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Pence borrows the troops to create political theater

  • Vice President Mike Pence stands during the National Anthem at the Oct. 8 Colts-49ers game.

    Vice President Mike Pence stands during the National Anthem at the Oct. 8 Colts-49ers game.
    Twitter/Vice President Pence

By Geoffrey Ritter
updated: 10/11/2017 1:21 PM

So wait, the whole thing is about "the troops" now?

That's one conclusion we apparently are meant to draw from Vice President Mike Pence's hasty, but obviously well planned, departure from Sunday's Colts-49ers game after players predictably took a knee during the National Anthem.

Pence, now seemingly the only person in America who was surprised by this sudden happening at a 49ers game, took to Twitter with righteous indignation.

"I left today's Colts game because @POTUS and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem," Pence wrote, not mentioning whether he and his entourage dignified the event at all by purchasing tickets to it in the first place.

Pence's disingenuous stunt, thought to have cost taxpayers more than $200,000, only hardens national divisions currently on display during NFL pre-game shows. That, however, is hardly the most odious consequence of the vice president's plea for press.

No, Pence co-opted the notion of our "troops" as a cudgel in an argument the Trump administration eagerly escalated, only to realize it can't control. When former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first started taking a knee last year, he said it was to protest systemic racism and police killings of black men. The issue might have largely receded had Trump not poured gasoline on it last month.

Cue "the troops," a segment of the population politicians often thank in somber tones, only to then adopt as political props or rhetorical shortcuts. By invoking them in his tweet, Pence attempts to move the goal post, so to speak, on a conversation about race relations that his administration simply doesn't want to have -- and Trump's most earnest supporters are all too eager to follow along.

By kneeling to the flag, the thinking goes, the protesters disrespect everything America stands for -- especially the brave men and women who have fought to protect it. If it seems like the message about race relations got lost in the shuffle, that's because it did. Unwilling to discuss it honestly, Trump and Pence have retreated to their base, which they can predictably rile to heated fury simply by questioning the patriotism of others.

In doing so, they demean the men and women of the U.S. military, who are not so monolithic as conservative dogma would have you believe. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Defense, racial and ethnic minorities make up about 40 percent of the active-duty military, and women constitute about 15 percent. In last year's election, more than a third of active-duty military personnel cast votes for Hillary Clinton. Like America itself, our armed forces are a cross-section of backgrounds and opinions, at least some of which must be sympathetic to issues of perceived racial inequality. Pence, however, conversationally deploys the military to dramatically different ends. He's far from alone.

"The willingness to treat veterans as a single constituency not only does a disservice to veterans as individuals," Amy Schafer argued recently in Slate on the recent flag protests, "but it continues to isolate the military from the civilian population, even after they have finished serving." Schafer also calls out those who have accused the players taking knees for the National Anthem as committing an affront to veterans. "The efforts of those arguing on behalf of veterans that these protests are offensive, unpatriotic, and disrespectful might be better served to advocate for veterans as people rather than as symbols," Schafer concludes.

This national debate taking center stage at the NFL isn't about "the troops." Shame on Pence, Trump and others for trying to convince anyone otherwise.

These leaders will wave the flag while antagonizing a free press. They will entrench themselves in generations-old attitudes about women, minorities and homosexuals while hailing America as a land of equal opportunity. They will resist any effort to discuss the Second Amendment and the epidemic of gun violence, but they will take center stage to scorn the First Amendment rights of others at a football game.

And no one even got hurt at the football game.

We owe a debt of gratitude to those who have served, and will continue to serve, our national interests. Their sacrifice shines light on the very best of America.

And Pence, like any random football player, is entitled to his freedom of speech. If he wants to leave a game and make a scene, more power to him.

As the vice president, however, there is no excuse for his disdain at the sight of free Americans also having their say.

To praise the troops out one side of his mouth, while mocking the core freedom they supposedly defend out the other, is an infuriating hypocrisy.

And the next time Pence decides to get out his Twitter thumbs, he might be well served to actually consider why others are on their knees.

Turns out, it doesn't actually have anything to do with "the troops" at all.