When President Trump abruptly yanked his White House invitation from the underdog Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night, he displayed once again one of his few true talents: the ability to make divisive that which had been unifying.
Told that few members of the Eagles might actually show up in D.C. even though the team itself was not officially boycotting the visit, Trump did his classic "you can't fire me, I quit" routine. He spiked the whole thing and replaced it with a weird, purposeless celebration during which protesters knelt during the playing of the national anthem and President Trump appeared not to know the words to "God Bless America."
At a time when politics split many families right down the middle, sports offer a possible reprieve, a conversational avenue you might be able to stroll down without falling into political potholes. But the president has other plans. He believes there is no aspect of American life that can't be used to stoke outrage in his base or trigger his opponents. So here we are: fighting about a football team days after we discovered that thousands of Americans may have perished in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria. Good luck having that unproblematic July 4 barbecue conversation with your uncle about preseason Super Bowl favorites and training camp gossip. Now you get to flip burgers and scream at each other about the Eagles. (On the bright side, now we all get to inhabit the prevailing emotional atmosphere at an Eagles tailgate a few hours before game time.)
The president has for months been conducting a bizarre, running feud with America's most popular professional sports league. And as with so many things the president does, his comportment and decision-making are more in line with a hyperventilating pundit on morning talk radio than with the country's chief executive, his actions designed more to dominate news cycles and generate headlines than to solve problems or lead. The president has proven yet again that he is an emotional totalitarian, relentlessly dedicated to inserting his chaotic grievance politics into every possible corner of American life.
The controversy started in September 2017, when Trump was at a rally for doomed Alabama Sen. Luther Strange, who was fighting for his political life against eventual special election nominee and accused pedarast Roy Moore. In a meandering speech that included a full five minutes of cracked-streambed-of-consciousness philosophizing about his Electoral College victory ("So the Electoral College is actually something I've come to respect"), Trump lit into the small number of NFL players who kneel during the playing of the national anthem as a way of protesting police brutality and structural racism.
The riff started out as an attack on rules designed to protect those same players from catastrophically injuring one another during the game, because of course it did. Like all vengeance-oriented sociopaths, Trump wants his gladiators to bleed each other out. Then he turned to the anthem protests. "You know what's hurting the game? When people like yourselves turn on television, and you see those people taking the knee when they are playing our great national anthem."
"People like yourselves" was a dog whistle (as the Twitter account Racism Watchdog would say, "WOOF WOOF WOOF"), a signal to the overwhelmingly white audience at this very strange Strange rally that their beloved sport is being destroyed by the ungrateful minorities who play it. He didn't call the players "uppity" because he didn't need to. Everyone at that rally understood what he meant. Since 2016, a small number of African American NFL players, led by now-blacklisted quarterback Colin Kaepernick, have taken a knee during the anthem. No one is harmed during this gentle act of defiance, and until Trump blundered onto the scene, it was a relatively minor controversy everywhere except at Fox News headquarters, something that might rile up some retired white people with nothing else to do but which was not exactly a significant item on the national agenda.
Trump's Alabama slam changed that for good. The next day, NBA superstar Stephen Curry announced that he wouldn't visit the White House. "By acting and not going, hopefully that will inspire some change when it comes to what we tolerate in this country and what is accepted and what we turn a blind eye to." Trump once again pulled the "you can't break up with me because I'm breaking up with you" stunt by withdrawing Curry's invitation. Curry's champion Golden State Warriors then announced that they considered the entire team's invite withdrawn and would not attend.
The president was loving it. A few days after the initial kerfuffle, Trump proudly boasted to his dinner guests that the feud "has really caught on." Since then, the president has made it his mission, in innumerable tweets and public statements, to prevent any kind of scab from forming over this wound. The feud with the NFL kneelers became a feud with the NFL Players Association and ultimately with anyone who believes the players have either a point or the right to protest (or both). Trump seems to take particular joy in fighting with African American athletes (or their parents). He combined his raging misogyny with his racism and petulance by not inviting the WNBA Champion Minnesota Lynx to the White House.
You weren't allowed any nuance on this issue. Either you were a patriot demanding the players stand, or you were "disrespecting our great Military." Last month, the president of the United States had this to say about players who refuse to stand: "Maybe you shouldn't be in the country." This is a recurring theme for Trump, whose reaction in 2016 to Kaepernick's first act of protest was to say, "And, you know, maybe he should find a country that works better for him." That the national anthem is not, in fact, a literal salute to the military or a citizenship test is a detail lost on our leader.
In the end, Trump whinged his way to a kind of victory when the NFL announced that players could stay in the locker room during the anthem, but that if they came out and took a knee the team would be fined. But a number of players seem willing to risk that fine and the union is working on its riposte. Ultimately the problem will not be resolved either by Trump's public meltdowns or the NFL's cowardly caving. And that is what seems to drive Trump craziest. No matter what he does, he can't get the athletes themselves to capitulate.
At the end of the day, this isn't really about sports. I doubt that the president, who does not appear to find enjoyment in commonplace human activity, even likes football that much. It's about his determination to use every word that comes out of his mouth to attack people who disagree with him. We've become inured to the president taking petulant swipes at millions of people, for instance, dissing the Golden State this week by calling it "High Tax, High Crime California." Can you imagine a Democrat running around the country calling the Lone Star State "Low Tax, Low Achievement Texas" or assailing Kentucky as "Bankrupt and Backward"? For Trump, every tweet, every statement, every rally is another opportunity to deliver serotonin hits to his true believers by making other people feel like garbage.
Yesterday it was the Philadelphia Eagles and their fans. Tomorrow, it may be you.