Fighting with famous athletes and billionaires is an odd political strategy. Most politicians would rather hide under their desks, chewing Tums and muttering, “No comment no comment no comment.” But as you may have noticed, President Donald Trump is a little different from most politicians. He was not backed into this corner; he ran there and held up a sign that read: LOOK AT ME!
Why? I think the answer is a lot simpler than most people make it out to be. We think this is about respecting the flag, or police brutality, or Colin Kaepernick, or patriotism, or white privilege, or our complicated and painful racial history. And it is about all of those issues … to other people. To Trump, it’s about Trump.
To Trump, everything is about Trump. His racism, like his sexism, is no act. But it’s not the driving force behind his actions. All of his political beliefs are secondary to his hunger for the spotlight.
“Trump is, in my opinion, first and foremost a narcissist,” Kaepernick’s mother Teresa told SI via e-mail (speaking only for herself, not her son). “He has a need for constant attention and positive reinforcement. There is a reason he holds these rallies; he knows his base. His base will give him unconditional love and cheer for everything he says. He has gotten big applause in the past by insulting Colin and the protest. This time, when he went to the well, he continued to ramble (and swear), challenging the entire NFL and its fans.”
People keep missing this. Liberals miss it. Trump voters miss it. U.S. senators miss it. We think of him like we think about other presidents: with policy goals that we either like or dislike. But that isn’t him.
Trump is not just on the opposite side of a fight with NFL players and the Golden State Warriors. He is in a different fight completely. They want a frank discussion on race. He wants attention. They want unity. He wants adulation.
Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, is trying to instill discipline in the President—to limit the attention-grabbing stunts so that Trump can implement his agenda. It’s like trying to convince a lion not to hunt for dinner so he can play backgammon. Getting people’s attention is Trump’s agenda. It always has been, going back to when he reveled in the tabloid obsession with his extramarital affair with Marla Maples.
Every single news story about Trump should be read through that prism. The stories make more sense that way. It’s why he talks so much about ratings and “failing” media outlets. There are people in Congress who want to replace Obamacare because they think it’s bad policy. Trump wants to replace Obamacare so he can claim he replaced Obamacare. The only plausible reason to call Kim Jong-un “Rocket Man” is that people will talk about him calling Kim Jong-un “Rocket Man.”
If you’re going to publicly taunt the person who is most likely to engage in nuclear war, you probably aren’t worried about making peace with Steph Curry. Trump could have ignored NFL protests completely when he spoke to supporters in Alabama on Friday. But he knew that if he called the players “sons of bitches” who should be fired, he filled another syringe with adulation. He got the nation talking about something other than Republicans’ impending failure, once again, to repeal and replace Obamacare.
It caused a public fight, but on a fundamental level Trump revels in a fight; fights bring retweets and likes, and they put him in the middle of a story. What he can’t handle is being seen as a failure. People wonder why he threw that little bouquet at white supremacists last month when he said there were “good people on both sides” of the violence in Charlottesville. Well, white supremacists like him. It’s that simple.
Were his comments racist? Of course. And cowardly, too. But they served Trump’s need.
We have a political divide in this country going back many years, but this isn’t even about liberals vs. conservatives. It’s about one person. If Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or Chris Christie had been elected president, the Warriors almost certainly would have accepted a White House invitation. And if they wavered, then Bush or Rubio or Christie almost certainly would have reached out to assuage their concerns. Trump doesn’t work that way. He wants intense affection, not respectful disagreements.
In a first-person essay for SI, Warriors coach Steve Kerr said the team talked about meeting with Trump privately to “have a serious, poignant discussion about some of the issues we’re concerned about.” When has this President shown any interest in serious, poignant discussions?
The saddest part of the last few days is that most athletes and coaches speak about what’s happening in a far more thoughtful and rational way than the President of the United States. Some believe kneeling is a way to spark much-needed change. Others believe it is disrespectful to the military and un-American. But until Friday, I did not hear any of them say the kneeling athletes were “sons of bitches” who should lose their jobs.
Trump says that the protests inspired by Colin Kaepernick are not about race; they are about the flag. Well, to the protesting athletes, of course they are about race.
With his comments in Alabama, Trump made the protests about something else: the players’ right to be employed. He made a tense situation more tense, and he did it for applause.
When I asked Teresa Kaepernick about all the NFL players kneeling and locking arms this weekend, she said, “The only way that change can ever come about is to first recognize that a problem exists. I don't believe that this is any bandwagon movement, but rather a gradual recognition by many that their rights are being threatened.”
Kneeling, whether you agree with it or not, should be the beginning of a conversation, not the end of it. But a conversation doesn’t fill Trump’s emotional needs. His life’s mission has been satisfying his ego, and the problem with that, of course, is that egos are insatiable. He put his name on buildings and got his face on magazine covers and television, and that wasn’t enough for him. The natural culmination of this life was running for the most powerful job on the planet, and after he won that election, his ego was as hungry as ever. This is why he keeps talking about election fraud without evidence, and keeps bashing an election opponent that he already beat.
You can put Steph Curry and those sons of bitches in a lineup with Lyin’ Ted and Crooked Hillary and Rocket Man and that “dummy” John McCain, who had the nerve to be imprisoned while fighting for his country. Trump, remember, said McCain was “not a war hero … he was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” McCain is a hero because he sacrificed for a cause greater than himself. Good luck explaining that to Donald Trump.
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