Opinion

Renée Graham

Against the Eagles, Trump calls a familiar play

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 05: U.S. President Donald Trump sings the national anthem with a U.S. Army chorus during a "Celebration of America" event on the south lawn of the White House June 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. The event, originally intended to honor the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, was changed after the majority of the team declined to attend the event due to a disagreement with Trump over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Donald Trump sings the national anthem with a US Army chorus during an event on the south lawn of the White House on June 5. The event, originally intended to honor the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, was changed after the majority of the team declined to attend.

Are you ready for some football?

Not the actual sport conducted on a field between NFL teams — that season ended back in February. I’m talking about this outlandish spectacle owned, managed, and played by President Trump.

I wish I could say that the president spent recent days railing against government neglect in Puerto Rico during and after Hurricane Maria, and an associated death toll that has surpassed 4,600, most of them American citizens.

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Instead, Trump was busy ripping the Philadelphia Eagles after only two players on its Super Bowl-winning team agreed to attend a White House celebration. His invitation largely declined, the president then “disinvited” the team, and tied it to pregame protests during the National Anthem. He also found a red-meat issue to feed his base through November.

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According to CNN, a White House source says Trump will flog his false narrative about NFL players and the anthem to prop up Republican hopes in midterm elections. Another source told CNN the president has “touted this issue before as something that could help him in the midterms, and wants to keep it in the bloodstream.”

For the record, no Eagles player took a knee during the 2017-18 season.

It’s a playbook filled with Trump’s favorite tropes. There’s his facile ideas on patriotism, as flimsy as a star-spangled Fourth of July napkin; his vilification of those he deems unworthy of citizenship for daring to exercise their constitutional rights; and his utter disregard for the truth.

From its beginnings in 2016, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat, then later took a knee, to protest police violence and racial inequality in America. It’s been the same with every player in every sport on every level who has followed his lead. It’s not about the flag, anthem, or military – that’s a racist lie Trump has perpetuated.

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He has used it to smear primarily black NFL players – and, by extension, many African-Americans – as a sign of disrespect toward their nation. He has questioned their patriotism and wondered aloud whether they should leave this country. This, he hopes, will engergize his supporters.

Asked whether Trump’s focus on NFL protests can be a winning GOP talking point for the midterms, Republican Senator Cory Gardner said, “The American people know that this is an issue is something that they’ve seen in the NFL. They’ve seen on TV. It’s been in the news. Stand up for the national anthem, that’s what I would do.”

So, that would be a yes.

Senator Ted Cruz, who never met a sour viewpoint he won’t embrace, is already all-in. He told a CBS reporter, “To see incredibly wealthy, privileged athletes who are driving Lamborghinis, who are living in mansions refusing to show respect for the flag. . . disrespecting our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, I think that’s unfortunate, I think it’s wrong.”

He is, however, fine with lying and exploiting the military for the GOP’s political gain.

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Trump’s scramble to preserve Republican majorities in the House and Senate isn’t a Hail Mary pass. Facing tough campaigns, other presidents have embraced such methods. They’re easy for voters to digest because they lack the complexities of actual policy proposals.

When Democrats were hammered in the 1994 midterms, President Bill Clinton seized school uniforms as a platform. “If it means that teen-agers will stop killing each other over designer jackets, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear school uniforms.” At times, he sounded more like he was running for another term on the school board instead of the presidency.

After failures on health care and lifting the military ban on lesbians and gay men, Clinton needed an issue that every concerned parent, regardless of political tilt, could get behind. It’s probably not the only reason Clinton became a two-term president, but it certainly didn’t hurt him. And that was the point.

Trump isn’t interested in bipartisan crowd pleasers. Three million fewer people voted for Trump than Hillary Clinton in 2016, but he’s only concerned with holding fast to those already in his pocket. No, he hasn’t repealed Obamacare or eliminated gun-free zones in schools, as he promised. And they’re still waiting for Mexico to pay for his “big, beautiful” border wall. Still, maybe impugning black patriotism will suffice in the meantime.

After the Eagles dissed the president, the White House in a statement said, “They disagree with their president because he insists that they proudly stand for the national anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country. The Eagles wanted to send a smaller delegation, but the 1,000 fans planning to attend the event deserve better.”

The Eagles already gave their fans something far more important than a presidential photo-op. They won a Super Bowl, then threw a parade that drew more than 700,000 people — more, by the way, than Trump’s inauguration.

So with Trump and the GOP facing an unpredictable outcome in the midterms, expect more othering of black athletes and “celebrations” of America. They’ll feature all the red-white-and-blue trappings that Trump subtitutes for actual concern about this nation, its people, and the military that serves them.

Come November, we’ll see whether this is a road to failure or victory. If nothing else, it should at least give this nation’s self-appointed patriot-in-chief enough chances to finally learn the words to “God Bless America.”

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham