President Trump at the Von Braun Centre in Huntsville, Ala. (Marvin Gentry/Reuters)
Opinion writer

President Trump’s race-baiting attack on African American athletes is nothing new. During the civil rights movement, blacks in the South who dared to stand up for justice were often punished by being fired from their jobs. Trump is demanding that National Football League team owners act like the white segregationists of old.

It was gratifying to see the overwhelming rejection of Trump’s hideous rabble-rousing by NFL players, owners and fans. But let’s be clear: There is no reason, at this point, to give Trump the benefit of any doubt. We should assume Trump’s words and actions reflect what he truly believes.

His opening salvo, delivered Friday at a campaign rally in Alabama, could not have been clearer, or cruder: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b---- off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’ ”

Trump was referring, of course, to players who take a knee during the singing of the national anthem. The practice was started by quarterback Colin Kaepernick — and adopted by a smattering of players around the league, almost all of them black — as a way of protesting police shootings of unarmed African Americans.

Trump claimed in a Monday tweet that “the issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race,” but that is a lie. Kaepernick’s method of protest had everything to do with race, as its intent was to focus attention on racial injustice.

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)

Trump was speaking to a virtually all-white audience in the Deep South. About 70 percent of players in the NFL are African American. Some political analysts put two and two together and concluded that Trump was playing to the racial anxieties and animosities of his base. If this is true, however, he seems to have miscalculated.

Hundreds of players, black and white, protested during the anthem on Sunday by kneeling, linking arms or, in some cases, declining to take the field until the music was over. Many coaches and owners joined in. Almost all team owners released statements defending the players’ right to protest, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a friend of Trump’s who contributed $1 million to his inauguration committee and gave him a Super Bowl ring. Kraft said he was “deeply disappointed” by Trump’s remarks.

Perhaps stung by the near-unanimity of the NFL’s reaction, Trump sought refuge by appealing to an audience he might have expected to be friendlier. “So proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans. They won’t put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag,” he tweeted Monday.

But a half-hour later, NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., responded by tweeting, “All Americans R granted rights 2 peaceful protests.” Maybe next Trump will try his luck with the professional rodeo circuit.

Trump’s intent, I assume, was to create a wedge issue, with patriots on one side — his side — and non-patriots on the other. He did not realize that so many people who might dispute Kaepernick’s position on police violence would nevertheless defend the players’ right to take a stand, or a knee. We have a president who does not understand our fundamental freedoms.

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

We also have a president who, if he’s not a white supremacist, does a convincing impression of one.

On Saturday, he publicly disinvited the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry — one of pro basketball’s transcendent stars — from the White House. Curry had expressed reluctance to visit, and instead of reaching out, Trump slammed the door. I suppose you could argue that rich and famous athletes can take care of themselves.

But recall that Trump and his father were sued by President Richard Nixon’s Justice Department for illegally refusing to rent apartments to black prospective tenants. Recall that Trump continued to insist that the “Central Park Five” — four black men and one Latino — were guilty of a brutal rape even after DNA evidence had conclusively proved their innocence. Recall that Trump led the “birther” movement, ridiculously claiming that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Recall Trump’s campaign appeal to black voters: “You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed — what the hell do you have to lose?”

And recall his reaction to Charlottesville, where he discerned some “very fine people” among the torch-wielding parade of Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis.

I don’t believe this can all be political calculation. I believe Trump is telling us what he really thinks — and who he really is.

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