What Trump's NFL, Curry remarks should signal to his base

Julian Zelizer, CNN Political Analyst | 9/24/2017, 8:49 a.m.
President Donald Trump is going to war with some high-profile African-American athletes who have political thoughts on their minds.
Stephen Curry Bill Moore

(CNN) -- President Donald Trump is going to war with some high-profile African-American athletes who have political thoughts on their minds. The President said that fans should walk out when NFL players like Colin Kaepernick take a knee during the national anthem to protest our nation's inadequate response to racial inequities.

After the NBA superstar Stephen Curry told the media that he did not want to go to the White House to be honored by Trump, the President decided to take time from his busy day to tweet a withdrawal of the invitation.

It would be easy to see this as just one more trivial story about an immature president who watches too much television and has no control over his rhetorical impulses.

But it's much worse than that. Trump's desire to go after an African-American athlete who has been protesting our well-documented problems with race and criminal justice, or an African-American athlete who does not feel comfortable in the White House given the President's controversial positions on social issues, fit into a longer and troubling history of his capitalizing on the politics of racial division.

He has used these issues to stir up his base, always reminding them with a figurative wink and a tweet that he has not forgotten them, and to take a stand against efforts to promote social equality that he dismisses as silly political correctness. These moments often come when, in practice, the President has not done much to provide real assistance to those who supported him and moments when he was proving to be more comfortable with the Washington establishment -- even with Democrats -- than he said he would be.

Make no mistake about it, on this his record is very clear. Before the hurricanes swept through, leaving behind horrible wreckage and devastating floods, we were knee-deep in a national conversation about why the President had so much trouble taking a strong and resolute stand against white racial extremism.

The fact that he would not, and that he seemed more intent on trying to prove that left-wing extremists were just as dangerous, exposed a fundamental lack of sympathy for the fight against racism, xenophobia, nativism, sexism and anti-Semitism.

And Charlottesville had the impact that it did because there was such an established record of President Trump playing to these hateful elements of the body politics.

This is why these words about athletes are so troubling. For all the commentators who have been noting how "restrained" and "presidential" the President has supposedly been during the hurricane disaster, this is a wake-up call that the same Trump is still sitting in that Oval Office and carrying forward with his presidency of division.

And for Democrats, such as Sen. Chuck Schumer, who have been willing to enter into bipartisan negotiations with him, they need to remember the record of the leader their deals could end up strengthening. They can still make these deals, but the political risk should be clear. For short-term gains, they might empower a president who is generally antithetical to the party's values.