WASHINGTON — In abruptly canceling the Eagles' visit to the White House, President Trump on Monday reinforced his standing as an unusual leader who thrives on — if not purposely fuels — conflict.
With his decision, the most routine kind of event on a president's calendar — welcoming a championship team to the White House — became yet another cultural flashpoint.
Ever since his fiery criticism of protesting NFL players last fall, one of America's most popular diversions had become another battleground in wars that have also infected the way much of the country sees the news media, movies, late-night talk shows, and sitcoms. (See: Roseanne Barr).
"This is a divider," Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University, said in a phone interview Monday night. "He's a polarizing president and he likes to find points of contention and he likes to make them worse. Politically, he sees a logic to it."
To be sure, his decision came as more than three-quarters of the players planned to spurn his invitation and skip the event.
Still, most presidents, Zelizer noted, attempt to build their political coalitions once in office. He said Trump had chosen "a very different path." The president's long-running attacks on the NFL and players who have protested how minorities are treated by law enforcement fit in with the other grievances he has nurtured — much to the delight of his supporters, and the fury of his critics.
Their response was swift Monday.
Trump "has now ruined this American tradition," said a message from U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Philadelphia Democrat.
Even Rick Santorum, the former Republican senator from Pennsylvania who has at times stood by Trump, questioned the decision. "The president could have risen above that and made the best out of a bad situation," Santorum told CNN. "He could have been the bigger man."
In many ways, his battles spur more support from people who see Trump as fighting for them — unlike more cautious political figures.
"This is not unlike attacking 'fake news,' or it's not unlike going after Samantha Bee," Zelizer said, referring to the talk show host who last week came under fire for using a vicious slur to refer to Trump's daughter, Ivanka Trump. "It's using popular culture, and I'm including sports, as a way to build his political platform."
Trump, as he has for months, tied the protests to respect for the military
"He insists that they proudly stand for the National Anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country," said a White House statement issued in Trump's name.
The athletes who have knelt or raised their fists during the anthem have said they are not against the military, but are arguing for fair treatment for minorities, a point supporters echoed Monday.
"This is a way of putting black players in their place," Marc Lamont Hill, a professor at Temple University, said on CNN. "If you're not going to stand the way I tell you to, then you're not allowed in my White House."
As most of the Eagles players had already planned to skip the event, Trump's rebuke marked another instance of the president aggressively counterpunching, rather than trying to ease tensions.