Trump vs Pro Athletes: Who Scores?

Since I last wrote, Pres. Trump decided to start a war of words — on and off Twitter — with NFL players protesting during the National Anthem, as well as various NBA players (resulting in the disinvitation of the champion Golden State Warriors to the White House).  As a result, the protests by a relative handful of football players erupted into a league-wide controversy, with teams generally expressing unity against Trump’s comments or opting out of the circus by staying off the field during the anthem.

Cui bono?

One reasonable take — as exemplified by this WSJ editorial — is that everyone loses when we Politicize All The Things.  That take will play well on the Right (myself included) and probably with the casual citizen (even many who are sympathetic on the underlying issue of police-involved shootings), but not with the Left’s culture warriors (obvsly).

Another reasonable take — which surfaced on Twitter and which I forgot to bookmark — was that both Trump and the more militant faction of the BLM protesters both win.  Under this theory, polarizing figures benefit from the polarization and political energy generated thereby, leaving the center (broadly defined) as the losers.

A third reasonable take — and the one seemingly favored by many of my conservative friends and colleagues — is that Trump wins, bigly… no, yugely.  The theory is that Trump managed to wrap himself in the American flag and side with support for our military (one of the few institutions still trusted in these United States circa 2017).  Trump’s critics wind up defending a widely unpopular form of protest (and Politicization of All The Things) for the abstract principle of free speech (though the First Amendment does not apply to the workplace, for the most part).

There is a fourth take, in which things don’t work out so well for Trump.  I don’t know how reasonable it is (yet), but I’ll play Devil’s advocate here.

The “Trump wins big” theory seems to overlook that Trump was never been all that popular outside the GOP base, and remains unpopular to this day.  Quite a bit of Trump’s lousy job approval has probably been due to Trump’s constant dramas, many of which were self-created:

[Aside: Note the highest average search interest items in this chart are the healthcare bill, North Korea, and Afghanistan.  It’s almost as if people care more about the most important stuff.]

That said, Trump has staged a substantial rally in his job approval over the past month.  He’s still underwater by double-digits, but that’s much better than being 20 points underwater, as he was in mid-to late August.

The conventional wisdom is that much of the narrowing of the gap between approvers and disapprovers is related to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.  The Trump administration’s response was seen as competent (unlike — rightly or wrongly — the Bush administration’s response to Katrina).  Trump himself generally came off as compassionate and Presidential (despite the efforts of the media to fixate on the First Lady’s choice of shoes).  And the media’s saturation coverage of these storms meant that comparatively little attention was focused on other Trump stories.

As NBC News noted:

Trump’s improved numbers came in a time of relative social media calm for the president. Before this weekend’s public feud with professional football and basketball players, there had been a shift in recent news coverage that included a steady diet of reports on hurricane assistance and bipartisan overtures from the White House.

To that list we might add Trump’s actions and speeches regarding Afghanistan and North Korea, which — aside from calling Kim Jong Il “Rocket Man” — put the focus on Trump as Commander-In-Chief in a generally favorable light.

What happens after this weekend’s feud?  It’s possible that soft approvers — even those who might agree with Trump about the protests at NFL games — may view this as a return to the distracted Donald, the unpresidential President, the guy who is fixated on pleasing his base and not pivoting towards more bipartisanship.  Whether that impression takes hold again will probably depend on whether this latest beef was a blip occasioned by letting Trump out to free-associate at that campaign rally for Sen. Luther Strange in Alabama, or part of a renewed trend.

I would guess the media is already fielding polls on Trump’s latest kerfuffle.  And I wouldn’t be surprised if the results came back with 70-80% of Republicans approving of his comments, because that’s generally been the result for far more controversial Trump comments.  Partisanship is a helluva drug.  He may even score better with Independents in the short term.  The real question is whether a week or two later, people who aren’t political junkies start seeing Trump as the guy who dug himself into a hole instead of the guy climbing up.

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