Free speech is now a firing offense? Credit: DonkeyHotey

I attended Rosh Hashanah services this year at Touro Synagogue and was very moved (again) by Rabbi Alexis Berk’s sermon. She spoke of the need to avoid being “consumed by contempt” in this especially contemptuous era of American political culture.

I left the service committed to protecting my own sense of peace and my ability to empathize with other human beings, no matter how much poison spews out of the TV and radio whenever political news is covered.

My resolve was tested a day later, when the Divider in Chief told a cheering mob of haters that any “son of a bitch” who expresses a political view he doesn’t like should be fired. “Fired!” he shouted a second time, with his trademark twisted grimace.

Lest I be accused of misrepresenting the president’s remarks, let me provide more context. He didn’t mean “any” S.O.B., at least not this time. He was referring more specifically to NFL athletes who refuse to stand for the national anthem before football games. Kneeling or sitting quietly, he insists, is a sign of disrespect for the United States, especially our military personnel, and, apparently, even police, and firefighters.

Of course the players who chose to sit or kneel for the anthem on Sept. 24 had no idea they were making some kind of statement against firefighters (or soldiers), but that’s the script that Trump — and his shrinking but intrepid band of supporters — is now pushing.

The original purpose of not standing for the anthem was to express dismay over acts of police brutality against African Americans. It was a way of reminding us that institutional racism persists a century-and-a-half after slavery was legally abolished and half a century after civil rights laws were enacted.

Whatever the original meaning of not standing for the anthem (something Trump apparently couldn’t be bothered to figure out), no president gets to dictate to any American when we can and can’t express our political views. There’s that thing called, you know, the First Amendment, the same part of the Constitution that protects the “very fine people” in the white supremacist movement that the president was so careful not to offend after the recent ugliness in Charlottesville.

The number of NFL players choosing not to stand for the anthem exploded after Trump’s comments, from a handful to over 200. It was a beautiful moment in American sports history. Millions of viewers watched hundreds of NFL players tell the Divider in Chief that freedom of speech is too cherished to flush down the toilet at the whim of an opportunistic and amoral demagogue. I never thought I’d see the day when watching an NFL game was a subversive, left-wing act, but here we are. Every chance he gets, Trump broadens the popular front against him, all in the name of nurturing the beast that is his narrow base.

Unfortunately, the heart of that beast lies right outside the city limits of New Orleans. It would be easier to laugh if New Orleans were in California, but we’re in Louisiana, home of right-wing demagogues — ex-State Rep. David Duke, anyone? — who honed the art of race-baiting and culture war that Trump has only recently mastered.

It takes guts for a Louisiana pol to take on Whodat Nation, but that’s what Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser and Attorney General Jeff Landry have done. All for Trump. Or maybe it’s not for Trump — maybe it’s to make an independent statement that anti-racist critiques of any kind will not be tolerated (a view they certainly share with Trump). The problem is that Landry’s, Nungesser’s, and Trump’s constituents feel that anti-racism is anti-white. They don’t think it, they feel it, which means no amount of reason can shake them. They love Trump because he tells him that this gut feeling — that black people are out to get them — is OK. This is the same feeling the rest of us call racism.

Landry would never miss a chance to join a hate fest against people who stand up for justice and equality, so he’s issued a statement vaguely calling for a “review” of state subsidies that go to the Saints organization.

No matter that a retaliatory review of the legislated subsidies is not within an attorney general’s purview. Neither do the limitations of the office they seek keep Republican candidates for state treasurer from similar bloviating.

It’s all just talk, anyway, but the fans of “show business for ugly people,” as some wag once dubbed politics, eat it up. What seems to matter most to these political lapdogs is the display of unremitting fealty to the Divider in Chief. Southern Republicans are falling all over themselves to get in line. Ready to laugh? They call their unswerving subservience to the most powerful man in the country, and to the billionaires he represents, “anti-establishment.”

The lieutenant governor can do a bit more than the attorney general to show his contempt for free speech. He can and will, for example, blow off the Saints game in London while he’s there ostensibly drumming up tourism business for the state. I think it’s a fine idea, as long as he promises to boycott the games in New Orleans, too. But as a New Orleanian, I’m worried about Nungesser as an ambassador of our culture. Does he really think that abject submission to Trump will be a selling point in Western Europe? Save it for the suckers back home, Billy. They’ll believe anything.

Trump’s racist appeals are a balm. They’re the anesthetic that numbs his followers — the low- and middle-income group of them, anyway — to the deprivations still to come.

Despite the overt bigotry apparent in this whole political mess, Trump has asserted (again) that his comments in Alabama had “nothing to do with race.” Gosh, and here I thought the announced purpose of the protest was to draw attention to racial inequity. Did the Divider not notice (and relish) how few white players joined their black teammates in sitting out the anthem? I was, however, pleased to note that several white Saints placed hands on the shoulders of sitting teammates, a careful, measured gesture of support.

