More than 130,000 Americans have died from coronavirus. Double-digit unemployment plunges the economy ever closer toward depression. All the while the police continue to kill unarmed Black people with impunity, sparking demonstrations across the country. Any one of these legacy-defining crises would consume the average American president. For Donald Trump, somehow, there is an even more pressing agenda item: wrecking the racing career of Nascar’s Bubba Wallace.
The bashing began on Monday with Trump wondering on Twitter whether Wallace – whose status as Nascar’s only top-level Black driver came into sharp relief after a noose was discovered in his team garage a little more than a week after he successfully called on his Southern-fried sport to ban the Confederate flag – had “apologized to all those great Nascar drivers & officials who came to his aid, stood by his side, & were willing to sacrifice everything for him, only to find out that the whole thing was just another HOAX?”
Later White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany defended her boss’s comments by comparing Wallace to the actor Jussie Smollett, a false equivalency that had gathered momentum among self-styled fake news watchdogs after the FBI closed its investigation by declaring the noose had been hanging in the garage stall for at least eight months. Never mind the pictures, or the word “noose” appearing three times in one paragraph of the FBI’s case-closing statement, or the fact that it was Nascar rather than Wallace who reported the noose in the first place.
Trump has never had much bandwidth for context that can’t be measured in ratings. So it figures that he’d also claim in his Bubba-bashing tweet that Nascar’s Noosegate controversy and flag ban was responsible for the sport’s “lowest ratings ever,” even as the data disproves him.
That Trump is two weeks behind this news might have been taken as an encouraging sign – of restraint or better still, focus – if the president weren’t coming off a weekend spent sowing division and dog whistling to his base in a fevered effort to bridge a double-digit gap in the polls for this November’s election. Trump’s willingness to take aim at Nascar, however, is an interesting new wrinkle in the political right’s time honored Southern Strategy. If this indeed proves to be the final act of the Trump presidency, history may well recognize this as the first subplot to come full circle and foreshadow the end.
The sport has been fundamental to maintaining a Republican White House Republican in this century, starting with George W Bush’s strategic embrace of “Nascar Dads”. When Trump ran in 2016, then-Nascar president Brian France was not only early on the scene to deliver a frothy stump speech, but he also brought along a handful of star drivers. The stunt had Nascar Corporate struggling to draw a line between their agnostic-minded politics and those of their supreme leader and beneficiary. (Imagine the NFL having to do the same for Roger Goodell…) And even after France, who would spearhead the diversity effort that would give rise to Wallace, clarified his support for Trump by calling it “a routine endorsement,” Trump rightly saw France for what he was: the very embodiment of his sport. “Nascar endorsed Trump,” the future president cracked at a subsequent campaign stop. “Can you believe that?”
When Trump went on to demonize Black NFL players who knelt during the national anthem to protest against racism and police brutality, Nascar team owners circled their wagons around the president. (But the Confederate flag, though.) Not least among those team owners was Richard Petty, a seven-time Cup series champion who celebrated his 200th career victory with Ronald Reagan and who also signed Wallace. But over the course of his partnership with Wallace, Petty has gone from saying, “anybody that don’t stand for the anthem oughta be out of the country” to green-lighting a Black Lives Matter livery and coming out of quarantine to embrace his driver on the track after that noose was found in his garage.
Besides noted White House lapdog Lindsey Graham pushing back on Trump’s broadside, and driver Tyler Reddick tweeting and then deleting a presidential rebuke, not much has changed since Wallace found himself on the other side of the president’s Twitter thumbs.
On the one hand, Wallace still enjoys support from outside of his team shop and in. (Petty team majority owner Andrew Murstein blasted Trump’s tweet as “late, misinformed and factually incorrect” in a statement to Fox Sports. CNN’s Anderson Cooper went even further on his nightly program, calling the tweet, “racist, pure and simple.”) On the other hand, Wallace still has to work in an environment that condemns the anti-Black racism represented in the Confederate flag and redolent in the president’s rhetoric even as a rival driver takes money to display a Trump campaign sign on his car.
It’s enough to make you wonder how serious Nascar is about making its sport more inclusive. Because if the sport were really serious, it would clear the field of any relationships that might muddy its unifying messaging – not least Nascar’s own relationship with Barstool Sports, a media frat house that wallows in racism, sexism and targeted harassment. If the sport genuinely cared, we’d hear less from Nascar president Steve Phelps and more from chairman and CEO Jim France – who appears content to use Phelps as a human shield to protect the France family name that was once intertwined with that of Southern Strategy forefather George Wallace.
Bubba Wallace, alas, isn’t so sheltered. And as messed up as it must be to be a Black person in a high-profile job while also stressing over possible censures from the president as you push for more diversity at the office, Wallace at least finds himself in good company. Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James and Jemele Hill are just a few of the Black sports figures who have been the target of Trump tweets and reemerged from those mentions bigger, stronger and more influential than ever. Wallace, for his part, seems to appreciate this. “All the haters are doing is elevating your voice and platform to much greater heights,” read his iOS press release on the matter. “Love should come naturally as people are TAUGHT to hate. Even when it’s HATE from the POTUS.”
Clearly, Trump was just kicking up yet another distraction from the very real existential crises he gives passing consideration to between his all-too-frequent tee times. But in the end, well, it backfired. Not only does there figure to be even more scrutiny on Nascar going forward, but also greater pressure on the sport to stay on the correct side of history and do right by a driver who once wanted nothing more than to be just another guy on the grid. Despite the president’s best efforts to “Kaepernick” his career, all Trump did instead was mark this as the moment Wallace truly arrived.
Wallace isn’t just bigger than ever now. He’s too big to fail.