In June 2018, two colleagues and I boarded an Amtrak train to Washington, D.C., to cover an event that wasn’t happening.
The Eagles, four months removed from their victory in Super Bowl LII, were supposed to visit the White House that day, to celebrate and be honored for their championship. But so many of them objected to President Donald Trump — his language, his behavior, the ideas and intentions underpinning both — and declined to make the trip that the team’s contingent promised to be a few coaches and players, nothing more. In turn, Trump, with his customary grace, rescinded the invitation and announced that instead there would be a “celebration of America,” which turned out to be little more than a half-hour-long celebration of himself.
It all seemed so absurd at the time, the entire day, the Kabuki theater of it, but there is value in remembering it. In that afternoon’s silliness, you can see the faint shadows of Wednesday’s darkness. After Trump had used conspiracy theories to inflame his most unhinged supporters, after he had lied to them about the results of the presidential election, after he had inspired them to storm the Capitol, after the insurrectionists had trashed offices and taken selfies in the Senate chamber, after a gunshot inside the building had killed a woman, everyone should understand one man’s methods and the madness that led to the wreckage.
Trump simply relied on the same formula that he had used to such ridiculous ends 2½ years ago: Take a sensitive subject or event, and wield it as a weapon to stoke division and create anger and chaos. What he did Wednesday is exactly what he was doing in the early years of his presidency, with Colin Kaepernick and with the Eagles, just now with more dire and damaging results.
Think back to that time. It feels so quaint now. Starting in August 2016, Kaepernick had sat down, then taken a knee, during the national anthem before games with the San Francisco 49ers, refusing to “stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.” His actions, predictably, became the subject of a national debate, one that Trump recognized could be a handy culture-war cudgel for him. In September 2017, in a speech in Huntsville, Ala., he asked if the people in the crowd would “love to see one of these NFL owners, when someone disrespects our flag, say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out. He’s fired. He’s fired.’”
He’s fired. As if Trump were still the star of The Apprentice, on NBC. And the crowd cheered.
It didn’t matter that Kaepernick’s gesture was, in and of itself, respectful: He didn’t burn a flag, didn’t raise his middle finger to the flag, didn’t directly condemn anyone who didn’t join him in his protest or agree with his reasons for it. It didn’t matter that Kaepernick’s gesture was not initially a commentary on Trump’s presidency: It couldn’t be. Trump wasn’t president at the time.
It didn’t matter that, if every boss fired every employee with a controversial or misinformed or just plain stupid sociopolitical opinion, no one in this country would have a job. And when several Eagles players — whether they agreed with Kaepernick or as former teammates were loyal to him or just believed he had the right to make the gesture — lent him their support, when they shared their thoughts on issues beyond football, when they backed up those words with action, it didn’t matter that none of them had taken a knee during the anthem themselves. They were targets for Trump, too.
Eventually, the NFL’s owners grew so afraid of Trump and what he might say next — or, if you want to give them some benefit of the doubt, so exhausted by him — that they bent to him, enacting a half-measure rule: Anyone on the field during the anthem had to stand, but no one had to be on the field for the anthem. Trump had coaxed a dying ember into another inferno, and that was his only aim. He wants to watch the world burn at his hand. It’s one of the ways he gets his jollies.
“Nobody ideally wants to see guys kneeling, but guys have that right,” former Eagles defensive end Chris Long had said before the scheduled visit. “By the end of the year, I don’t know that a lot of guys were kneeling because … I don’t know. It was just naturally moving that way, and then you again — and I’ve used the word ‘clumsy’ — you enact this clumsy rule out of fear because that’s exactly what it is. It’s out of fear. It’s not out of patriotism. That’s what we have now, which is a reopened can of worms. You’re all crowding around my locker, and I know some people are like, ‘That’s what you want.’ I don’t want that. I don’t want to be talking about this stuff.”
Trump did. He is the defining figure of this age, a malicious attention junkie, a walking, talking, Twitter feed aggregating whatever images and information — true, half-true, false, demented — are available to tickle our basest and most primal instincts and emotions. Our entire lives can be wedge issues now if we want them to be, can be steeped in the kind of outrage that is boring until it becomes dangerous, and too many of our lives are.
Donald Trump has long exploited that truth. He exploited it again Wednesday, and here we are, detritus at our feet. Just as the train was pulling into Union Station early that afternoon in June 2018, a couple of hours yet before we needed to be at the White House, we were half-standing in the aisle, half-sitting on the armrests of our seats, and I dropped my pen and knelt down to pick it up. One of us joked: Hey, don’t do that during the anthem. Someone might shoot you. I suppose we were lucky.