Vice President Mike Pence must be in contention for a place in the NFL record books: shortest stay at a game by a public official. He earned that honor after cutting short his visit to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis because members of the San Francisco 49ers—the visiting team—knelt in protest during the national anthem.
Despite the vice president’s well-deserved reputation for sincerity, Pence’s ploy has the feel of a pre-planned political stunt. After all, the 49ers were the first team to participate in these protests, under the leadership of since-defenestrated quarterback Colin Kaepernick, making a repeat nearly inevitable. President Trump was quick to claim credit for Pence’s hasty exit, and he always keeps an eye on the ratings.
It’s easy to see why people of goodwill would a.) be offended by real or perceived disrespect for our country, as symbolized by the flag and the anthem, and b.) wish to use their platforms or positions of prominence to highlight real and perceived racial injustices, as exemplified by the high-profile deaths of black people via questionable encounters with the police.
But the ability to care about two issues simultaneously, while respecting the sincerely held viewpoints of our countrymen with radically different experiences, tends to get lost in culture war slogs. A complicated national conversation is thus reduced to a simplistic debate, kneel versus stand.
This framing plays to the short-term benefits of the combatants. Trump can grab headlines whenever he wants to by weighing in on the NFL protests, his trademark method of shifting out of unflattering news cycles, secure in the knowledge that he speaks for millions of Americans whose views are mostly unrepresented in popular culture and only defended timidly by more conventional political actors.
The protesters, for their part, are getting a great deal of media attention. They are being mentioned in the same sentence as Rosa Parks and other past civil-rights icons. It’s not just Kaepernick’s lonely crusade anymore.
But there is much less evidence that this fight is redounding to the benefit of either side’s long-term interests. Trump’s interventions have fanned the flames of these protests, which were already growing more common, rather than tamping them down. This is to be expected, as he is a deeply polarizing president with a job approval rating hovering around just 40 percent. He has never taken responsibility for engaging in racial politics that range from the mishandled (Charlottesville) to the malevolent (birtherism) and does not appear to understand the damage he has done to his own credibility on race.
Indeed, the latest Trump-Pence intercession came as the NFL seemed to be groping towards a compromise on how to protect player protests while at the same time maintaining a certain sense of decorum surrounding the national anthem. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones once knelt with his players before the anthem; he now says that if they don’t stand for the flag, they will sit on the bench. NFL chief Roger Goodell has reportedly sent around a memo saying he’d prefer that the kneeling stops.
Similarly, the protests themselves seem to be actually increasing indifference and outright hostility to the causes they are intended to highlight, at least among the conservative white viewers who are presumably the target audience. Those NFL fans are at the very least changing the channel.
The counterargument to this is that civil-rights protests have never been popular. It is true that we in retrospect exaggerate how unifying past demonstration were. Nevertheless, Parks refusing to surrender her seat on the bus or sit-ins at segregated lunch counters were more directly connected to the specific injustices they were protesting than wealthy athletes refusing to stand for the flag. What is the straight line on which we go from a defensive lineman taking a knee to Ferguson altering its police practices?
Instead both sides are perhaps unwittingly launching an attack on Americanism as a force that can transcend race—the protesters by, however indirectly or unintentionally, treating the American flag as a symbol of white supremacy and Trump by preaching a race-neutral Americanism on the one hand while seeming to wink at white identity politics on the other.
Making American patriotism a form of conservative white identity politics will do more to mainstream white nationalism than any torch-wielding neo-Nazi ever could. Abandoning even the aspiration of the flag representing one nation and one people is a disaster for what both Trump and the protesters profess to believe.
Jim Antle is the Washington Examiner‘s politics editor. He was previously managing editor of the Daily Caller and associate editor of the American Spectator. He is the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?