watching what’s happening… with yours truly. They like what’s happening. Because you know today if you hit too hard — 15 yards! Throw him out of the game! They had that last week. I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys, just really beautiful tackle. Boom, 15 yards! The referee gets on television, his wife is sitting at home, she’s so proud of him. They’re ruining the game! They’re ruining the game. That’s what they want to do. They want to hit! It is hurting the game. (emphasis mine)
Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid take a knee to protest police brutality. Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP

Now, these two thoughts — that protesters should be fired and that referees should just let ’em play — struck me as nonsensical and unrelated, much like Trump’s divergence from airstrikes in Syria to the “most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen.”

But we have more information that can help us make sense of Trump’s speeches. We have more information about his worldview; about racism and police brutality; about his willingness to leverage employers to silence the protests of employees; about white supremacy and those who oppose it. So we are able to draw the connections between seemingly-unrelated themes in Trump’s speeches in ways we could not early on in his campaigning.

Thus, moving rhetorically from the “sons-of-bitches” who take a knee to protest what happens outside the stadium to the referees who stop them from concussing each other inside it makes perfect (racist) sense. Within a racist framework that places no value on the bodies of black men outside of their capacity to entertain White America, the damage these bodies suffer is irrelevant to their purpose. Hitting, hurting, violence: that’s simply “what they do.” Thus, referees are just getting in the way, “hurting the game,” prioritizing players’ health over the “beautiful tackles” that may or may not result in brain damage. And the Kaepernick-faithful, who take a knee during the anthem to protest police brutality in minority communities, force us to think about their lives and bodies in some fundamentally different way — as lives and bodies that matter. “Ruining the game” indeed.

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