President Donald Trump could care less about LeBron James’s new I Promise public school. He could care even less about James’ IQ.
What he does care about is James’ name, image and willingness to take shots at him. The name first. James is the most recognizable professional athlete in the country. That makes him the perfect foil for Trump to continue to wage his phony patriotic culture war against professional football and basketball players.
The NFL is a league of mostly premier black players, many of whom dared to take a knee and speak out against police abuse and racial injustice. Trump has tried to force league owners to crack the whip against them.
The NBA is a league of mostly premier black players, many of whom have slammed Trump. The players on its flagship team, the Golden State Warriors, have repeatedly made it clear they won’t go to the White House after their championship wins and made it clear why: Trump.
Every time Trump has railed against both leagues and its players, James has loomed large in his perverse political calculation. His support of the athletes right to speak out and protest make him an irresistible inviting and identifiable target.
James is also easy pickings for Trump because he knows simply by taking a shot at James it will do what he has turned into a fine art; namely deflect and distract.
It will do something else and that’s guarantee that his digs at James will shoot to the top of the day’s news cycle. Trump couldn’t get that kind of guaranteed media attention attacking any other athlete other than James.
The biggest dividend Trump gets in beating up on James is that it stirs his base. A lot of them don’t like James. He’s a wealthy, famous, thoughtful and at times politically engaged black athlete. He’s the kind of athlete who has always been a prime target for hate and ridicule from many unreconstructed bigots going back to Jackie Robinson.
That alone, though, wouldn’t be enough for Trump to hammer James every chance he gets if there wasn’t a political payoff also in going on the attack. The payoff is the crucial mid-term elections.
While his latest tweet against James grabbed the headline, what got scant notice at the same time, was yet another released poll that showed that Trump’s popularity had inched up again to its highest level yet. His attack on James had nothing to do with it.
However, the attack was part of the overall pattern of school-yard name calling and vilifying of everyone Trump deems worthy of contempt. That is the kind of stuff that his base expects and revels in. It does nothing to bring down his approval numbers among them.
But the numbers that mean the most to him are Republican voters, the overwhelming majority of whom back him now more fervently than ever. These are the voters that the Republican Party will need Trump to rev up in the key swing districts in 2018.
They will look to him to do just that. This is the voter loyalty that buys a lot of support from the GOP establishment even as they flail him or shake their head in disgust at his antics.
He is more than the titular head of the GOP. He is the point man for GOP policy and issues and, in a perverse way, the spur to get action on their agenda.
Trump’s perennial ace in the hole: the media as usual played a key role in making the Trump-James spat the topic of the day for a day. One didn’t have to look far too see why.
Trump is a ratings cash cow for the networks and makes stunning copy for the print media. He knew that from day one of his presidential bid and he knows it even more now. A silly, inane tweet from him at any hour of the day will be played up, debated, criticized and praised. It makes no difference which.
The only thing that matters is that it is headline news. When he targeted James in his tweet, who is headline news himself, Trump got exactly what he wanted.
The public and networks take the bait every time and fuel Trump’s manufactured controversy. When several NBA players, Michael Jordan and Melania Trump weighed in to defend James this insured even more controversy to Trump and the media’s delight.
James for his part, and to his credit, was having none of this and declined to trade tweet for tweet insults with Trump. But that won’t end the matter.
With a Trump base that needs to be continually fed with insults, and a media that continually needs to be fed controversy, Trump will always aim to please both. Make no mistake he’s not finished with James.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of the forthcoming “Why Black Lives Do Matter” (Middle Passage Press). He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.