In a sane world, I wouldn’t be writing about Donald Trump vs. LaVar Ball. In a sane world, this story of two TV reality-show blowhards bloviating at each other to build their respective brands would be a mildly amusing distraction from the troubles of modern life. Yet we have to write about it because one of these natterjacks is the damn president of the United States.
It’s a problem that the president is tweeting that he should have let LaVar Ball’s teenage son, UCLA basketball player LiAngelo, rot in a Chinese prison because his father wasn’t “grateful” enough to the president. It’s a problem that the president is lying to the American people. (LiAngelo Ball and his two teammates were already receiving preferential treatment, and the process of getting them out was underway before Trump made any kind of intervention.) It’s a problem that Donald Trump has a penchant for attacking outspoken black athletes and high-profile black people in the sports world, to the thrill of his base. In other words, his continual, knee-jerk racism is a problem. It’s a problem that we are talking about this—that it is the lead story on just about every news network—at a time when the Republican Congress is about to pass a tax law that will rob working- and middle-class people to pay for corporate tax breaks, a tax law that is being done openly to appease donors and stands to save this president and his family of grifters over one billion dollars. It’s a problem that we are talking about this when net neutrality is about to be gutted, when there is a needed reexamination of the president’s sexually predatory behavior, and when the president refuses to comment on the GOP child molester running for a Senate seat in Alabama. It’s a problem that we are in a media climate where any publication or network—including me here at The Nation—would have gladly taken that interview with LaVar Ball on Tuesday night (although CNN is milking this to a degree that is stomach churning). It’s a problem that LaVar Ball who said on CNN, “Why are we talking about this with all these political matters going on in the world?” actually sounds more presidential than the president.
Make no mistake: The big winner here is LaVar Ball. Not only does this P.T. Barnum–esque basketball dad become the number-one trending topic on earth, but he gets reintroduced to a new audience suddenly enthralled with his undeniable charisma and verbosity. His Big Baller Brand has gotten an untold number of new eyeballs.
Ball reminds me of a section from The Fire Next Time where James Baldwin writes, “I did not intend to allow the white people of this country to tell me who I was, and limit me that way, and polish me off that way. And yet, of course, at the same time, I was being spat on and defined and described and limited, and could have been polished off with no effort whatever. Every Negro boy—in my situation during those years, at least—who reaches this point realizes, at once, profoundly, because he wants to live, that he stands in great peril and must find, with speed, a ‘thing,’ a gimmick, to lift him out, to start him on his way. And it does not matter what that gimmick is.”
He also—to use wrestling parlance—is able to remake himself in NBA circles from a heel to more of an anti-hero. In the NBA circles, Donald Trump is viewed as a racist, a bigot, and, in the famous tweet of LeBron James, a “bum.” LaVar Ball’s son Lonzo is struggling in his rookie season with the Lakers and there are whispers that part of his problem is the fact that LaVar Ball has been too bombastic and put a target on his son, where every night he gets his opponents’ best game. Now he is the person who stood up to Trump, refused to grovel to Trump, and exposed, in the words of Shaun King at The Intercept, that “Few things irritate white men, particularly white men whose power is centered in their whiteness, than a fully free Black man who doesn’t kiss their ass on demand.”
Donald Trump is also a winner here because we are past the point of logic with the racist part of his base. They would correctly be howling at the moon if President Obama demanded thanks for “freeing” an American in a Chinese prison. But, as he has shown, Trump—even as his own popularity is at historic lows—can cling to that base by using rank racism and being an autocratic bully.
We are the great losers in this battle because we live in a country where this orange baby is president, where the lesson gets learned that the power of one’s brand is the ultimate goal worth pursuing, and our pockets get picked while we watch the spectacle. Rome is burning. The GOP is lighting the match. And we are all in a mad rush to be the one who gets to play the loudest violin.