Buried under all the misty-eyed patriotism and inflamed racial tensions surrounding the NFL’s recent #TakeAKnee protest lies a simple truth: For Donald Trump, this issue is about Donald Trump.
Trump has built his presidency (if you can call it that) on a series of loyalty tests intended to foster a cult of personality and radicalize his base. He does it by appropriating social wedge issues in a way that puts himself at the center of the controversy and forces people to decide if they are with him or against him. Trump conflates himself with the issue, and divisions become a litmus test for personal loyalty.
Building a faithful following often requires manipulating people’s worst instincts and fears. For Trump, it started with the birther movement, a racist lie that asked the simple question: Who’s with me? Trump’s loyalty tests continued with xenophobic and divisive calls for a border wall and a Muslim ban. Then he pushed it a bit further with his homophobic transgender military ban, a nasty and cynical move that seems to be aimed at dividing the ranks of the armed services into loyalists and critics.
Now Trump’s doing it again with #TakeAKnee. He’s hijacking Colin Kaepernick’s protest against racial injustice and police brutality and turning it into the latest iteration of his personal loyalty test. This is Trump once again hiding behind patriotism to manipulate a wedge issue on race and ask: Who’s with me?
Make no mistake, Trump’s campaign to make athletes “Stand for our Anthem!” has as much to do with defending the country as his birther movement had to do with proving that Obama was born in Kenya. The president’s only real goal is to fan the flames of division and test the bounds of his followers’ loyalty.
In Trump’s eye, those who stand for the anthem are pledging allegiance to him, while those who take a knee are defying his authority. Trump hears the boos for the protesters as cheers for himself. It’s a vindication that the polls are wrong, and that his supporters are ready to defend their leader.
If that sounds narcissistic, it’s because it is. This is what authoritarians do. Everything revolves around them. Loyalty is personal, and it’s never taken for granted. It’s always tested. It always needs to be proven, and oftentimes in increasingly irrational ways, especially when the leader feels cornered.
Trump clearly hears Robert Mueller’s footsteps. That’s probably why he’s working at such a feverish pace to mobilize his base and whip them into a frenzy. Cult of personality becomes a survival technique.
It may feel ugly, angry, and divisive right now, but it’s probably just a preview of what’s to come.