ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra.
This was the week politics infected one of America’s favorite pastimes, football. Last Friday, President Trump offered a sharp criticism for NFL players who kneel during the national anthem. They say they’re protesting police treatment of African-Americans. He says they’re downright unpatriotic.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say get that son of a – (censored) – off the field right now, out, he’s fired? (Applause.) He’s fired!
MR. COSTA: And that was just the beginning. Over the course of this week, President Trump continued to fuel the controversy. He said the NFL owners are afraid of the players and there should be a rule that makes players stand during the national anthem. These comments just united players and owners, however, and from Chicago to Dallas to Green Bay to Denver they linked arms. Some kneeled.
This week has divided many fans. We heard from several of you on Facebook. Joanne wrote: “Are they protesting the flag? No they are asking for the same protections that we all expect from our law enforcement. By kneeling they brought attention to the inequality. I think it’s patriotic to present the request before the flag! Kinda like” seeing someone at the altar “at church!”
And Sue said: “One reason I love my country is because I’m free to protest, or not. I’m free to take a knee, or not. Wars were fought to have the right to protest,” wars are being fought for that as well, and that is “what freedom and democracy look like!”
We should add that almost all of the comments we got on our Washington Week Facebook page, they were civil. That was great to see.
Yamiche, why is this debate happening right now between patriotism and activism?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I mean, to not take it too far back, I’ll just say that there were thousands of people that were kidnapped, put at the bottom of a ship, brought over here, and then treated like second-class citizens up until 2017 and beyond. I think African-Americans from the very time that they stepped foot in America were treated terribly, and I think that you see the remnants of that slavery in policing. You see it in the way the criminal justice system works. You see it in the way the education system works. You see it in hiring, so – you see it in housing. So I think what this protest is about, of course, is about police brutality, but there’s this idea that African-Americans, while they’ve served in the military and have saluted the flag for years, have always felt as though the American Dream wasn’t quite the same promise to African-Americans.
MR. COSTA: And the players are really connected to this movement.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, I think the players are very connected, mainly because this comes from a long tradition of athletes standing up and asking for equal justice. You think of Muhammad Ali, you think of Jackie Robinson. And I think that as Americans we always want to think that our country’s the best thing in the world. And while of course America is a great place, I think that it’s obviously imperfect. So I think the reason why we see that – why we see this debate about the flag is because, one, it makes people very uncomfortable. I talked to both Democrats and Republicans who said just watching someone take the knee while you’re supposed to be standing and saluting this makes people very, very uncomfortable, makes you really think about what they’re doing. And of course, for President Trump, he’s at his best, I would say, when he’s – when he’s going through these cultural wars, when he’s able to say, you know, you’re trying to attack the heritage of America, you don’t understand how great America is. And there are people all over this country, of course, feel without being – without being discriminatory to other people, they have served their country and think that the flag is just not the place for these protests. Most of these players, of course, think that they’re wrong.
SUSAN DAVIS: The question that I think is so interesting here is, are the protest comments and the conversation this has provoked, are people angry about the act or the substance? And think about it this way: If all of these players, these same players, got down on the knee and said we’re kneeling until the wall is built because that’s what’s going to make this country great again – (laughter) – seriously, though – would the – would the president say they were un-American and that they should deserve to be fired? I mean, and so it raises the question, what are we – what are we fighting about here? Are we fighting over the argument that these players are trying or this conversation they’re trying to provoke, or are we talking about the act that they’re doing? Is the act itself what’s disrespectful, or is the – is the debate they’re trying to foster?
I also think the president tried to redirect what they were doing and try and make it seem like they were against the troops, or that this was somehow disrespectful to members in the – serving in the military, and I think that really twisted the intention of the players that have done this and what the conversation they were trying to provoke. And it twisted their intention, but I think he did it very successfully. I mean, one of the things that this proved is that there is no one better at kicking the hornet’s nest of sort of the things that divide us than the president of the United States.
MICHAEL SCHERER: The war on Christmas is next, right?
MS. DAVIS: Yeah. (Laughs.)
