Skip to main content
ABC News
Is Trump’s NFL Critique Exploiting Divides Or Creating Them?

In this week’s politics chat, we dive into the motivations and effects of President Trump’s attacks on NFL players for protesting during the national anthem over police violence against black Americans. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): I’m going to throw three hypotheses about Trump’s attacks on the NFL at you. We’ll consider the evidence for/argue about each individually, but here are all three first:

  1. Trump is attacking the NFL protests to shore up his base.
  2. Trump is dividing the country.
  3. Trump is a product of divides in the country that already existed.

So, first up …

Trump is attacking the NFL protests to shore up his base.

Do you buy this?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Sure, on some level he knows that his white, older base will like this, but I don’t think it’s all calculating — I definitely believe he holds these views. I’ll let Nate take the NFL grudge angle.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Not really. I think he’s attacking the NFL protests because he watches a lot of TV and has a short temper and doesn’t like it when he sees criticism of himself or the people he’s simpatico with, especially when it comes from minorities.

And, yeah, he also has a lot of beefs with the NFL, as he’d very much like to be part of the club of franchise owners.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): To Nate’s point about who Trump attacks and race … there’s this from The Washington Post:

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Well, if I can disagree slightly — I don’t think Trump woke up one morning and thought, “I need to shore up my base and therefore I’m going to attack the NFL.” Remember, his approval ratings have ticked up recently. Instead, I’d bet Trump felt a grievance and thought to himself that this might work as a political angle too. I bet the politics were secondary. Remember too, Trump tried and failed to buy my Buffalo Bills.

perry: I think the NFL thing popped into Trump’s head on Friday night in Alabama. The crowd applauded loudly. And then he doubled and tripled down on it because the controversy drew the right enemies — black athletes, elites, the media — and the right allies — veterans, white conservatives.

natesilver: I mean, it’s possible that this will have the effect of rallying his base. But I don’t think that was Trump’s intent, necessarily.

clare.malone: Didn’t Bon Jovi try to buy the Bills too?

harry: He did. We didn’t want Bon Jovi because we thought he might move the team.

micah: Should we spend less time focused on Trump’s motivations? I mean, do they even matter? The effects on the country are the same regardless, aren’t they?

clare.malone: Yes, but obviously he’s the accelerant on a flame that was already there.

micah: Save that thought!

perry: So I don’t think this was some deeply calculated move initially. But I think the tweets on Sunday and Monday reflect that Trump thinks he has a winning hand here.

natesilver: Motivations matter, in so far as we’re trying to build a “model” of Trump’s actions. And I think you sort of have to pick one hypothesis or the other. The way The New York Times put it is that “the vehemence was tactical, but also visceral.” I don’t really think that makes sense. Tactical and visceral are not quite antonyms, but it’s hard to be both at once.

micah: Can’t something be viscerally tactical? I think you’re oversimplifying how people’s motivations actually work, Nate.

natesilver: But he often digs in on losing issues, no? Going back to the feud with the Khan family or Judge Curiel, for instance.

perry: Right. Although I’m not sure this is a losing issue.

clare.malone: The pivot to NASCAR was pretty blatant by Trump as a move to appeal to his base … it kinda felt like a stereotype by him of who voted for him.

natesilver: I’ll just point out that his approval rating had gone up over the past few weeks — a period when he’d been quite quiet on Twitter. So the conventional wisdom that his base loves this stuff seems to be wrong.

micah: Well, it depends how we’re defining “base.”

harry: Can I cite some very preliminary polling data?

micah: Please.

harry: So SurveyUSA polled California on Trump and the NFL. The poll showed a fairly narrow split on the actions taken by the NFL players, but pretty much everyone agreed that Trump should stay the heck out of it. I know it’s California, but 82 percent, for example, said Trump should not have called the “player who kneeled” a “son of a bitch.”

perry: From the poll Harry just linked:

Asked about the national anthem in general and not about NFL protests in specific, 46% of residents statewide say it is wrong not to stand for the national anthem. 40% statewide say not standing is an acceptable way to protest.

This goes to the real issue, which is that while people don’t like how Trump behaved in this or many instances, he is tapping into views people have.

micah: I mean, this is a whole different conversation, but public support would seem to totally depend on how you describe what’s going on. (Our colleague Kathryn is reporting on this.) But is all this about …

  1. Oppression of black Americans?
  2. Respect for the country/flag?
  3. Free speech/unity?

Which of those you prioritize makes a big difference. Colin Kaepernick, who started the NFL protests, says No. 1. Trump says No. 2. NFL mostly says No. 3.

