This whole flag thing is arguably getting to be a serious over-reach — on both sides of the matter. Is it the National Anthem thing? Or patriotism in general? Or just what? The issue has certainly been muddled and became more so, not less so, after the intervention of Donald Trump last week. To recall: The president was addressing a friendly crowd in Alabama in one of those ersatz campaign rallies that he likes to have, evidently by way of reminding himself that, yes, indeed, he did win the presidential election of 2016, and, in lieu of any substantive achievements in office, of celebrating the one achievement he can boast of as a political person.
In so doing, Trump does Charlie Sheen one better. It is his way of saying "winning!" with at least some nostalgic claim to accuracy. Never mind that every legislative proposal the president has attempted to float has either fallen to earth or failed altogether to launch. Never mind that his approval ratings, as measured by all the polls extant, are miserable and are at record lows vis-à-vis any former chief executive at this stage of an administration. And never mind that even his victory in the electoral college is sullied by ongoing charges, accompanied by increasing evidence, of improper influence over the election process by an adversarial foreign power.
He does have his base, and he clearly feels liberated every time he goes out on the stump and has the opportunity, sans the restrictions of a teleprompter, to free-associate and relive his victory, salting his feast of self-congratulation with whatever other subject happens to come to mind, the whoopier the better. Last week in Alabama, on the very eve of Week Three of the NFL season, he happened upon the subject of those African-American pro footballers, a distinct but determined minority, who had been indicating their discontent with the imperfections, inequalities, and hypocrisies of American life by opting, one way or another, not to stand for the pre-game playing of the National Anthem. The preferred method of dissent had come to be that of kneeling during the ritual — all things considered, a relatively tame form of protest.
Still, that kind of thing was, and is, at variance to long-established habits of national allegiance and, as Trump well knew, was downright anathema to the rowdier members of his base. Hence, his provocative insistence that the next "son of a bitch" to do so should be fired by the owner of his NFL team.
And hence, in turn, the paradoxical response of players and owners at the weekend's NFL games, who by and large abandoned whatever natural labor/management dichotomy might normally divide them and acted in public unity, whether kneeling or standing en masse or both at once, and, by whichever mode, reinforcing the right of individuals to choose their mode of response.
Though he may not realize it yet, it was one more defeat for the president, and, as an unintended consequence of his actions, a clear victory for the right of dissent. That much has been established. And perhaps that, after all, is a victory of sorts for what the flag and the anthem that celebrates it are meant to represent.