President Trump insists that he’s not “preoccupied” by the NFL-protest controversy — that he created — to the detriment of the Puerto Rico disaster. Unfortunately, he has devoted many more tweets and media opportunities to the NFL-protest controversy than to the victims of Hurricane Maria; his insistence that he is doing “a really good job” in aiding Puerto Rico (does he know the U.S. Virgin Islands are ours, too?) may come back to haunt him. Nevertheless, on a day that Republicans’ health-care plan met its end (again), Trump delights in talking about divisive culture issues that stir racist sentiments in his base. If only he had spent half the time and energy condemning neo-Nazis, one of whom allegedly killed a woman, as he did blasting a silent exercise of First Amendment rights, his poll ratings might not be in the cellar.

Now, since he brought it up, many conservatives, genuinely offended by the silent flag pursuit, and other pundits who worry we are “giving Trump attention” deplore the people (NFL commissioner, players, owners, sympathetic voices in the media) fighting on his turf. David Brooks writes:

He is so destructive because his enemies help him. He ramps up the aggression. His enemies ramp it up more, to preserve their own dignity. But the ensuing cultural violence only serves Trump’s long-term destructive purpose. America is seeing nearly as much cultural conflict as it did in the late 1960s. It’s quite possible that after four years of this Trump will have effectively destroyed the prevailing culture. The reign of the meritocratic establishment will be just as over as the reign of the Protestant establishment now is.

I think that — and other critics of the NFL demonstrations — miss the point.

First, speech is not violence. The tendency to equate the two leads to speech codes, “safe spaces” and intellectual cocoons. Trump is conducting a verbal argument — a hateful, divisive one — but not engaging in violence; the response is not violent either. It’s the exemplar of silent, restrained protest. I don’t like it much, but it’s not violent and I can appreciate that the people engaging in the behavior do not mean to disrespect the country, let alone the military, as they are accused of doing.

Second, this is not the 1960s. If one watches a few episodes of Ken Burns’s and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War,” you’ll be reminded that the conflicts then were often violent and physically destructive. Cities burned, police beat up protesters and protesters assaulted police, property and entire cities were destroyed. This is not then.

Third, Trump has neither the ability nor the skill to destroy a culture. That is what the NFL protests, the marches, the mass demonstrations, the politicians (mostly Democrats but some #NeverTrump ex-Republicans as well) and the ongoing debate in response to Trump and his attack on democratic norms and institutions are all about. It’s the rebuttal to the president bent on destroying civility and cohesion — a restatement of civic virtues like the rule of law, tolerance, non-violent dissent, empathy and mutual respect. Those who get caught up in the style of the marchers’ hats or the type of kneeling (Before or after the anthem is fine, but by josh no more!) miss the point. Preserving a democracy with engaged citizenry is not afternoon tea time. It is sometimes noisy, controversial, even impolite because that is how democracies are. Free citizens express themselves in ways that other free citizens don’t like; they argue about it. How extraordinary is that?

Authoritarian societies are quite neat, orderly and docile because they are, well, because they are authoritarian. (The harsher the penalties the more obedient the populace, as anyone who’s marveled at the clean streets of Singapore will tell you.)  I’ll defend the right of NFL players (and anyone else) peacefully to speak their mind, even if  their manner annoys or even offends me.

Finally, in apocalyptic predictions — all downhill here from now! — we create passivity, resignation and depression. We are destined to lose our civic culture and evolve into right-wing thugocracy only if the opposition to Trump shuts up, sits down and gives up. Speaking on a college campus Monday, I urged students to re-engage as citizens, not merely by voting but also by public service, activism, news literacy and civil debate. I’m quite certain some of what they’ll do will offend me. But I’ll defend their right to do so — and applaud them for getting off the bench and onto the field of play.