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Real patriotism, Mr. Trump, isn’t how you treat a flag. It’s how you treat Americans

Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis, Mo.-based commentator who writes about politics, the economy and media

As the United States coped with ceaseless natural disasters, North Korea announced its intent to annihilate the United States, and the Russian interference investigation ushered in more damning revelations, President Trump spoke out on what he seemingly felt was a great national crisis:

"If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem," he tweeted on Saturday. "If not, YOU'RE FIRED. Find something else to do!"

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By now, we know the routine. When Mr. Trump is flailing, he creates a battle between himself and a celebrity – a tempest in a teapot to divert attention from, say, the literal tempest that nearly swallowed Puerto Rico, and his dereliction of duty in addressing it. In the past, Mr. Trump has attacked Mika Brzezinski, Meryl Streep and others to try to change the subject from catastrophes he either created or failed to remedy.

Cathal Kelly: Trump v. Sports: A fascinating crack in America's great schism. But to what end?

Read more: As Trump takes aim at professional athletes, sports world responds

In photos: NFL players kneel or lock arms in unity during national anthem

The President's attack on Colin Kaepernick – a black football player who refuses to stand for the national anthem as a show of protest against systemic racism and police brutality – is yet another attempt of Mr. Trump's to distract the public from his failures, but this particular battle has more at stake. On the same day, the President tweeted that Steph Curry, who had already stated he wouldn't be attending the White House - standard for NBA champions - would no longer be invited.

By attacking these athletes, Mr. Trump is launching a referendum on patriotism, race, and what it means to be a good American in a nation led by a man who praises dictators and refuses to outright denounce white supremacists.

America has wrestled with hypocrisy ever since it was birthed by slave-owning founders who wrote searing declarations of freedom. But never has the gulf between the hallowed position of the presidency and the hollowness of the person who inhabits it been as wide as it is today. And never has Mr. Trump faced a foe like Mr. Kaepernick, whose silent protests hit harder than any of the President's tirades because they force Americans to contend not only with complicity, but complacency. If Mr. Kaepernick can live his values, destroying his popularity and football career in the process, why can't we all? If we have freedom of speech, who will we speak up for?

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Mr. Kaepernick kneels for the slain and for the suffering, and places that burden on the conscience of Americans in an era where the very notion of a conscience is spun as an alternative fact. While Mr. Trump brags of his wealth while stiffing charities and swindling the poor, Mr. Kaepernick has spent a year giving away one million dollars to help oppressed communities. While the President's life has been spent desperately accumulating status markers and elite approval, Mr. Kaepernick is, at age 29, seemingly unemployable due to his controversial political views.

And what are those controversial views? That black men should not be shot on sight by white officers that get away with it. That black citizens should have the same rights, respect and access to resources as white citizens. That the U.S. flag is not worth saluting until there is liberty and justice for all.

That these views are considered controversial is a damning indictment of the inability of Americans to be reflective instead of defensive about our systemic failings. Traditionally, when an athlete takes a knee, he does so in acknowledgment of a wounded player. Colin Kaepernick takes the knee during the national anthem in acknowledgment of wounded citizens. He demands, rightly, that Americans do better.

I am writing this from St. Louis, a city where a white police officer was recently acquitted of first degree murder after proclaiming on video that he intended to kill a black man and then did so. My city is filled with masses of protesters and with police bearing military weapons, who now gloat that the streets are theirs. My city is full of mourners, because we've seen it all before, and because we know, under this administration, we will see state-sanctioned injustice again and again.

When Mr. Kaepernick takes a knee, when Mr. Curry refuses to visit the White House, I greet these actions with gratitude. When their fellow athletes – like Richard Sherman, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James – back them, risking similar condemnation, I feel relief that they too refuse to tolerate abuse of citizens by the state. The real measure of patriotism is not how you treat a flag but how you treat your countrymen.

Where a conscience should reside in our capital is instead a well of hate and bigotry. We will not find moral leadership in this White House, but we can find it among Americans – ordinary citizens and celebrities alike – who reject pageantry in favour of principle.

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