President Donald Trump arrived at Huntsville’s Von Braun Center one year ago Saturday to deliver a campaign speech for then-U.S. Senator Luther Strange. It was four days ahead of Strange’s runoff with GOP rival Roy Moore.
Trump began his 1 hour, 19-minute speech by telling how much he loves Alabama, at one point telling people he might move to the state after he left office. He predicted that Alabama was going to send a “fighter” in Strange to the Senate.
It was a meandering speech not uncommon of the typical Trump campaign-style events complete with crowd chants of “build the wall” and “lock her up.”
But then, approximately 40 minutes in, the president launched the first verbal grenade in a cultural war that continues to divide Americans.
“Luther and I and everyone in this arena tonight are unified by the same great American values,” Trump said. “We are proud of our country. We respect our flag.”
He added, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners when someone disrespects our flag to say ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He’s fired. He’s fired!”
Seated on the rafters about eight rows from the stage was state Rep. Jim Carns, R-Vestavia Hills.
“I don’t think anyone thought it would change any national cultural (conversation) when he said it,” said Carns, a Trump and Strange supporter. “The thing about football was just a footnote at that time. The main intent of that (rally) was to boost Luther.”
The next morning, most media headlines focused on Trump’s remarks in support for Strange, who was trailing Moore in most polling. Little attention was given to the president’s statements about the kneeling football players.
But Trump, the next day, continued his criticism of the NFL on Twitter. On Sunday, more than 200 players responded by either sitting or kneeling during the national anthem in an act of defiance toward the president’s remarks in Huntsville and on social media.
If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
Just like that, a sporting world protest erupted into a nationwide dispute.
“It sparked a fire that started with the grassroots and the grassroots stated turning off NFL football,” Carns said. “I don’t think they’ve turned it off to the point where the NFL went out of business, but it has diminished its brand.”
But while Trump supporters have embraced the Huntsville speech, some scholars are taking a more negative view of it.
“Disaster,” said Jess Brown, a retired political science professor at Athens State University.
“Very polarizing,” said Charles Ross, a professor of history and African American Studies at the University of Mississippi.
“This speech will go down in the long run with George Wallace’s ‘segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever’ speech,” said Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center where she co-directs the Presidential Oral History Program.
The Wallace speech served as a rallying cry during the Civil Rights Era for those opposed to integration.
“Someday, when we get past these divisions that Donald Trump has whipped up again, we’ll look back on a speech like this and categorize it at the bottom of demagoguery speeches of a Huey Long or a Father (Charles) Coughlin, and stirring up the divisive passions and the base instincts of people,” she said.
Perry said that the most memorable presidential and political speeches, over history, tend to be those considered eloquent and which “stir the hearts and minds of people to be better selves.”
“I think Americans know what a great speech is,” said Perry.
Brown, who called the speech a “disaster,” believes the NFL statement was an off-the-cuff moment which ended up hurting his efforts in Alabama.
Trump, after making the initial comment opposing the NFL protests, continued to criticize the league for penalizing players “if you hit too hard,” and then encouraged people to “leave the stadium” if they saw an NFL player protest the national anthem.
Vice President Mike Pence, two weeks later, did just that and left an Indianapolis Colts home football game out of disgust over the protesting NFL players.
“The Huntsville speech was bad for Luther Strange, it was bad for the president and the way it’s played out in the last year, the terminology he chose toward those players,” said Brown. “There is just no bridge-building at that point.”
He added, “Calmer heads advising the president would have chosen a better way to do business if you wanted to affect the behavior of the NFL player. If all you want to do is pander to the mob, then I guess he’s proven that he’s good at it. But that speech, it can be studied in the future as a horrible example of presidential communication and how not to do it as a political leader in a place as diverse as the United States.”
Trump supporters like Carns and Montgomery businessman Perry Hooper have an entirely different take.
Hooper, a campaign organizer during Trump’s 2016 presidential run and who attended the Von Braun Center rally, said he calls Trump’s speech “spot on” by underscoring economic growth and his vision about the country.
Said Hooper, “The point about the NFL is that the president, he could be doing a lot of other things, but he genuinely loves this country and he loves the men and women in uniform who fought to do what we do freely in this country. He felt that the NFL ballplayers should recognize and be proud to stand for the national anthem and for the flag and what it means in America and for those who died so they can be on the field of play.”
Polling shows a split between black and white Americans over the NFL national anthem protests, which first began during the 2016 preseason when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first took a knee out of protest against police brutality against blacks.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken last month shows 54 percent of voters believing that kneeling during the national anthem is “inappropriate.” But the polling shows a huge gap in how the protests are viewed racially: Among black voters, 7 in 10 call the national anthem protests “appropriate,” while just 38 percent of white voters say the same.
A study in November 2017, coordinated by the University of Texas at Dallas and involving nearly 300 undergraduate students, showed a similar divide: Nearly all of the black respondents supported kneeling during the national anthem, while only 38 percent non-black respondents did.
Alex Piquero, a professor of criminology and dean for graduate programs in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas, calls the results a “realistic yet potentially disturbing racial schism that exists in America today regarding anthem protests.”
Piquero is currently working on a follow-up study. “I don’t think the president will stop beating this drum. It’s a narrative and it won’t go anywhere as long as players keep doing it.”
