Recently, I started following the Green Bay Packers again. When the Pack had fallen to 4-6, I pretty much moved on emotionally and checked out for the season. But now that they’ve won a few games — including an impressive rout Sunday of the Seattle Seahawks — and appear to have some chance of making the playoffs, I’m tuning back in.
That’s not the way it used to be. When I was a younger fan, the Packers were like religion. I grew up with Vince Lombardi looming over my formative years; sermons were routinely shortened at Sunday Mass so that devoted fans could get back home in time for the noon kickoff.
It was such a powerful thing that I stuck with the green-and-gold through the dark ages. I’d watch every game even when Lindy Infante was leading my team to the doorstep of mediocrity and below.
But now I look at sports the way I look at other forms of entertainment. If I don’t like a television show, I just don’t watch it. If I hear music I don’t like, I don’t buy the album. If the Packers are losing, well, that’s not any fun, so I just turn them off and watch something I enjoy.
But I know that a lot more people feel about the Packers or the Badgers or maybe the Brewers the way I used to feel about my teams (nobody I know cares about the Milwaukee Bucks).
And maybe that gives us some insight into what’s going on in the world these days. In my nonchalant attitude toward our sports teams, I might be reflecting the internationalist, multicultural, open-borders view of the world that has come to be associated with elites. But I can recognize something different in the tribal, my team win or lose, bleeding-green-and-gold feeling that I used to have. That’s a spirit more in keeping with the blood-and-soil nationalistic uprising that we’ve see reflected in the Trump election, Brexit and rise of right-wing populists all over the world.
Let me be clear — I’m not accusing devoted Badgers fans of being fascists. But how we feel about our Packers or our Badgers might help us understand how populists feel about their countries.
While I don’t feel very elite, I guess it’s fair to say that I carry around what have come to be defined as elitist points of view. I’m generally in favor of free trade, though I understand that the details of the deals matter. I’m in favor of multiculturalism, in part because I think that any system is stronger when it’s more diverse. And if those things tamp down nationalism a little bit, and make us think of ourselves more as citizens of the world, well, that’s okay with me. I don’t see the United Nations controlling local zoning decisions in my neighborhood anytime soon. I don’t imagine black helicopters swooping into my backyard to take my guns away.
But that’s not the way nationalists see things. They see real existential danger in a more open world. That’s why Trump’s language about “winning again” worked. It mirrors the language of new coaches coming in with the promise of rescuing a losing franchise. To a lot of Americans who view the world in terms of our team versus their teams, that kind of language is inspiring. For people like me, who don’t see such clear team colors, that language, at best, just sounds like a non sequitur. What does it mean to win in a global economy? Does one country have to lose in order for another to do better? Is it all really just a zero sum game? Can’t everybody do better if each economy does best at what it’s good at and then trades those goods and services back and forth? Doesn’t that make sense?
When you view the world like a football game it seems to me that you fundamentally misunderstand how that world works. But for those of us who struggle to understand what Donald Trump is all about, maybe a good place to start is to ask ourselves how we feel about the Green Bay Packers.