When presidents speak, their words are rarely heard in a vacuum.
So it's not surprising President Donald Trump's criticism of National Football League players for their protest kneeling during the national anthem has sparked further demonstrations.
The president is a stick poker. As much as we sometimes wish he wasn't, that's who he is, and he's not likely to stop.
Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, also was a stick poker. But his statements fit into the narrative the media was selling and so weren't portrayed as anything outlandish.
Witness: "They (people in small towns) cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them ... as a way to explain their frustrations."
Witness: "If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."
Witness: "If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor."
With every similar statement, Obama's party lost a few voters from the masses that gave his Democrats the presidency and a veto-proof Congress in 2008. By 2010, it had lost the House. In 2014, it lost the Senate. And in 2016, it lost the presidency.
Whether Trump will suffer the same fate remains to be seen. But clearly he's speaking a language that resonates with many Americans who are patriotic, who believe the national anthem protests demean those who fought and died for the country, and who find it hard to relate to millionaires protesting purported wrongs.
When he says the protests are "very disrespectful to our country," "[have] to do with respect for our country," and "when you get on your knee ... you don't respect the American flag or the anthem," millions agree with him. They're glad to see someone stand up for the country in a way they believe Obama did not for the past eight years.
But let's be clear about one thing. In America, the players have a right to protest. That doesn't go over well in totalitarian countries. There, such actions might spur arrests and jailing. Here, they earn more media love and praise from the left. But they have the privilege.
NFL viewers have a similar right to protest, too, and some say they'll do so by refusing to buy tickets — the average price for one is $172 this year — and by turning the channel. Last Thursday night's game between the Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco 49ers, for instance, was played in a half-empty stadium. And league television ratings are down between 3 and 28 percent.
Time will tell if that will carry over to a full season. By week 17, that Pittsburgh Steelers-New England Patriots game still might look pretty interesting to fans.
As for Trump, he's both right and wrong when he says NFL players who refuse to stand for the national anthem are showing a "total disrespect of our heritage." What the players are doing is a sign of disrespect, and it's what they intend it to be. But — fortunately — our heritage allows the free expression of such protest. We're glad it does.
Where we believe the president went a step too far — though it's in keeping with his stick poking — is his comments to an audience in Huntsville, Ala., Friday.
"Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you'd say, "Get that son of a ——- off the field right now," he said. "Out! He's fired."
The anger and the sentiment are no different than Joe Fan might have expressed. But Trump didn't need to step into the owners' private business with his remarks and use profane language to boot.
We've said before we like the president making his case on the issues directly to the people, as he did in Huntsville. The national media has established it has no plans to give him a fair shake, so his use of the presidential pulpit is warranted. We wish it had the desired effect of convincing Congress that Americans want health care reform, tax reform and a well-prepared, well-armed military.
Trump touched on all of those issues in Alabama, where he campaigned for Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed to the seat formerly held by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. But by Monday, after 200 players displayed some sign of protest at NFL games Sunday (only six had done so the previous week), his remarks about the players were all that remained. All the national media was talking about. All that people will remember about the speech.
Ten months after he was elected, the stick poker can still get a rise out of a crowd and stir people into action (for and against him). We'd prefer, though, he also employ his stick more privately and judiciously with Congress in order to accomplish some of the things he promised the American people.