What Was the NFL Protest Flap About, Really?

I started the week asking why Pres. Trump would reignite a fading controversy over NFL players protesting during the National Anthem and end it with an answer of sorts.

People had all sorts of theories as to why Trump would do this that were more strategy-oriented, e.g., to distract from something else or to shore up support with his base.  Over the course of the week there was plenty of chatter about the substance, trying to answer the question of — regardless of any strategy — why Trump picked this controversy.   Given that it’s Trump, I would imagine skeins of themes not readily disentangled but understood instinctively.

Whatever Trump’s motive may have been, in surveying polls, we now can infer a bit about how the public perceived the kerfuffle.  A majority does not like the protests (though people don’t agree with Trump that players should be fired for protesting).

But the most interesting thing to me is that, according to a new YouGov poll:

Despite Trump’s best efforts to frame the protests as an attack on the flag, just 12 percent of the public believes that that’s their purpose. Forty-eight percent said the point was to protest police violence while 40 percent said they believed the point was to protest … Donald Trump. Even among Republicans, just 24 percent see the protests as motivated by a desire to protest the flag.”

The commentariat, especially on the Right, tended to think otherwise.  Instead, this was a case where Trump failed at re-framing an issue, despite prior success, perhaps because Trump was injecting himself into an old controversy.

The Left may look at this poll and conclude it is the result of apathy and racism, and there may be some of that.  I also wonder if it’s not simply the result of the police (and the military, usually linked to the National Anthem at NFL games) being two of the few trusted institutions left in America.

I wonder more than usual after watching The Vietnam War on PBS over the past two weeks.  The documentary runs through most of the milestones of the late Sixties, and when tragedies happen, the polling is often mentioned.  You are reminded that after the violence surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention:

In a Gallup poll, 56% approved of the police response to anti-war protestors and 31% did not. In a Harris survey, 66% agreed that [Chicago Mayor] Daley was right in the way he used police against the demonstrators, against only 20% who disagreed.

After four students were killed and nine wounded by National Guardsmen during an anti-war protest at Kent State University in 1970:

A Gallup Poll *** revealed that 58% of the respondents believed the responsibility for the deaths lay with the demonstrators; only 11% blamed the National Guard.”

People tend to like the police and the military a lot more than they like protesters, even when the public eventually comes to agree with the protesters.  Support for the NFL players increased over the past year, though that may be a partisan artifact; Trump’s job approval also started trending in the wrong direction this week, after weeks of improvement.

Maybe the lesson here is an old, conservative one: people don’t change much, and not quickly when they do.

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