Sports, to President Trump, has long been about the spectacle more than the spectators.
He has a spot in the WWE Hall of Fame, and briefly and unsuccessfully owned a team in the USFL, the would-be competitor to the NFL that flamed out in the 1980s.
But Trump loves winners, and he is also keenly aware of sports’ ability to inflame passions. The president knew exactly what he was doing by inserting himself into a debate over national anthem protests – making it about him and his views in a battle he’s happy to engage in.
The result is a remarkable cultural moment that speaks to the vast divides in the country, of which Trump is both symptom and accelerant.
Football players of diverse backgrounds linked arms on NFL sidelines on Sunday, joined in many cases by team owners – including some who have supported Trump politically and financially. Other teams stayed inside their clubhouses during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner.
The condemnation from sports’ biggest names – including some individuals with bigger social-media footprints than the president himself – was sweeping.
“He’s now using sports as the platform to try to divide us,” LeBron James said in an online video, responding to the president’s decision to uninvite Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors to the White House.
If there was any doubt about the president’s wish to inflame a culture war, he announced on Twitter today that he is “so proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans” for not tolerating “disrespecting our Country or our flag.” He’s pitting league against league, athlete against athlete, and fan against fan.
And yes, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, this is about race.
In taking on an unsigned Colin Kaepernick, and an issue that’s barely been in the news of late, Trump singled out a small protest movement that was started by a black athlete more than a year ago explicitly to draw attention to police brutality and unfair treatment of African-Americans.
Just last month, Trump infamously waded into racially-charged politics by equating white supremacists who rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, with counterprotesters. He came down squarely on the side of keeping Confederate monuments: “They’re trying to take away our culture,” Trump said.
As Charlottesville unfolded, Trump’s then-chief strategist, Steve Bannon, was explicit in casting “identity politics” as a trap for Democrats.
“The longer they…