Trump should focus on the policy game
Lyndon Johnson showed the way to deal with anthem protests at the 1968 Olympics – the man now in the White House should learn from that
Sport is often described as a metaphor for life. The war of words between US President Donald Trump and American football stars is the latest example. Players have angered Trump by “taking a knee”, or half kneeling, instead of standing for the national anthem in symbolic protest against police mistreatment of blacks. Their action is not unprecedented in America’s troubled history of race relations. Forty-nine years ago two black athletes stood on the Mexico Olympics victory podium and raised two gloved fists in a Black Power salute during the playing of the US national anthem. The issue then was basically the same, the fight for equal rights. It may be a stretch to say not much has changed, but not to quote the saying that the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Then, as now, the athletes’ dissent from a ritual of patriotism outraged many and divided their nation. What sets it apart is the reactions of the presidents. In 1968 Lyndon Johnson’s White House remained deafeningly silent. This contrasts with Trump’s tweet attacking the players’ sense of patriotism and strident demands that football franchises fire them. Admittedly, in Johnson’s case, he did not need to say anything. US sport chiefs sanctioned athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos by throwing them out of the Olympic Village. Johnson finally signalled disapproval of their behaviour with a silent snub that punished teammates as well. The track and field team never received the traditional invitation to the White House.
Trump’s tirade against the players may appeal to the traditional values of his core voter base. But to many, the dignified walkout by Vice-President Mike Pence from an NFL game at which players refused to stand for the anthem conveyed their sentiments more powerfully. The freewheeling and often combative tweets of tycoon Trump have become an unpredictable part of the 24-hour news cycle. He and Johnson may be generations and an internet age apart, but he could learn from the man who owed his political judgment to previous experience as a senator.
That means getting on with building support for good policy and unifying leadership instead of dabbling in divisive issues.