In the last eight months, we’ve seen this play out time and again: President Donald Trump hijacks a legitimate issue and turns it into a culture war, and the nation is consumed.

This time it was his demand that NFL owners fire players who refuse to stand for the national anthem. But don’t fall into Trump’s trap. This is not about football players disrespecting the flag, as Trump would have you believe, nor about patriotism. It is about the right to protest, and where and when. But mostly it’s about Trump’s insidious instinct to be divisive, to resort to the theme of “us vs. them.”

Again there is the subtext of racial politics that he continues to mine, and his persistent drive to identify and then denigrate “the other,” whether it be Muslims, immigrants or judges of Mexican descent.

In this case, the other was predominantly black NFL players, whom Trump disparaged with an obscenity before a mostly white crowd in Alabama. And he basked in the applause. He deepened the racial undertones with his comment that players enjoying the “privilege” of making millions of dollars in the NFL should be fired for disrespecting the flag or country. Supporters echoed that by saying players should be “grateful” for their opportunity.

Let’s be clear: Playing in a pro sports league is not a matter of privilege or gratitude. Athletes have real skills and work hard to get where they are.

Trump’s attempt to drive a wedge between players and team owners failed when many owners locked arms with players Sunday in solidarity. Some who have supported Trump criticized him.

Lost in the uproar is the reason former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick started taking a knee during the anthem last season — to protest race-based policing and America’s continuing problem with discrimination. Instead, we’re arguing about whether Kaepernick had a right to protest in the way he chose. Many fans said Sunday that a football game is not the proper venue for such an in-your-face protest. But protest must be bold to be effective, or nothing changes. The current PBS documentary series on the Vietnam War shows protesters who were criticized harshly for burning the flag, an act the Supreme Court said is constitutional. And let’s not forget that the protesters turned out to be right — we had no business being in Vietnam, and the nation needed to hear a generation’s anger about it. Casting the current protest as being disrespectful to veterans ignores the many veterans who are minorities and who also are upset about racial injustice, whether at the hands of police or in other arenas.

Trump’s wild weekend included a distressing call for even harder hitting in the NFL, even as research shows players are suffering permanent brain damage, and many Americans are turning away from the game for that reason. Trump also continued his dangerous and unproductive war of taunts with North Korea, but had no words about the emerging humanitarian catastrophe in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

These and other issues like health care and immigration are important topics worth discussing. But the nation needs unifying leadership, not an exhausting and unproductive stream of rants that do nothing but continue to divide.

Newsday, Sept. 26.

Copyright 2017 Tribune Content Agency.

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