Why Trump Wanted A Big, Nasty Showdown Over Sunday Football

by Seth Millstein
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

This past Friday, Trump launched a full-fledged feud with the NFL. Two days later, the league's players have responded in kind. Dozens of players kneeled during the national anthem on Sunday's games to protest institutionalized violence against people of color, despite an explicit demand from Trump that they not do so. By any measure, the protests were a success — but it's also likely that Trump wanted a big, nasty football showdown on Sunday, and got what he wanted.

After calling former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick a "son of a bitch" for kneeling during the national anthem, Trump called for Americans to boycott the NFL, called the games "boring" and said "YOU'RE FIRED!" to players who kneel during the Star-Spangled Banner (although to be clear, Trump doesn't have the authority to fire NFL players). In turn, NFL players kneeled en masse during Sunday's games, and several teams skipped the national anthem entirely.

Predictably, the Trump-NFL feud dominated headlines on Sunday — and that's probably what Trump wanted.

First of all, as is often the case with Trump controversies, his dustup with the NFL distracts from a number of other very important things happening in the country right now. For instance, Senate Republicans are several votes away from passing the Graham-Cassidy bill, which would repeal most of Obamacare and kick leave an additional 32 million Americans without health insurance, according to the non-partisan Commonwealth Fund. Progressive activism has been vital to defeating past Obamacare repeal efforts, and Trump no doubt hoped that his feud with the NFL will redirect progressives' attention away from the Graham-Cassidy bill and, as a result, reduce public pressure on the Senate to defeat it.

The NFL protests also served as a distraction from the sudden humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Maria. The entire island is currently without power, at least one town has run out of fresh water, and 700,00 residents of the U.S. territory have been ordered to evacuate for fear that a dam that was damaged in the storm might collapse. Although the Trump administration has sent aid to the island, conditions are steadily worsening, and some critics have called for the federal government to take additional measures, such as sending the U.S. Navy or repealing the Jones Act, a federal law that restricts maritime travel on the island.

Beyond the distraction element, Trump's NFL feud riles up his base, and Trump loves to rile up his base. In this instance, Trump is playing to the racial animosity many of his supporters hold towards towards people of color, an attitude that's been revealed time and again in surveys of his supporters and which is directly relevant to the protests in question.

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick said over a year ago when he first knelt during the national anthem. That's what these protests are about: Institutionalized racism. However, many Trump supporters are hostile to the suggestion that racism is a problem, and many hold explicitly racist views of non-whites.

A January study by researchers at the University of Massachusetts, for instance, found that Americans most likely to deny that racism exists were also most likely to have voted for Trump. In a 2016 Reuters/Ipsos poll, nearly half of all Trump supporters said that black people were more inherently "violent" and "criminal" than white people, while a May study found that anti-black "racial animus" was one of the strongest predictors of Trump voters (and a far more influential one than economic anxiety).

By picking fights with prominent black athletes — the president also criticized Steph Curry of the Warriors for ostensibly unrelated reasons — Trump is catering to these racist feelings amongst some of his supporters. It's no accident that he used phrases like "son of a bitch" and "those people" to describe the targets of his criticism.

To be clear, none of this means that the protesting NFL players were "helping Trump" when they kneeled during the anthem. To the contrary: Mass displays of public discontent, especially by celebrities, are hugely important in when it comes to framing policy debates and educating the Americans about problems that may not affect them directly. When some of the most highly-paid athletes in the country risk their professional reputations in front of an audience of millions in order to make a political point, people tend to listen to what they're saying, even if they disagree. It's also probably safe to say that Trump, in his ideal world, would prefer for NFL players to be mindlessly cheering his administration, not holding it up as an example of what's wrong with America.

Still, this episode points to one of the fundamental frustrations of the Trump regime — the president's remarkable ability to use opposition and setbacks to his presidency to his advantage in some way or another. The NFL protests are still probably a net loss for Trump, but there are small ways in which he will benefit from it. That's why it's more important than ever for Trump's critics to not focus solely on the controversy of the day, but rather stay up to date on everything that's happening in the administration.