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Donald Trump, the gridiron’s newest genius

President Trump spoke Friday at a rally in Huntsville, Ala. Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

Last week, a good chunk of the planet was worried sick after Donald Trump threatened to annihilate another country with nuclear weapons.

This week, we’re talking about millionaires kneeling during the national anthem.

If that’s not genius, I don’t know what is.

We are inching closer to war with North Korea. Puerto Rico lies in ruins. Florida and Texas are still reeling from their natural disasters.

Oh, and Patriots fans booed their team as part of a Trump-inspired national conversation on whether football players exercising free speech during the national anthem is a form of patriotism or treason.


Marvelous. How’s the stock market doing, and when does the bombing start?

If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, the worst scoundrels excel at trying to define it along narrow, partisan lines.

The genius of Trump is that, as a master of deflection, he has managed to turn a minor brush fire in the cultural wars into a potential conflagration. So we’re talking about this instead of things that impact the real lives of real Americans.

Last week, about a half-dozen NFL players took a knee, to express solidarity with those with grievances rooted in the disparate treatment of Americans along racial lines.

After the president used one of his pep rallies to dismiss NFL players who take part in such protests as “sons of bitches,” and to urge NFL owners to fire them, more than 100 players, including 18 Patriots, took a knee on Sunday.

So, in the name of demanding more respect for the flag, President Trump managed to make what he considers disrespect for the flag far more widespread. Swell.

If you accept the logic that kneeling during the national anthem is disrespectful, then booing during the song, as thousands of Patriots fans did to show their displeasure with the players who knelt, is also disrespectful.


Personally, neither the booing nor the kneeling bothered me. It’s called free speech. It’s called dissent, and it is the essence of being American.

The growing protests follow the president’s petulant decision to disinvite — by Twitter, natch — the NBA champion Golden State Warriors to the traditional White House reception after the team’s star Steph Curry suggested he didn’t want to go.

After the Patriots won the last Super Bowl, a bevy of Patriot players said they would boycott the traditional White House visit. Trump did not disinvite the team, which is owned, coached, and quarterbacked by Trump BFFs Bob Kraft, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady. (Brady wound up sitting it out for personal reasons)

In his rash statements, in his boundless talent in dividing people, the president has forced even those Patriot BFFs to distance themselves from him. Forced to choose between his fellow billionaire and the players that made him a billionaire, Kraft chose his players. Forced to choose between his teammates who win Super Bowls with him and the president he sometimes golfs with, Brady chose his teammates.

I accept that many if not most active duty military and veterans are offended by the kneeling, and I would never knowingly disrespect a veteran. But if someone like Brandin Cooks says his taking a knee is not meant to disrespect the military, but to call for social change, I have to accept what he says, too.


Cooks, the Patriots newcomer who had his breakout game and caught the touchdown pass that sealed the Patriots come-from-behind-victory over the Texans on Sunday, is the son of a Marine.

That Donald Trump, who took great pains to avoid military service, is somehow arbiter-in-chief of what constitutes insulting the military is ironic if not patently absurd.

But that’s not the big picture. The big picture is blurred, the soundtrack as dissonant as booing the home team at Gillette Stadium.

The president is flag-waving and saber-rattling. Taken together, it is jingoism at its worst. It is demanding blind followers. And blind followers stumble into needless wars.

At the end of the day, football is a game and war is not.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.