These three ways of looking at the protests [patriotism, free speech and race] have colored the polling. A recent CBS/YouGov poll of over 1,300 respondents asked people — regardless of whether they agreed with the protests — what NFL players were trying to do by kneeling during the national anthem. A large majority (73 percent) of respondents said the players were trying to call attention to racism, and 69 percent said players were calling attention to police violence. But 40 percent said the protests were trying to disrespect the flag, while 33 percent said the goal was to disrespect the military. [...]
When asked about racism, most Americans (58 percent) agree that racism is a problem in our society. But we are split on whether or not police violence is a problem specifically for blacks and people of color, and whether or not these incidents are a part of a broader pattern or instead simply reflective of isolated incidents. We are not, however, divided on the issue of free speech. Most Americans think that NFL players should be allowed to protest—even if they disagree. And despite Trump’s demands that they be fired, 61 percent oppose firing players for exercising their right to free speech.
Despite the many conflicting poll results, we can say a few things with confidence:
- A plurality of Americans don’t like the NFL protests — at least if they aren’t told what the players’ goals are.
- But Americans generally dislike protests involving the flag or anthem, so it’s not clear how much that might affect public opinion in this case.
- Most Americans think racism is a problem in the abstract, but people are less likely to support the Black Lives Matters movement, which aims to stop police violence against African-Americans.
- Americans are broadly supportive of the importance of free speech in general, though opinions are more muddled when people are asked about kneeling during the anthem in particular.
According to these numbers, even though this is a hot-button issue and though they don’t like the protests, most Americans seem to support the right to free speech. It is also clear that while we disagree on the existence of systemic racism, most Americans understand generally that racism is a problem. So how is Donald Trump able to take a very minority viewpoint and run with it? Not only has he exploited and created a larger issue, he has also coerced the NFL into catering to his demands. He’s also turned this into an issue of patriotism instead of the real issue: police brutality.
The NFL is now trying to double down and says that they are trying to move from “protest to progress, working to bring people together.” But the damage has been done. Trump is playing a game with all of us. Sadly, he’s winning his unnecessary, mad little culture war and our country—and all of us Americans—are the losers.