Conservative political analysts seem so wrapped up in the matter of whether or not Donald Trump can, no one has given much thought to whether he should.
The latest national scandal, which will surely be as fleeting as its myriad predecessors, was whipped up by the president on a whim while he fed off the adoration of his fans at an Alabama political rally over the weekend. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of the NFL owners when somebody disrespects the flag to say get that sonofabitch off the field?” the president boomed. The crowd roared, Trump absorbed the positive feedback, and the nation’s opinion makers on the right and the left responded to the president’s goading with Pavlovian predictability. Trump so enjoyed the quivering of the raw nerve he touched that he spent the following morning attacking a variety of African-American professional athletes and disinviting them to the White House on, ostensibly, patriotic grounds.
What urgent controversy was the president addressing? Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who became the subject of national scrutiny when he opted to protest police violence targeting African-Americans by kneeling for the national anthem, hasn’t played in the National Football League this year. He became a free agent when his contract elapsed in March, and another team did not sign him.
Isolated episodes of questionable police violence against African-Americans persist, like the tragic 2016 murder of Philando Castile—a case in which moral justice, as opposed to the purely procedural variety, has proven elusive. So, too, do contentions that some police departments are eager to cover that violence up, like the three Chicago officers indicated for conspiring to hide evidence related to the fatal 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald. But were there mass Black Lives Matter protests paralyzing American urban centers when the president made his remarks, as there had been in years past? No.
The president decided to ignite a controversy, and the nation’s culturally conservative commentators—even those sympathetic to claims that justice is routinely denied blacks in over-policed portions of the country—proceeded to deem Trump the winner of this manufactured kerfuffle. National Review’s Rich Lowry noted that Trump’s antipathy toward Kaepernick and those in professional sports who sympathize with his tactics called his agitation indicative of a “gut-level political savvy.” The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson agreed: “Donald Trump Did Not Start This. But He Will Finish It. And He Will Win.”
As a purely dispassionate political analysis, these assertions have undeniable merit. The majority of the country does not see the American flag or the national anthem of the United States as symbols of oppression, and a majority in 2016 did not sympathize with those who “take the knee.” They might think that African-Americans, in particular, have a legitimate claim to make against the state, but see the broad brush with which some protesters tar the country as unfair to a nation that has sacrificed much to secure freedom and egalitarianism for both its citizens and the whole of mankind. And perhaps white Americans who resent these protesters see Trump as a medium through which they can communicate this point of view to a cultural media establishment that rejects it in its entirety and with overwhelming, righteous passion.
But is Trump winning anything beyond a likely short-lived reprieve from a focus on the fact that he has yet to secure a legislative achievement that will outlast his presidency? No. He has, instead, expertly torn asunder existing fissures in the country, exploiting them for his own temporary political gain. Is Trump as the avatar of true patriotism, self-sacrifice, and national healing toward a racial consensus? Is he going to truly advance the goals of his so-called “silent majority?” Or is he going to increase tensions? Has he brought the nation together, or did he simply embitter white Americans and alienate their black counterparts? Is this leadership? Is it conservative? The right once knew the answers to these questions, but it took a Democrat to make them see it.
To call Trump’s crusade or the campaign of kneeling for the Star Spangled Banner a culture war annoys activists on both sides. For the kneelers, they are protesting state-sponsored bloodletting; their cause is existential. For those who stand, the very definition of their nation is at stake, and the security it provides them and their families with it. But no one so protested when it was Barack Obama serving on the front lines of what most agreed was a culture war.
In 2014, along with making a point of only calling on women during a press conference and executing a variety of legally dubious (and doomed) executive actions on immigration, Obama indulged his liberal critics by finally speaking out more boldly on the issue of race in popular media venues like Black Entertainment Television. Following the 2014 killing of Eric Garner by New York City police in a chokehold after he tried to sell loosie cigarettes, the president went out of his way to endorse the actions of professional athletes who were disgusted by the injustice.
“You know, I think LeBron [James] did the right thing,” Barack Obama told People Magazine regarding the NBA star’s decision to wear a t-shirt bearing Garner’s last reported words: “I can’t breathe.” Obama compared James to the icons of led the fight for civil rights. “We forget the role that Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, and Bill Russell played in raising consciousness,” he insisted. “I’d like to see more athletes do that—not just around this issue, but around a range of issues.”
Anti-Trump activists who are deservedly incensed by Trump’s behavior will claim that there is no comparison between these two assertions, but that’s how precedents work. Those who inherit them build upon them in ways that are not always optimal or prudent. That’s why presidents should be cautious about setting them. Barack Obama spoke more eloquently and with greater delicacy on the issue of race than Trump is capable of or interested in mimicking, but the 44th President did not heal divisions with these comments. There was no legislative remedy available to Obama to address the issue of excessive local policing targeting minorities. Because such behavior violates existing laws, it is a matter only of enforcement. That’s why Obama’s supporters demanded only that the president speak his mind on race and discrimination, and were largely satisfied when he did.
Culture wars beget a response because they almost never end—not totally. It’s too much to expect those who cheered on Obama’s decision to wade into contentious cultural matters to engage in any introspection, but conservatives should be expected to recall the admonitions they once issued not all that long ago. The president’s words matter a great deal, and he should be supremely careful about deploying them. They can and often do yield more harm than good.