In last week’s podcast episode “5 Lies About the World We Live In” I shared the story about my daughter asking why people attended the violent gladiator games and chariot races during the age of the Roman Empire. The circus was a place where violent competitions and exhibitions savagely distracted Roman subjects from their place in an empire built on inequality and oppression.
Today, in an era when we are fighting the longest war in US history, coexisting with economic inequality that far surpasses that from the days of Rome, and juggling countless societal anxieties from terrorism to mass shootings, the same effects take shape through our popular pastimes.
I am not the first to note this. This article from the New York Post reports how sports became our national escape in the days and weeks after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Barry Bonds battled for the single season home run record. Michael Jordan hinted at another comeback. “Players from baseball to hockey now wore American flags on their jerseys. There were moments of silence for the victims. 9/11 was still fresh in everyone’s mind.”
This image of President Bush throwing the first pitch at Yankee Stadium after 9/11 was something that sent chills down the backs of most Americans at the time.
Then the Patriots won the Super Bowl for the first of their streak of championships that have continued to this day. There was something special about the “Patriots” winning the biggest game in the world after 9/11.
The events of 9/11 are only one unique moment in the history of America that so vividly demonstrates the effects of sports on our society. For better or for worse, sports have been a place where Americans could escape their realities, their frustrations, and even injustices.
This is why the current feud between Donald Trump and the NFL is so bizarre. The President has willfully politicized America’s sports arenas. The place where Americans go to escape their stress and even the frustration of politics has been invaded. As a result, people’s views of the NFL have become as divided as their views of Washington.
I am not making this observation to defend either side of what I perceive as a stupid argument. Beyond the idiocy of standing or kneeling for the anthem or the leader of the free world calling out athletes from his bully pulpit, there is a greater understanding we can gain here. This feud is showing us something all too clearly about our President and the times we live in.
When President Trump said, “I think there is blame on both sides,” after the protests, violence and murder in Charlottesville, many tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he was deliberately avoiding the all too familiar vortex of the mainstream media’s knee jerk reactions.
When he insulted the people of Puerto Rico and virtually ignored the Virgin Islands after the devastating hurricanes there – maybe it was just being underreported. Perhaps the tossing of paper towels at the crowd in Puerto Rico was just a bad photo op.
When he spoke before the 2017 Boy Scout Jamboree like it was some kind of political rally rather than a moment to inspire the crowd of young boys with hope and exhort them toward moral character – maybe he didn’t realize how he was coming across.
We can, and sometimes have been forced, to give the benefit of the doubt on an almost weekly basis to our President. The feud with the NFL reveals how the benefit of the doubt is not necessary. This is calculated action. It is deliberate. The failures of President Trump in the public eye are the new normal. These are moments where easy political gains can be collected but instead are utilized to fuel divisiveness and anger.
I am not suggesting that the President is wrong for behaving in this manner. This is why he was elected. A fed up and angry electorate turned to Donald Trump as the man to be their voice and by now it should be very clear – he is that voice! This is the purpose he serves in this hour of America’s history.
He is taking a blowtorch to the areas of our culture and society that were once free of the anger and division which dominated the political arena. The president’s former chief strategist has stated specifically, “I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the democrats.” The conflict, the rage, the anger, the missteps, they are made for a purpose. They are the keys to Trump continuing to win.
That purpose may serve President Trump in the short term. He may be able to ride the wave of national anger and frustration to heights most pundits have so far not imagined possible.
The long term is another matter all together. In the midst of the rage and anger and personal opinions being shouted at increasingly higher rates of volume and frequency American society is changing. The frustration has always been there, as has the division. Previously they existed in various pockets of our culture however and there were other places we could go to escape. Today there are barely any escape routes left.
Whether he knows it or not, President Donald Trump is all too easily sliding into his place in world and national history. He is the man who is burning down the house. He is not acting alone. An angry and disenfranchised electorate stands behind him, loyally cheering him on. He also did not start the fire. The rage and anger we are seeing engulf our culture and society today did not take shape overnight. These emotions have been boiling up for some time.
When we observe irrational and unreasonable responses and reactions in the President’s next Tweet-storm, next press conference, next public outing (and make no mistake we will observe more); we can rest assured this is the purpose of this President. He did not come to bring peace and unity. His ends are all together separate from that high calling.