Trump retweeted a picture of Pat Tillman, a former NFL player and decorated soldier who died in Afghanistan, to shame football players kneeling during the national anthem. His widow was not pleased.
For the past few days, Donald Trump has been making racially charged attacks NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem.
Popularized by beleaguered ex-quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the pre-game kneel has been copied by players all across the country and, despite Trump’s call for a boycott, caused NFL ratings to soar. Trump’s surrogates have been making the rounds, blasting black athletes participating in the protests as “ungrateful,” a coded dog whistle implying any success of black people is the charity of a white society entitled to their obedience.
In particular, Trump wants us to believe that kneeling during the anthem is a slap in the face to U.S. troops who have marched underneath the flag. As an example, Trump retweeted a picture of Pat Tillman, a former Cardinals player who died in Afghanistan after turning down a multimillion-dollar contract to enlist:
Let us put aside the fact that Tillman, an opponent of the Iraq War and neoconservative intervention, would likely have opposed Trump. We cannot know with certainty what he would have said about Trump or the NFL protests.
What we do know is that his widow, Marie Tillman, is outraged about Trump’s use of her husband’s memory, as she wrote in a statement to CNN’s Brian Stelter:
As a football player and soldier, Pat inspired countless Americans to unify. It is my hope that his memory should always remind people that we must come together. Pat’s service, along with that of every man and woman’s service, should never be politicized in a way that divides us. We are too great of a country for that. Those that serve fight for the American ideals of freedom, justice and democracy. They and their families know the cost of that fight. I know the very personal costs in a way I feel acutely every day.
The very action of self-expression and the freedom to speak from one’s heart — no matter those views — is what Pat and so many other Americans have given their lives for. Even if they didn’t always agree with those views. It is my sincere hope that our leaders both understand and learn from Pat’s death, and also those of so many other brave Americans.
Politicizing Tillman’s death is nothing new for Republicans. In 2004, after he was killed by friendly fire, the Bush administration spent months lying to the public and to his family that he died in combat, in order to bolster their use of his life story in propaganda.
It is important to remember that the pre-game kneel is a protest of police brutality and systemic racial oppression, and was never a comment on Trump, the flag, or the military. As one savvy commentator tweeted, “Thinking NFL players are ‘protesting the flag’ is like thinking Rosa Parks was protesting public transportation.”
Moreover, as Marie Tillman is pointing out, no soldier ever died to defend a flag or an anthem. They died to defend the freedom those symbols represent, and that freedom includes the right to protest — an action that literally founded our country.
Therein lies the deeper problem. Trump and his supporters worship a superficial America that is defined only by its symbols, and gives the president freedom to foster a cult of personality that runs contrary to the liberty and justice for which those symbols stand.
To Trump, Tillman is clearly just another such superficial symbol rather than a person — and that should offend us as Americans far more deeply than any treatment of our flag or our anthem.