MR. SCHERER: Yeah, I mean, I – the question of was this a success or not is an interesting one. Polls show 60 percent plus disagree with the president, these players should not be fired if they kneel in front of the flag. It’s clear from anybody who watches football the – almost the entire NFL establishment – the commentators, the, you know, play-by-play people, the players, the coaches, the owners, most of the fans, not all the fans – don’t like what the president is saying. And yet, I think in his mind and in his way he was very successful because he’s able to find divisive issues in this country and he’s able to sort of mainline a rage that is very much there for a lot of people, and gin up that energy, and it helped him get elected. And I think he’s counting on it helping him to get elected next time. You know it’s not just the polls that matter, it’s who he gets out to the polls. And if people like the people I saw in Alabama who voted for Roy Moore, you know, they’re – those people are outraged at this kind of stuff.
MS. ALCINDOR: I mean, I think that the other thing that the president did very smartly was there are activists who now feel as though their message has been co-opted, that people don’t understand why people are kneeling in the first place. There are a lot of people who now think, oh, well, they’re just – they’re just kind of protesting the flag, they’re protesting the anthem – which, if you read – if you listen to the second verse, has some really problematic language in there. But what they’re really protesting is police brutality and institutional racism, and that’s different than just saying we don’t like this song. And I think a lot of activists I’ve talked to are very frustrated at the fact that now that the president spoke about it, people are all about, you know, we need to just support them because they can just protest, but no one’s saying, OK, but what we really need is legislation to try to figure out how to stop police brutality. That part of the conversation, I think, has in a large part been lost.
MS. DAVIS: Part of what I think is so hard about this is that sports culture – and I think particularly NFL, which is so uniquely American – is still one of those things that people of all political stripes can still sit down at the same bar and have a beer and watch a game and root for something, and it’s the common bond of us, right? I mean, the United Nations recognizes the value of sport in civilian life, and what it does for societies and for cultures. And so, when we always talk about polarization and partisanship, when we see it even injecting itself into the things that we thought were maybe sacred, you know, that you could still root for your – for your football team and not have to deal with politics for a couple hours on a Sunday, even that seems to be being tested now.
MR. COSTA: And President Trump just seems to love seizing on the raw moments in American life. And those are the moments he seems to relish more than any.
MR. SCHERER: And when he sees the opportunity he can’t stop – I mean, go back to Charlottesville, where he knew what he was supposed to say about the protests in Charlottesville. He kind of almost said it the first time. He kind of almost said it the second time, more definitively. And then the third time, when he was having that press conference at Trump Tower, he sees the opportunity, he can’t help himself. He sees it –
MR. COSTA: Why not? What explains – you’ve interviewed him many times. What explains it?
MR. SCHERER: You know, he believes that he has, like, almost tactile understanding for what people – his people – want, a gut instinct. And it’s very effective. And it’s very similar to, you know, what Roger Ailes had at Fox News for a number of years, that ability to really get down into, like, the core id of a certain section of the country and really get them excited about things. And the president feels like that is his – maybe not his biggest – you know, probably – I’d say the president thinks that is his biggest weapon in his race for the White House. This is a guy who, you know, became the Republican Party frontrunner in large part because he said Barack Obama may not have been born in the United States, which is exactly the same move here that he’s doing with this.
MS. ALCINDOR: I think what’s interesting here, as I said before, there were generations of athletes who always took stands on criminal justice issues, and on issues of justice. And I think when you talk to sports reporters, particularly, I would say, colleagues that I know that are African-American, that work for The Undefeated, which is ESPN’s website for the intersection of culture and sports, they say that sports has never been a place that you can just sit down at a beer and think that the people that were on the screen were just playing ball.
Anybody who has followed sports really closely understands that for – I mean, years ago or maybe last year LeBron and Dwyane Wade, these basketball players stood up and said: We have an issue right now. There were basketball players wearing “I can’t breathe” t-shirts. I think these athletes are seeing this moment now and everyone’s saying: Look, we have this really big megaphone. Look at what the people who came before us did. Muhammad Ali almost lost years of his boxing career –
MR. COSTA: He did.
MS. ALCINDOR: – because he didn’t want to go and fight in Vietnam. They remember that and say: Do we want to sit back and be – and look at ourselves 20 years from now and say LeBron James didn’t say anything. Say that Steph Curry, who is this young man who has really built this character as being a Christian person, as being someone who’s really for morality, and I’m not going to say anything about this issue? I think that’s why you see LeBron James calling the president a bum.
The problem is that, of course, as you said, the comments on Washington Week’s Facebook page were civil. The issue here is that civility is starting to really come unhinged. I mean, someone called the president a bum. That’s a real thing that I think made me sit back as a reporter and said is this the debate that we’re going to have now?
