Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and Nairobi, Kenya, and the author of the book “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Monday night, Donald Trump made an appearance at the College Football Playoff national championship game in Atlanta. But when he joined members of the military on the field for the National Anthem before the game, it became clear he couldn’t – or wouldn’t fully sing along. At different points, he mouthed some things, smiled painfully, and had his mouth closed.
Even if the President doesn’t know every word to the National Anthem, it shouldn’t actually be a huge deal – a song recitation shouldn’t be a prerequisite for the presidency. But this particular President has made standing for a song a political issue steeped in racial resentment.
Trump’s presence at the game was already in and of itself a cynical political move. The President is facing low favorability ratings, and is looking to shore up support among his base, many of whom live in the states that are home to the schools that were playing for the title (Georgia and Alabama).
But, of course, the President had already been exploiting football for political gain by harping on the issues he tries to make about patriotism or national identity, but that any thinking person can see are truly about barely obscured racism. One of his favorites: NFL players (among other athletes) kneeling during the National Anthem.
The players who kneel are mostly (though not universally) African-American, and they take a knee as a silent and powerful protest of police violence and systemic racism. They are not disrespecting the flag so much as sending a message that the country should respect them as much as it does a piece of fabric. But Trump and many of his supporters have latched onto this simple act as a tool to stoke national outrage.
If you’re going to vilify others for supposedly disrespecting a song, you should probably choose to sing it loud and with pride, not just sing a few of the words. The upshot of Trump’s cynical anthem ploy is to feed racist white anger at blacks who don’t stay in their place – football players are apparently supposed to risk their own health and safety to entertain spectators and line the coffers of mostly white team owners, but not demand basic human rights.
Trump’s ignorance of the very anthem he demands others respect demonstrates clearer than ever that his criticism of athletes never had anything to do with the National Anthem, but everything to do with dog-whistle racism.
Hypocrisy is nothing new to this President. He promised to “drain the swamp” before ushering in one of the swampiest administrations in history. He promised to stand up for coal miners, farmers and the working class, and instead signed a tax bill that will ultimately benefit the richest Americans at the expense of the struggling. He tries to deflect from the investigations into his own potential wrongdoings by demanding his “crooked” former opponents be investigated.
Trump’s most ardent supporters are unlikely ever to hold him accountable for his hypocrisies or his lies.
But the rest of us should take note, and stop pretending that maybe Trump and his base have something resembling a point when they complain that athletes who kneel are being disrespectful. This President doesn’t know what “respect” means, and he certainly doesn’t show it to the flag, the anthem or the vaunted office he holds. What he knows – and all he’s demonstrating with his repeated attacks on NFL players – is racism works to maintain the support of angry white conservatives.