When, in a game last Sunday in Mexico City versus the New England Patriots, the Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch chose to sit during the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and then stood during the Mexican National Anthem, the idea of the multiverse—multiple realities and infinite branching probabilities—suddenly seemed inadequate. As soon as the cameras focused on Lynch, this plane of existence narrowed to a single undeniable probability: that President Donald Trump was going to tweet about it sometime soon.
Trump happily obliged fate. On Monday morning at 6:25a.m., in the block of time reserved for blasting people and things he’s seen on cable news that he doesn’t like, the president tweeted that “next time [the] NFL should suspend him for remainder of season.” Utilizing the extra 140 characters Twitter recently bestowed, Trump was also able to imply that Lynch was a factor in the the NFL’s sinking ratings. With that, Lynch became just the latest in a line of outspoken black people that Trump has attacked. It’s kind of a thing for him.
Ten months into Trump’s presidency, everything has changed, and everything has remained the same. In the onslaught of the 2017 news cycle, perhaps the one constant has been the president’s use of his expansive bully pulpit to target prominent black people. In addition to Lynch, Trump is also feuding with LaVar Ball, the brash celebrity dad of LiAngelo Ball, a UCLA player whose shoplifting arrest in China turned into a minor international incident. In a bizarre feud, Trump attacked Ball and his family for not being quite grateful enough to the president for securing the younger Ball’s freedom. LaVar Ball has refused to apologize or thank Trump, and has used the spectacle to engage in more carnival-barking, this time via a CNN interview.
This morning, Trump upped the ante in that battle, taking to Twitter in a predawn tirade against Ball, dedicating two tweets to calling the basketball dad an “ungrateful fool,” and calling him “a poor man’s version of Don King, but without the hair.” In addition to those tweets, the president squeezed in another, reiterating his criticism of the NFL for merely allowing players to kneel, all hours before addressing his policy meetings and a developing naval incident in the Philippine Sea involving missing military personnel.
This is all, of course, a sideshow in a week with numerous bombshell reports of sexual abuse among members of Congress and the media, with a major tax bill looming, and with plenty of other important domestic and foreign-policy issues to confront. But for Trump, the sideshow appears to be the real show. Of his 17 tweets and retweets this week, the president has dedicated seven to attacking black people or protests by black people.
On this topic, Trump is a broken record. He’s repeatedly gone after NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other black athletes for on-the-field protests, culminating in his “son of a bitch” attack in an Alabama rally in September.
Trump has raged against Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry for his refusal to visit the White House, and subsequently disinvited the whole team. He and his office have launched sustained, coordinated verbal assaults on the ESPN anchor Jemele Hill and Florida Representative Frederica Wilson. Trump has picked fights with the civil-rights hero Representative John Lewis, saying he was “all talk, talk, talk—no action or results.” And, of course, the steam that got the Trump train started came from his long-running denigration of President Barack Obama, a campaign that ran the gamut from embracing birtherism to implying the former president was a lazy man who vacationed too much. This is an abridged list.
It seems trite to say that Trump likes to pick fights with black people—he picks fights with everyone, in the most shocking and crass ways—but the president does have a knack for knocking down the kinds of black folks members of his base want to see knocked down. There are plenty of people on all sides of the political and racial spectrums hoping LaVar Ball types will receive their comeuppance, but generally, Trump has saved his most sustained assaults for black people who are prominent and popular among young people, and for those who in a different era might have been considered “uppity.”
“Uppityness” is today recognized as a slur, and how it got that way is instructive in explaining Trump’s rise to power. Back when the lives and career prospects of black people were officially constrained by the state, and when social and cultural hierarchies were enforced on pain of death, black people who dared aspire to a life and world beyond those constraints were often branded with the label. The maintenance of those hierarchies depended on making examples of the outspoken and the ambitious. Though the implements have changed from the braided whips of the past to the verbal upbraidings of the present, the purpose of attacking uppity blacks has always been to reinforce the status quo and limit mobility, in all senses of that word.
There’s a class inflection to uppity today, and it follows that most of the black people Trump has attacked are well-off—he often needles his black opponents as “ungrateful” for their stations. But his attacks serve the same purpose, regardless of the status of his targets. It’s not even clear whether he truly harbors animosity toward the people he targets or if he really knows much about them, but it’s undeniable that Trump knows exactly what these attacks do for him. He may have little appetite to master policy or struggle to manage his office, but Trump is a savant when it comes to knowing how to harness white resentment and hostility towards outspoken people of color. This is perhaps his most bankable skill, and unfortunately for those who open Twitter in the mornings, the one he uses most liberally.
The proof is in the presidency, as well as in the polls. In the run-up to the election last year, most Republicans and Trump supporters either disagreed with or were up in the air on the fact that Barack Obama was born in the United States, a testament to the incredible power of Trump’s racist birther campaign. According to an HBO Real Sports/Marist poll, Republicans largely support his outbursts over the NFL protests and Colin Kaepernick and overwhelmingly agree with his stance that protest should be banned from the sport altogether. And while approval ratings and views of Trump’s fitness for office have plummeted across the board in the past couple months, white Americans have provided a resilient bastion of political support for Trump.
Whether Trump can continue going back to this particular well is anyone’s guess. His sinking approval ratings even among whites may indicate that the well is running dry. But his constant fighting with prominent black folks draws on one of the oldest political strategies in the book. It’s the same reason why the White House has been so embroiled in relitigating the Civil War and rehabilitating enslavers, and why Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore has resorted to Lost Cause mythology under fire over numerous sexual assault allegations. The enforcers of the racial status quo always maintain some measure of power.
Apart from their political effectiveness, though, Trump’s feuds serve another purpose: They obscure the fact that he is a politician otherwise without identity. Without people of color to serve as a foil, there is no Trumpism. If not for his attacks on the Central Park Five, his birtherism, his slanders of immigrants, his “what the hell do you have to lose” exhortations, the travel bans, and his autonomic reactions against prominent black people, it’s hard to see how Trump ever could have been elected in the first place.