One may wonder why Donald Trump is so concerned with NFL players protesting peacefully during the national anthem, when there are much more critical issues he could and perhaps should be turning his attention to. Examples include the recent wildfires in California, and the current humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico. Furthermore, why does the president’s controversial stance on this issue garner so much support domestically?

From a psychological point-of-view, one explanation comes in the form of Terror Management Theory (TMT). This theory asserts that when we are faced with reminders of death, we protect ourselves against this rather uncomfortable experience by investing in security-providing defence mechanisms. For example, by investing ourselves in things like our culture, country, or religion, it can help us deal with the unpleasantness brought about by the contemplation of death and mortality. Similarly, one may try to avoid this “existential dread”, or “angst”, by distracting themselves with an abundance of consumer goods.

So then, why does Trump seem so intent on urging NFL owners to fire any “son of a bitch” who kneels during the Star-Spangled Banner? It may have something to do with the fact that there have now been over 200 mass shootings in the US this year, most recently the mass shooting in Las Vegas that saw 58 people dead and 546 injured. By condemning NFL players for kneeling during the anthem, Trump and others are reinforcing their own sense of patriotism and national pride – powerful buffers between you and death anxiety.

Rewind to 15 years prior to September 11. Millions of Americans reacted to this reminder of their own mortality by exhibiting a wave of patriotic consumerism in the form of the mass purchase of American flags. In fact, that year Americans bought homes and cars in record quantities, perhaps in no small part due to the then president George Bush urging the country to respond to the terror threat shopping. Back to today and perhaps the recent release of the new iPhone X has been a shrewd piece of marketing by Apple. It now seems like quite a long time ago we were watching Trump on TV reciting his inane catchphrase – “Make America great again”. However, with over 300 mass shootings last year in the US, from the perspective of TMT, one can understand why it would have particular resonance with voters.

The tragic abundance in mass shootings may also help explain why almost half of Americans now support military action against North Korea. Similarly, following the aftermath of 9/11, there was an immediate increase in the support for the war in Iraq. If Trump does eventually decide to “totally destroy” with “fire and fury” North Korea, then he will not be short of the funds to give it a good go. The Senate recently passed a bill that would allegedly increase military spending to a meagre 700 billion dollars – a new record. The bill was passed with an overwhelming majority with only 8 senators voting against it.

Given the amount of money being allocated to building weapons and bombs and other killing machines, one might also assume a rather generous sum might also be allocated to something like healthcare or indeed on humanitarian aid to Puerto Rico. Well, one would assume wrong. When Bernie Sanders announced his healthcare plan last month, it fell under scrutiny given its potential cost, even though it would reportedly cost $6 trillion less than the current healthcare system in place, bringing it to $1.38 trillion per year. However, it would be unfair to acknowledge Trump’s resolve in helping American citizens in Puerto Rico. In a touching display, the Commander in Chief dedicated the Presidents Cup golf trophy to the island at the beginning of the month. Responding to criticism about his lack of empathy to the American territory, Trump took to Twitter to declare that “nobody could have done what I’ve done” for Puerto Rico “with so little appreciation.”

Given the prevalence of terror attacks, mass shootings, and ever-present tension with North Korea, it would seem that Americans are constantly experiencing reminders of death and their own mortality. So, when Colin Kaepernick decides to kneel for the national anthem, Trump and many others are primed to react with hostility, combating any perceived threat to their national identity, their patriotism, their culture no matter how small. In doing so, they are reinforcing these psychological buffers in an effort to ward off the existential dread brought about by constant intrusive reminders of death and mortality.

James Simcox – Features Writer