As president, Donald Trump constantly exacerbates cultural conflict in order to distract Americans from his destructive policies and their devastating results. Apparently, he prefers politics as a zero-sum culture war through his use of racist dog whistles to appeal to his base. He’s willing to inflict enough controversy to make sure his race-based politics dominate the public debate. During an Alabama rally in late September, Trump reignited the conflict over the NFL’s protests that San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick started last year. Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem in protest to police brutality and systematic racism ignited a firestorm across the nation which he eventually paid the price. Trump requested that NFL owners fire kneeling players, arguing that the protests were disrespectful to the flag and armed forces which soon resulted in a second wave of protests where the number of players kneeling exploded. Some team owners joined in as well though their support of Trump and their blacklisting of Kaepernick make me question their sincerity. On Sunday October 8, 2017, Trump reportedly sent Vice President Mike Pence to a Colts-49ers game in Indianapolis with explicit instructions to walk out just as players took a knee. Pence did what he was told and the media swarmed on this story like a dog over a dangling piece of meat. The action reeks publicity stunt to distract the public from his terrible policies and notorious scandals.
We must acknowledge that Donald Trump’s attacks on kneeling NFL players is nothing but a racist tirade wrapped in the guise of flag waving patriotism. Attacking political opponents as disrespectful to neutral patriotic symbols is a cheap but persuasive technique when pandering to white conservatives who don’t take nonconformity with patriotic rituals very well at all. Nevertheless, such patriotic grandstanding has been effective in convincing millions of Americans to support wars no matter how unjust and discredit anti-war protests without listening to what they had to say for decades. It has brought down political careers as well as cost political candidates election. Now it’s one thing to politically disagree with someone. But whenever a conservative plays the patriot card to shill a political opponent, it’s subtle character assassination. By questioning an opponent’s patriotism, they’re implying that their personal beliefs and actions are quintessentially Un-American and they’re unpatriotic for holding them. When Trump alleges kneeling NFL players for disrespecting the flag during the national anthem, he’s implying that they don’t love or respect America. Because only ungrateful Un-Americans would dare protest the national anthem. And the fact most NFL players are black while the audience is mostly white allows Trump to ignite racialized political conflicts in a perfect storm.
However, we must understand that the kneeling players’ disrespect for America and its flag, is nothing but a total and malicious lie. Most protestors never actually intend to disrespect the flag or the military whether they use patriotic symbols or not. The fact the Bill of Rights guarantees Americans freedom of speech has long established that openly disagreeing with your country’s policies, leaders, institutions, or government isn’t unpatriotic in the United States. Rather most people protest because to address problems in their country they want their fellow Americans to fix like systematic racial injustice. What Colin Kaepernick protested when he took a knee during the national anthem, he didn’t do so because he was ungrateful and hated America. But because he strongly believed that police officers shouldn’t kill unarmed people of color with impunity and that racism was wrong. His refusal to stand for the national anthem was his way of calling national attention to a cause on behalf of an underrepresented people who mostly don’t share his wealth or social standing. As he told an NFL.com reporter, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” Besides, Kaepernick settled on taking a knee as a peaceful gesture of respect on a teammate’s advice (who was a military veteran by the way). Like what American soldiers do in reverence for a fallen comrade. Or when a fellow player gets hurt during a game. Or that you respect the flag but think the ideals it represents aren’t being realized which was exactly what Kaepernick tried to convey. Furthermore, his gesture was silent, non-disruptive, and entirely nonviolent. Judging by the fact he’s lost millions of dollars and another backup quarterback job in the foreseeable future over a cause he believes in, his actions aren’t exactly selfish for he’s gained absolutely nothing from it. Well, other than a barrage of racial slurs and death threats from Internet trolls as well as notoriety in the right-wing media machine. Nevertheless, given that the NFL mostly consists of black athletes, many of his fellow of players joined him since they like Kaepernick see their fame and success put them in a position of power to call attention to what they, their families, and those in their communities have experienced day after day.
