Democracy & Government

Why Donald Trump Attacked the NFL Players Who Take a Knee

He’s stoking racial divisions in order to maintain a grip on a Senate seat that Democrats are surprisingly competitive for.

Why Donald Trump Attacked the NFL Players Who Take a Knee

President Donald Trump arrives at a rally for Luther Strange (R-AL) at the Von Braun Civic Center in Huntsville, Alabama on Sept. 22, 2017. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

This post originally appeared at The Nation.

Donald Trump says his call for the firing of National Football League players who kneel during the national anthem to protest systemic racism in America has nothing to do with race. After a weekend of ranting and raving on Twitter about an issue that, for the president, suddenly seems to have taken precedence over North Korea, tax reform, repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act and attacking Hillary Clinton, Trump claimed on Sunday evening that:

This has nothing to do with race. I’ve never said anything about race. This has nothing to do with race or anything else. This has to do with respect for our country, and respect for our flag.

Actually, it has everything to do with race — and Trump knows that. He’s playing an ugly political game, just as he did after the violence last month in Charlottesville, just as he did throughout his 2016 presidential campaign.

No national political figure since former Alabama governor and frequent presidential contender George Wallace has played the race card so frequently and so aggressively as Trump has since he announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 2015. The president’s default response to tough political circumstances is to stir divisions that he hopes will inflame and energize his base. If that happens, he calculates, they will do his political bidding.

The president’s default response to tough political circumstances is to stir divisions that he hopes will inflame and energize his base. If that happens, he calculates, they will do his political bidding.

This explains the president’s weekend obsession with the exercise of First Amendment rights by African-American football players and their allies. Trump is trying to win an election. Not his own election, mind you. But an election that matters a great deal to his presidency.

Alabama Republicans will nominate a Senate candidate to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a man whose record of working to divide Alabama, and the nation, along lines of race and ethnicity is as haunting as it is wicked. Sessions and Trump may not get along as well as they did in the days when the former senator played a critical role in winning the South for the Republican presidential contender. But Trump desperately wants to make sure that the man who replaces Sessions is an ally —or, at the very least, a Republican. As the current wrangling over ACA repeal and replacement illustrates, the president cannot afford to lose a Republican seat.

Trump made his crusade against NFL players who take a knee central to an address he gave last Friday night in Huntsville, Alabama, on behalf of his favored candidate in the Republican race, appointed incumbent Luther Strange. The president acknowledged in his “tortured endorsement” of Strange that the media would paint the defeat of his favored candidate in the primary as an “embarrassment” to the president. That’s undoubtedly true. But, in an interview on Monday, Trump said something that was even more revealing.

He suggested that if Strange’s extremist challenger in Tuesday’s Republican runoff primary, Roy Moore, is nominated, Moore could get beat by a Democrat in the Dec. 12 general election. “Roy Moore is going to have a very hard time getting elected against the Democrat,” claims the president. “Against Luther they won’t even fight.” Though Trump says he would “campaign like hell” for Moore if he is nominated by GOP voters in Tuesday’s runoff election, the president also says the scandal-plagued former judge “has a very good chance of not winning in the general election.”

Polls have generally put Moore ahead of Strange, whose appointment by disgraced former governor Robert Bentley was extremely controversial and extremely unpopular with a lot of Alabama Republicans. So Trump needed to go big for Strange, and he did so by playing the NFL card.

Strange thinks it was a masterstroke. When asked about the president’s rhetoric at his rally — “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now’?” — Strange told Fox News:

Our supporters are very deeply patriotic, they respect the values that the president represents and what he stood for at that rally, and I think that’s going to make all the difference.

It may not make all the difference. But the president’s play is a serious political gambit. And it should serve as a wake-up call for national Democrats. Alabama could upset Donald Trump’s presidency in a major way in December — whether Moore or Strange is nominated.

That may be hard for many Democrats to imagine. The last Democratic presidential contender to win more than 40 percent of the vote in Alabama was Al Gore in 2000. The last Democratic presidential contender to win more than 50 percent of the vote — and secure its Electoral College votes — was Jimmy Carter in 1976. No Democrat has represented Alabama in the US Senate since a Democrat, Howell Heflin, left office two decades ago. Heflin’s replacement was not just any Republican; it was Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III.

So it is understandable that many national Democrats have ignored this year’s special election to fill the Alabama seat.

There is solid evidence that Democrats can still win very big races in very red states.

Understandable, but unacceptable. The Democratic Party has decayed in recent election cycles, as it has shrunk into itself. In 2016, the party won just 20 states and the District of Columbia. It won just 12 of 34 contests for US Senate seats — and those wins were largely concentrated in states where the party’s presidential nominee prevailed.

Yet there is solid evidence that Democrats can still win very big races in very red states. Just ask Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, who won that state’s 2015 gubernatorial race with 56 percent of the vote. He did that in a state that a year later would give Democrat Hillary Clinton only slightly more of the vote (38 percent) than she got in Alabama (34 percent).

True, Edwards beat a scandal-plagued and just-downright-embarrassing Republican, former Sen. David Vitter. But Alabama Republicans are about to nominate a scandal-plagued and just-downright-embarrassing Republican for the Senate. It does not matter whether Strange or Moore wins Tuesday. Both men have shamed themselves, again and again and again.

In contrast to Strange and Moore, the Democratic nominee for the Alabama Senate seat is a strikingly qualified and able contender, former United States Attorney Doug Jones. A onetime staff counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee, he has decades of legal and political experience in Alabama. And Jones has a record of accomplishment that stands in stark contrast to the résumés of both Republican contenders.

The Democrat is best known for his efforts in the late 1990s and early 2000s to finally achieve a measure of justice in the case of the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham. Jones is credited with playing an essential role in winning murder convictions against two of the men who murdered four young girls almost 40 years earlier. Frequently honored for his work on not just civil rights cases but also cases involving women’s rights, workers’ rights and the environment, Jones is hailed by Pultizer Prize–winning journalist and author Diane McWhorter as “bold and aggressive, but also willing to take a risk to be on the right side of history.”

Polls taken before Trump’s latest meltdown had Jones within 4 points of either Moore or Strange. Jones says, “I think the people in this state are looking at themselves and are saying, ‘We’re tired of being embarrassed.’”

That prospect has Donald Trump running scared — so scared that he is, again, stirring racial tensions in hopes of scoring political points.

John Nichols

John Nichols is national correspondent for The Nation. A co-founder of the media reform organization Free Press, he is the author of Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America, forthcoming from Nation Books this fall, and co-author with Robert W. McChesney of The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again; Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy; and People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizeness Democracy, published in March 2016 by Nation Books. Follow him on Twitter: @NicholsUprising.