A tale of two Twitterstorms: The NFL, Donald Trump, and digital populism

Jules Boykoff


US President Donald Trump has made a habit of logging onto Twitter to issue tweets laced with race-baiting. In August 2018, in response to an interview that basketball superstar LeBron James did with Don Lemon on CNN, Trump tapped into a well-worn racist theme of denigrating the intelligence of African Americans, writing: “LeBron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made LeBron look smart, which isn’t easy to do. I like Mike!”1 This attack was part of a pattern, both online and offline, to which the President resorted when attempting to rally the base of the Republican Party: targeting African American athletes. As former Trump White House advisor Omarosa Manigault Newman put it on “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah, the President’s predilection to attack black athletes is “his favorite go-to thing” (Visser, 2018).

This “favorite, go-to thing” was on full display at a rally in Alabama in September 2017, where Trump infamously exclaimed: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!”’ In doing so, he set off an unprecedented outburst of dissent that swept across the National Football League (NFL), with numerous players taking knees while others linked arms, occasionally with sympathetic franchise owners in so-called “unity” protests (Powell, 2017). The President’s goading also galvanised a lively social-media response from black athletes who refused to be cowed by Trump’s vituperative attacks.

Later, in June 2018, when numerous players on the Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles stated that they had no intention to follow the custom of visiting the White House, Trump tweeted: “The Philadelphia Eagles Football Team was invited to the White House. Unfortunately, only a small number of players decided to come, and we canceled the event. Staying in the Locker Room for the playing of our National Anthem is as disrespectful to our country as kneeling. Sorry!”2 Again, Trump’s antics were met with a robustresponse on Twitter by professional athletes who disagreed with the President’s stance.

In this chapter I analyse these two Twitter outbursts, tracing each for two weeks. These cases afford rich yet targeted expressions of populist rhetoric that President Trump proffered as well as populist pronouncements from athletes responding to the heated situation. I zero in on DeMaurice Smith, the head of the NFL Players’ Union as well as 11 players: Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reid, Malcolm Jenkins, Anquan Boldin, Michael Bennett, Chris Long, Kenny Stills, Brandon Marshall, Cliff Avril, Jeremy Lane, and Doug Baldwin (see Appendix A). All are African American except for Chris Long. As Amy Bass (2002, p. 3) pointed out: “The black athlete serves as one of the most visible integrated racial subjects in modern society, seen in all facets of media, cheered by millions of fans, teamed with white counterparts, and, at least on the surface, accepted.”

These players were selected for their outspokenness on the issues informing the NFL protests that erupted onto the scene in August 2016 when Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers took a knee to make a stand against racialised police brutality and entrenched political and economic inequality; contextual detail on this is provided by David Andrews and Ben Carrington in Chapter 12 of this volume. Tweets from a few additional athletes responding to Trump’s attacks are peppered into the analysis. Twitter sits in a grey zone between public and counterpublic space, with Black Twitter an example of the latter (Sharma, 2013). It also provides discursive space for acts of digital populism: using social-media and other online media platforms to facilitate a flexible, mutable rhetorical strategy that can skate through newfound political-ideological terrain, deploying fresh form and content.

Trump’s attacks rely on an evergreen tactic in the populist playbook: creating an us-versus-them mentality (Kazin 1998; Judis 2016; Mouffe 2018). Trump positions himself as the voice of everyday people, while anyone who challenges him is an enemy of the people, a counterfeit charlatan, so-called “fake news.” Michael Kazin (1998, p. 3, 5) argued that populism is “more an impulse than an ideology” and “a persistent yet mutable style of political rhetoric.” Meanwhile, Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe (2018, p. 82) designated populism as “a political strategy.” John Judis (2016, p. 15) argues that left-wing populism includes two elements, while right-wing populism features three. Left populists pit the people against establishment elites, while right-wing populism arrives with three elements: everyday people lining up against the entitled elite that ostensibly coddles the scapegoated group of the moment. So, for Judis (2016, p. 15), “Rightwing populism is triadic. It looks upward, but also down upon an out group.”

Although some scholars trace the origins of modern-day populism to the 17th-century Diggers and Levelers (D’Eramo, 2013, pp. 5-27), most root this history in the United States (US) where the People’s Party formed in the

1890s and where a certain can-do hue permeates. For Kazin (1998, p. 2), US populism is “a grand form of rhetorical optimism; once mobilised, there is nothing ordinary Americans cannot accomplish.” Yet, in the context of the US, populism has also become precooked teleology, a catch-all bugaboo for those proffering ideas that stray from the Overton window of mainstream politics. Globally, populism has emerged as an epithet more often levelled at the left. As Marco D’Eramo (2017, p. 132) noted: “In today’s inflated currency, prevailing uses and abuses of the term have a striking asymmetry: even genuine (neo-) fascists are rarely called such, but delicately ranked as ‘populists’, while anyone to the left of (post-) social-democracy can also be enrolled as populist, and thereby tainted with totalitarianism, in yet another demonstration that, notwithstanding myriad announcements of its demise, the prospect of socialism continues to alarm rulers rather more than fascism does.” In the US, populism appears as an equal-opportunity' label, applied as a demeaning machine to both the left and right.

Recently, some on the left have moved to recuperate the positive elements of the term populism and use it as a way to mobilise progressive political action. For instance, Mouffe (2018, p. 69) wrote: “According to an agonistic model of democracy, there exists a multiplicity of agonistic public spaces where one should intervene to radicalize democracy” and fight for justice. One such domain in our modern political moment is Twitter. This chapter analyses how NFL players used Twitter during the two online fracases mentioned above. Focusing on when and how populist rhetoric comes through the President’s and players’ Twitter feeds sheds light on how populist discourse works, and how it can function on various levels - from the individual to the institutional - and how it is shot through with ideology.

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