Of course, Americans don’t like politics inserted in their sports games. Rather they would rather see sports as a respite from the partisan fray where Americans can come together to enjoy a few hours of mindless entertainment. Nor do they want any reminders that racism is still alive and well in America despite that we have Martin Luther King Day and elected a black president. Even as people of color still face horrendous systemic racial discrimination every single day of their lives that the phrase “black lives matter” incites just as much white rage as it would in the 1920s (then again, maybe not). Kaepernick knew his actions were unpopular because protests are meant to cause public discomfort to show that something is so wrong that routine American life simply can’t go on as is. Because hundreds of Black Lives Matter activists have also received the considerable backlash from the very same people who malign him. Not to mention, the cause of civil rights for racial minorities has never been a popular one in white America since it involves minorities making demands on society at large. Sure you may have white people discuss Martin Luther King Jr. in reverence on his national holiday in January. But many of these very same individuals would’ve addressed him with racial slurs, death threats, and physical violence while he was alive during the 1960s, especially in the South. In fact, King was eventually assassinated precisely for his civil rights activism he’s remembered for. Also, the FBI had wiretapped him for years because director J. Edgar Hoover was extremely racist and saw civil rights activists as Un-American communists. Oh, and police arrested and jailed him for protesting segregation multiple times. The Klu Klux Klan even burned a cross on his front lawn. We should also remember that the 1960s South also saw a spike in new Confederate memorials, Confederate flags flown at their state capitols, and numerous incidents of racially-motivated terrorism particularly by the Klu Klux Klan. Public opinion polls during that time repeatedly found that most Americans said blacks should stop the civil rights demonstrations and that the protests would ultimately hurt them. If Martin Luther King was alive today, he’d certainly take a knee for Kaepernick during the national anthem during a sporting event. After all, those who championed Jackie Robinson’s “gracious” rise said the exact same shit Kaepernick had to put up with once he started advocating for race-related causes. Mostly because he couldn’t eat at the same restaurants and stay in the same hotels as his teammates during away games.
The truth is that for many Americans, patriotism is complicated. This is especially the case with people of color who’ve endured hundreds of years of systematic racism whether it be slavery, segregation, and mass incarceration for blacks, removal and reservations for Native Americans, immigration restrictions and citizenship bans for Asians, enhanced security checks for Muslims and anyone looking like one, along with fears of undocumented immigration for Hispanics. But despite how the government and their fellow countrymen treated marginalized people, most of them still considered themselves proud Americans. Many of them fought and died for this country. And if they protested, it wasn’t out of disrespect but out of desiring the same rights, privileges, representation, and opportunities their white counterparts take for granted. In other words, they just want to be accepted as Americans as anyone else in this country. After all, it was Martin Luther King Jr. himself who said during the March on Washington in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963: “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed – we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” People of color don’t protest out of disrespect for the American flag, but because they want their country to live up to the democratic ideals the American flag represents. Civil rights activists like King demonstrated on the streets were willing to endure violence, jail time, and even death for that. If that doesn’t express a love for one’s country, I don’t know what does.
However, white fragility and privilege being what it is, much of white America may be fine with racial equality but only in theory but most want to do what it takes to actually achieve it. Many don’t want to treat people of color as their social equals if it means losing their special whiteness perks. A lot of white Americans aren’t happy to see disadvantaged minorities who disproportionately benefit from social programs and policies. They believe in the idea that if people of color receive special benefits, they stand to lose what they have. Despite that plenty of white Americans would be much better off with racial equality even after losing their white privilege. If a person of a color is rich, famous, and/or successful, then many white Americans may resent them when they take a stand against racism. Since they may wonder why these non-white celebrities have the nerve to question a country that so richly rewarded them. For millions of white Americans it’s easier to believe in a glorious past that whitewashes all the racial ugliness than come to terms with seeing themselves as oppressors. Some may only acknowledge racism as a distant memory instead of a specter haunting, dividing, and corrupting Americans in insidious and divisive ways to this day. Either way, those in both camps will most likely view the Civil Rights Movement as a peaceful kumbaya fest that it wasn’t. Many white Americans either live in a bubble of ignorance or refuse to acknowledge that they generously benefit from systematic racism. Or that their white privilege comes at a terrible price to themselves, especially if they’re poor. And when people of color protest to their discomfort, many white Americans really don’t really want to understand. Because most would rather continue their life as it is than confront the ugly reality of racism that many people of color face. So they find ways to discredit troublesome protesters like inflicting the patriot card as in Colin Kaepernick’s case or alleging Black Lives Matter activists as cop killing thugs. They may criticize how racial minorities are so unwilling to acknowledge progress and express gratitude for living in a free country. In any case, many white Americans just want protesting people of color to shut up about discrimination and get over it. It’s one thing when whites wonder why people of color can’t express their dissent in an orderly law-abiding way whenever unrest erupts at their demonstrations against perceive injustice. But every time a person of color protests peacefully, the same whites angrily object to the message, the tactics, and the slogans’ purpose. Let’s just say, whenever racial minorities protest, it’s not how, why, and where that upsets whites. But the fact they’re protesting at all, let alone raising issues white people don’t want to hear.
