Although I am still unsure what political benefit (if any) Pres. Trump derives from re-igniting the otherwise fading controversy of NFL players protesting race-related issues during the National Anthem, many will see it as an example of the power of a President to set the national conversation.
I am more interested in the episode as an example of the power of a President, especially this one, to re-frame those discussions.
A better example would be the aftermath of the tragic violence in Charlottesville following clashes between white nationalists and the antifa. A story in which a white nationalist kills a young woman for political reasons would normally (and unfairly) be an opportunity for the establishment media (and the Left generally) to put the GOP on the defensive. And various remarks on Charlottesville by Trump, e.g., that there were “some very fine people” protesting alongside the neo-Nazis and white nationalists, typically would have caused a meltdown for most Republicans.
Of course, Trump is not most Republicans. And what he did was not even the “fighting” his supporters really love.
Rather, Trump re-framed the discussion (possibly encouraged by fmr. counselor Stephen Bannon) as one about the question of removing Confederate monuments — an issue on which he has the popular side of the argument. This issue was the pretext for the white nationalists choosing Charlottesville as their rally stage, but everyone generally understood it to be pretextual…until Trump re-framed it as the main topic.
Once Trump re-framed the dispute, the Left reflexively took the bait. In fact, they not only decided to focus on statues, but also went Full Iconoclast, moving from easier Confederate targets like Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest to Thomas Jefferson, just as Trump suggested they might. The Left managed to go from attacking Trump’s indefensible comments to defending the unpopular side of a different issue, and even embracing the least popular version of the argument.
Similarly, by injecting himself into a mostly dormant debate about protests at NFL games, he was able to put both the league and the Left in the position of defending (or appearing to defend) the unpopular protests. But more than that, he managed to muddle the message of his targets. Going forward, will such protests be seen as pro-Black Lives Matter, anti-flag/anti-military, or anti-Trump? My guess is that no one will be able to sort that out in a way that satisfies anyone involved. And to the extent they are seen as anti-Trump, it tends to dilute the original intent of the protests.
Again, it’s not clear what Trump gets in this example. Some have suggested it distracts from other stories, like the fact that the government response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico has not been as good as the responses to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma (which doesn’t surprise me, given that Puerto Rico is an island). You could make a case for this, but it seems as though this is something Trump does more from instinct than strategy (even if Bannon encouraged it after Charlottesville). At least, it would explain why he wields this informal power so indiscriminately.
Update: The NYT suggests Trump went after the NFL because he thinks dealing with Democrats and backing Sen. Luther Strange could erode his standing with his base. So to the extent Trump may have had a strategy, it’s not particularly good strategy. Most of his voters have been cutting him slack, and someone who won a narrow Electoral College victory should be thinking about trying to expand his support, rather than catering to 25% of the voter pool.
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