In his 1961 farewell address to the nation, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of the possibility of a “military-industrial complex.” This complex, he suggested, would have a vested interest in conflict — an interest that could “endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”
Today, it’s not the military-industrial complex we have to fear threatening our republic. It’s the culture-war political-entertainment complex. The culture-war political-entertainment complex marries the power of those who gain from the culture war in political terms with those who gain from it in the ratings; both the politicians who engage in cultural battles and the media who pump those battles for increased revenue have a stake in the continued fracturing of the republic.
This week’s example comes courtesy of the NFL, President Trump, and the mass media. The saga began three years ago, when several NFL players decided to protest the justified shooting of black Ferguson teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson; St. Louis Rams players emerged from the tunnel in the infamous “hands up, don’t shoot” pose. The NFL didn’t penalize them. The NFL did warn Dallas Cowboys players, however, not to put police decals on their helmets two years later after a mass shooting of officers in the city. That same year, flailing San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick donned socks festooned with cartoon pigs in police outfits and began kneeling for the national anthem, proclaiming himself a martyr for civil rights. Sports networks such as ESPN ate up the narrative — they praised Kaepernick to the skies, pushing the notion that he was acting with a sort of bravery all too rare in the world of sports. Politicians including President Obama paid homage to Kaepernick, believing that they could pander to minorities who felt sympathy for Kaepernick’s routine.
Meanwhile, many Americans, frustrated at the worshipful treatment of those who would protest one of the few unifying symbols in American life, tuned out the NFL and ESPN; polls showed that for those who tuned out, the top reason cited was the national-anthem protests.
This week, this simmering tension broke out into the open when President Trump sounded off on the topic. Trump didn’t just condemn the national-anthem protests. He suggested that the NFL should adopt rules barring sideline protests by players during the anthem and called on owners to fire any “son of a bitch” who “disrespects our flag.” This is more or less unprecedented stuff for a president: It’s the purview of private business to determine what sort of behavior they wish to accept from their employees in terms of political protest. The president’s intervening smacks of governmental overreach. Imagine the conservative response, for example, if President Obama had suggested that Tim Tebow be fired for kneeling in prayer before games.
But putting aside the principle, this was obviously smart politics for Trump: Kaepernick’s national anthem protest is wildly unpopular by polls. And Trump figured, correctly, that the Left would rush to the defense of those protesting the anthem. The Left, convinced its own base would cheer such a defense, immediately engaged in the stupidest of all possible tactics: encouraging everyone to kneel for the anthem. This, of course, led to precisely the war Trump wanted: Everyone against him is also against the flag and the anthem; everyone for the flag and the anthem is also for him.