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Opinion Trump just sent a horrible message about African American dissent

President Trump disinvited the Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl championship team to the White House on June 4. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)
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Today, President Trump will preside over a celebration at the White House that he claims will “honor our great country,” after abruptly canceling a gathering with the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles over the flap involving football players kneeling to protest police brutality and systemic racism.

Trump insisted that the Eagles “disagree with their president because he insists that they proudly stand for the national anthem,” an assertion that carries echoes of dissatisfaction with their failure to submit to his will as well as any anger over treatment of the flag. Of course, as The Post reports, no Eagles knelt in this manner, and the team privately conveyed to the White House that fewer players than expected would show up. Trump told the lie about kneeling Eagles to justify the cancellation in part because he anticipated low turnout, which he hates.

But let’s not let the true import of Trump’s action today get lost in the usual spectacle of Trumpian lying and megalomania. His true message is that African American dissenters protesting in the quest for racial equality — in a manner he claims to find offensive — have no place at a celebration of this country’s heritage over which he is presiding.

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In his statement canceling today’s event, Trump claimed that the Eagles do not want to place “hand on heart, in honor of our great men and women of the military.” Instead, he said, he will preside over “a different type of ceremony” that will “honor our great country” and “loudly and proudly play the national anthem.”

Malcolm Jenkins of the Philadelphia Eagles says addressing racism in the criminal justice system will require much more than taking a knee. (Video: Ashleigh Joplin, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

In other words, whether any Eagles ever knelt or not, Trump’s explicitly stated justification for disinviting them is that they did kneel to protest the national anthem. That this is a lie is beside the point. The justification he is offering is itself a deliberate statement, and a reprehensible one. After all, what if some Eagles had knelt, as he claims? His argument is that in carrying out this act, they have disqualified themselves from attending a celebration of our national heritage at his White House.

That some of the players were not going to attend anyway is also beside the point. They declined only after Trump repeatedly attacked the mode of dissent practiced by their colleagues as unpatriotic — indicating that celebrations of patriotism will be permitted only on his terms. Indeed, with the new announcement, Trump fairly leaped at the opportunity to make that statement. This morning, Trump underscored the point, adding that at today’s festivities, there will be “no escaping to Locker Rooms.”

Only those who engage in displays of patriotism on his stipulated terms are welcome at today’s celebration to “honor our great country.” The “different type of ceremony” Trump will preside over is one that “loudly and proudly” celebrates the national anthem on those terms — that is, one that unabashedly places that conditional display of patriotism at its center.

One does not have to support the players’ particular expression of dissent to recognize that it draws on a long tradition of African American protest that has slowly and painfully forced this country to increasingly make good on the “promissory note” alluded to by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Our leaders should be expected to honor this tradition, as Charles Cooke has noted, by treating it as an essential part of celebrating our full history.

When President Barack Obama spoke at the 50th anniversary of the violence inflicted on civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, he noted that the promissory note has still not been honored for all Americans. “This nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us,” Obama said, adding that “we know the march is not yet over.” The players are kneeling to protest our country’s failure to eliminate systemic racism — racist police violence and sentencing disparities and myriad racial barriers to opportunity — in continuation of that tradition, and in continuation of that march.

Trump draws on a different, and ugly, historical tradition

Trump cannot explicitly attack African Americans for agitating for racial equality. Instead, he draws on another tradition that has long existed in tandem with African American protest — one that long cast civil rights protesters as anti-American. “During the 1950s and early 1960s, Southern politicians routinely denounced civil rights activists as the knowing or unknowing agents of an international communist plot,” historian Kevin Kruse, the author of a book about white backlash against civil rights, tells me. “Even activists and organizations we now canonize as wholly American — figures like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., groups like the NAACP — were at the time repeatedly depicted as dangerous radicals.”

Trump, of course, goes through the motions of canonizing those figures when it is called for. But his brand of white identity politics continues that tradition of race-baiting disparagement, by disavowing the links between today’s African American dissent and the protest tradition from which it is descended. Today’s ceremony at the White House will tacitly honor the first of these traditions, and in presiding over it, Trump will in effect shirk his responsibility as president to honor the second.