Of course, this all started with No. 1.

clare.malone: I think where most people are confused about how they feel is probably No. 2.

micah: Yes, and that’s where Trump is on the safest ground, most likely, in terms of public opinion.

natesilver: But maybe the public doesn’t care about the details of the controversy so much as that Trump’s just yammering on and on about it while Puerto Rico is without electricity and there’s a major health care debate and a million other things are going on.

clare.malone: A lot of people grew up with the habit of saying the pledge at school, waiting for the anthem to play — it’s just so ingrained that it makes sense to me that it’s taking awhile for people to wrap their heads around the protest, even if they’re in favor of the free speech right to kneel.

perry: In terms of Trump, yes, he would be better off talking about other issues. I feel like his numbers went up slightly after the debt deal with Democrats. That is why I agree with Nate: This is not some brilliant tactical move.

natesilver: We’ve actually got some research coming out soon suggesting that Trump’s rage tweeting is associated with declines in his approval ratings. It’s possible that’s a correlation without a causation, but it’s at least pretty interesting.

harry: But your points get at something larger, Micah. The political impact this has will depend on how people view the issue.

micah: OK, let’s move to hypothesis No. 2.

Trump is dividing the country.

I’ve seen this idea in a lot of coverage — that Trump is widening divides in the U.S.

harry: Well, the SurveyUSA poll we already cited suggests that people think he is. In that survey, 70 percent think Trump is making the situation regarding the NFL worse. A national poll conducted about a week ago by The Washington Post and ABC News found roughly the same thing more generally:

clare.malone: We were already divided on this issue, and Trump is intentionally fanning the flames of a cultural/political issue. He’s certainly doing nothing to try to interpret or empathize with Kaepernick or anyone who thinks police violence against minorities is a big problem. In fact, he’s trying to paint these protests as mindless anti-Americanism, when in fact they’re trying to draw attention to a specific issue. It’s not an act of kneeling out of petulance — it’s to point out that the American system has an original sin.

natesilver: I mean … who’s going to deny that Trump is widening the divides? And also taking advantage of wide divides that were already there? A more interesting question is whether that trend will reverse itself at some point during (or shortly after) his tenure in office.

micah: Wait a sec.

perry: We already know America is divided along urban-rural/white-nonwhite/ Democrat-Republican lines. But Trump is introducing that divide into new issues. It’s just hard to see the Confederate monument debate playing out the way it is in the Virginia governor’s race, for example, if Hillary Clinton/Marco Rubio/Jeb Bush is president.

micah: Do we have any data showing divides getting wider?

I just think … this seems obviously true, but what’s the evidence for it?

clare.malone: I guess the counterargument is that now people are annoyed at Trump for being so insensitive, and they might become more sympathetic to the kneeling protest out of irritation with the president.

But I have no polling to cite on that.


perry: I would be looking for new issues that are polarized — not necessarily existing divides getting wider.

micah: That’s interesting.

clare.malone: What will Trump tackle next???

natesilver: People have half-jokingly suggested that Trump is about the only thing that could make the NFL sympathetic. Keep in mind that he’s a very unpopular guy. And also that any president’s attention to an issue often has the opposite effect of what they intend.

There’s a lot of research describing the public’s “thermostatic” response to issues. Basically, public opinion usually moves in the opposite of whatever the president represents.

micah: That’s crazy! Even popular presidents?

natesilver: Since Trump is not a popular president, I guess we don’t need to worry about that! But, yeah, it’s a pretty strong trend, even for relatively popular presidents.

harry: Well, let me say this: We just had the Confederate flag debate. PRRI asked whether people thought the flag was a symbol of Southern pride or racism in late 2016. Then YouGov asked the same question this year after Trump’s Charlottesville comments. The results by party look pretty darn similar to me.

micah: Interesting!

harry: I mean, obviously Trump polarized views on Russia and Putin.

micah: Trade also:

OK, so let’s take the flip side of this:

Trump is a product of divides in the country that already existed.

natesilver: Well, partisan polarization has been increasing for the last ~30 years.

