Donald Trump says his call for the firing of National Football League players who kneel during the national anthem to protest systemic racism in America has nothing to do with race. After a weekend of ranting and raving on Twitter about an issue that, for the president, suddenly seems to have taken precedence over North Korea, tax reform, repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, and attacking Hillary Clinton, Trump claimed on Sunday evening that
This has nothing to do with race. I’ve never said anything about race. This has nothing to do with race or anything else. This has to do with respect for our country, and respect for our flag.
Actually, it has everything to do with race—and Trump knows that. He’s playing an ugly political game, just as he did after the violence last month in Charlottesville, just as he did throughout his 2016 presidential campaign.
No national political figure since former Alabama governor and frequent presidential contender George Wallace has played the race card so frequently and so aggressively as Trump has since he announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 2015. The president’s default response to tough political circumstances is to stir divisions that he hopes will inflame and energize his base. If that happens, he calculates, they will do his political bidding.
This explains the president’s weekend obsession with the exercise of First Amendment rights by African-American football players and their allies. Trump is trying to win an election. Not his own election, mind you. But an election that matters a great deal to his presidency.
Alabama Republicans will nominate a Senate candidate to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a man whose record of working to divide Alabama, and the nation, along lines of race and ethnicity is as haunting as it is wicked. Sessions and Trump may not get along as well as they did in the days when the former senator played a critical role in winning the South for the Republican presidential contender. But Trump desperately wants to make sure that the man who replaces Sessions is an ally—or, at the very least, a Republican. As the current wrangling over ACA repeal and replacement illustrates, the president cannot afford to lose a Republican seat.
Trump made his crusade against NFL players who take a knee central to an address he gave last Friday night in Huntsville, Alabama, on behalf of his favored candidate in the Republican race, appointed incumbent Luther Strange. The president acknowledged in his “tortured endorsement” of Strange that the media would paint the defeat of his favored candidate in the primary as an “embarrassment” to the president. That’s undoubtedly true. But, in an interview on Monday, Trump said something that was even more revealing.