Of course Donald Trump provoked Sunday's NFL anthem protests. He thinks he's dug into a political gold mine, and he might not be wrong.
Mr. Trump did not become President by offering a better basket of policies than his opponents. He won in 2016 because he channelled the resentments and frustrations of a big group of working-class and middle-class white voters. He said, out loud and in public, what they vented about anonymously online or on talk radio. He shared their values by vocalizing their grievances.
He may not have the slightest idea of how to govern, but he's got one heck of a nose for the little things that piss off the group of Americans that Richard Nixon once called "the silent majority." Nixon did not win the 1972 election in a landslide because the entire country had fallen in love with him. Instead, a lot of people were voting against the other side, which they saw as enablers of the upheavals of the 1960s.
Maybe you think that quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who last year introduced the take-a-knee protest during the pregame playing of the national anthem, is a man who bravely used his position as a public figure to take a stand against racism. Well, Mr. Trump isn't talking to you. He's talking to a lot of other Americans who have become acutely sensitive to the idea that "their" America is under attack.
Berkeley professor Arlie Hochschild documents this mindset in her 2016 book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. She spent five years in Louisiana with Tea Party supporters – who would now be Trump supporters – trying to understand what makes them tick. She came up with a story to describe their worldview. It explains a lot about why Mr. Trump got elected, and why it may not be politically counterproductive for him to pick a fight with the National Football League.
According to Ms. Hochschild, these mostly white and working-class voters have an image running through their subconscious, in which everyone in America lines up to enjoy the fruits of the American Dream, but somehow their group is never allowed to get to the front of the line. The government and the elites and the dominant culture keeps holding them back, while allowing others, such as immigrants and non-whites, to cut in line in front of them. That's how they see things.
Take a look at the NFL anthem protests through that lens. Mr. Kaepernick is no longer a member of a racial minority whose protest is deserving of special solicitude. Instead, having earned more than $14-million in 2016, he's a member of the wealthy and privileged elite.
And his former employer, the San Francisco 49ers, rather than punishing him for breaking its rules – as it would have done if the Trump supporter who works the stadium aisles selling peanuts had worn his "Make America Great Again" hat to work – kept giving him and other players the green light to protest, week after week. Players have every right to express their views off the field, but, a Trump voter might ask, why do fans have to accommodate Mr. Kaepernick's desire to protest the anthem, rather than Mr. Kaepernick having to accommodate fans' desire to honour it?
And the NFL has in the past disciplined players who tried to bring other symbols representing political or social issues onto the field. This week, Breitbart News, the website run by Mr. Trump's former chief adviser, Steve Bannon, compiled a list in an article with this Trump-friendly headline: "The NFL Hates America: 9 Pieces of Proof."
The NFL's players, who are overwhelmingly black, mostly didn't join last year's protests, perhaps because an NFL player's career is short and his employment is precarious. (Mr. Kaepernick, for example, is no longer in the league.) And NFL owners, who are overwhelmingly not black, didn't stop anthem protesters, because they'd like good labour relations so they can get on with the business of making money.
Until a few days ago, Mr. Kaepernick's knee was likely on the road to becoming a historical footnote; those anthem gestures that were still going on were small, respectful and no longer newsworthy. But peace was not in Mr. Trump's interest. Instead, with his comments about the "sons of bitches" protesting the anthem, and his decision to disinvite the NBA champion Golden State Warriors from the White House, he egged on NBA players such as LeBron James into taking to Twitter to attack him.
He may want enemies like that. George H.W. Bush got to run against Willie Horton; Bill Clinton got to run against Sister Souljah. Who does black-celebrity America want to offer up for Mr. Trump?
On Sunday and Monday, NFL players, coaches and owners on many clubs stood or kneeled together during the anthem. Mr. Trump gave the league a rare moment of unity, against him. He may have transformed a vague protest against racism, in which few players participated, into a very specific protest against the President, with all of the NFL taking part. That might yet turn out very badly for Mr. Trump.
But posing as the opponent of the cultural elites has served him well. Hollywood, the most powerful cultural force in the world, can't get its head around that. It doesn't understand that, for a lot of Americans, no matter how many movie tickets they buy or TV shows they watch, Hollywood is still a dirty word. The town's been campaigning against Mr. Trump since he joined the race for president, and just look how well that's turned out.