- In 1969, the All-Star outfielder Curt Flood, who was black and an outspoken proponent of the era’s civil-right causes, was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood did not want to go—and he refused the deal. As Alan Barra explained in an Atlantic account, even though Flood lost his case in the Supreme Court (and suffered irreparable damage in his baseball career), he eventually forced a change in the owner-player power balance not only in baseball but in much of professional sports.
Significantly, Flood cast his resistance in racial-justice terms. “I do not regard myself as a piece of property to be bought or sold,” he said in a letter to the baseball commissioner, arguing why he considered baseball’s “reserve clause” unjust. The owners were white; the players affected were disproportionately black—and Flood, like Ali, Smith, and Carlos before him, directed attention to these racial dynamics.
Richard Nixon was president at the time. He was besieged by critics and protests, over his Vietnam policies and the racial implications of his “law and order” emphasis. Nixon also fancied himself an avid sports fan.
What did he say about Curt Flood? As best I knew then and have found since, what he said in public was, nothing.
Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon are usually taken as cautionary examples of mis-using the powers of the presidency, rather than of appropriate restraint. The new Ken Burns/Lynn Novick PBS documentary series on Vietnam documents in shocking detail the way each of them lied in public, to further enmire the United States into combat in Vietnam.
But even the two of them understood something Donald Trump didn’t. A president doesn’t go out of his way to inflame America’s longest-standing injustice and wound, the legacy of its centuries of slavery. That is what Trump has recklessly done.
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2. War mongering. What Trump tweeted last night about North Korea is shocking, even for him:
Every American president since Harry Truman has had at his command the power to kill countless millions of people in a nuclear exchange. Every one of those presidents except Donald Trump has borne this knowledge as a matter of the utmost gravity. Living with this responsibility is one reason presidents look 20 years older when they leave office than when they arrived.
For a man who could decide to use nuclear weapons to speak about them in a cavalier and bullying tone is obscene. For professional wrestling, fine; for matters of worldwide life and death, no.
To do so in threatening a dimly-understood foreign regime whose legitimacy is based on facing down bigger foreign enemies—this is reckless on a scale with no precedent I can think of in modern presidential posturing. (John F. Kennedy made a bad mistake in approving the Bay of Pigs invasion, but he soon rued that as the naivete of a new president. Lyndon Johnson made a disastrous mistake in step-by-step deepening America’s commitment to Vietnam, but he did not boast about it, Trump-style. George W. Bush made a catastrophic mistake in deciding to invade Iraq—but it was recklessness of a different nature than courting a nuclear showdown via Twitter.) If you’re in doubt about the folly of Trump’s dares to Kim Jong Un, please read Mark Bowden’s comprehensive story in The Atlantic, or Evan Osnos’s account of a recent visit to North Korea in The New Yorker.
Many of Trump’s tweets have been outrageous and insulting. This one crosses the threshold into being actually dangerous.
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During the campaign, I argued that the greatest responsibility for Trump’s rise lay not with the man himself—he is who he is, he can’t help it—but with those Republicans who know what he is, and continue to look the other way. Their responsibility for the carnage of this era increases by the day, and has grown by quite a lot this weekend.