If Trump’s successful efforts to foment bigotry truly have “nothing to do with race,” then nothing has anything to do with race. Ah, but racism persists: A recent poll revealed that a plurality of Trump supporters feel that the most persecuted race in America is, yes, white people! And the most persecuted religion in the U.S. is Islam? Nope, they believe it’s — Christianity!

What Trump is actually saying, of course, is that black people and allied anti-racists of every color, whites included, just need to shut up. They are a walking, talking, kneeling reminder that the great America Trump wants to take us back to, at least in his rhetoric, is basically Jim Crow’s America.

Trump’s supporters are more eloquent than he is, and a few have offered illuminating arguments as to why at least some Americans should be forced to stand and salute symbols that ostensibly represent freedom, on pain of losing their jobs. Many of the rank-and-file fans who have been interviewed say this kind of thing: These guys make millions of dollars; they should stand and show respect for the country that enabled them to do that.

There’s the usual hint of misdirected class rage in comments like that. Why is an NFL athlete’s ample bank account more offensive than the billions in assets claimed by the serial bankrupt they worship like a god: e.g. Trump himself? At least athletes, like successful artists, are being rewarded for talent; business “titans” like Trump got their grubstake from Daddy and by “investing” daddy’s money in scams that exploit workers and customers alike.

Oh, but the animosity is not directed at black athletes just because they’re rich, the Trumpista will hasten to tell you. It’s the ones with tattoos, who are truly offensive — worse yet, the ones who do a funky dance in the end-zone after scoring a touchdown (“excessive celebration,” as the penalty is called). These black men, in the view of Trump supporters, need to “show respect,” but to whom? The military? Are we forgetting that the percentage of African-Americans in the military is far higher than their share of the U.S. population? That’s not respect enough?

It’s not about the military, and it never was. Again, what Trump and his supporters want is for black people to stand up and show respect to him, which means showing respect for the view that white people are more persecuted than black people, that racism against African-Americans is a myth, and that even white supremacists, such as those nostalgic for the Confederacy, aren’t racist.

How can any reasonable white person expect any reasonable black person to stand, hat in hand, and publicly submit to such a view?

My guess is that the recent tumult has reached its crescendo and that many black athletes will try to find ways to ease white people back into their comfort zone, by shutting up about racism. They won’t do this because they feel that racism is not a big deal, but to try to preserve themselves and their teammates from being “consumed by contempt.” At least on many NFL teams (if not among most owners), an effort is under way to try to heal the wounds inflicted, again, by the rhetorical pollution belching from the White House.

Coach Sean Payton was admirably honest about the president’s contribution to domestic tranquility: “… It seems like every time he’s opening his mouth, it’s something that is dividing our country and not pulling us together.”

Drew Brees sounded, well, presidential, in his analysis of the issue: “Do I think that there’s inequality in this country? Yes, I do.  Do I think that there’s racism? Yes, I do…I think there’s inequality for people of color, minorities, for immigrants, but as it pertains to the national anthem, I will always feel that if you are an American, the national anthem is the opportunity for us all to stand up together, to be unified and to show respect for our country. To show respect for what it stands for, the birth of our nation.”

Governor John Bel Edwards also looked for a dignified way to thread the needle. For a man who, unlike the president, actually served in the military, that meant affirming free speech while regretting that the protest took the form of non-participation in the national anthem. Once again, grownups are left to clean up the president’s mess.

Trump’s efforts to divide us along racial lines have been consistent. The lingering question is whether his bigotry is giving life and breath to new racists or just outing and validating the racists who were always in our midst. His political reward seems pretty paltry either way: cheers from a mob in Huntsville, Alabama — followed by defeat for the Senate candidate Trump came down there to tout.

The good news is that it’s really just rhetorical fodder for a minority of Americans — Trump’s diehard base. It’s cover for what he really wants to do: a huge tax giveaway to the richest among us, with a run-up in the national debt so large that deficit hawks will then insist it’s time to slash Social Security and Medicare.

Trump’s racist appeals are a balm. They’re the anesthetic that numbs his followers — the low- and middle-income group of them, anyway — to the deprivations still to come. These voters seem immune to reason. They’ll continue to find a way to blame their problems, not on economic elites, but on black people, immigrants, liberals, and, of course “cultural elites” (whatever that’s supposed to mean).

Most of us, at every income level, will continue to believe in free speech. Like Drew Brees, we will continue  to acknowledge the persistence of inequality, and the need to fight it, while trying to respect and honor each other as fellow Americans. We also need to remember that many Trump supporters are decent people who do great things for their families, neighbors, and for our country. The tragedy is that, under the spell of Trump, they forget the better angels of their nature.

The trick is to maintain a sense of calm resolve, and empathy with other Americans, while the toxic Trump word-storm rages around us.

C.W. Cannon’s latest novel is “French Quarter Beautification Project.” 

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.