For a while it seemed like LaVar Ball was, in his own way, following the Trump playbook: employing vulgar braggadocio in order to sell us on an idea. For Trump, that idea was himself as white savior, and thus presidential material. For Ball, it was the legend of the amazing Ball family from whom you could buy very expensive sneakers courtesy of their Big Baller Brand. Ball talked himself and his family into sports-world prominence by always being the best interview in town, not unlike how Trump talked himself into the nomination by being the most colorful interview in the race.
This year Ball has consistently been the wildest quote machine in sports. He claimed he could beat Michael Jordan one-on-one. He told the media that his son, Lonzo, would be better than Steph Curry, and when challenged on that, he doubled down. Then he said Lonzo could be bigger than Kobe, by far. In his NBA debut as a Laker, Lonzo scored just six points on 3-12 shooting. And yet afterward, LaVar told anyone who would listen that Lonzo had had a great game. It was beyond bravado; it was beyond truth-stretching. This was a person who was Trumpian in his detachment from reality and utter lack of humility. Like Trump, Ball’s mouth often becomes the story, as the sports media endlessly fusses over his asinine statements. As Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors, said of Ball and Trump, “It would be nice for all of us if both of them would just be quiet.”
While LaVar was building his family brand by selling the fantasy of the incredible Ball boys, Trump was implementing a core part of his strategy as president: wherever possible be seen in the position of putting black people in their place, especially in a way that stokes the culture wars. The idea is for Trump to act outraged by something a black person has done, have it be signal-boosted by Fox News and the far-right media, and then Trump can use his bully pulpit to put them in line, thus making him both the victim and the one to clean it up—quickly! Bonus points if putting ’em in line leads to liberals getting upset but the ultimate goal is to be seen standing up to a black person or group of black people on behalf of aggrieved white people. If he’s seen as the protector of white people, he’s winning—as Trump’s then-chief strategist, Steve Bannon, revealed in an August interview with The American Prospect: “The Democrats, the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day.”
Bannon’s—and by extension Trump’s—mission, it seems, is to repel white people from the Democrats and move them closer to the GOP, like a modern-day version of Nixon’s “Southern strategy.” See, Trump’s base wants a wall and an end to the “nightmare” that is Obamacare, sure, but they want cultural victories as well. They want to “Make America Great Again”—a return to prominence for good old-fashioned whiteness, which they saw as in decline until Trump. They want white victories in a world where they’ve been forced to suffer through Affirmative Action and a black president and black people agitating for justice right before their precious football games. When Trump is seen as standing up to unruly blacks, he’s giving them those cultural victories they crave.
So it was all but inevitable that these two would clash. They both have big mouths, no chill, and no desire to course-correct. And they both have so much to gain from attacking each other. Trump needed a diversion. He loves to fuel the culture wars when he senses things are bad, and man, are things bad for Trump right now. His tax overhaul is already falling apart in the Senate, more indictments from Robert Mueller are imminent, and Roy Moore’s predatory past may cost his party a valuable Senate seat.
But this is a distraction that found Trump. It’s not made out of whole cloth like his NFL beef. This one fell right into his lap. See, LaVar’s middle son, LiAngelo, went to China with his UCLA team and did something idiotic. The 18-year-old tried to filch expensive sunglasses from a high-end boutique. He wasn’t alone—two others joined him in the caper. LiAngelo is 6-foot-5 and his partners in this are both 6-foot-10. Fellas, when you look entirely different from everyone else who comes into the store, you’re going to be watched. Black guys whose heads scrape the ceilings cannot be clandestine in a high-end store in Hangzhou, China.
LiAngelo and his partners had already been arrested when Trump arrived in China. It’s absolutely Trump’s job to advocate for American citizens abroad—that’s not going above and beyond. When he spoke to China’s president about this, he did what he’s supposed to do. Can you imagine how embarrassing it would be for him to have failed to help them? But then he pulled out his phone and made it all about himself, demanding the boys thank him for getting them out, that they kiss his ring. It was so classless, so patronizing, so belittling, and so much about him. And it was so insulting. There he was once again talking down to black citizens, outraged at their behavior, and vowing to put them in their place. He tried this with Obama, the Central Park 5, the cast of Hamilton, Colin Kaepernick and the NFL kneelers, Jemele Hill, and so on and so forth. Black people are the neck that Trump stands on to seem taller to white people. Leaders should be gracious. Trump can’t even spell the word.
This is all, of course, part of Trump’s plan. “In private, the president and his top aides freely admit that he is engaged in a culture war on behalf of his white, working-class base, a New York billionaire waging war against ‘politically correct’ coastal elites on behalf of his supporters in the South and in the Midwest. He believes the war was foisted upon him by former President Barack Obama and other Democrats—and he is determined to win, current and former aides said,” reported The New York Times in late September.
Meanwhile, LaVar Ball is not one to kowtow to Trump. It was only a matter of time before these two would tango. Ball is wrong to try to downplay the offense his son committed—he says it’s no big deal; he’s dead wrong—but ultimately, Ball’s a private citizen using petty hype to try to make a buck and maximize the impact of his boys getting to the highest levels of basketball. Trump is, unbelievably, president of the United States. He’s supposed to take care of all Americans, whether or not we support him, but he’s openly tribalist and weaponizes national division in order to rally his base.
Worse, he’s sitting in the Oval Office talking like the blowhard at the end of the bar working his way through drink number too many. Think about it: Trump is a teetotaler who mouths off like a drunk. And you can now add this to the list of the most disgusting, derelict, unpresidential things Trump’s ever said: that he should have left American citizens to rot in a foreign prison because one of the young men’s fathers was insufficiently grateful.
When reporters asked Ball about the episode, he downplayed Trump’s role in getting the young men out of trouble. “Who?” Ball told ESPN when asked about Trump’s involvement. “What was he over there for? Don’t tell me nothing. Everybody wants to make it seem like he helped me out.” Trump’s team often describes him as a “counterpuncher” who punches back “ten times harder,” yet he was able to stop himself from firing back when Eminem—a white guy from working-class Detroit—unloaded on him during a four-minute cypher at the BET Hip-Hop Awards. See, Em doesn’t fit the strategy.
Ungrateful is the new uppity, writes The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb, and Trump has been policing the gratitude of these blacks with every tweet. Would the boys be grateful enough? They were. Then LaVar Ball wasn’t, so he shouts him down like the Boss Hogg that he is, here to make sure that blacks stay in line and whiteness reigns supreme. No one comes out of this story looking good—everyone failed to be their best, and everyone loses for having perpetuated this ridiculous sideshow. But only one member of this public food fight was the president of the United States. And whenever you think you’ve seen Trump at his lowest, he shows you that you’re dead wrong.