Donald Trump’s mind has been furnished over the years mainly by the media, but perhaps not enough, for two iconic movies could have alerted him to the downside—and the solution—to the problem he triggered over protests in the NFL. If he hadn’t seen the connections earlier, they should have been brought home to him when Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, locked arms with his players before the game.
That this was one of those “happenings” on the way to happen should have been evident much earlier, and it should have recalled a classic scene in Billy Wilder’s movie, Stalag 17. The story was about Americans huddled together in a German prisoner of war camp in the Second World War. All of the prisoners are brought out into the courtyard, to be lectured by the Commandant, played by the never cuddly Otto Preminger. One American, evidently stressed by his experience in battle, was given to playing an ocarina, with no discernible tune. He played it now, and one of his friends, standing near, had the presence of mind to take it away from him. But as the Commandant bore on, sneering, the soldier took the ocarina and hurled it toward him.
It landed in a puddle and splashed the gleaming boots of the Commandant. He demanded instantly to see the one who was responsible for this outrage. After a brief moment, the soldier who threw the ocarina stepped forward to take the responsibility on himself. But then a friend, standing near, stepped forward. Then another. And yet another, until all of the rows and columns of prisoners stepped forward.
It was a moment of “solidarity,” to pick up the term used in the NFL, though with this difference: The prisoners were quite clear on the innocence of the original act, and the wrongness of the punishment that was coming, and there was no doubt of the point they were making in holding together. In contrast, the management of the Denver Broncos announced this week that “we’re a team and we stand together”—but toward what purpose? Were they insisting on the rightness of refusing to stand for the national anthem and its soaring endorsement of the political regime that it celebrates? The Broncos professed their concern that “inequalities still exist, and we have work to do in ALL forms of social justice. We can all do better. It starts with us.” But if it really starts with them, they can do something practical right now.
The players, along with the upper echelons of their management, have annual salaries that exceed what most of their fans will earn in a lifetime. Has it occurred to them that they might tithe, or perhaps even give 50 percent back to charities such as the Salvation Army, which minister widely to the poor with little overhead. Or what about even returning themselves to the policies of the 1950s when people earning what they do would have been taxed at 90 percent? We needn’t wait, after all, for the team to act: Each player has it within his own means to do something right now that would diminish some serious disparities in income.
The gambit over the NFL has evidently worked for Mr. Trump, and yet how could it really be good for him and the country if more and more respectable people—including some of his own supporters—are willing to lend themselves to a building pattern of acting out contempt for him?
It is not Mr. Trump’s style to be disarming, but the gesture to dissolve the problem could be found in a classic movie that he surely knows, and knows well. In Casablanca, in a scene not long after the occupation of France, a band of German officers, fed with confidence, are whooping it up in “Rick’s” café. They are singing their favorite, homey tunes, in a café filled with expatriates, who would rather be somewhere else in the world. The sounds of the singing and bravado make their way to the rooms above, where Victor Lazlo, played by Paul Henreid, is trying to cajole Rick (Humphrey Bogart) into yielding up two letters of transit to Lisbon. Enraged by the puffery of the Germans, Paul Henreid walks forcefully downstairs and instructs house musicians to play the Marseillaise. With an approving look from their employer, the trumpets take the lead. Soon, all of the patrons are on their feet, joining him in this rousing anthem.
Well, if some players now will put a knee down at the Star-Spangled Banner, it would be quite easy to have the same singer, after delivering the anthem, follow it instantly with “God Bless America.” That song has been played widely at baseball games in the seventh inning since 911, but if America has a civil religion, “God Bless America” comes closer than any other song in stirring a religious and nearly-religious sentiment, bound up with the love and appreciation of the country. I doubt that any player would wish to look churlish by taking a knee or showing even the slightest tremor of disrespect while the fans in the stadium join in singing those words, far more often than they join in singing the national anthem. And if a protest is signaled in advance of the anthem, it could be easily foiled or preempted by making a quiet shift for the moment and ordering up “God Bless America” instead.
Mr. Trump finds his passion in unsettling things, but the deeper art is to surprise with a disarming move that quickly settles things down, while teaching a better lesson.