A post-surgical convalescence has held me captive to the 24/7 news cycle more than usual so I’ve been far too immersed than is healthy in the concurrent sagas of Donald Trump versus the National Football League and the United States Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Hence a couple of thoughts about aspects of Trump’s life and worldview that may help connect some dots.
First, when it comes to sports, Trump adores a big fat spectacle. He would have loved the Coliseum of ancient Rome. Can’t you just see him ruling over the games? Lions versus Christians or maybe one of the recreations of a great Roman naval victory when they flooded the bottom of the arena with water and set ships ablaze, slaves giving up their lives for show business and special effects?
And can’t you also picture him with his jaw jutting out, tangerine head crowned with tilted laurels and body clad in disheveled toga, turning his thumb down with a leer in his eye as he sends the defeated to their deaths?
But he confuses his love of glitz with knowledge of the game. As he does when it comes to virtually every subject, the president wrongly fancies himself an expert on professional athletics. His Trump Tower office is filled with sports memorabilia and a quick Google search shows Trump posing over the years with a panoply of pro stars, many of them African-American. There he is with Muhammad Ali. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. George Foreman. Jim Brown. Shaquille O’Neal.
In 1992, when heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson was found guilty of rape, Trump jumped to his defense, called the conviction “a travesty” and said it wasn’t his pal’s fault—”I’ve seen women going around touching him . . . He walks in a room and the women start grabbing him . . .” Sounds like Trump’s own Access Hollywood tape, doesn’t it?
Twenty-four years later, as he campaigned for president, Trump was still touting his friendship at a rally in Indiana, the very state where Tyson was arrested: “Mike Tyson endorsed me. I love it. He sent out a tweet. Mike. Iron Mike. You know, all the tough guys endorse me. I like that, OK?”
Trump thinks he’s a tough guy, too. Witness his remarks about pro football rules when he spoke at that Sept. 22 rally for Alabama US Sen. Luther Strange, who last week lost a runoff primary to crazed Judge Roy Moore:
“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.”
This mindless egging on of violence at the risk of mortal harm comes in the wake of the latest overwhelming evidence of National Football League (NFL) players who have had their lives and careers destroyed by the severe brain damage of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
That Trump seems to think that he has a masterly knowledge of pro football and how it should be run and played goes back to his disastrous involvement in the mid-’80s with the United States Football League (USFL), an upstart challenger to the NFL that might have had a chance at success had it not been for Trump’s bumbling. Apparently, he was trying to leverage his ownership of the USFL’s New Jersey Generals into an NFL franchise that the league wasn’t about to give him.
So when it comes to this whole controversy about players taking a knee during “The Star Spangled Banner,” it would be a mistake to rule out Trump’s ongoing grudge against the NFL as a factor in his attacks. Nor should it come as a surprise that he has chosen to exploit a basic and essentially civil protest against police who kill unarmed civilians and explode it into an attack on God and country, roiling his base and once more chiseling into America’s racial divide. In the words of Charlie Pierce over at Sports Illustrated, Trump “never saw a crack in the pavement he couldn’t turn into an earthquake.”
To sum up: Evidence suggests that Donald Trump fawns over a player with slobbering fan fever as long as you’re an athlete who stays in line, shows appreciation and entertains the boss. But step out of line, express an opinion in conflict with his own and suddenly it’s thumbs down from the emperor. Just like that, you’re a security threat to the nation.
And to rub it in further, Trump denounced NFL owners who have been supportive of their team protests as “afraid of their players, if you want to know the truth, and I think it’s disgraceful.”
That’s not a referee’s whistle you’re hearing, it’s the shrill dog whistle of bigotry and white paranoia, of a hypocrisy that decries dissent from racial minorities while defending the rights of neo-Nazis and those who speak out against anyone who finds statues and monuments celebrating the secessionist South to be offensive.
And the hits just keep on coming. Trump continues to find, as the great Jelani Cobb recently wrote at The New Yorker, novel ways “to diminish the nation he purportedly leads . . . [he] is a small man with a fetish for the symbols of democracy and a bottomless hostility for the actual practice of it.”
When it comes to the catastrophe in Puerto Rico, at first it seemed—as was true of Roman emperors at the Coliseum distracting the masses with bread and circuses—that the president was again using the NFL controversy, this time to divert attention from the slowness of hurricane emergency relief.
But once San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz declared, “We are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency and the bureaucracy,” Trump went on the attack once more, declaring that she had “poor leadership ability” and is being manipulated by Democrats. Puerto Rican officials, Trump tweeted, “want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.”
Damn, there goes that dog whistle again. People of color raising their voices in protest make our loutish emperor mad and antsy. He puts the petty in petty tyrant. Time to call foul and throw him out of the game.
Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.