Sunday, September 24, 2017

A Scrimmage Too Far

Maybe, at last, this is what it takes for Trump's base to fire him.

There are two Donald Trumps.

When he's by himself, roaming around the residence, lounging in front of "Fox and Friends," tweeting nonsense on his phone, Trump is authentically being himself: a spoiled rich kid who is shattered at the thought of failure, frustrated in his ambition for the one thing his money can't buy (respect), furious that obtaining the most powerful office in the world is still not enough for him to be taken seriously by the smart people he most wants to impress, lashing out at them for not understanding what a great guy he is. By the time we reach middle age, most of us have known people like this. We may have one in our family. We may even have been in a relationship with one. (It didn't end well.) Of course, most of the Trump-types we've known haven't had access to nuclear codes that could turn one of those midnight tantrums into an act of genocide that puts even Hitler to shame.

Except I don't think that will happen. Because the insecure, tantruming, ranting Trump is not a man of action. Most tantrum throwers aren't: they're expressing something visceral that they can't explain, lashing out at perceived causes of their discomfort, but ultimately, they don't really want it to happen.

So I don't think the whiney child wandering around the White House residence is going to actually trigger anything more hurtful than disbanding advisory boards nobody wants to be on, or uninviting a basketball team from a photo op they'd just as soon skip, anyway.

What worries me is the other Trump, the one he learned to be as a lying, promise-breaking real estate villain, the one he used to play on TV, and now plays at campaign rallies. This is Trump getting what he wants: the adulation of millions of gullible suckers pouring out emotional capital that he believes he can channel into a political weapon to be used upon any who stand in the way of the greatness he so desires. When he's in front of a crowd of his followers, he feels free to warn, threaten, intimidate, giving voice to the nationalistic dreams of the ignorant masses. He's wielded this weapon against the news media since he began his campaign. He's warned his Congressional GOP partners that he'll campaign against them (and he actually has in a few races). While unorthodox, neither of these targets is unprecedented: every President has battled with the media to some extent, and Presidents have often taken to the campaign trail in behalf of candidates for Congress or a governorship--though by and large, they've done it to defend incumbents against challenges from the opposition, not to drive a wedge into the heart of their own party.

Over the last few days, though, Trump has attempted to use his MAGA masses against a new target, one that has been completely sacrosanct from Presidential invective: professional sports; and in particular, America's two most popular sports leagues, the NFL and the NBA. To be fair, Trump has been singling out individual players, rather than owners or teams, but this morning's tweets have proposed a full-on boycott of the NFL.

The reason for this new assault on American sports culture: some NFL players have been remaining seated or "taking the knee" during the national anthem as a protest against the many police killings of African-American citizens.

Trump's public persona remedy for these protesters is to call on team owners to use his favorite TV catch-phrase on them: "You're fired." Seeing him call for this--as well as calling for football to become more, not less, gorily violent--at his Friday campaign rally accomplished something rarely seen, bringing owners and players together in united opposition. Furious at such disrespect for himself and the flag he wraps himself in, Trump called on his followers to boycott games until players begin acting more patriotically. He also decided to beat the Golden State Warriors to the punch of their decision not to visit the White House for the traditional championship photo opportunity, uninviting them in another tweet.

You may be seeing some overlap here between insecure private Trump and blustery public Trump, and I will acknowledge that the two meet in one place: Trump's Twitter account. There's something cannily brilliant about this, though: while the world holds up Trump's tweets as proof of his incompetence and expressions of his late night dementia, the government has chosen not to implement them as policy until they've been fleshed out into an official directive.

Calling for millions of fans to boycott football, though, crosses a line that is more likely to be Trump's undoing than any act of the Cabinet or Congress: he's hitting those angry white men where they live. He's telling them to forgo their live for weekend gladiatorial contests, for lounging in their recliners and swilling beer in front of television screens where mostly black athletes wage symbolic war upon each other. 75% of NFL players are black, while 75% of their fans are white. There's a dynamic at work in the bloodsport of football that's reminiscent of Rome at its most decadent.

It's going to be very hard to pry these fans, however devoted to Trump they may be, from their remote controls and stadium seats. The NFL has spent many years building its brand as America's Game, and there are many in Trump's base who have enthusiastically bought into that notion. This isn't about eating only well done steaks, or avoiding taco trucks, in solidarity with the President. It's a matter of identity. Football fans are so passionate about their teams that they will run out into the streets to riot both wins and losses in playoff and championship games.

That's why I hope Donald Trump chooses this boycott as the hill he's willing to die on. He's had other such hills--repealing the Affordable Care Act, the wall, the travel ban--but in the end, he's always wimped out on those. Turns out his followers just weren't that into them, after all, and the GOP's futile attempts at legislating them found they were even less enthusiastic. But football--and, should he extend his boycott demand even further, to basketball--there's a cause that could quickly come back to bite him.

Americans love their sports. White, Southern Americans really love their sports. That's the MAGA base. Telling them to give up football should, I hope, be the beginning of the end for their unquestioning support of the wild-eyed, finger-pointing flimflam man they elected President. However decisively he turns his imperial thumb down on the protesting gladiators, however enthusiastic his followers may appear to be as he demands those protesters mute their objections and stand for the anthem, in the end, I believe they love football even more than they love him. He is going to lose his base over this.

And once he's lost them, there'll be nobody left to take the flimflam TV Trump seriously. Everyone will see him for what he is: an insecure, lonely monster living out the last act of his miserable, friendless life, holed up in a mansion, longing for the one thing he ever really loved, a tiny sled branded "Rosebud."

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