President Donald Trump is on a war path against NFL players who protest racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem. Trump and his supporters are pushing for an NFL boycott unless the league or the team owners ban players from kneeling.
For Trump, this is largely a distraction. His legislative agenda has failed, he is under an increasingly scrutinous federal investigation, and his approval ratings are underwater. It remains a good wedge issue, however, as polls show conservatives are largely opposed to players who kneel for the anthem, regardless of the actual validity of their grievances.
Numerous “principled” conservatives who have distanced themselves from Trump tried to find a common ground between the angry mostly-white Republican Party they are part of and the legitimate outrage over racial injustice in America that their party largely refuses to acknowledge.
Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote a piece in The Atlantic in which he admits Trump is fighting “a cultural war against black athletes” and is “enflaming conservative cultural grievances” to try and increase his support.
But Frum says players should not protest during the anthem because the polling is “lopsided” and kneeling would make “the country’s most famous and most visible African Americans appear en masse to disrespect the anthem and the flag.”
Frum says that instead of protesting, players should instead sign a petition calling for Trump to be investigated.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s former chief of staff, Josh Holmes, tweeted that this issue is how “Trump wins.”
And this is where Trump wins. If you go overseas and disrespect the American flag, the message you send, and your support radically changes. https://t.co/iaR4DljzMA
— Josh Holmes (@HolmesJosh) September 24, 2017
Fox News host Pete Hegseth perfectly summed up the conservative viewpoint.
“I have to ask, what are we kneeling for at this point? Because you talk about social injustice, this is the least sexist, least racist, most free, most equal, most prosperous country in the history of humankind,” he said on “Fox & Friends” Sunday.
But none of this is new. As highlighted in a Washington Post piece on America’s “long history of resisting civil rights protesters” last year, American views on the NFL players’ protest is akin to white Americans’ views on the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
A 1964 Gallup poll taken after the 1963 March on Washington showed that 74% of Americans felt that “mass demonstrations by Negroes” have “hurt the Negro’s cause for racial equality.”
A poll taken later that year showed that 73% of Americans felt “Negroes should stop their demonstrating now that they have made their point.”
A 1966 Harris poll of white Americans showed that 85% felt “demonstrations by Negroes on civil rights” hurt “the advancement of Negro rights.”
With five decades of hindsight, we know that the polls were wrong and that Civil Rights leaders were perfectly right to ignore public opinion to push for what is right, not popular. NFL players are largely doing the same. On Sunday, more than 150 players participated in protests during the national anthem because they believe in what is right, not what is popular.
Change has never been popular. Progress has never been popular.