Norman Ornstein, a political scientist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who has denounced Trump, tweeted: “I love Kurt Suzuki as a player. But he wore a MAGA hat to the White House, so I will not cheer him.”
For the Nationals, whose workaday spirit was epitomized by the motto “Stay in the fight,” the week since they captured their first World Series title has demonstrated that while the players finished the fight on the field, they have stepped into a bigger battle in the political arena — one that will not end anytime soon. The fallout over the politicized nature of the team’s visit to the White House has become the latest flash point in the all-encompassing culture wars that have defined Trump’s divisive presidency.
From pitcher Sean Doolittle’s decision to speak out against Trump in boycotting the event to the supportive displays from Zimmerman and Suzuki, the Nationals have gone from a team that, in General Manager Mike Rizzo’s words, “unified a region when the region needed unifying the most” to the latest convenient proxy for the nation’s sharp divisions.
“All aspects of culture have been politicized,” said Michael Kazin, a liberal historian at Georgetown University. Last year, Kazin warned in a New York Times op-ed that today’s culture wars are born of the same fires that flared in the 1960s. He concluded that, even as he counseled his students to display empathy, “America will remain a society rent in two” until one side wins a definitive victory.
But Kazin is also a Nationals fan, and he has had difficulty heeding his own counsel. On Monday, after watching the White House ceremony, he removed a Zimmerman bobblehead doll from his front doorstep. “I’m not proud of that,” said Kazin, 71, who was arrested in 1968 for protesting Hubert Humphrey’s nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate over his support for the Vietnam War. “We have to, as a society, separate what really matters in politics and what doesn’t matter. This, in the end, really doesn’t matter.”
What the Nationals discovered, as so many have before them, is that there is no such thing as an apolitical event in the Trump era, when even once-routine White House photo ops have turned into referendums on the values of those who embrace Trump or reject him.
Doolittle’s rejection of the president in the hours after the White House announced the visit Friday served as the first public notice that the team would not escape the political tempest that has engulfed other sports champions’ dealings with Trump.
“I don’t want to hang out with somebody who talks like that,” Doolittle said of Trump, citing his rhetoric and his policies on immigration, housing and LGBT rights as reasons he would opt out.
Several of his teammates, including star third baseman Anthony Rendon and several other Latin American and African American players, also did not take part in the White House ceremony.
Doolittle was hailed as a hero among Trump’s critics, but the president’s supporters denounced him as being unpatriotic.
“I never liked Clinton, I never ever voted for him,” tweeted Kristy Swanson, a movie actress and Trump supporter. “When I was invited to the @WhiteHouse in 1999 I proudly went, because I am a God loving American.”
She called Doolittle’s decision “very strange & sad.”
Aubrey Huff, a former player for several major league teams, also questioned Doolittle’s decision. An outspoken Trump supporter, Huff reflected on his visits to the Obama White House after the San Francisco Giants won the World Series in 2010 and 2012.
“Did I vote for Obama? No. But I respected him as president and I wanted the country to do great,” Huff said in an interview. Huff lamented that his conservative views have made him a pariah in San Francisco, a liberal bastion, and he defended Zimmerman and Suzuki on Twitter against the backlash from liberals, retweeting videos of them with Trump and calling Suzuki a “legend.”
Huff said he accepted Suzuki’s explanation that he was just trying to have “fun” and not make a political statement. “The biggest difference between the left and right is that the right likes to poke fun and make fun of the whole situation and not take things too seriously,” Huff said. “The left gets worked up and angry and pissed off.”
As teams including the Golden State Warriors and the World Cup-winning U.S. women’s national soccer team have publicly rejected Trump and others, such as the Boston Red Sox, have been split along racial lines, with minority players opting out of White House visits, the president has embraced those who accept his invitations.
Trump reveled in the presence of the Nationals during the ceremony before a crowd of more than 5,000 on the South Lawn, after having been booed loudly by the home fans when he attended Game 5 of the World Series at Nationals Park. The president invited several of the players to speak, and he hugged Suzuki from behind after the catcher donned the MAGA hat.
The public backlash appeared to catch the players off guard. Suzuki locked his Twitter account from public view in the hours after the ceremony. Pitcher Stephen Strasburg labeled as “#FakeNews” a viral video clip that purported to show him ignoring Trump’s effort to shake his hand.
The players’ support delighted the president and his closest allies. Trump and his reelection campaign tweeted videos of the key moments, while Donald Trump Jr., who is promoting a new book titled “Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us,” called Zimmerman’s praise of Trump “awesome.”
Andrew Pollack, a gun rights advocate, praised Suzuki on Twitter for “not caving into communist bullies & showing love for our president and country!”
Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was killed in the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., last year, met with the president after the massacre and faced a backlash from liberals for offering support for Trump. “Ironic the party who claims ‘love over hate’ is at it again showing their hatred by chastising people who don’t conform to their beliefs,” Pollack tweeted after the outcry over the Nationals.
To Ornstein, however, Suzuki’s exuberant display was an affront to the teammates who had opted out of the event over their concerns about a president who is “about to be impeached.”
“What upset me,” he said, “was turning it from a celebration of the team’s victory into, for a couple of players, a celebration of Trump.”