Commentary: Why the NFL flag flap probably isn't a losing issue for Donald Trump

If you think the NFL flag flap is a losing issue for Donald Trump, you might want to call Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee for president and say these two words: 

"Flag factory."

After the Democratic National Convention in 1988, Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor, was leading Vice President George H. W. Bush by 17 points. But then, the GOP vice president's campaign put Bush at an event at a flag factory. And Republicans also seized upon the fact that, as governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis had vetoed a bill requiring school teachers to lead their classes in the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of each school day. The idea was so popular that even in deep-blue Massachusetts, the legislature overrode his veto.

While Dukakis was arguing about constitutional nuance, Bush was standing on national TV. He looked in the camera and asked Americans, "Should public school teachers be required to lead our children in the Pledge of Allegiance? My opponent says no, but I say 'yes!'"

Bush won by seven points. It wasn't even close.

Now, fast-forward to 2017:

On Sunday, more than 150 of America's wealthiest, most elite athletes refused to stand with their fellow Americans for the playing of the national anthem. Other wealthy celebrities joined in spirit and on social media -- from Steph Curry and LeBron James to Stevie Wonder and P. Diddy. In Detroit, singer Rico Lavelle "took a knee" while actually singing the anthem. And in London, the Jaguars and Ravens refused to stand for the national anthem at their game in Wembley Stadium -- and then stood up for the UK's national anthem "God Save The Queen."

And Trump's opponents think he's losing this fight?

The problem for Colin Kaepernick and his allies is that they've chosen the disrespect-the-flag-at-the-beginning-of-a-fun-family-outing as their method of protest. And whether they intend to convey disrespect or not, it's difficult to argue that refusing to stand for the national anthem isn't disrespectful -- however legitimate the motive.  In fact, the only reason #TakeAKnee works as a protest in the first place is because it's a rejection of the idea that the nation represented by the flag is worthy of our full respect. 

If there's no disrespect intended, then it's not an act of protest. It's just a yoga position.

And most Americans don't like it. They want everyone to stand up, shut up and respect the flag because they see it as part of their civic contract.  A Reuters poll in September 2016 found that while 64 percent of Americans thought Kaepernick had a right to his #TakeAKnee protests, 61 percent said they did not agree with him, and even more -- 72 percent -- said they thought it was unpatriotic.  A Washington Post poll found that 64 percent of sports fans found such player political protests "a problem."

Long before the NFL flag flap, large majorities of Americans told pollsters they support requiring students to recite the pledge. It is no coincidence that a majority of Americans tell Pew Research that they fly the flag, or someone at home or work does, or that they've put it on their cars. To these Americans, the flag is the ultimate symbol of what's so lacking in today's discourse: Unity.

When Tom Brady and TV pundits charge that Trump's decision to call out the protesting players was "divisive," it is particularly galling to Americans who objected to the #TakeAKnee protests on the basis of their divisiveness. If athletes want to make political speeches at the ESPY awards or campaign for Hillary Clinton -- as LeBron James did -- that's fine. That's also part of the civic contract. But taking a moment that is designed specifically to unite us as Americans and turning that into an attack on America itself is, in the eyes of many, inherently divisive.

Trump supporters argue the real "dividers" are those people who are, in essence, attacking America as unworthy of their respect. Seeing people behave this way toward the flag angers  them, and Trump knows it. When he shouted "son of a bitch," many Americans thought "It's about damn time."

Was it presidential? Did it help bring us together as a country? No.

But was it smart politics to make standing up for the American flag synonymous with supporting Donald Trump?

Ask Mike Dukakis.

  • Michael Graham

    CBSN contributor Michael Graham is a conservative columnist for the Boston Herald.