The result is a remarkable cultural moment that speaks to the vast divides in the country, of which Trump is both symptom and accelerant.
Football players of diverse backgrounds linked arms on NFL sidelines on Sunday, joined in many cases by team owners – including some who have supported Trump politically and financially. Other teams stayed inside their clubhouses during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner.
The condemnation from sports’ biggest names – including some individuals with bigger social-media footprints than the president himself - was sweeping.
If there was any doubt about the president’s wish to inflame a culture war, he announced on Twitter today that he is “so proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans” for not tolerating “disrespecting our Country or our flag.” He’s pitting league against league, athlete against athlete, and fan against fan.
And yes, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, this is about race.
The words Trump chose Friday to describe protesting players deserve examination: “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.’ "
Since he dropped that sentence into an unrelated political speech Friday night, Trump has kept up the pressure. He’s now calling on NFL owners to get together to decide on how to respond to protests and is suggesting that a boycott of the nation’s most popular sports league might be in order.
This is awkward territory for any president. He is proposing what in effect would be limits to the First Amendment, at least when it comes to the free expression of prominent athletes in sports whose players happen to mostly be minorities.
Trump appeared ready to declare something of an early victory on Sunday, despite the intense blowback his latest crusade has drawn.
“I watched a little bit of it. And I will say that there was tremendous solidarity for our flag and for our country,” the president said after a full slate of NFL games aired on television.
Trump wants people to take sides. But, as always in America, both sides can speak for themselves.