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WASHINGTON -- It is often difficult to determine if Donald Trump's offenses against national unity and presidential dignity are motivated by ignorance or malice. His current crusade against sideline activism at professional football games features both.
Protests by players during the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" are misdirected, but their motivations are understandable. African-Americans have a naturally complex relationship with a country in which one out of every seven human beings was once owned as property and robbed of their labor. A country with a founding promise that bypassed them. In 1852, Frederick Douglass asked how the American slave should respond to the July 4th holiday. "To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless. ... There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States."
Tough words, at least as challenging as a knee to the ground at a sporting event. And the end of slavery was hardly the end of oppression. We are a country where the re-imposition of white supremacy following the Civil War involved, not just segregation, but widespread violence. A country in which mass incarceration and heavy-handed police tactics now create a sense that some neighborhoods are occupied by a foreign force. A country in which wealth and opportunity remain, in significant part, segregated by race.
If white Americans can't even feel a hint of this alienation and outrage, it is a fundamental failure of empathy and historical memory.
Trump seems ignorant of, or indifferent to, the unfolding drama of the civil rights movement -- of Abraham Lincoln's firm hand signing the Emancipation Proclamation, of African-American military heroism in defending the Union, of the stubborn courage displayed by protesters in the front of buses and at segregated lunch counters, of Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, repeated in many bloody versions. When the president looks at protesters, he cannot see what they are trying to be.
This ignorance is matched by malice. Trump must know that rallying his white base against young African-American protesters is feeding racial tension and providing permission for bigotry. He is essentially accusing these athletes of disloyalty, just as he accused Mexicans of being rapists and Muslims of being threats. This is a pattern and habit of division by race, ethnicity and religion.
Stop and consider. This is a sobering historical moment. America has a racial demagogue as president. We play hail to this chief. We stand when he enters the room. We continue to honor an office he so often dishonors. It is appropriate, but increasingly difficult.
In this case, demagoguery is likely to be effective, in part because protesters have chosen their method poorly. The American flag is not the racist symbol of a racist country. It is the symbol of a country with ideals far superior to its practice. This is the banner under which the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry -- the first African-American regiment organized in the Civil War -- fought the Confederacy. This is the flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol on July 2, 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed. This is the flag that drapes the coffins of the honored dead on their final homeward trip, to a flawed nation still worthy of their sacrifice.
The extraordinary achievement of America's founders was to elevate a set of ideals that judged (in many cases) their own hypocritical conduct. With the Declaration of Independence, they put a self-destruct mechanism in the edifice of slavery. They designed a system that eventually transcended their own failures of courage. At least in part. With more to go.
Both president and protesters would benefit from reading Douglass' conclusion: "While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American institutions, my spirit is cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age ... The fiat of the Almighty, 'Let there be light,' has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light."
The president's agenda of division is fully exposed. Faith in the Declaration, and in the genius of American institutions, remains the proper response. Under the flag that symbolizes them both.
Michael Gerson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.