Trump’s Disinvitation of the Philadelphia Eagles: An Act of Symbolic Racism

It is an American tradition that the winner of the Super Bowl is honored with a visit to the White House. But these are not normal times.

Like the petulant man-child he is, President Donald Trump cancelled the 2018 NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles’ visit to the White House.

On Twitter, Trump announced it this way:

The Philadelphia Eagles Football Team was invited to the White House. Unfortunately, only a small number of players decided to come, and we canceled the event. Staying in the Locker Room for the playing of our National Anthem is as disrespectful to our country as kneeling. Sorry!

Trump was angry that most of the Eagles team had declined the invitation because of his repeated insults towards black NFL players (and other athletes) who have chosen to take a knee during the national anthem in protest against police brutality and institutional racism. It would seem that the black and brown players of the Eagles do not like being called “sons of bitches” and being threatened with deportation if they are not suitably “patriotic” as judged by Trump. This is part of a larger pattern of behavior where Trump and his inner circle have shown disdain and rage toward black people they believe are “uppity” and “do not know their place.

But the more significant insult and threat to both the Eagles players, specifically, and American democracy, more generally, was Trump’s official statement, released on Monday.

The Philadelphia Eagles are unable to come to the White House with their full team to be celebrated tomorrow. They disagree with their President because he insists that they proudly stand for the National Anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country. The Eagles wanted to send a smaller delegation, but the 1,000 fans planning to attend the event deserve better.

The context for this fusillade is a perilous and almost unprecedented moment in the country’s history, when Trump and his lawyers have all but declared that he is an American emperor who is above the law and could even murder his political enemies with no consequences while in office.

Trump’s official statement is but the most recent among many examples of his authoritarian or proto-fascist beliefs and behavior. For example, Trump’s statement includes peculiar third-person language: “They disagree with their President because he insists that they proudly stand for the National Anthem.” This makes loyalty to Trump a prerequisite for being a “loyal” and “true” America. In practice, Trump and his supporters believe that he is the State, and as such transcends the office of the presidency and democracy itself. This is the ruling logic of monarchs, dictators and autocrats.

Fascism usually features a racial and ethnic dimension where those who are “real” citizens and of the “blood and soil” are deemed superior to some targeted Other who is marked as a type of human pollutant in the body politic, to be suppressed and eventually removed. With his nativism, racism and eliminationist rhetoric towards nonwhites, Muslims and immigrants, Donald Trump fulfills this criterion. He also signals to the division between “us” and “them” with his claim that “the 1,000 fans planning to attend the event deserve better.”

In post civil rights era America, such racial authoritarianism often takes the form of what social scientists describe as “symbolic racism.” This is a sociopolitical dynamic that deems nonwhites — especially black people — as disloyal to the country. They are seen to violate cherished cultural norms and values about “hard work,” “self-reliance,” “thrift” and “responsibility,” as well as to possess “bad culture” and other pathologies that explain social inequality across the color line.

Trump’s personal statement about the Philadelphia Eagles visit is literally a textbook example of symbolic racism as practice.

Trump is a racial authoritarian whose contract with his voters is that he will elevate white (Christian) conservatives over all others. In return, he and his inner circle will become even more fabulously rich while the commons and America’s democratic institutions and norms are destroyed. Trump’s voters have enthusiastically endorsed this transaction.

At President Barack Obama’s first inauguration, the Rev. Joseph Lowery concluded the official benediction with the following passage:

Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around — (laughter) — when yellow will be mellow — (laughter) — when the red man can get ahead, man — (laughter) — and when white will embrace what is right.

Donald Trump is wielding the bludgeoning corrective of whiteness against this more inclusive, fair and democratic version of America. The unifying theme of Trump’s presidency has been to destroy Obama’s legacy. His de facto mantra, and that of the entire Republican Party and right-wing media, seems to be, “If Obama did it, it must be wrong.” Extreme partisanship combined with racism is civic poison, and Trump’s disastrous presidency is proof of this fact.

One should never forget that the beating heart of racism is a virulent and dangerous type of hypocrisy, an existential contradiction.

On Tuesday, Donald Trump held his White House “Celebration of America” event without the players from the Philadelphia Eagles. In the midst of his puffery, menace, pomp and circumstance, Donald Trump, the would-be fascist who wallows in trite and superficial displays of patriotism like a sick person bathing in the waters at Lourdes, could not even successfully lip-sync or fake his way through a singing of “God Bless America.”

White conservatives wanted to run Obama out of town on a rail for the supposed transgression of wearing a tan suit. Trump will face no such condemnation for being unable to sing “God Bless America.” Why? Because Donald Trump will get the benefit of every possible doubt from the Republican Party, its captive media and the right-wing public. For them he is the quintessential American — a role-model whose supreme whiteness makes his patriotism, loyalty and “Americanness” exemplary and beyond reproach. Even if he conspires with foreign autocrats and their agents to steal a presidential election, and then spits on the Constitution to conceal his crimes.