* CHILDREN PILE UP AT BORDER: NBC News reports that documents show space is running out to shelter all the children separated from their parents under Trump’s new “zero tolerance” border policy. And:

As of Sunday, nearly 300 of the 550 children currently in custody at U.S. border stations had spent more than 72 hours there, the time limit for immigrants of any age to be held in the government’s temporary facilities. Almost half of those 300 children are younger than 12, according to the document, meaning they are classified by the Department of Homeland Security as “tender age children.”

Critics should grab on to that designation, which seems particularly ironic, to drive home just how inhumane Trump’s policy really is.

* TRUMP EMBRACES VIEW OF VAST EXECUTIVE POWER: Charlie Savage runs through the ways that Trump asserts massive executive powers (claiming he has the absolute right to pardon and command law enforcement), and notes:

The idea that presidents … are above ordinary law has surfaced from the White House before. Defenders of the Reagan administration made the claim during the Iran-contra affair, and lawyers in the George W. Bush administration wrote memos blessing torture and warrantless wiretapping programs. As Richard M. Nixon claimed after the Watergate scandal: “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

Barack Obama and Bill Clinton both wielded expanded executive powers, but it’s interesting that the presidents who most openly made this argument are Republicans.

* A DEMOCRATIC NIGHTMARE IN CALIFORNIA: Today are the California primaries, and Democrats risk getting shut out of competitive House races by the top-two-vote-getters-advance system. CNN reports on other possible fallout:

Confidence in party leadership, its campaign arms and leading outside spenders will come under threat … A California collapse would prime progressive activists to ramp up their criticism … The sum result: a party thrown deeper into internal crisis and distracted by internal sniping — which will extend way beyond California — at precisely the moment it most needs to be focused on uniting and energizing its coalition.

Or, you know, maybe none of this will happen and Democrats will remain on the ballot in all the competitive races. There’s too much uncertainty to say.

* OTHER KEY PRIMARIES IN CALIFORNIA: Democrats are mainly worried about getting shut out of the contests for the 39th, 48th and 49th districts. But Dave Weigel reports this key context:

Those Orange County seats, however, are just three of the seven Republican-held California districts that backed Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016. Democrats are more confident about making runoffs in Central Valley races against Republican Reps. David Valadao and Jeff Denham and bullish on two Los Angeles-area districts with Republican incumbents: the 25th, represented by Rep. Steve Knight, and the 45th, represented by Rep. Mimi Walters.

So those, too, could prove to be pickup opportunities for Democrats. Still, getting shut out of the three would be a very bad outcome for Democrats.

* McCONNELL WILL BLOCK VOTE ON ‘DREAMERS’: Even if a discharge petition does succeed in forcing a House vote to protect the “dreamers,” and it passes, Mitch McConnell won’t allow a vote on it in the Senate:. He told Roll Call:

“If it came out of the House and the President said he was for it, I’d obviously consider it,” he said. “What I’m not interested in doing is having another week, and certainly not more than one week, as I said yesterday, spinning our wheels and getting nowhere.”

Once again, nothing that Trump would ever sign can pass Congress. So this is just another way of doing nothing, as always.

* NEW REPORT EXTOLS REGULATIONS: A coalition of lefty groups, the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards, is releasing a new report explaining how our regulatory apparatus is under massive attack. From Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s introduction:

Strong public protections empower people to live, work and do business freely and safely. They provide the basic framework that permits commerce to flourish … Regulations … make it illegal to steal your purse on Main Street or your pension on Wall Street. And regulations level the playing field for everyone competing for our business … We cannot be afraid to make the case that strong government rules matter.

That last one is key — and this report attempts to re-frame the debate to make that case.

* AND REPUBLICANS FRET ABOUT ELECTION-YEAR TRADE WAR: The Washington Examiner reports that Republicans are increasingly fearful that Trump’s trade war will overshadow their awesome tax cut in the midterms:

“We’ve got a tremendous economic story to be told right now,” Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the No. 3 ranking Senate Republican, told the Washington Examiner. “The tariff issue has the potential to step on that.” … The president has the upper hand, however, as Republican voters, largely calm — at least for now — are willing to give him an opportunity to deliver a major campaign promise.

Of course, the tax cut was fading from GOP messaging anyway and was getting replaced by Trumpian demagogery about immigration and authoritarian attacks on special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. It’s full Trumpism all the way to November, apparently.