It’s a narrative born in Huntsville, but GOP leaders in Madison County have given it little consideration this week.
Sam Givhan, chairman of the Madison County Republican Party, wasn’t at last year’s rally and notes that the speech isn’t often “tied to Huntsville.” Some of Trump’s 2016 Alabama delegates also did not attend the speech because, at the time, they were Moore supporters.
Moments before Trump blasted the kneeling NFL players, he did speak positively about Huntsville, and referred to the city’s legacy in “missile defense.”
It was the second time Trump had visited North Alabama to deliver a speech. His first trip was on Feb. 28, 2016, at Madison City Stadium, occurring days before Alabama’s presidential primary, which he won. That speech was known for then-Senator Jeff Sessions’ endorsement of Trump.
Brown, the retired Athens State University professor, said that Huntsville became the site for Trump’s speech because of political strategy: U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks of Huntsville won both Madison and Limestone counties during the Aug. 15, 2017, GOP primary, and GOP voters in the area were considered potential toss-ups ahead of the runoff.
Strange, the week before the president’s speech, admitted that Trump wanted to hold the rally in Mobile, home to the wildly successful August 2015 rally at Ladd-Peebles Stadium that helped catapult him as the GOP frontrunner in the 2016 presidential race.
“The issue at the time was where would Brooks’ voters go?” said Brown. “They viewed the Tennessee Valley as the biggest block of uncertain voters.
Huntsville, with a population of over 194,000 people, is considered one of Alabama’s more diverse cities fueled with a growing aerospace and research industry. It was recently labeled by the Wall Street Journal as one of three cities in the U.S. representing the future of the tech industry.
But inside the Von Braun Center, the setting was more about placing the president within a deep red state that has an electorate that helped get him into the White House, according Ross at the University of Mississippi.
Also at the time, Ross noted, Trump faced heavy criticism for not denouncing white nationalists involved in a violent confrontation with protesters during the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“In the context of coming to Alabama, it was an opportunity for him to say what he really felt,” said Ross. “The one thing he has a difficult time defending is the fact that when you look at his rhetoric or the past things he’s said, such as being slow to criticize David Duke while running for president or not being honest with the fact that Barack Obama is a citizen of the United States.”
Said Ross: “He got with an overwhelmingly white group of folks and saw it as an opportunity to say things that he was probably frustrated about and that he could let his hair down and be brutally honest. He felt like this was a real opportunity to kind of push back and not be on the defensive like he’s been with a lot of different issues on race.”
Perhaps lost in the fervor over the president’s NFL comments is that Trump was at the Von Braun Center to speak in support of Strange, who was appointed by former Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley to the U.S. Senate.
Strange, though, was fighting to be elected to the seat after Bentley resigned from office. Strange, as the state attorney general, had been over the Bentley investigation when he accepted the appointment.
After replacing Bentley, Gov. Kay Ivey called for an early special election for the seat. The way that Strange had been appointed was still fresh in voter’s minds.
Brown said the White House’s initial objective wasn’t to have Trump visit Alabama and talk about NFL players. Four days later, with the controversy of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem raging nationwide, Strange lost to Moore in the GOP runoff despite Trump’s endorsement.
“The essence and reason for his visit was to turn the Trump train in the direction of Luther Strange,” said Brown. “He didn’t stay on message underlining the reason he came here.”
Carns, the state lawmaker and Trump supporter, disagrees. He said there is little connection, in his mind, between Trump’s speech and Strange’s loss a few days later.
“I don’t think that hurt Luther,” said Carns. “Luther seemed to have a little bit of a problem in being appointed by Robert Bentley and that was something his opponent (Moore) used quite a bit against him. Robert Bentley was a governor who was at the brink of a disaster at the time.”
Richard Fording, a political science professor at the University of Alabama, said the Huntsville speech was an “important speech” because it served as a “testing ground for what would become one of Trump’s favorite rallying cries for his base.”
But he believes the speech could have played a role in helping Democrat Doug Jones pull off a historic upset less than three months later when he defeated Moore.
Jones’s victory has been linked to a surge in black voters who made up 29 percent of the Dec. 12, 2017, electorate. A full 96 percent of them backed Jones’ candidacy, including 98 percent of black women.
“Looking back, I don’t think it had much effect on the Republican primary because I think Strange was destined to lose,” said Fording. “But if it affected the eventual outcome of the race at all, I think a good case can be made that Trump’s vocal support of both Strange and Moore backfired and actually helped mobilize African Americans in Alabama to turn out to elect Doug Jones.”
Trump hasn’t held a rally in Alabama since the Huntsville speech, but Carns predicts that the president will return ahead of the 2020 presidential election. The president’s approval rating in Alabama is around 63 percent, despite his consistent attacks of Alabama’s Sessions, who served two decades in the U.S. Senate before he became U.S. Attorney General. Yet Trump sees higher approval ratings only in West Virginia and Wyoming, according to the latest Morning Consult poll.
And it’s quite possible, Carns said, Trump kicks off his campaign in the city where he originally wanted the Huntsville speech to take place – in Mobile.
“I was at a function once in which Donald Trump Jr. basically told someone at another table that when they saw the event (in 2015) in Mobile, they knew the campaign was for real,” said Carns.