Donald Trump’s ongoing fight with professional athletes has one purpose: to inflame racial tensions.
The president says his demand that National Football League owners fire those players who protest racial injustice by kneeling during the pre-game national anthem is about patriotism and respect for the flag.
That claim is rejected not only by the NFL, but by Trump’s history on the topic and by the context. It was at a campaign rally in Alabama where the president told NFL coaches to get the “son of a bitch” off the field if the player kneels and to fire him from the team.
It is no coincidence that most of the protesters are African-Americans; about 70 percent of NFL players are black. There is a long tradition of some black athletes protesting injustices, notably Muhammad Ali and two Olympic sprinters in the 1960s.
Trump’s event in Alabama was to support Republican Sen. Luther Strange, who faces a tough challenge in Tuesday’s primary where almost all the voters will be white.
Trump has a history of playing the race card, which may fuel some of his support among white working-class voters. For years, he led the absurd charge that Barack Obama, the first African-American president, wasn’t born in the United States, and last year he called a judge unqualified because his parents were from Mexico.
In August, he refused to draw any distinction between the white nationalists and neo-Nazis who caused violence, including a death, in Charlottesville, Va., and the people protesting against them. After strong objections from Republicans, and even from some members of his own administration, he seemed to back down, but then he doubled back on his initial sentiment.
He’s also in a feud with the Golden State Warriors, canceling the customary visit of the National Basketball Association’s championship team to the White House. This was after star player Stephen Curry wondered whether he’d want to attend, given Trump’s divisiveness on race. Other stars in the NBA - which is about 75 percent African-American - weighed in. Especially vehement was Lebron James, who called Trump a “bum.”
Trump’s insistence that the NFL flap is about respect for patriotism rings hollow given his penchant for duplicity on that count, too. During the presidential campaign, when he pulled out of an Iowa debate, he said that instead he would raise $6 million for military veterans, including $1 million of his personal money.
Months later, news reports revealed he had not raised that $6 million and given none personally. Trump quickly wrote some checks the same day the article appeared.
He also belittled the war-hero stature of Sen. John McCain, who as a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War was shot down and spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war. “I like people who weren’t captured,” Trump said.
Trump himself evaded the Vietnam War, he said, when he got a doctor’s report that he had “bone spurs” in his heels. He added later that this condition was only temporary and that he couldn’t remember the name of the doctor.
But he once explained that avoiding sexually transmitted diseases in the 1960s and ’70s was “my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave soldier.”
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.