Donald Trump’s bashing of NFL players who take a knee during the national anthem seems surprising considering that he is the president of a nation who stands for free speech, but it is the logical consequence of how he thinks about the world. When someone believes in as many destructive ideas as Trump, they must use a petty moral code to distinguish those who are on their side from their enemies.
To explain why the president of the United States concerns himself with such insignificant issues as how a few athletes act during the national anthem, we have to understand how he sees the world. Firstly, let’s point out that how NFL players act during the national anthem should be none of the president’s concern:
- It’s free speech. America embodies freedom. Anybody is allowed to do whatever they want during the national anthem. In itself, none of these actions are offensive. For a politician, especially if he claims to be in favor of small government, it is unconstitutional to try and influence what people do. Trump’s attitude is reminiscent of socialist countries, where anything that could be interpreted as a critique of the government could end your career.
- Whether or not a person stands, sits, or kneels during the national anthem says nothing about their feelings towards their country. These players could have all kinds of reasons. Many of them are benign, and some are truly American in the sense of Thoreau’s civil disobedience. Even if we believe that people should respect their country, we would have to talk to each player before we condemn them. Their sideline behaviors are a small part of their lives. Would it be more respectful to their country, if these players stood during the national anthem but declined to pay taxes? Reducing the discussion to a single issue is unhelpful.
- NFL players have a relatively small following. When Olympic athletes made the black power salute in the 1960s, they were members of team USA and represented the entire nation. NFL players represent one of 32 teams, which limits their influence. Even if we believe that a person should stand during the national anthem, there is no need to worry about the behavior of a few NFL players.
These points are obvious. The interesting questions are why Donald Trump ignores them, and his supporters applaud him for it. We could take the easy way out and say that Trump is a populist, but that would fail to explain why these statements enthuse his supporters. Additionally, Trump’s speeches are mostly ramblings, not deliberately planned statements. He must have some belief that drove him to make this statement. Which?
Trump’s support is strong among right-wing voters, and they are the group who is most critical of regimes that force people to fall in line with the government line, for example North Korea, China, or Russia. Why are the same people so quick to do the same thing when a few NFL players take a knee?
Why does Trump concern himself with NFL sideline behavior?
To explain why the president of the United States concerns himself with the sideline behavior of football player, we have to analyze the structure of the idea behind Trump’s thinking.
Right-wing voters love their country – which in itself is a great thing. The problem is that some of them generalize their personal way of showing this love and expect everyone to show their love in the exact same way. This turns their benign idea destructive.
Only few ideas apply to all situations. Most ideas are right in some cases and wrong in others. For example, it’s often right to help others. But when we witness a robbery or a friend asks us for money to buy drugs, helping might not be the best move.
In our daily lives, all our actions are equipped with side constraints. We refuse to help everyone – we rather help the victim than the murderer. These side constraints are so natural to us that we forget about them. When we adapt our ideas to politics, the implied side constraint cease to exist – and we create destructive political ideas.
To better adapt our moral judgments to the political process, we need the Theory of Moral Duality. It explains the dangers and guidelines of political morality, and helps us to make better decisions.
Donald Trump and his supporters lacked this insight, which is why their belief that the NFL should fire players that kneel during the national anthem shows the three typical signs of destructive ideas. These are:
- Dividing the world into irreconcilable groups. We love America, they hate it.
- Forcing a binary argument. There is only one right way of loving America. You either love your country in the exact same way as us, or you hate it and become a part of them.
- Appealing to a higher wisdom. Loving America in the exact same way as us is the most important duty of all citizens because it is right, good, and better.
These three characteristics create an infinitely evil threat – those who hate America – and a white knight who fights this threat – Donald Trump. Since nothing could be worse than the infinitely evil threat winning, anything the white knight does in his fight against it is justified – even making a big fuzz about a few athletes taking a knee.
Once we accept an idea with a high moral quantity, it becomes important to distinguish between us and them. Unless we can precisely identify the enemy, we fear that they might sneak up on us. When the enemy is infinitely evil, we have to be infinitely safe.
Therefore, we want an early-warning system – which is difficult to establish. It is impossible to know what is going on inside another person’s head, and when we judge them by their actions, it might be too late. The only thing left is our code of morality, which is why we narrow down our list of morally acceptable actions. We only feel safe when everybody does exactly as we consider right.
When we arrive at a narrow enough definition to clearly separate the world into us and them, we brand it. We call it American values, German values, or Western values; Christian values, Muslim values, or Atheist values. We consider those who claim to subscribe to the same brand of morals as us good and those whose subscribe to different morals evil, even if those two types of morals are merely different ways of saying the same thing.
