‘Should they be able to call themselves Americans?’ Trump country responds to national anthem protesters

Trump supporters from crucial counties grade the president’s response to NFL protests

When Matt Walker played baseball for the Fayetteville SwampDogs, a collegiate summer team in the Coastal Plain League, his manager offered him and his teammates a lot of advice on how to conduct themselves on the field.

Walker and his young teammates, who were trying to land a spot on a major league roster, typically played before crowds of 2,000 to 3,000 people, often in military towns. Fayetteville, in the North Carolina Sandhills, is located only 20 minutes from Fort Bragg, the largest military installation in the world. A majority of the fans, Walker said, were either in the military or related to someone who was. 

When it came to the national anthem, the manager’s instructions were simple: “Don’t slack, don’t sing or do something stupid, or we’ll have to let you go.”

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Walker thinks former San Francisco 49ers player Colin Kaepernick’s initial demonstration, in which he sat on the bench during the national anthem, had nothing to do with protesting police violence. Rather, it was about being “pissed that he lost the starting [quarterback] job.” Walker, who now lives south of Fayetteville in Robeson County, N.C., believes Kaepernick probably realized he was being disrespectful, “and that’s why he covered his rear end [by] starting the whole protest.”

Either way, Walker said, “If you can’t stand for the flag, which protects our rights, how can you demand to have a right to freedom of speech?” 

The protests of the national anthem that began last season with Kaepernick and continued this year have roiled the NFL, as difficult questions about race and patriotism have intruded into an area of life that’s usually immune from politics.

Last weekend, President Trump called on NFL team owners to fire the “sons of bitches” who protest the anthem, adding rhetorical fuel to the fire.

I asked more than a dozen Trump supporters in key counties featured in The Race To 2020 for their thoughts on the controversies surrounding the protest.

Most of Trump’s supporters said he went too far with his “sons of bitches” remark. “I think he had a bad choice of words. I would have never called them ‘SOBs,’” texted Jarrod Lowery of Robeson County. “They are American citizens who haven’t committed a crime. A lot of us see them as disrespectful millionaires, but they are still Americans. He said what most of us are thinking, but I’m disappointed in the word choice.” 

“Skip the profanity because there is no need for it. It serves no purpose,” said Jack Brandenburg a straight-talking Republican state senator who represents part of Macomb County, Mich, a county that single-handedly delivered Trump the vote differential to win the state.

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Chris and Sandy Chilson, a married couple in Howard County, Iowa, agreed that NFL owners should consider releasing protesting players but wished Trump had been more tactful in conveying that point.

I asked my respondents whether they think Trump’s response to the protests had anything to do with race, given that most of the protesting players are black. Trump has rejected that theory, as did most of my respondents. “Certain people would like for it to be about race, but it is not,” wrote Brandenburg. George Martin, who is black, also rejected the claim, saying, “It just so happens the majority of protesters are black.”

Rachel Gooder of Howard County said the controversy has nothing to do with race and everything to do with “respect for the country and the people that have died to keep us safe and free. It’s called PRIDE, and if the players don’t like it, move to Canada!”

There were a variety of views about what, if anything, should be done to the protesting players.

Nahren Anweya of Macomb County wrote that NFL team owners should heavily discipline their players, while Brandenburg said, “If I owned the team and they did not stand, their asses would be gone.”

Lee Walters of Howard County, Iowa, advised Trump to issue an executive order requiring all Americans to stand for the national anthem and banning desecration of the flag. Those who defy the order should get 50-year prison terms, he said, to be served “in the FEMA camps that are already built.”

Walters’ harshness didn’t surprise me. When I met him in July in front of his house in Cresco, Iowa, he had erected three very large pro-Trump and anti-Hillary Clinton signs. One said, “Lock the bitch up.”

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Martin offered a more refined answer. A former sailor, he said he served to defend every American’s right to peaceful protest. Although he doesn’t agree with the protests, he “signed up to die to defend the right for them to do it.”

Gayle Mazurkiewicz of Macomb County thinks the players deserve praise for are trying to do something about real injustices. But “choosing to protest during the national anthem, which represents our national unity, is a kind of injustice to the millions of men and women in our country who have nothing to do with racism, or actively oppose it in their lives; and it hurts the families who have lost a loved one for the sake of that same nation.”

My final question was about whether Trump, as president, has an obligation to unite the country. “I don’t think Jesus could unite the country, as long as the media continues in the direction it’s going,” said Alan Taylor, a Baptist pastor from Robeson County.

Phillip Stephens, also of Robeson, wrote that Trump should try to be a uniter but that he “meets stiff resistance with every attempt.” The president “could soften his tone,” he added. “But the media would have to respond in kind and they aren’t going to do that, and I think he knows it.”

Martin said Trump does have a unique responsibility to unite the country, “but he has demonized himself to the point of no return. 

Overall, my correspondents, all of whom reside in key counties that voted for President Barack Obama in 2012 and then for Trump in 2016, found the national anthem protests disrespectful, or “beyond disrespectful,” as Anweya put it.

Only a couple suggested that Trump was the antagonist. “PRESIDENT TRUMP DOES NOT UNDERSTAND OR RESPECT FREEDOM OF SPEECH,” wrote Jake Rouch of Erie County, Pa., in all caps.

A majority said that while most Americans join Trump in his opposition to the protests, he isn’t doing himself any favors by dwelling on them or using profanity to describe the protesters.

It’s time to move onto more important matters, they said, such as the North Korean threat, healthcare tax reform, and hurricane relief. These are the issues “that won the support of the common folks during the election cycle,” said Mike Gooder.

But others think the protests played perfectly into Trump’s strengths and revealed the protesters’ true character. “We got to ask the question,” said Matt Walker. “If the flag represents America, the people that don’t want to stand for that flag and respect the flag, should they be able to call themselves Americans?”

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