Why Cede the Flag to Trump?

Colin Kaepernick and other athletes have a better claim on the United States’s symbols and their meaning.

Andrew Boyers / Reuters

President Trump apparently slept on it overnight and woke up early on Sunday morning thinking: “Yes, I will fight a cultural war against black athletes.”

In two Sunday morning tweets, Trump urged a boycott of the National Football League until owners punished players who refused to stand for the national anthem, in protest of police brutality and racial injustice—capping a weekend of taunting and trash-talking that began at his Alabama rally Friday night. He’s now created a situation in which it will seem almost unmanly for black athletes, and not only football players, not to take a knee during the anthem. If they stand for the anthem, they will seem to do so at Trump’s command. How can they not resist?

Trump had another of his bad weeks last week. His secretary of health and human services was exposed for chartering expensive private jets at public expense. His Environmental Protection Agency director is charging the Treasury for a security detail big enough to impress Turkish President Recep Erdogan. One more attempt to repeal Obamacare disintegrated in the Senate. A star basketball player publicly refused an invitation to the White House. The FBI obtained a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant for Trump’s onetime campaign chair, Paul Manafort, while the campaign was still underway, CNN reported last week.

When in trouble, Trump habitually falls back on the same trick: enflaming conservative cultural grievances. American flags, Confederate memorials—anything will do. You would not know it from the Twitter debate, but Trump shrewdly seized the majority side of the Robert E. Lee statue debate: An August YouGov poll found that only about one-quarter of the country agrees that such monuments should be seen as symbols of racism. The polling on standing for the national anthem will presumably be even more lopsided.

Trump, the least popular first-year president in the history of polling, is always scouting for opportunities to depict his opponents—in every other way this country’s dominant mainstream—as somehow un-American. Smarting from his popular-vote loss in the November 2016 election, Trump later that month tweeted a demand that flag-burners forfeit their U.S. citizenship. He seems to have hoped that he could goad some Trump opponents into actually committing such a burning for the cameras. Unfortunately for him, only a tiny group of oddballs obliged.

But now, in more trouble, Trump is adding extra force to his goading. He’s hoping to provoke a dynamic in which many of the country’s most famous and most visible African Americans appear en masse to disrespect the anthem and the flag. In so doing, they will fortify Trump’s own claim that these symbols properly belong to him and to his supporters.

Nobody will dispute that all Americans, including football players of course, have a right to do whatever they please during the anthem: kneel, sit, or stare dazedly into space—the latter being Trump’s own preferred stance during the ritual. But people exercising their rights in spectacularly televised ways would be wise to consider their actions carefully. What are they communicating? What are they accomplishing?

And they should consider this: The background fact to all Trump’s noisy nationalism is that this administration is more shot through with disloyalty, subversion, and hostile foreign influence than any administration in recent history. The president’s son at a minimum welcomed the prospect of cooperation with Russian spies in the 2016 election—and possibly did much worse than that. The president’s personal finances appear to have been rescued in the crisis of 2008 by an infusion of funds from Russian sources. The president’s campaign chair and his first national-security adviser both took pay from Kremlin-linked sources in amounts still not yet fully disclosed.

As yet, there has been no showing of any illegality. But what is known suffices to wipe away any Trump claim to uphold the flag and the republic against others.

Why play ball with him? Why give him what he wants?

In the Civil War anthem, “Marching Through Georgia,” the stars and stripes is described as “the flag that makes you free”—but for most of the previous three-quarters of a century, it was anything but. It was the flag that flew over slave ships until 1808, the flag under which federal marshals enforced this country’s fugitive slave acts before the Civil War. Only the Civil War changed that flag’s character. Indeed, as Adam Goodheart observes in his remarkable history, 1861: The Civil War Awakening, it was not until the Civil War that the habit spread of flying the flag over private as well as federal buildings. It exacted hideous quantities of blood, from black and white soldiers alike, to wash that flag clean of its former meanings.

Maybe the washing has never been completed, and possibly it never will be. But that’s no reason to resign the flag and the anthem to the president. Colin Kaepernick has better right to that flag and anthem than Donald Trump. Why concede that right? Assert it.

Don’t take the knee. Stand for the flag; hand on heart for the anthem—and then put your signature to the demand that this least American of administrations be investigated down to its bottomest murk and filth.