President Trump has spent the past few days excoriating NFL players for “disrespecting” our country, our troops and the American flag. But not once, in his Friday night “get that son of a b— off the field” speech, or his tweets questioning the patriotism of Colin Kaepernick and other pro athletes for kneeling during the playing of the national anthem, has the president addressed the fact that as a candidate, he explicitly promised African American voters that under his administration, “the law will be applied fairly, equally and without prejudice.”
Which is pretty much all that Kaepernick’s protest is about.
Clearly, Kaepernick and Trump don’t, and won’t, see eye to eye on issues of race and justice: Kaepernick once called Trump “openly racist.” Trump rejects the suggestion that his feud with NFL players — whose ranks are around 70 percent black — has anything to do with race, even though he made sure to compare NFL patriotism to that of overwhelmingly white NASCAR; and even though the underlying issue of the protests is police violence and the trust deficit between communities of color and legal authorities. It was only a few weeks ago that Trump tried to make light of the practice of protecting suspects’ heads when they’re being put in the back of a police cruiser, telling a gathering of law enforcement officers, “You can take the hand away, okay?”
But at a point in Trump’s campaign when he decided it was necessary to at least signal that he wanted African American support — his “what the hell do you have to lose” phase — he made a series of explicit appeals to the black electorate, including his October “new deal for black America” speech in Charlotte, where he said:
“I have heard and listened to the concerns raised by African American citizens about our justice system, and I promise that under a Trump administration the law will be applied fairly, equally and without prejudice. There will be only one set of rules — not a two-tiered system of justice.”
That is, exactly, the top-line demand of Kaepernick and, for that matter, Black Lives Matter. Trump also said:
“Every African American citizen in this country is entitled to a government that puts their jobs, wages and security first. … Here is the promise that I make to you: Whether you vote for me or not, I will be your greatest champion.”
On patriotism and protest, Trump said:
“African American citizens have sacrificed so much for this nation. They have fought and died in every war since the Revolution, and from the pews and the picket lines they have lifted up the conscience of our country in the long march for civil rights.”
This was, of course, scripted Trump, not off-the-cuff Trump. The speech was billed as a discussion of issues near and dear to African Americans, even though the gathered audience was predominantly white. In the end, Trump got 8 percent of the black vote and there were plenty of reasons to be skeptical about his commitment on issues of race: his role in amplifying birtherism, his remarks about Judge Gonzalo Curiel and his dismissal of Black Lives Matter as a movement “looking for trouble.”
And even Trump’s intermittent appeals to black voters were focused on the economy and jobs, not community-police relations. His idea of police reform is a ramped-up “law-and-order” posture, not scrutinizing police for the string of widely publicized shooting deaths of unarmed African Americans. Indeed, his Justice Department announced this month that it is reducing the role of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. Trump’s attorney general has pushed back on bipartisan sentencing reform efforts.
But that speech illustrates that Trump had no hesitation about trying to align himself with the aspirations of black America when it seemed advantageous to project the image of a president who would be there for all Americans. When you give a speech that takes a “two-tiered system of justice” as a fact of life and shout out black Americans who took to the “picket lines” and “lifted up the conscience” of America, you’re acknowledging the vitality and patriotism of nonviolent social protest.
The wrinkle is that Trump says a national anthem protest, specifically, is disrespectful. But he hasn’t even attempted to engage with the explanation offered by Kaepernick’s former teammate, Eric Reid, that he “chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture,” likening kneeling to “a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”
By the end of last year’s election cycle, Americans were being counseled that the best way to interpret Trump was “seriously, but not literally.” How seriously, though, do you take a president who literally trash-talks citizens who are taking a knee to bring attention to the disparate administration of justice that Trump said he would fix?
To question the patriotism of athletes protesting to demand, in effect, that “the law will be applied fairly, equally and without prejudice” — the president’s own words — underscores just how hollow those words were.
Correction: A previous version of this article referred to the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services as an Obama-era program.