Opinion

Trump's Saddam-style Bluster Scares the World as His Racial Taunts Divide America

From North Korea to the NBA and NFL, Trump believes that insults and intimidation can beat any adversary

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during rally for Alabama state Republican Senator Luther Strange at the Von Braun Civic Center September 22, 2017 in Huntsville, Alabama.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP

Over the past few days, Donald Trump has terrified most of the world with what sounded like an apocalyptic threat to "totally destroy" North Korea and with what seemed like a pledge to unilaterally renege on the nuclear deal with Iran. At the same time, Trump sparked a bitter public spat with the National Football League and with superstars of the National Basketball Association, sprinkling gunpowder a on the ever-burning fire of tensions between black and white. In two days, Trump can create more scandals than most leaders experience in their lifetimes.

The explanations for Trump's behavior are all taken from the realms of emotional disabilities, racist tendencies and cynical manipulations, but at least the childish insults he's hurled at Kim Jong Un have a comprehensible context. The North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programs are quickly approaching a point of no return when Pyongyang will be able to threaten Los Angeles with annihilation. This is an almost existential threat that any U.S. president would have to deal with forcefully. By coincidence, the current holder of the office seems to believe that bluster and chest-thumping worthy of Saddam Hussein along with high-school level insults and taunts are enough to beat any enemy, anytime, anywhere. Others, including most experts, fear that Trump's big mouth could close escape hatches and thus increase the chances for catastrophe.

There are also explanations for the world war that Trump started with NBA players following Golden State star Stephen Curry's statement that he would decline an invitation to the White House, but they're mostly contrived. And there are various analyses of why Trump chose to launch an unprovoked attack on African-American players who take a knee in protest during the playing of the U.S. national anthem at NFL games, but these only make things worse. Either Trump is incapable of taking any insult whatsoever, whether it involves basketball etiquette or the fate of humanity; or that he can't stand not being in the headlines for more than an hour or two; or that he is firing up his base by whatever means possible, no matter what people say; or that he is simply a 100% Grade A racist who is going to little trouble to mask his true sentiments. Or all of the above.

The main spark of the newest storm was the belligerent tone that Trump used in a campaign rally in Huntsville, Alabama, in advance of this week's Republican primary in the state. Trying to stir up his white and southern crowd, Trump decided to tackle the "take the knee" protest first launched last year by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled during the playing of the national anthem to protest what he described as the oppression of blacks. Trump didn't name Kaepernick but nonetheless referred to him a "son of a bitch" who should be fired by his NFL bosses.

A few other players had copied Kaepernick's protest but there was no immediate reason for Trump's assault, other than to fan the flames of hatred and division. If this was election time, Israelis could say Trump was emulating Benjamin Netanyahu's famous election-day tirade against Arabs coming to the ballots in hordes, but there are no elections on the horizon. If this were Alabama 50 years earlier, others might suggest Trump had forgotten his white sheet and burning torch at home.

Together with his petulant overreaction to Curry's refusal to visit his White House, it was the tone of Trump's attacks on NFL protestors, more than the content, that sparked the new furor. This is not the way Trump reacted to white sports figures that had also distanced themselves from and certainly not the equivocating tone he'd used in describing neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville, who he said included some fine people. The king of NBA stars LeBron James upped the ante by calling Trump a bum. Football players who disapproved of Kaepernick's demonstration copied it in London and in stadiums across the U.S. on Sunday; and NFL club owners, hitherto a Trump stronghold and cheering squad, were forced to dissociate themselves from him in public. If Trump gets similar results from North Korea, Kim Jong Un will soon conquer America.

Like Israel's combative Culture Minister Miri Regev, but on steroids, Trump chose to cast "TaketheKnee" as improper, traitorous, disrespectful of country and flag. He ignored the fact that the protest was peaceful and constitutionally protected or that the NFL had actually ejected Kaepernick from its midst. On the surface the debate centered on freedom of speech, the right to protest and even the future of the NFL, but the racist subtext was clear as day. Trump's white supporters, many of whom love football but loathe uppity African-American stars, will probably support Trump's just war against sons of bitches who don't give the red, white and blue the respect it deserves. Trump's critics and opponents, especially African-American players and their fans, hear echoes in his voice of dark days in the past when privileged whites felt free to heap their scorn and insensitivity on blacks, whether they were free or not. If the scandal grows and emotions grow raw, professional sports, an American holy of holies as well as the premier vehicle for absorbing minorities, could be torn apart, together with a part of America itself.

Political commentators, who are willing to admire any ploy as long as it works, believe that Trump may be trying to divert attention away from areas that are more distressing for him, including the continuing GOP failure to get Obamacare repealed and the inevitable new revelations about Trump's ties to Russia. Even if these are his true motives, Trump is sowing strife and prodding dormant American demons to action at a time when he is also supposed to be leading the world into one of its most complex and dangerous confrontations in North Korea. Trump's supporters still claim there is a method to his madness, but most of the world, with the possible exception of Netanyahu, can only see the madness. And if anyone forgets for a moment that this unexpected, irrepressible and irresponsible man is president of the U.S., Trump is always there to remind them.