MR. COSTA: Right, because we’re all looking for a debate with more nuance than saying “bum” on Twitter. And that’s with all respect to LeBron James. I mean, I know there’s so much anger out there about the way this has revved up and become such a flash point. But your point’s right, sports has always been a mirror into America and the debates in America. And to think it’s – sports is separate from politics, it’s just never been the case.
MR. SCHERER: Talking about language, imagine the same thing had happened and he had – you beeped out son of a – and I won’t say it. But if Trump hadn’t used those words and hadn’t called football players basically an epithet, how different would this have been? I think Trump knows exactly what he’s doing.
MS. DAVIS: But this – doesn’t this raise, to me, such a cynical question about politics, in that does the president of the United States believe in the things he’s advocating for or is he using these issues purely to advance his political ends?
MR. SCHERER: I would say, for not just the president, for many politicians, there’s not really much of a difference between those two things. (Laughs.)
MS. DAVIS: That is very true, but when you’re talking about specifically race in America, that seems like a little bit different than we’re talking about health care or tax cuts, or any of these other kind of issues that drive wedge debates.
MR. SCHERER: The president – the same guy who says Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii, may not have been born in this country, who says that both sides were doing something wrong in Charlottesville when it was white nationalists and Nazis marching, and who does this about black athletes protesting – the president has a very sophisticated understanding of the racial tensions of this country.
MS. DAVIS: And it’s effective.
MS. ALCINDOR: And the same president who also took out an add when the Central Park 5 were being convicted, and has yet to ever say I apologize for that and these young men are innocent.
MR. SCHERER: He doubled down.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, he doubled down. So there’s this idea that –
MR. SCHERER: He said – he said they weren’t great people, he said afterwards.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah. And he has a 40-minute lecture from Tim Scott, the only African-American Republican senator, and he says: You know what? I’m not going to have it. I don’t have any regrets here. Tim Scott told me – you know, the president didn’t back down. So I think the president in some ways – if you don’t back down after all of these things, I think there’s an issue there where, yeah, how can you not believe this? If, when the teleprompter stops and what comes out over viscerally is, you know what, I actually really do believe that there are some fine people that go to that rally, that to me strikes as more genuine than what you read off a teleprompter.
MR. SCHERER: And he doesn’t just do this on race. He does this on gender.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah.
MR. SCHERER: We saw it all through the campaign. You know, blood coming out of her whatever. He does this on all manner of stuff where he can position himself as fighting for the regular Joe and Jane against the elite, his pretty brutal regular attacks on the press fit into that as well. I think he has a very sophisticated understanding of writing his own narrative.
MR. COSTA: Yes. You bring up the point about populism. Is it populist? I don’t think it’s populism. It’s visceral. It’s emotion. It’s charged.
MS. DAVIS: It’s culture war. It’s culture.
MR. SCHERER: And it’s demagoguery.
MR. COSTA: Not the moral culture war that people always say.
MS. ALCINDOR: And it’s also something that sucks people in, right? Like, there is this idea that for the last two years, I would say, what Donald Trump wants to talk about is what the entire country has been talking about. That’s a power and an understanding of media that I think he doesn’t quite get the credit for. People say there’s this idea that he’s a buffoon or he’s – they’re so chaotic, he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Then there’s the idea that this is someone who built a brand, who’s been in people’s living rooms for years through The Apprentice, who understands how people think and how they consume media. And as a result, I’m going to say this kind of inflammatory thing and, guess what, people aren’t going to talk about the fact that we couldn’t pass health care.
MR. COSTA: Or that he lost a Senate primary runoff in Alabama.
MS. DAVIS: Or that he couldn’t start a rival league to the NFL in the early ’80s.
MR. COSTA: So that’s so true. He has a lot of history with the NFL.
MS. DAVIS: He has a lot of history with the NFL.
MR. COSTA: He always wanted to be an NFL owner. Reporters are all amateur psychologists, I guess. (Laughter.)
MR. SCHERER: He sued them. He tried to – I think he won the antitrust suit against the NFL. He didn’t win any money, but he led that effort.
MR. COSTA: OK. We’ll leave the psychology to the side for now, but this was a good conversation. I appreciate everyone being here. And we’ll leave it there for you.
That’s this – that’s it for this edition of our Washington Week Extra. While you’re online, take our Washington Week quiz and join the conversation on the Washington Week Facebook page. Love to hear from you.
I’m Robert Costa. We’ll see you next time.