Fortunately, now that we have a national holiday honoring the great civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., it’s firmly established that publicly speaking out against racism doesn’t make you unpatriotic. Expressing discontent of your country’s problems doesn’t make you disloyal. Nor does expecting your nation to live up to the ideals it celebrates and represents. The First Amendment makes this perfectly clear so protesting the national anthem is well within exercising one’s constitutional rights. Even if Donald Trump and his white conservative supporters claim otherwise. Still, Donald Trump’s use of patriotism to discredit NFL anthem protesters and called for a boycott until the NFL forces their players to stand is particularly disgusting. For one, forced patriotic reverence is basically what authoritarian dictators do and violates the constitution. Second, his attacks on NFL protests contain plenty of racist undertones on the idea that people of color should shut up. We all know that Trump sees nonstop racialized politics as a winning strategy to pander to his supporters. Besides, he’s encouraged supporters to attack minority protesters at his rallies, failed to condemn white supremacists in Charlottesville, called for an ESPN host’s firing after she called him a white supremacist, promoted birtherism, was sued for housing discrimination, called for the deaths of the Central Park Five, and pardoned Joe Arpaio.
But most importantly though he casts himself as a defender of national symbols, Donald Trump is far from an American patriot. He may proclaim he loves his country and wrap himself in the American flag. However, Trump often grandstands patriotic platitudes to exploit the country for his own personal gain. He’s used his wealth and privilege to get out of Vietnam, taxes, and accountability for his egregious business practices that have ruined countless American lives. He’s flagrantly abused his power and influence during his presidency such as violating the Emoluments Clause in the US Constitution. In his whole life, he’s made no personal sacrifices for the United States despite all the good his country has done for him. He doesn’t understand anything about the very government he leads nor does he express any interest to do so. He has no appreciation for American democratic principles that this country was built on such as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people along with the idea that all are created equal. He has no grasp of history and no interest in learning it. He sees First Amendment rights as an obstacle against silencing his critics and quell demonstrations against him. I mean the guy explodes into a Twitter fit accusing the media of “fake news” whenever they report an unflattering story about him. Not to mention, he’s either sued or threaten to sue people who’ve challenged him. Then there’s the fact he’s threatened to rescind NBC’s license after they reported on him wanting to increase our nuclear arsenal 10 times. Despite that he enjoys a lot of support from veterans, his long record of veterans bashing really shows he doesn’t respect those who’ve served in uniform. He’s called POWs losers, set up a fake veterans hotline, promised to donate $6 million to veterans with no intention of actually doing so, attacked Gold Star parents, claimed how he always wanted a Purple Heart after receiving one from a supporter, and claiming he knows more about ISIS than the generals. Trump has praised authoritarian despots like Vladimir Putin as well as done business with those who don’t support American interests like Qaddafi. Even goes as far as publicly stating that the US isn’t much better than Russia. Oh, and his presidential campaign colluded with Russia by initiating hacks and misinformation on his opponents, particularly Hillary Clinton. Then there are his speeches describing the US as a Hunger Games hellscape a la “American Carnage.”
Thus, we must understand that while we may identify patriotism with national symbols like waving the American flag, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, or standing for the “Star Spangled Banner.” Yet, these civil rituals are only shallow expressions of love for one’s country. Patriotic grandstanding is easy. Actually making sacrifices for one’s country or the ideals it represents is extremely difficult and may not always guarantee you praises from your fellow countrymen. In fact, it might come at considerable cost that most flag waving Americans aren’t willing to pay. We may parade our veterans and servicemen as heroes to thank for their service. But many of us have a shallow understanding on what it takes to respect their sacrifice. Our country has far too many veterans on the street while many still experience homelessness, mental illness, health problems, disability, and financial difficulties. Just standing for the national anthem, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and thanking soldiers for their service aren’t enough. We may celebrate those who take on American society to affirm its principles at a considerable risk. But we usually forget how often they faced backlash from a hostile American public. Some have lost careers and reputations. Some have gone to prison. Some have endured threats, physical violence, terror attacks, and alienation from loved ones. Some have even died. Nevertheless, who is the real patriot here? Is it the man who grandstands with American flags to attract legions in order to ruthlessly exploit the country he claims to love for personal enrichment? Or is the man respectfully taking a knee during the national anthem because he didn’t like cops getting away with murder? Is it the man who insists athletes stand for the national anthem but disrespects our men and women in uniform and seeks assistance of a hostile foreign power to win an election? Or is it the man willing to risk a lucrative career and be the most unfairly treated player in the NFL because he was unsatisfied how our country doesn’t live up to its ideals it represents? Is it the man who claims to love America but has no appreciation for its history, values, or democracy? Or is it the man willing to endure immense hatred from millions of people for championing a cause for Americans who don’t share his good fortune? It shouldn’t be hard to decide whose love of country we should honor.