HUNTSVILLE — We won’t remember President Donald Trump’s fifth appearance in Alabama as a politician for its original intended purpose, which was to promote the Senate candidacy of Luther Strange. Instead, we will remember it as the time he took on the National Football League and called out players he said were disrespecting the flag.
“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, out, he’s fired, he’s fired?’” Trump said.
The crowd at the Von Braun Center applauded and began to chant, “USA! USA! USA!”
Then the backlash came. Last Sunday, players knelt for the national anthem in defiance of Trump and declared their First Amendment rights would not be trampled upon by this president.
Here’s the problem: All of this, whether intentional or not, is playing right into Trump’s hands.
Trump was right when he said the NFL’s ratings were suffering. Some believe the low ratings are a product of the whole not-standing-for-the-anthem phenomenon, started by Colin Kaepernick. Others argue it isn’t, but the ratings certainly aren’t going up in this era of politicized football.
The president has created a Trump vs. the NFL narrative that, based on the media coverage (outside of Alabama), is the most significant policy discussion of the day.
It’s probably fair to say that most Americans, if given a choice, would take the side of the NFL and its players — not by a huge margin, but enough to where it is a majority. The reasons might vary — an allegiance to certain teams or players, the incorrect belief this is an infringement on First Amendment rights or they just don’t like anything Trump does.
Politics isn’t just a popularity contest anymore. The Electoral College shows that, given a majority Americans did not vote for Trump.
Within that minority that voted for and support Trump, fighting disrespect of the flag is something that polls pretty well. Take the crowd’s reaction at Trump’s speech — approving and boisterous applause and shouts.
It’s a no-brainer: Keep winning over the people who brought you to the dance, and you’ll probably remain in a decent place politically. He does not need to win a majority of Americans. He needs to maximize the support within the narrow minority that supported him.
People often forget about politics until a presidential election year. Voter turnout in off-cycle elections pales in comparison.
For better or for worse, people just don’t vote in a lot of elections. Turnout is often low. But the people who do turn out in these elections are the ones that care about the national anthem and respect for the United States flag. They’re the ones who are engaged in the process.
That’s why this, in the end, will be a winner for the president.
Critics of Trump and his antics say you win in politics by addition and not subtraction. Going after the NFL is an exercise in subtraction. They say the same about the president’s aggressive tack on immigration. They argue that will scare off the all-important Hispanic vote, which they also argue is a growing demographic capable of deciding future elections.
The problem is they don’t vote. They don’t turn out for Democrats, hence the entire 2016 presidential election outcome.
That’s where the Democrats have failed in recent years. Sure, those on the left will show their disdain by wearing a safety pin on their lapel, or by participating in some other hollow, meaningless gesture, like kneeling for the national anthem. But real change happens at the ballot box.
The people upset the most by Trump’s statement on Friday night didn’t vote for him in the first place, if they voted at all. The dominant theme in 2017 politics is enthusiasm. It is getting out the vote.
These symbolic stands may make headlines, and people will praise themselves for being courageous and not standing for the national anthem for the hundredth time. But is there anyone who thinks, “Gee, I really like what the long snapper for the Minnesota Vikings did there. I used to vote Republican, but I think I’ll go out and vote Democrat tomorrow?”
There are very few of those votes to be had, one would imagine.
What’s more likely is that the people who voted for Trump cheer him for calling out millionaire athletes and respecting the flag. There isn’t another election for over a year (the Alabama special election for U.S. Senate excluded). Even if he hasn’t been able to get one square inch of the wall built, he’s at least going after the people participating in something his supporters find abhorrent.
You can say what you want about Trump and his style, but it is a miscalculation to think coming down on the side of respecting the American flag is not a winner politically.