After repeatedly calling for NFL players who kneel during the national anthem to be fired, President Trump on Sept. 24 said his comments have "nothing to do with race." (The Washington Post)

Talking to reporters on the tarmac of a New Jersey airport as he left his golf club in Bedminster, President Trump insisted Sunday that his barrage of tweets about protests in the NFL were simply a defense of patriotism.

“This has nothing to do with race,” he said. “I’ve never said anything about race. This has nothing to do with race or anything else. This has to do with respect for our country, and respect for our flag.”

And, of course, race.

It’s somehow become trite to note the difference in Trump’s tone when criticizing the NFL protests, in which a number of players have chosen to sit or kneel during the national anthem, and his tone when discussing the protests in Charlottesville last month. But it’s still worth noting.

Trump was slow to condemn the white supremacists and overt Nazi sympathizers who crept from the shadows to defend a Confederate statue in Charlottesville. The president eventually offered a forceful condemnation, read from prepared remarks — that he then undercut the next day in a news conference by saying that “many fine people” had joined the racists and Nazis at that protest.

The NFL protests? Anyone engaging in them was a “son of bitch” who should be fired, he said at a rally in Alabama. On Sunday, he retweeted a call for a boycott of the NFL, along with a number of other complaints. That the participants in the NFL protests happened to be black and that Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors (whom Trump disinvited from the White House on Saturday) is, too, was cited as evidence that Trump was more aggravated at black protesters than white ones.

Whether that’s the case doesn’t really matter. What matters is the reason for those protests. They are one of the endpoints of a years-long racial divide that Trump leveraged explicitly as part of his 2016 campaign.

As you no doubt are aware, the demonstrations by NFL players (which expanded outward more rapidly after Trump’s rebukes) originated with former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. He began to kneel during the national anthem at games as a way of drawing attention to incidents in which black Americans were targeted and sometimes killed by law enforcement officials. It’s not, as some have argued, a protest of the anthem itself. It’s a continuation of the argument that powers the Black Lives Matter movement: that there is a systemic problem in how police officers treat black suspects.

The Black Lives Matter movement originated in 2013, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida. It surged to prominence after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner on Staten Island, both at the hands of police in 2014.

Views of the movement quickly became sharply polarized. Gallup has tracked increasing concern about race relations in the United States that began at about the point that Black Lives Matter began drawing attention to police killings — and began emerging as a focal point of conservative frustration at criticism of police.


In August, after the incidents in Charlottesville, a poll conducted by NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist asked Americans whether they agreed or disagreed with a number of movements and ideologies. More than half of Republicans and those who supported Trump said they disagreed with the ideology of Black Lives Matter. Specifically, 64 percent of Republicans and 68 percent of Trump supporters said they mostly disagreed with Black Lives Matter. By contrast, 70 percent of Republicans and 68 percent of Trump supporters — the same number — said they mostly disagreed with the beliefs of white nationalists.

Trump’s campaign stoked Republican frustration at Black Lives Matter, racial tensions and a black president who was seen as hostile to police officers. In addition to his explicit racial arguments (starting with his disparagement of immigrants from Mexico), Trump repeatedly insisted that he would stand behind and defend America’s police — leveraging hostility to Black Lives Matter for his own purposes.

At the same time, Trump warned of spiking crime rates, at one point retweeting a racially loaded — and wildly inaccurate — image arguing that most white people who were murdered were victims of black people. By August 2016, after the Republican convention, a Post-ABC poll found that 60 percent of Americans thought Trump was biased against women and minorities — including 20 percent of people who planned to vote for him. In August of this year, Fox News asked a similar question, with more than half of the country and 15 percent of Republicans saying he doesn’t respect racial minorities.


Studies both before and after the election showed that Trump’s attitudes on race helped his candidacy rather than hurt it. In March 2016, The Post found that racial anxiety was helping to fuel Trump’s primary bid. Racial attitudes were a “major factor” in why less-well-educated whites backed his candidacy so strongly, another report conducted after the election found. Exit polling showed that voters most worried about the economy more heavily favored Hillary Clinton. Trump’s voters were twice as likely to say that whites face a lot of discrimination as they were to say that black people did.

In short: Trump’s candidacy emerged at a moment in which racial tension was high, and he, far more than his competitors in the primary or general election, embraced and championed that tension. As president, he’s repeatedly championed the needs of his base, and a continued embrace of racial politics — as seen in his taking sides against the NFL protests — fits that pattern neatly.

President Trump's demand that NFL owners fire players who kneel during the national anthem set off protests by NFL players, coaches and owners. This is not the first time athletes have used their platform to protest. (Taylor Turner,Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

It’s important to remember, too, that the increase in political polarization can’t help but reinforce racial divides in a negative way, and vice versa. Most black Americans are Democrats. Most Republicans are white. Any number of political issues overlap with racial issues in uncomfortable ways, including the NFL players’ kneeling. A protest by mostly black athletes about an issue central to black political concerns that’s opposed by mostly white Americans as being an affront to their perception of American patriotism is about both politics and race, necessarily.

Trump’s entire campaign was about race, explicitly — whether he realizes it or not. So, too, was his fervent insistence about the NFL over the weekend. If he truly doesn’t realize that (which is certainly debatable), it shows a remarkable lack of awareness of the nuance that drives much of our politics at the moment.

Even if Trump weren’t involved, it would be tough to extricate race from the protests. With him involved, it’s impossible.