November 09, 2020
It’s impossible to know if the athlete activism Trump provoked spelled his electoral defeat. But it’s difficult to ignore the thin margins in states that were central to the movement
Donald Trump wanted a fight with athletes. They may well have doomed him
Sports and politics have always existed at a very public intersection in American life, but never was the illusory firewall keeping them apart more nakedly exposed than over the past four years. Donald Trump’s political alchemy has always relied on his uncanny skill at leveraging the fault lines that divide us. It’s proven an essential tactic for someone who managed to capture the Republican presidential nomination despite failing to win a majority in the first 40 primaries and caucuses, who won the White House despite losing the popular vote by nearly three million ballots and whose overall approval ratings have never cracked a majority throughout his term.
From the earliest days of his administration Trump has found fertile ground in taking this fight to America’s last unifying arena: co-opting US sports as not merely a proxy battle in the culture wars that reflect a country’s deep divides, but the primary theatre. He’s always recognized sports as an inextricable stripe of the American experience: from owning a team in the upstart United States Football League in the early 1980s to hosting a series of major prizefights at his casino in Atlantic City before it went bankrupt, most notably the 1988 blockbuster between Mike Tyson and Michael Spinks, for which he paid a then-record $11m site fee. It’s these roots in boxing promotion, where misdirection and the manifold arts of emotional manipulation are the stock-in-trade, that served him particularly well during his stunning ascent to the White House. But it wasn’t until a rally in Alabama nine months into his presidency that he first seized on what became his favorite fountainhead of easy political points.
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