Trump and the NFL don’t understand that protest is patriotic

Members of the San Francisco 49ers kneel during the national anthem as others stand prior to an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz.

Members of the San Francisco 49ers kneel during the national anthem as others stand prior to an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (Matt York/AP Photo)

I almost feel sorry for the NFL owners. They’ve dutifully bowed to Trump, concocting a new policy that consigns protesting players to the locker room, thus ensuring that the stadium snowflakes are not disturbed — and it’s still not good enough for Trump.

This morning he phoned into “Fox & Friends” and hereby decreed that protesting in the locker room, out of public view, offends his tender sensibilities. He banged the drum for rote conformity: “You have to stand proudly for the national anthem. Or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there, maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”

That’s priceless, coming from a guy who served out the Vietnam war with “bone spurs” and says he waged it on the domestic front by trying to avoid the clap; a so-called president who has been busy selling out America to the highest bidder, with Michael Cohen as his bag man; a fanboy of Putinism who has veritably sewn the Russian tricolor into the American flag. And what should be obvious to the NFL owners by now is that you can feed red meat to a demagogue, but he is never sated.

I hesitate to even address the kneeling issue, because it’s just another Trump ruse to distract attention from the burgeoning criminal probes of his regime. He’s a poster child for Samuel Johnson’s 1775 remark that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. To be more precise, Johnson was referring to false patriotism, and the falsity of Trump’s version is manifestly clear, given his escalating assaults on American law enforcement and the intelligence community.

The NFL’s white multimillionaire team owners came up with a policy that was basically designed to get Trump off their backs. Nice try. Trump gets political mileage with his white base by castigating the black “son of a bitch” dissidents who seek to exercise their First Amendment rights. He’s not going to give that up. His base doesn’t want to hear about endemic racism or police violence. His base doesn’t want to know that the players’ gestures are constitutionally protected, and rest assured that Trump has never read the fine print. In fact, here’s the fine print, from 1989:

“The government may not prohibit the verbal or nonverbal expression of an idea merely because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable … the right to differ is the centerpiece of our First Amendment freedoms … government cannot carve out a symbol of unity and prescribe a set of approved messages to be associated with that symbol.”

So said the U.S. Supreme Court — including Justice Antonin Scalia — when it defended the right to burn the American flag. But if the court’s language seems too abstruse, try this:

“What the flag actually symbolizes is on full display during these protests: freedom, whether that’s the freedom to stand, the freedom to kneel, or the freedom to peacefully protest. The right to peacefully protest without threat from the government is what makes America great (and exceptional in the world), and this freedom is one of those fought for and protected by our military. Protest is as American as apple pie and is an integral part of who we are, from the Boston Tea Party in 1773 to the Tea Party that emerged in 2009.”

So says Sarah Quinlan, a blogger at the conservative website RedState.

Granted, that’s the minority view. According to a national poll earlier this year, co-conducted by The Washington Post, 53 percent of Americans say it’s “never appropriate” to kneel during the Anthem. But so what. Protests are rarely popular, because they seek to spotlight unsettling issues. When Martin Luther King was marching for civil rights in the mid-’60s, his Gallup approval rating was roughly 33 percent. When George W. Bush launched his disastrous Iraq invasion, antiwar protesters were trumped by the epidemic of war fever.

True patriots respect the right of the vocal minority to challenge the status quo. The protesting players — predominantly black, mindful of the ills in their home communities — implicitly understand what Trump can never fathom. Malcolm Jenkins, a safety on the Philadelphia Eagles, said it well yesterday: “What the NFL owners did (by banishing kneelers to the locker room) was thwart the players’ constitutional rights to express themselves and use our platform to draw attention to social injustices like racial inequality in our country. Everyone loses when voices get stifled … I will not let it silence me.”

I sense that this fight isn’t over. The players’ union, which wasn’t consulted on the policy, said yesterday that its members “have shown their patriotism through their social activism … and yes, through the protests to raise awareness about the issues they care about.”

And Trump is certainly happy to keep fanning the flames. Heck, it beats governing. It’s easier to phone into Fox News and muse that someone like Malcolm Jenkins “shouldn’t be in the country.”

But unbeknownst to him, the right to peacefully dissent in public view is best summarized in a single word: Freedom.

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