What Trump's NFL, Curry remarks should signal to his base

Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: President Trump's comments on Colin Kaepernick and Steph Curry are ways to create false populism
  • He continues to exploit racial division for political support from his base, writes Zelizer

Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and the author of "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." He's also the co-host of the "Politics & Polls" podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)President Donald Trump is going to war with some high-profile African-American athletes who have political thoughts on their minds. The President said that fans should walk out when NFL players like Colin Kaepernick take a knee during the national anthem to protest our nation's inadequate response to racial inequities.

After the NBA superstar Stephen Curry told the media that he did not want to go to the White House to be honored by Trump, the President decided to take time from his busy day to tweet a withdrawal of the invitation.
It would be easy to see this as just one more trivial story about an immature president who watches too much television and has no control over his rhetorical impulses.
    But it's much worse than that. Trump's desire to go after an African-American athlete who has been protesting our well-documented problems with race and criminal justice, or an African-American athlete who does not feel comfortable in the White House given the President's controversial positions on social issues, fit into a longer and troubling history of his capitalizing on the politics of racial division.
    He has used these issues to stir up his base, always reminding them with a figurative wink and a tweet that he has not forgotten them, and to take a stand against efforts to promote social equality that he dismisses as silly political correctness. These moments often come when, in practice, the President has not done much to provide real assistance to those who supported him and moments when he was proving to be more comfortable with the Washington establishment -- even with Democrats -- than he said he would be.
    Make no mistake about it, on this his record is very clear. Before the hurricanes swept through, leaving behind horrible wreckage and devastating floods, we were knee-deep in a national conversation about why the President had so much trouble taking a strong and resolute stand against white racial extremism.
    The fact that he would not, and that he seemed more intent on trying to prove that left-wing extremists were just as dangerous, exposed a fundamental lack of sympathy for the fight against racism, xenophobia, nativism, sexism and anti-Semitism.
    And Charlottesville had the impact that it did because there was such an established record of President Trump playing to these hateful elements of the body politics.
    This is why these words about athletes are so troubling. For all the commentators who have been noting how "restrained" and "presidential" the President has supposedly been during the hurricane disaster, this is a wake-up call that the same Trump is still sitting in that Oval Office and carrying forward with his presidency of division.
    And for Democrats, such as Sen. Chuck Schumer, who have been willing to enter into bipartisan negotiations with him, they need to remember the record of the leader their deals could end up strengthening. They can still make these deals, but the political risk should be clear. For short-term gains, they might empower a president who is generally antithetical to the party's values.
    Many athletes have turned down invitations from other presidents without provoking a Trump-like response. In 2012, Tim Thomas of the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, a tea party supporter, refused to visit the White House. Green Bay Packers' Mark Chmura didn't go to meet President Bill Clinton. And the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird turned down a meeting in 1984 with Ronald Reagan.
    When Red Sox star Manny Ramirez refused to go to the White House to meet George W. Bush, the president joked, "I'm sorry [David Ortiz's] running mate, Manny Ramirez isn't here. I guess his grandmother died again. Just kidding. Tell Manny I didn't mean it." Other than some jokes, presidents have decided to stay focused on the bigger policy challenges at hand.
    Not Trump. He couldn't resist lashing out and further proved that he is a divisive president who continues to capitalize on social division to promote faux populism. The kind that promises relief to struggling Americans by expressing sympathy with their social anger -- by blaming the other -- rather than offering real economic relief.
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    This controversy comes right as President Trump makes one last-ditch attempt to push for what is likely to be legislation that would strip away the health care of millions of Americans and gets ready to push a regressive tax cut that would benefit the wealthy.
    Some people say that the President simply speaks his mind and doesn't always think through everything that he says. But we have seen that when Trump wants to be seen as presidential, he can be very restrained about certain issues.
    The fact that he has made a choice to take on this issue at this moment was a political choice and it is one that, unfortunately, resembles a series of statements and decisions that reveals how this is a president determined to divide and not unite our country.
    Trump's supporters, who are cheering on his NFL remarks and his rescinded invitation, should ask themselves what campaign promises -- the ones that were made directly to them -- has the President dedicated his time to keeping.
    And, when we are in a state of tremendous tension with North Korea and perhaps veering toward a war, they should be asking, why is the President spending his time on these issues?