Nine days ago, President Donald Trump used profanity when hypothetically referring to NFL players protesting during the national anthem. Americans objected to his childish choice of words, which of course led to his unrelenting Twitter defenses since. It’s now a predictable pattern for our forty-fifth president.
This time was a little different though. It has gone on in the midst of a natural disaster. The lackluster response to it by the federal government and the life threatening conditions for Puerto Ricans are easily the most important challenge for America at this moment.
While I wrote this column, Trump tweeted at 6:26 pm on September 30:
“Very important that NFL players STAND tomorrow, and always, for the playing of our National Anthem. Respect our Flag and our Country!”
He capitalizes terms like “National Anthem,” “Flag” and “Country” as if they are divine. They are not. But then in Twitter world, conventional rules don’t exist.
Trump terrifies me as an American. But I’m more terrified for my fellow Americans in Puerto Rico. I care about those people differently than our president does. First of all, they are people and I have empathy. That empathy does not make me special. It makes me normal. Secondly, they are fellow country men, women and children. Because of that last part, America has a duty to tend to them in their time of need.
Just like we did for Texans and Floridians.
It doesn’t matter that the U.S. territory is surrounded by water and we can’t drive trucks directly in there with food and water. We have the capacity to do extraordinary things as a nation when we choose to do so, and I believe that is what Americans would choose this time.
What we would not choose, is to have a president spend the week trying to divide us over the respectful protests engaged in by some professional athletes. We would not choose to have a president fight over the manner of the protest in more than 20 tweets, while simultaneously overlooking the reason for the protest.
Respond to the complaint Mr. President, then ask that the protesters rise from their knees. Commit to listening to their complaint, then ask them to rise from their knees. Acknowledge the validity of their complaint, like Congressman Larry Buschon did in a social media exchange with me last weekend, then ask them to rise from their knees.
Or, you could just keep trying to normalize your ridiculous manner.
The flag is a piece of cloth. The national anthem is a song. Neither symbol, and that’s all they are, will ever be more important than any of the African American citizens who have been unconstitutionally brutalized by law enforcement in recent time. Which is why the protest started last year by Colin Kaepernick is valid. People can take offense to the form of the protest all they want, but the protest is nothing compared to what is being protested. Not even close.
And of course, all of this can be set aside for a moment while our humanity should be focused on a crisis larger than this entire debate. The people of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands need us. They need our government. They need our president.
I spent a day in San Juan twelve years ago. I vividly remember touring the Castillo de San Cristobal. But the memory I left with more than anything was how typical it seemed as an American city.
It seemed like one because it is one.
Our precious flag flies there. Our national anthem is the song sung at the beginning of baseball games. Citizens rise and give both the flag and the anthem their respect accordingly. Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship on March 2, 1917. That’s right, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act almost exactly a century ago.
Mr. President, this is an easy one for you, yet you have still managed to snatch political defeat from the jaws of victory. For the first time since your inauguration, your approval rating actually went up a point or two after your response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Even though I thought you were awfully cold and selfish in your statements then, you outperformed expectations by a nudge.
Trump knows how to double down like no politician ever. So why did he stop on the third hurricane? Is it racism, or just a continuation of his obvious lack of discipline?
Either way, the U.S. citizens in the Caribbean will gladly stand for the flag the next chance they get. I just hope all of them actually get that next chance.