One of the only things that President Donald Trump has done well is to be an avatar for everything that’s wrong with America. During the election, he tapped into the worst instincts of both the conservative movement and the country itself, from the racist rhetoric directed at Mexicans in his very first event to his fascistic response to protests. As president, he’s unsurprisingly continued that trend: always fucking up, as he did with Charlottesville, and then retreating back to what he knows best — a cocktail of white nationalism, stupidity, and a never-ending need to be liked and appreciated.
Trump’s base gets piss-drunk off of that, so the response to this weekend’s round of protests by NFL players was met with much of the familiar reaction from the right, which for years has been to burn and destroy anything that isn’t seen as sufficiently patriotic. But beyond the right’s predictable response to this extremely nonviolent form of protest, the response of some in the center — boosted by the sight of billionaire, mostly conservative owners locking arms with their players as a reaction to Trump’s rudeness rather than any real desire to confront racism — was to co-opt former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality into a symbol of the hashtag Resistance. And as for the goal of fixing the problem that Kaepernick was actually protesting, this is just as damaging.
In just a matter of days, the backlash against Trump’s comments had seemingly turned a controversial protest by the left into a broadly accepted form of dissent against Trump. “The kneel will now become a sign of opposition to Trump,” Mother Jones’s David Corn declared on Twitter on Sunday. “Wouldn't be great if taking a knee became the symbol of resistance to Trump,” Washington Post columnist David Rothkopf wrote in a [now-deleted tweet](“The kneel will now become a sign of opposition to Trump”) the day before, “and wherever he went, wherever people gathered, they did it?”
If Kaepernick’s protest was against Trump, this would be a significant success, a defiant united front defending the free speech rights of people drawing the ire of the most powerful man in the world. But Kaepernick, who called both presidential candidates last year “proven liars,” began kneeling during the national anthem last year — during the Obama administration — not as an act of resistance against Trump, but rather as a protest against police violence and, more broadly, systemic racism in the United States. And the warping of the meaning of that protest is intentional; as sociologist Sankofa Brown wrote on Twitter, “This transformation allows people to support taking a knee while also upholding their loyalty to the American empire.”
Trump's comments provide a great opportunity for liberals to dilute the reason Kaep took a knee in the first place.— TheAngrySociologist (@SankofaBrown) September 24, 2017
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told reporters after one of the first games where he didn’t stand for the anthem last August. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and [cops] getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Although Kaepernick has been mysteriously unable to find work in the NFL despite being an objectively better NFL quarterback than anyone who’s currently on the roster of the New York Jets, the kneeling protests have spread throughout the NFL and other sports, particularly following the indefensible arrest of Seattle Seahawks player Michael Bennett in August and Bennett’s subsequent announcement that he would sit out the anthem this season. Predictably, this spurred even more protests; players from teams all over the league knelt during the anthem, and a few teams stayed in the locker room. Some owners joined the protest, linking arms with players during the anthem; those include virulently racist Washington football team owner Dan Snyder and Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, two men who each donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee, as well as Jets acting owner Christopher Johnson — who is serving in that role because his brother, Woody Johnson, is Trump’s ambassador to the United Kingdom.
Eric Reid, another San Francisco 49ers player who knelt with Kaepernick, began protesting after the shooting death of Alton Sterling in Reid’s hometown of Baton Rouge. As he wrote in a New York Times op-ed on Monday: “I have too often seen our efforts belittled with statements like ‘He should have listened to the officer,’ after watching an unarmed black person get shot, or ‘There is no such thing as white privilege’ and ‘Racism ended years ago.’ We know that racism and white privilege are both very much alive today.”
Kaepernick’s protest was unpopular with the majority of the country. A Reuters poll taken shortly after his protest went public found that 72 percent of Americans disagreed with the protest, and a more recent Rasmussen poll released at the end of August showed that Kaepernick had just a 29 percent approval rating with the public, as opposed to a 46 percent who had an unfavorable view of the former quarterback. (This is nothing new: a Gallup poll taken in 1966 showed that Martin Luther King Jr.’s public approval was then just 32 percent.)
We’ve seen this oversimplification from American problems into Trump problems with other issues this year.
Even some liberal heroes had unkind things to say about Kaepernick when he first started kneeling. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court Justice who became a meme for liberals despite a well-documented record of siding with conservatives on some criminal justice issues, said she thought Kaepernick’s protest was “really dumb” before making a public apology. And Obama, as he did so many times during his presidency, took a both-sides view of the debate in imploring anthem-kneelers “to listen to the pain that that may cause somebody who, for example, had a spouse or a child who was killed in combat and why it hurts them to see somebody not standing.”
Aside from the active whitewashing of Kaepernick’s protest, the changing of liberal opinion resting on who is in the White House illustrates how quickly the narrative of what a solution would entail can shift, from abolition to Trump’s removal from office. As Kirsten West Savali recently wrote at The Root in a breakdown of a poll showing that black women — the Democratic Party’s strongest constituency — are growing increasingly disenchanted with the party: “Black women are rising up and saying that this nation is sick and the sickness is contagious.”
We’ve seen this oversimplification from American problems into Trump problems with other issues this year: Trump’s anti-immigration push has been horrifically cruel, but it’s been enabled by the “deportation machine” put into place by the Obama administration. Trump’s penchant for putting Goldman Sachs bankers in the federal government, too, is nothing new: he’s had six top officials with Goldman ties, while Obama had three (including Elana Kagan, the now Supreme Court Justice who previously served as solicitor general) and George W. Bush had five. And while Trump’s threat to bring “fire and fury” to North Korea has ramped up tensions with the country to the worst they’ve been in years, he’s certainly not the first president to threaten the country with our huge military arsenal.
In effect, Trump is everything bad about the American presidency exposed in all of its gaudy glory, but his eventual exit from the position would not fix any of the real, systemic obstacles to changing the power dynamics that have historically obstructed progress in America. Trump has ramped up policing both in rhetoric and in action, but the police have been killing black people with impunity since far before Trump even dreamt of one day sitting in the White House, and without reform, they’ll continue to do so.
If liberals really want to express solidarity with Kaepernick, they’d do well to remember why he put his career on the line in the first place. Moreover, they’d refrain from joining conservatives in the tired and repeated condemnations of people — who aren’t well-to-do public figures and still live in over-policed communities such as the one Sterling died in — who resort to uprisings both small and large in scale when the system in place prevents them finding any real recourse.
But to do so, they’ll have to admit that Trump is just a symptom of a larger problem that must be changed. Liberals must ask themselves if they’ll still applaud kneeling during the anthem once a Democrat returns to power, because these problems have always existed no matter who occupied the White House. And if we want to turn back the Pandora’s box of overt white nationalism that the president has opened, we must focus our attacks on the system that enabled him to thrive in the first place.