Donald Trump’s comfort zone is race and culture war

President Donald Trump.
President Donald Trump. TNS

The “Donald Trump is becoming presidential” trope recently made the rounds again, shortly after new Chief of Staff John Kelly started cleaning house in the West Wing, and Trump himself cut a bipartisan debt-ceiling deal with Democratic senators Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.

As I’ve noted in this space before (and will surely note again) Trump has never had the intellectual sophistication or emotional discipline necessary to be “presidential.” Nor will he ever. But Trump, like clockwork, becomes as unpresidential as possible soon after observers say he’s finally acting like a commander in chief. And awaiting what Trump will do in such moments is like listening to a flight attendant describe the proper “head-between-the-knees” position to take should your flight go sour.

You probably already know what I’m thinking of this time: the president’s sprawling rant in Alabama on Friday night. In front of an enthusiastic crowd in the reddest of red states, Trump had everything to gain by simply showing support for Republican Senate primary candidate Luther Strange – that was, after all, the ostensible purpose of the rally. If he had to touch on national affairs, he could have criticized Sen. John McCain for defecting from the GOP’s effort to upend Obamacare via the Graham-Cassidy bill, which was the focal point of Republican legislative jockeying and messaging last week. Simple enough.

But no.

Instead, the president equivocated in his support for Strange (“I don’t know him. I met him once. … And I'll be honest, I might have made a mistake.”). He found time to riff on senior Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby’s height (“Shelby is pretty tall too, by the way.”). He provided an ancient Roman’s understanding of how Mexican drug dealers do business (“They have catapults. They throw it over the wall, and it lands and it hit somebody on the head.”). He re-upped on global slagging (“Rocket Man should have been handled a long time ago.”). He offered a window onto the wily persuasive skills he deploys from the Oval Office (“I’m on the phone screaming at people all day long, for weeks.”).

He moved quickly past McCain to then revisit Hillary Clinton (“If Crooked Hillary got elected, you would not have a Second Amendment, believe me.”). And he dismissed the various probes into Russia’s possible intersection with all things Trump (“I call it the Russian hoax. One of the great hoaxes.”).

On and on it went. And toward the speech’s finale, Trump lurched into his real comfort zone by taking sides in the same race and culture war he has waged for decades – one that he also made a hallmark of his presidential campaign, and a theme to which he returned after the unrest in Charlottesville, Va. To that end, he took aim at the National Football League – and athletes of conscience, like former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has routinely kneeled during the national anthem in protest of police brutality – for supporting protests against racial inequality and injustice.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He is fired. He’s fired!’” Trump said. “Total disrespect of our heritage, a total disrespect of everything that we stand for. Everything that we stand for.”

It would be handy to stop here and swap in “my heritage” for “our heritage” and “everything that I stand for” for “everything that we stand for” to help understand how a white president who grew up in and continues to live in a cocoon defines the American experiment and U.S. ideals. That would leave this recounting a bit short, however.

For one thing, Trump also used his speech to rip NFL owners for what he sees as pandering about player safety. This is of note solely because Trump shouldn’t be offering management advice to anyone, particularly the NFL. In the 1980s, he had a notoriously inept fling with an upstart league, the United States Football League, which was trying to offer fans an alternative to the NFL juggernaut. The USFL’s founders wanted to compete by playing in the spring and largely hiring less pricey, second-tier athletes to populate its teams. Trump bought into the league in 1984 via the New Jersey Generals and then promptly began recruiting and paying for stars, as well as pushing the USFL to take on the NFL head-to-head with a fall schedule. Yes, of course, he blew up the USFL.

Management tutorials weren’t Trump’s primary goal during his speech on Friday, though. In case that was lost on anyone, he took to Twitter on Saturday morning to zap the Golden State Warriors’ star point guard, Steph Curry, who was already planning – due to his concerns about racial strife – not to visit the White House in a ceremony honoring his team’s championship season:

With that, Donald Rex, master showman and social media maven, found himself in that tricky and perilous zone where race and celebrity intersect. Trump has never associated very closely with Americans of color unless they have been prominent entertainers, a la Michael Jackson, or famous athletes, a la Mike Tyson. Even in those cases, many were people Trump was putting to work in venues like his casinos (where boxers such as Tyson were teed up in fights meant to lure high-rollers and other gamblers to the betting tables).

Trump’s lifelong preoccupation with the magnetism and power of celebrity has landed him in the occasional company of people of color, granting him the veneer of pluralism. That cloak got stripped off on various occasions over the years (through episode like his race-baiting during the Central Park jogger case in 1989), and was permanently dissolved by his lily-white response to Charlottesville.

In his speech Friday night castigating the NFL, and in his Twitter barb launched at Curry, Trump was essentially inviting his broader audience to adopt his stance toward the entertainers of color who work as football and basketball players.

After Trump went there, he quickly found himself to be a pinata on social media, his own Twitter following leveraged against athletes of color with an even greater fan base that came to Curry and Kaepernick’s defense.

By Sunday, a number of NFL owners and the league itself had also weighed in. Games began with football players arm-locked and kneeling in protest.

Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, a Trump defender after the Charlottesville protests, made the talk show rounds Sunday and advised that NFL players “can do free speech on their own time.”

Here’s another idea: We can think more inclusively, follow the lead of those professional athletes calling for solidarity and understanding, and then commit to just trying to love one another – despite the roadblocks the president keeps throwing our way.

Timothy L. O'Brien is executive editor of Bloomberg Gadfly and Bloomberg View,