Do you remember two weeks ago when Donald Trump surprised everyone by working with Democrats to come to a consensus on the DREAM Act? Many thought the president was finally pivoting. He was turning a new leaf by attempting to unify the country. His base wasn’t happy, but many of us were hopeful that the leader of the U.S. might be moving in a new direction.
But then Friday happened. Trump decided to pick a fight with the NFL. He said in a speech in Alabama:
Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired!” You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, “That guy disrespects our flag; he’s fired.” And that owner . . . they’ll be the most popular person in this country.
Some commentators said that Trump makes these claims to start a culture war that distract us from legislative issues that truly matter. Trump might be distracting us from a slew of issues, including the fact he hasn’t passed a major legislative victory, only 20 percent of Americans approve of the GOP health care bill, Jared Kushner – Trump’s son-in-law and a top advisor – used a personal email account to do government business, and the country is bracing for a potential nuclear war with North Korea. But there’s a problem with the idea that culture wars are mere distractions.
All of these issues are culture wars. We are in a struggle for the soul of the United States and every issue, from nuclear war to the NFL, is connected.
Maybe “culture war” is not a helpful metaphor. We’re not so much in a “culture war” as we are in a search for cultural truth.
And here’s the truth: Trump’s whole cultural narrative is based on a hostile lie, or what mimetic theory calls a “myth.” His weekend spat with the NFL is just one example of Trump’s mythical narrative.
According to mimetic theory, “myths” are stories we tell that silence the voice of the victim. The victim cries out for justice, which makes those in power uncomfortable. So the powerful start telling a mythical story that dehumanizes the victim. In the ancient myths, victims are (mis)understood to be monsters that threaten our community. Those in power control the cultural narrative by telling the myth that gets the majority of people to believe the lie that the victim is a guilty monster. The majority unite and pounce on the victim, whose voice is silenced by banishment or sacrifice.
Donald Trump attempts to push this mythical narrative on almost every minority: Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans, journalists, immigrants, the transgender community — and now we can include professional athletes in the long list of Trump’s scapegoats. The mythical narrative (i.e., the lie) he espouses is that these minorities pose a significant threat to American values.
Trump accuses NFL players who kneel during the national anthem of being unpatriotic, and are thus a threat to the United States. That’s the narrative he is trying to sell the American people.
But it’s a lie. And everyone in the NFL knows it. Even hardcore Trump supporters like Tom Brady see through Trump’s lies. Former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner explained Trump’s mythical narrative on the NFL Network Sunday morning:
We have this narrative that these protests are contradictory to our flag and contradictory to our military. I don’t see them that way. I see them as complementary to the ideals of the flag, to the military and what they fought for — the servicemen and women and what they fought for. I have not heard one player that has not been more than grateful to our military. This isn’t about that at all; it’s about standing up for the ideals of the flag.
Trump’s mythical narrative is a lie because he’s wrong about the motivations of the NFL players who kneel during the national anthem. They don’t kneel because they hate the flag. They aren’t monsters threatening the United States. They kneel because they love the flag and the ideals for which it stands.
The truth is that NFL players claim that it’s their patriotic duty to kneel before the flag. Why? Because the United States is not living up to its values of freedom and justice for all.
These athletes are forcing us to hear the voice of the victims, specifically black victims of police brutality and the American criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates people of color. And forcing people in power to listen to those voices makes Donald Trump very uncomfortable.
Trump attempted once again to control the cultural narrative today by tweeting that, “The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our country, flag and national anthem.” In pure mythical fashion, Trump continues to tell a lie in order to silence the voice of the victim.
But that voice will not be silent. This is about race. The Seattle Seahawks skipped the national anthem Sunday, stating, “We will not stand for the injustice that has plagued people of color in this country. Out of love for our country and in honor of the sacrifices made on our behalf, we unite to oppose those that would deny our most basic freedoms.”
Call it a “culture war” if you want. But this is primarily a search for truth. How do you know the truth? When anyone seeks to silence another person’s voice, when they start dehumanizing them or calling them unpatriotic, you know that they are creating a myth. You know that they are caught up in a swirl of lies.
The president is caught up in a swirl of lies. The NFL knows it. And at this point, the NFL knows that protesting is one of the most patriotic things we can do.