Trump’s idea that we should “fire” a person for exercising their right to protest might seem like a gaffe, and the stark sloppiness of it might make politicians on both sides squirm. But, like many of Trump’s gaffes, his message is not a departure from as much as a fulfillment of core, if long-euphemized, American ideals. In this instance, the ideal is that America is, and should be run like, a business. In Donald Trump’s mind, in other words, he is the CEO of a company called the United States. This company has 323 million employees, all of whom are sworn, by loyalty or contract, to safeguard the company’s brand: the authentic, “great” version of America. The problem? Right now, his brand is being threatened by a competing American brand: the idea that the United States is a pluralist democracy.
The idea that America is a business did not originate with Trump. It riffs most recently on the efforts of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School to make democracy synonymous with the free market. But it goes back much further than that. It goes back, ultimately, to the very notion of America as a colony--a place to invade and exploit for profit--and to slavery--one of America’s first and most enduring business models. And that history is no accident. The idea of America-as-business is built on the subjugation of people of color (whether indigenous, African, or immigrant). This means that America’s business model is also its political model--since exploiting a group economically only works if they are politically inferior. It should not be surprising, then, that the idea of America-as-business has long been the centerpiece of the Republican Party, and nor that it has been used as a dog whistle for its bigger, political project: slashing social programs that disproportionately affect people of color and the poor.
So there are two ideals here: That America is a business, and that America is a democracy. This conflict has existed since the beginning of this country, and the difference has consistently been resolved by one thing: by protest.
Fast forward to 2017, where this tension between business and democracy has led to some bizarre results, as the NFL--normally the arena of the almighty dollar and a top purveyor of both bread and circus--has become instead the site of growing political resistance. And the team owners--nothing if not cheerful capitalists, and many of them Trump supporters--are in a similarly strange position. They have been forced to recognize the political clout of their Black athletes in order keep them playing, to keep business booming. Meanwhile, Trump is confused too, condemning protest on the one hand while calling for a national boycott of the NFL for, well, boycotting the anthem.
It could have been a very confusing day in the USofA, but luckily, Trump was there to explain. His statements were not about race, he said. They were not, even, about restricting what he calls “freedom of choice” (a consumer-friendly-sounding freedom that he seems to think is in the Bill of Rights.) Instead, he said that his calls to fire protesting athletes are about something very simple: “A total disrespect of our heritage, that's a total disrespect of everything that we stand for."
Okay, then. Except what, exactly, does that mean America stands for? Are we supposed to respect the symbols of American values, or their substance? This has been a particularly thorny question under Trump’s presidency, since he frequently invokes the the founding while undermining the Constitutional values it was ostensibly built upon. Far from being a rhetorical mistake, this has been the crux of Trump’s campaign strategy. Where the Republican party invokes the founding to equate freedom with capitalism, Trump invokes the founding to equate capitalism with authority, and authority with American-ness. He has used nostalgia for an Original America to create a Business America, in which the only people who qualify for rights are are the white and the wealthy. Trump’s defending this America, not the flag or the anthem or any particular symbol of it. And Trump has a word for his version of history--the same word that racist whites have for it nation-wide. It’s called “heritage.” Heritage is clever because it sounds like history while being dangerously different from it. Heritage is a story employed by the powerful that operates as a sort of selective forgetting, a version of events that--magic!--matches up exactly with how a group wants to see themselves. This, of course, is also the way Trump approaches his own story, dismissing any facts that would harm his hermetic and narcissistic version of events. And so we have Trump’s true American values, values that Black athletes are daring to violate by exercising their right to freedom of speech: heritage, nostalgia and authority. The trifecta makes sense. To control history, you must have authority, and to have authority, you must have nostalgia--a collective longing for the good old days when authority was unchecked.
This nostalgia was front and center in Trump’s rant about the NFL, albeit thinly veiled as sports commentary. After laying into the protesting athletes, Trump turned to the disappointment of football in general, bemoaning the fact that the sport wasn’t violent enough anymore: "Because today if you hit too hard, right, if they hit too hard--15 yards, throw him out of the game!" Specifically, Trump blamed the ref: “The referee gets on television--they're ruining the game! It’s not the same game.” At this point the psychoanalysis comes almost too easily. Are we even talking about football at all, or are we talking instead about white people’s longing for a time when their authority allowed them to silence all dissent, a time when they controlled Black bodies and could do them violence with impunity?
In that sense, a sports arena is the most fitting place to wage the battle of the two Americas, if for nothing else than what the NFL and America have in common. After all, they are both places where the easy story of teamwork and unity too often serves as a feel-good front for competition and barely-restrained violence. And it is in the sports arena where the notions of meritocracy--so dear to White people everywhere and so untrue for everyone else--might actually translate for a person of color. Because it is in the sports arena where talented Black athletes are so good for business that they have the power to exercise democracy. Or, as Trump himself said, “It’s a whole new game.”