Virginia’s GOP gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie put all his chips on bigotry to win Tuesday’s election and failed in spectacular fashion. Now, after losing by nine points to Ralph Northam, he will go down in the books as not only a racist but a racist loser. Gillespie had a three-pronged attack of ear-piercing dog whistles: He would lead the fight against undocumented, Latino, machete-wielding gangs; he would struggle for the preservation of “our” confederate statues (Gillespie was born in New Jersey); and he would stand up to Colin Kaepernick. Yes, Colin Kaepernick. In his last push for votes, Team Gillespie put out flyers showing NFL players kneeling during the anthem to protest racism with the slogan, “You’d never take a knee… so take a stand on election day.” But the “Willie Horton–ization” of NFL dissenters failed spectacularly, and it’s worth understanding why.
I spoke to Jared Rizzi who covered the White House from 2010–17 for Sirius/XM. He said, “Trump chose to weigh in on the NFL protest issue with the urgency of breaking the glass to get at a fire extinguisher. The context for him injecting himself into the discussion was self-serving—and without any policy attached other than vague threats to the NFL. Voters who have been targeted on wedge issues have begun to recognize their emotions are being goosed. Those who oppose the NFL players, or the ham-handedness of Trump’s presentation, emerge more resolved to continue their opposition. The fire is real, but Trump’s extinguisher is a dud.”
In other words, if you are already enraged at the sight of NFL players protesting racism during the anthem, are you more likely to vote for Ed Gillespie because he shares your hatreds? Probably not. But if you are part of the majority—and poll after poll supports this contention—that opposes the way Trump has approached the NFL dissenters, opposes the president’s attempt to threaten their jobs, and opposes the idea that they shouldn’t even have the right to protest—it’s deeply offensive. That doesn’t even include the millions who not only support the players’ right to demonstrate but also support the aims of their demonstrations. If anything, racist flyers such as ones were submitted by a sheriff named Tim Howard in Buffalo, which had images of Kaepernick taking a knee alongside photos of Confederate flags—because who could forget the famed rebel troops from Buffalo—only prove that Kaepernick was correct to protest in the first place.
This was seen starkly in a Politico article earlier this week, written by Michael Kruse, who went into “Trump Country”—depressed, deindustrialized Johnstown, Pennsylvania—to speak to voters who still support Trump though acknowledging that he has done nothing for them. At the end of the piece, Trump supporters, without prompting, volunteer their thoughts about what really makes them angry in 2017: not the absence of opportunity, not Trump’s broken promises of industrial revival, but those kneeling NFL players.
One person said, “All my ancestors, Italian, 100 percent Italian, the Irish, Germans, Polish, whatever—they all came over here, settled in places like this, they worked hard and they earned the respect. They earned the success that they got. Some people don’t want to do that. They just want it handed to them.” This is really something: NFL players in their eyes are 21st iterations of the fictional “welfare queens” as if becoming an NFL player doesn’t require monomaniacal hard work—literal blood, sweat, and tears—to achieve. Another person sitting with her husband commented that in their home, they now say that the NFL stands for “Niggers For Life.”
People like this aren’t going to be swayed by the toxicity of racism, because that’s already their oxygen. As Rebecca Carroll, editor of special projects at WNYC and critic at large for the Los Angeles Times, said to me, “Trump supporters and the far-right conservative folks who are taking issue with Kaepernick’s activism still think they can break him into submission. That’s how white supremacy works in service of itself—by believing its power and potency to the very core, in a cellular way. White supremacists will take their supremacy to the grave.”
They couldn’t break Kaepernick. Now his principles are inspiring others to be strong, while those simmering with rage about entitled NFL players are left to stew in their own juices. They do seem to be grateful that Trump has fulfilled at least one campaign promise: He’s given them people to hate.