What exactly are the National Football League players trying to accomplish with their protest by kneeling during the National Anthem?
President Trump's assertion that standing should be mandatory rather than done sincerely has focused the controversy on the players' freedom of expression rather than the target of the protests, vaguely described as racial injustice.
Back in the heroic era of civil rights, the 1950s and 1960s, the movement for racial justice had a specific and compelling agenda: voting rights; ending segregation in schools, public accommodations and housing; and improving job opportunities so that the formerly oppressed could advance. Voting rights have been achieved and segregation in public accommodations has been ended, but schools and housing remain segregated informally and racial minorities remain underemployed. Criminal justice and police misconduct increasingly raise racial issues as well.
The players have not articulated what they want the country to do about these issues, and it is little help just to harrumph that racial justice has not yet been fully achieved. It probably never will be.
Whatever the players want, the controversy they have caused shows that they are pursuing their objective in the wrong way, alienating more people than they are gaining sympathy from. For the players have failed to learn from the heroic era of the civil rights movement, whose success resulted in large part from the movement's patriotism, its seizing the flag on behalf of the nation's founding ideals, such as "all men are created equal."
The movement's participants had no special wealth and often put themselves at great risk by confronting armed racists.
By comparison, the players look like spoiled children, rich guys parading what they purport to be their virtue while risking nothing.
This is too bad because the players might accomplish something for racial justice and improve the country if they applied their celebrity to specific legislative proposals and volunteer work to help the disadvantaged. The players' resentment is hollow and they are lucky that the president's usual thoughtless bluster has changed the subject for them.
TRUMP NEEDS TO FIGHT EVERYONE: While he was never a sympathetic character in public life, when he was President Richard Nixon once managed to admit a mistake and thereby resolved an embarrassing problem.
It happened in August 1970 when, at an impromptu press conference in Denver, Nixon remarked on what he saw as the news media's glorification of cult leader Charles Manson, then on trial with his followers for murders in California. Manson, the president said carelessly, was "guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders."
That indeed was the charge but nobody had been convicted yet. Within hours the president's remark prompted a defense motion for a mistrial.
Nixon's press secretary quickly tried to clarify things and upon returning to Washington that day the president issued a formal statement saying that he did not know whether Manson and his followers were guilty, adding that they had to be presumed innocent during trial. The mistrial motion was denied and the trial continued and resulted in convictions.
But with President Trump everything has to be a personal challenge and a fight. About his telephone call to the widow of a soldier killed in Niger the other week, Trump could not say simply that he was sorry that he had been misconstrued as callous. No, he said the people on the other end of the call were lying about him.
The next 3½ years may be long ones.
Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.