A week ago, U.S. President Donald Trump stunned the world with his bellicose speech before the United Nations General Assembly. Days later, with the fallout from his remarks still hanging in the air over New York, Pyongyang and Tehran, he abruptly changed the subject. In a stump speech in Alabama on Friday and later on Twitter, Trump called out professional football players who have been kneeling during the playing of the national anthem to protest police brutality against black Americans.
The storm of controversy he set off has puzzled foreign observers unfamiliar with the arcana of America’s culture wars, and particularly the role that professional sports play in them. In France, for instance, the national anthem is only played before international matches, not league play. Stateside, the row has now overshadowed Trump’s U.N. speech, but the two incidents combine to raise revealing questions about the nature of American patriotism in the Trump era.
Trump argues that his criticism of the protests is about respecting the anthem and the flag, while his critics claim it is the latest example of his appeals to race-based resentment and outright racism. It is likely they are both right.