True values are independent of groups. Love, honesty, and kindness are high values in all cultures. By attributing them to a single group, we distract ourselves from this truth and intensify our fear of the infinitely evil threat. We become more willing to accept destructive actions against this threat and increase our need for a white knight. Once we believe in a high-moral-quantity idea, this process is inevitable.
What can happen next?
To understand what can happen next, consider this prediction from The Theory of Moral Duality:
Even if the goal of a destructive government is a seemingly unanimously shared dream such as maintaining peace, this approach will lead to unsolvable conflicts. The politicians in the government have their personal definition of moral behavior and, due to their self-serving biases, believe that these morals are inherently more beneficial to their goal than any others. Consequently, these politicians will promote their morals, trying to further the government’s goal by spreading the (in their minds) only right ideology that can achieve this goal. Regardless of which goal a [destructive] government is created to pursue, because of the self-serving bias, it will always try to enforce morality as its main tool to achieving this goal. (…) A destructive government will distinguish between people that it considers a threat (…) and people that it does not consider a threat by distinguishing between people who believe in the right things and people who believe in the wrong things.
The Theory of Moral Duality
The dynamic of the debate about kneeling football players is typical of ideas with a high moral quantity. Ideas with a low moral quantity avoid this reasoning and can achieve the same goals in more constructive ways.
People who charged their way of patriotism with a high moral quantity have no choice but to accept Donald Trump as their white knight. When Trump points to alleged threats, he intensifies the infinitely evil threat and therefore the need for a white knight. Regardless of how ridiculous these statements are, they intensify Trump’s support.
Unfortunately, even supporters of high-moral-quantity ideas hurt themselves because these ideas hurt everyone.
- Supporters of these ideas create resentment and resistance. After Trump’s statements, more NFL players took a knee during the national anthem, some teams boycotted the ceremony altogether, and other players locked arms to show their unity. Politics is an infinite game, and when you fight against people who have done nothing wrong, new players will emerge on their side.
- Opponents of these ideas have to deal with oppression and resentment. Often, some of them radicalize and charge their own ideas with a high moral quantity, increasing the division of society and fostering more resentment. The result is a spiral of accelerating radicalization on both sides.
Destructive ideas divide and radicalize society, but they are unable to create the intended change. Resentment will intensify for as long as the government holds on to these ideas, and the only way to escape this dangerous spiral is by abandoning them.
Sooner or later, the government has only two choices left: violently enforcing the idea or abandoning it. If it chooses the first option, innocent people will die to enforce an idea that is unenforceable – the government has become destructive. If it chooses the second option, there is no point in having the idea in the first place.
Donald Trump can only force all NFL players to stand during the anthem by putting a gun to their heads. Unfortunately, when we believe in a high-moral-quantity idea, complete obedience is the only acceptable solution, or the infinitely evil threat lives on. Even if there would be only a single NFL player kneeling, Trump would be unable to give up his quest, or he would surrender to the infinitely evil threat and stop being the white knight in the eyes of his supporters. Once Trump weighed in on the issue, there is no good way out.
The best way of dealing with destructive political ideas is never to make them political goals.
How to do it better
To create more harmonious societies, we must avoid the same mistake Donald Trump and his supporters make – generalizing the way in which we love our country.
The overwhelming majority of citizens of all countries love them; they just have different ways of showing it. Even those who have to leave their countries to find work somewhere else usually remain fond of their homes – they carry their memories and influences wherever they go.
The great advantage of democratic, open societies is that they find ways to combine the different forms of patriotism in ways where the result is bigger than the sum of its parts.
Conservative voters are important aspects of democracies. They maintain a country’s foundation. Progressives love their country by finding things to improve and change, conservatives by finding things to hold onto and cherish.Without conservatives, every new political trend would quickly turn into policies, which would endanger the system. To balance the need for change with reasonable perseverance, constructive societies need conservative voters just as they need progressives.
To create constructive societies, we must learn to love political conflicts as integral parts of democracy instead of hating the other side. Our shared belief that our own values and morals are perfect is an illusion. Nobody has a perfect plan for the world, and the only way of arriving at a sensible solution is through free speech and an open democratic discourse. The most important step towards achieving this goal is avoiding destructive political ideas.
- The reason why Donald Trump attacks NFL players and his supporters cheer him for it is that he has elevated the moral quantity of his version of patriotism.
- Destructive ideas always trick us into establishing an early-warning system against the infinitely evil threat based on a narrow moral code.
- The pettiness of a high-moral-quantity idea’s moral code creates resistance and prevents us from achieving our goals – by supporting high-moral-quantity ideas, we achieve the opposite of what we intended.