Colin Kaepernick is Donald Trump's best surrogate

If this election is principally about cultural, racial, and gender divisions, then news stories likely to enhance the cultural resentments of white men should improve Donald Trump’s performance, right?

That’s my sense from the political-science research.

One study from Fairleigh Dickinson University found merely asking men to think about the idea of their wives outearning them increased their inclination to support Trump over Hillary Clinton. Other research, from political scientists at Stanford and other universities, found that stimuli that increase feelings of “racial threat” in whites — even being shown a photograph of President Barack Obama altered to darken his skin tone — increased political support for the Tea Party.

It’s also the sense I get from more impressionistic reporting on white voters.

JD Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” has become a bestseller in part because of what it has to say about the affinity of working-class whites for Trump, whom they see as a defender of a patriotic culture that is falling away. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild described to Vox this week the sense of whites in rural Louisiana that “their cultural beliefs are denigrated by the culture at large” and that Democratic politicians privilege the interests of other groups over working-class whites.

In that context, let’s talk about Colin Kaepernick.

Kaepernick’s silent protest has combined an objection to government treatment of African-Americans with an objection to beloved symbols of the United States: the national anthem and the flag.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,” he told NFL Media last month.

Kaepernick has also expressed his political sentiments in indelicate terms, including by wearing socks that depict police officers as pigs.

Trump has been caustically critical of Kaepernick for not honouring the flag, urging him to “find another country.”

Democrats have been much more circumspect.

“It didn’t really make that much sense to me,” said vice-presidential nominee Tim Kaine, “but you got to respect people’s ability to act according to their conscience. So I wouldn’t presume to tell him what to do.”

Obama offered that “as a general matter, when it comes to the flag, and the national anthem, and the meaning it holds for our men and women in uniform and those who fought for us, that is a tough thing for them to get past.”

But he offered no personal view on Kaepernick’s protest of the flag and anthem other than, “I don’t doubt his sincerity,” and, “he’s generated more conversation around some topics that need to be talked about.”

This is a departure from the way Obama has addressed pessimistic messaging about America when it has come from Trump and his allies.

“America is already great,” Obama insisted in his speech at the Democratic National Convention.

If America is already great, why shouldn’t athletes be expected — not a legal expectation, but a civic expectation — to stand and honour the flag during the national anthem?

It’s not hard to imagine why some white voters would look at Democrats’ reactions to Trump’s and Kaepernick’s indictments of America and see Democrats’ appeals to patriotism and American greatness as a strategy for telling only part of America to stop complaining.

Of course, there is a double standard here from Trump, too. He has spent weeks describing the living conditions for black Americans as nightmarish. Given his own assessment, why would he expect Kaepernick to love a country that has failed black people so badly? Trump has much less sympathy for him than for white voters who feel betrayed by their government.

But even if white voters see both parties as offering a racial double standard, why wouldn’t they break for the party whose double standard cuts in their favour?

Of course, Kaepernick is far from a surrogate for Hillary Clinton — he has been sharply critical of both Clinton and Trump.

And of course, it would be pretty silly for people to change their votes based on the political statements of a second-string NFL quarterback, and the political reaction to those statements. But if an unusually dark photograph of Obama is enough to change white voters’ sentiments, why not this?

If Democrats want to lose less badly among working-class whites than they are in this election — Trump leads by 44 points among whites without a college degree in the most recent CNN poll — they need to figure out what they have to offer this group.

I believe part of the answer, as Joan Walsh writes for The Nation this week, is policy. Obama did not win working-class whites, but he ran better than Clinton seems to be doing in part because many in the group did not trust Mitt Romney to advance their economic interests. Trump shares many (though not all) of Romney’s economic positions, including large tax cuts for the wealthy Americans, that could repel some lower-income white voters if this election were more about policy and less about culture.

But another part of the answer is finding ways to address and empathise with the cultural concerns of whites without engaging in the strategy of racist division that Trump has used.

As a start, it seems like it would not be that hard for Democrats to honour Kaepernick’s concerns about police brutality while expressing the clear view that the national anthem and the flag of a great country are good symbols worthy of broad embrace by whites and minorities.

This is an editorial. The opinions and conclusions expressed above are those of the author.

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