On Monday last week, it was the Baylor Lady Bears basketball team. On Monday this week, the US army football team, followed by the golfer Tiger Woods. On Thursday, the Boston Red Sox, the baseball World Series champions.
“I love it,” said Donald Trump, with Red Sox players and officials gathered behind him in light rain. “It’s a special game, a special sport. I played on a slightly different level. It’s called ‘on high school’. A little different level, but every spring I loved it. The smell in the air, right?”
Trump seems to enjoy hosting sports champions, lavishing praise, cracking jokes, receiving shirts that bear his name and showing off the Oval Office and Lincoln bedroom. At first glance, this exercise of soft power is a rare thread of continuity with his predecessors. But Trump being Trump, it also offers a window on how he has smashed norms and politicised even the ceremonial duties of a head of state.
Two trends in particular are notable. One is that many athletes of colour have boycotted a president who declares himself a nationalist, condemns the NFL player Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee in protest against racial injustice and insists there were “very fine people on both sides” of a neo-Nazi protest in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Second, Trump’s reverence for sporting success stands in vivid contrast to his attitude to arts and culture. Unlike during the John F Kennedy or Barack Obama eras, few actors, dancers, film makers, musicians, painters or poets now visit the White House. Instead, Trump rails against Hollywood liberals and reportedly eschews books and theatre.
Thursday’s visit by the Boston Red Sox – initially announced on the White House website as the Boston Red Socks – was a case in point. Alex Cora, the team manager, announced last week he would not attend, expressing frustration with the administration’s efforts to help his native Puerto Rico recover from a devastating hurricane. Nearly a dozen players of colour also stayed away from the event.
LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Votes Matter, a civil engagement organisation, praised the decision. “I think athletes of colour that boycotted the White House were not only courageous but their actions are reflective of how disappointed we are with this administration,” she said. “We’ve got a president who has proudly identified himself as a nationalist, who has aligned himself and had people in his administration that were known white nationalists. We think he is a racist and his policies are racist. So those athletes of color sent a strong message around the overwhelming sentiment in our community.”
Republican presidents such as Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush and George W Bush, while often criticised, hosted sports personalities without anything like such dissent. Brown added: “We’ve had Republican presidents in the past that at least had some sense of decency and humanity. We’ve got a president now who has openly supported white racists. His behavior is extreme, it’s dangerous and has been anti-black, so we don’t normalise it.”
Woods, 43, became one of the youngest recipients of presidential medal of freedom, an award normally reserved for people in the twilight of distinguished careers. Critics noted he and Trump do business and play golf together. Woods, who is of African American and Thai descent, stood alongside Trump in the Rose Garden in matching blue suit, white shirt and red tie as the president spoke about Woods’ greatest triumphs on the fairways with almost as much enthusiasm as he does his election win in 2016.
Brown, a political strategist and philanthropic consultant, said she was “disappointed” that Woods had granted Trump legitimacy. “He’s been silent on some of the things that black people have been experiencing in America. I’ve not heard him vocally talk about racism. To me, if he decides to go to the president and get a medal from a racist, then that’s reflective of what his values are, which are different from mine.”
The White House sporting tradition began in earnest in 1924, when Calvin Coolidge hosted the Washington Senators baseball team. It was solidified by Ronald Reagan, who regularly hosted champions in the 1980s. There was a hiccup when the basketball player Larry Bird ducked the Boston Celtics’ White House visit in 1984, saying: “If the president wants to see me, he knows where to find me.”
But Mark Weinberg, a former Reagan aide, recalled on Thursday: “The events were not about politics; they were just meant to celebrate achievement and the differences didn’t matter. The president did not view people through a prism of whether they agreed with him; politics stopped at the locker room door.”
Reagan also hosted the first national medal of arts ceremony in 1985, with recipients including Martha Graham, Ralph Ellison and Lincoln Kirstein. It has not been held under Trump. Weinberg, author of the memoir Movie Nights with the Reagans and a former spokesperson for the National Endowment for the Arts, said: “There have been far fewer celebrations of the artists in this administration than the Reagan administration. Many in the artistic community were not on the Reagans’ side politically, but it didn’t matter.”
Obama hosted artists and athletes alike, including the cast of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton. In 2015, he bestowed the presidential medal of freedom on honorees including the film director Steven Spielberg, the Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, the violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman, the singer and actor Barbra Streisand and the former baseball player Willie Mays.
David Litt, a speechwriter who authored some of Obama’s remarks honouring cultural and sporting figures, said: “It wasn’t as important as trying to get the minimum wage raised or getting people health insurance, but it was fun. In a polarised political moment, there’s something nice about a president doing something apolitical.”
He praised players who turn down invitations from the Trump White House. “I think it’s very gutsy of people to say this is not a normal moment or a normal president. By going, people are saying it’s basically business as usual, but right now that is a luxury millions of Americans do not have.”
Litt, author of the book Thanks, Obama, said he was unsurprised by Trump’s lack of enthusiasm for the arts. “Almost all good American art has empathy as a requirement. You have to have some ability to think beyond yourself.”
Trump, Litt said, was “an entertainer but not an artist. There are plenty of narcissists in the arts but not solipsists.”
Despite the busy run of the past two weeks, and his evident admiration for players such as Woods or the NFL’s Tom Brady, Trump is trailing his predecessors in sporting celebrations. He has hosted 16 events, compared with 57 under Obama and 26 under George W Bush at the same point in their presidencies, according to a count by Mark Knoller, a CBS correspondent and keeper of White House statistics.
Furthermore, when the New England Patriots stopped by in 2017, far fewer players attended than when they won a Super Bowl under Obama. After several players on the Philadelphia Eagles and Golden State Warriors publicly declared that they would skip White House ceremonies, Trump disinvited the teams.
In another memorable break from protocol, the president has offered some winning teams fast food from restaurants such as Burger King, Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s and Wendy’s against the incongruous backdrop of the state dining room. Robert Schenkkan, an award-winning playwright, said: “I think it’s safe to say his aesthetic tastes are somewhere around his culinary tastes.”
Since Obama left office, the White House has not presented the nationalmedal of arts or the national humanities medal. Unlike presidents before him, Trump has declined to attend the annual Kennedy Center Honors in Washington. He has been eviscerated by actors such as Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep, while his vice-president, Mike Pence, was publicly rebuked by the cast of Hamilton.
Schenkkan, author of All the Way, a drama about Lyndon Johnson, and Building the Wall, a response to the current president, said: “I don’t think Trump gives much of a fuck what artists think of him and, in some ways, to be shunned by artists like this is useful for his base.”
Asked if he would accept an invitation to the current White House, the playwright said no: “The resistance to this president is so intense that I think it would be sad if artists were not part of the revolt.”
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