And his being elected was partly a product of that. He was able to do about as well as anyone else among Republican voters, despite being an “unusual” candidate and deviating from the party’s traditional platform in many respects.

micah: Side note: Sessions is a bit off message:

natesilver: One can also argue that the Trump vs. Clinton divide represented a truer divide than the Obama vs. Romney one, if that makes sense. What really divides people is culture — and class and race — and not your opinion on what someone’s marginal tax rate should be.

perry: For example:

clare.malone: Well, I think we should take a look at one of the issues that Kaepernick started protesting about in the first place: police violence against black people in the U.S. A poll from this past summer found that 57 percent of people have a negative opinion of the Black Lives Matter movement. (That includes 65 percent of whites and just 17 percent of black Americans.) It’s obviously one of the most high-profile issues in America, and a lot of Trump’s “law and order” rhetoric during the campaign was implicitly about reactions to the BLM movement.

perry: Yeah, we had this idea that the Republican Party was organized around low taxes and small government. Trump taught us that it was not. (As Clare has written.) His emphasis on identity and cultural issues, like anti-Muslim sentiments, helped him win. But I don’t think he created those feelings. He just made that one of the central fight in politics, waged from the Oval Office.

harry: The Pew Research Center has found more positive views among Americans on Black Lives Matter, but the same political and racial divisions are there.

perry: And I think we should emphasize, as Clare is noting, that racial issues are much more in people’s faces in 2017 than in 2009, because of Black Lives Matter.

micah: But that started before Trump, right?

harry: Yeah, and we were seeing divides between party and race on Black Lives Matter even back in 2015.

perry: The main voices on racial inequality are not “everyone come together”-style people like Obama, but writers and activists who use phrases like white supremacy and, yes, protest during the national anthem.

clare.malone: Michael Brown died in 2014, but the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 got people talking in a big way about implicit bias in America when it comes to perceptions of who’s violent, who’s a criminal.

micah: Yeah, I mean, to be clear: We’re talking mostly about white people here, obviously.

(In terms of this issue being more prominent for them recently.)

clare.malone: You mean they’re hearing about it more than they used to? I.e., it’s bursting through bubbles? I think that’s right.

perry: There is a surge, even among black Americans, in seeing race relations as a big issue in America.

micah: That’s interesting. I guess that’s a little different from “awareness” … but yeah.

OK, so to wrap up here, let’s go back to something Nate brought up earlier that ties into all of this: What happens after Trump? Will Trump have a lasting effect on these divides?

perry: I tend to think that the decline in the number of people who are white and Christian and how our culture is changing is going to create incentives for other Republicans to campaign and govern as the champions of “how America used to be.”

micah: See Moore, Roy.

perry: So these divides will continue to exist, and there will be incentives to exploit them in the future. And as the Democratic Party loses more white men and becomes increasingly representative of women and non-whites, that will create incentives on the left to tap into this divide as well.

micah: To that point, here are a pair of charts from Clare’s big pieces on changes in the Democratic and Republican parties:

So we’re only going to get more divided?!? 😦

perry: I’m not sure more, but I don’t really see the case for less.

natesilver: We might get more divided in the medium term, and then there will be some sort of a reversal in the long term.

clare.malone: I don’t want to be too crude about this, but the views of older Americans, baby boomer-age Americans, are much more set on these issues. Younger people in both parties tend to be a bit more liberal on these social issues. I do think that some of these views die out, literally, over the next 20 years. They may be replaced by other biases, etc., but isn’t there some reason to think that America would make slow progress on race relations? Maybe that’s naive.

harry: Maybe Democrats nominate a white male nominee in 2020 who quells some worries among those in the white, culturally conservative parts of this country?

natesilver: The Democratic Party seems fairly likely to nominate someone in 2020 who’s both pretty leftish/progressive on economic issues and quite happy to fight the culture war. The role for a moderate, “healer” type of candidate in either party might need to wait until 2024 or 2028.

harry: What if they nominate Joe Biden?

perry: Yeah, any white male Democrat will have to be very left on cultural issues. Maybe Biden not as much, because he is so well-known.

natesilver: He’d be something of an exception. But it’s also not clear he’s running — or that he’d be especially likely to win.

I guess it’s interesting to think about whether the “healer” pitch will have more of a constituency in three years than it does now, because right now, Democrats want to war with Trump, and that’s usually what you do when the president has a 39 percent approval rating.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.