Before 7 a.m. Tuesday morning, President Trump had tapped out three tweets blasting the NFL.
“Ratings for NFL football are way down except before game starts, when people tune in to see whether or not our country will be disrespected!,” he said in one. “The booing at the NFL football game last night, when the entire Dallas team dropped to its knees, was loudest I have ever heard,” he wrote in another. “Great anger.”
Those tweets followed on Trump’s comments at a meeting with conservative leaders at the White House on Monday in which he expressed satisfaction with the last five days of tweets, protests and debate over what the National Anthem actually means – and who it’s for.
“It’s really caught on. It’s really caught on,” Trump reportedly told the assembled conservatives. “I said what millions of Americans were thinking.”
Ratings. Booing. Great anger. Really caught on.
Trump’s decision to start this feud with NFL players – and professional athletes more broadly – is a telling window into how he views (and uses) the power of the presidency: To divide, not to unite. To forever focus on scoring political points, to please and placate the political base that helped elect him to the White House. To always, always, always look for where we disagree – and where those disagreements can be exploited for his own gain.
That is, at root, a fundamental departure from the way that previous presidents have operated.
Every man to hold the White House prior to Trump seemed to have an innate grasp of the power of the presidency and how to use it. Think of the presidency like a lighthouse. Anywhere a president chooses to shine that light will be illuminated. It will drive attention to it and media coverage of it. The bully pulpit may not be as bully-ish as it once was, but when the president prioritizes an issue, it becomes an issue that people and the press can’t ignore.
For most presidents, that means shining a light on our common humanity – whether it’s helping bind the country together after a terrorist attack or a natural disaster or the more mundane daily work of reminding people that much more unites us than divides us.
Trump has inverted that. He seems bent on reminding us on what divides us rather than what unites us.
In the midst of what the governor of Puerto Rico has said is a crisis of epic proportions caused by Hurricane Maria, Trump has stayed largely silent on the matter – breaking that silence only to tweet about the country’s “broken infrastructure & massive debt.”
Instead of rallying the country behind the 3.4 million American citizens who live in Puerto Rico, Trump has instead sent more than a dozen tweets about the NFL and the alleged lack of patriotism demonstrated by players who kneel or sit during the National Anthem.
(Worth noting here: The origin of the anthem protests was the violence against black men by police officers. It had – and has – absolutely nothing to do with dishonoring our military or the flag.)
Why? Because Trump has a finely-tuned ear for what will resonate with his political base. And casting himself as the voice of the people against rich, entitled and primarily black athletes – yes, of course, race is tied up in this – is a strong place to be for some not-small element of his base.
Whether he wants to admit it to himself or not, Trump is purposely playing on lingering racial resentment and animus in the country to remind people of what divides us. And he is doing so because he knows it will work.
It’s the same reason he suggested he saw Muslims celebrating on New Jersey rooftops on September 11, 2001. And the same reason he failed to condemn white supremacist David Duke for days during the campaign. And why he sought to cast the white supremacist protests in Charlottesville as the result of violent people “on many sides.”
Trump ran as a divider, not a uniter. He won that way – offering safe harbor for people who had long resented politicians who told them they had to accept those who didn’t look like them, sound like them or think like them.
Divisiveness works in politics – especially in a fractured media environment in which you can spend your life never being confronted with a reasonable argument that clashes with your worldview and in a self-sorted America in which we live, work and play around only people who agree with us on, well, everything.
Casting people who disagree with you as “other” – and ensuring “other” = bad – made for a winning political strategy for Trump. But, winning isn’t an end in and of itself. Or any sort of legacy.
The key – for Trump and for any other winners out there – is what you do once you grab the brass ring. Past presidents understood that the campaign was one thing and governing was another. That being president bestowed on you the responsibility of always trying to take the high road, always doing the right thing for the country rather than the best thing for your party or yourself.
Trump has flipped that approach on its head. He does what’s good for him first, then what he believes to be good for the GOP and, finally, what’s good for the country.
That’s what “modern day presidential” means to Trump. And it’s what is driving divisions in this country to dangerous levels.