The symbols of the United States – the flag and the national anthem included – mean different things to different people.

To some, they represent the sacrifices made to keep us free, or America’s place as a force for good.

To others, they are an exclamation of the ideals America strives to meet, however often it falls short, or a totem of all that has been done in our name, good, bad and ugly.

What they are not – or at least what they shouldn’t be – is a tool for pulling people apart.

But pulling people apart is what President Trump does, and he did it effectively this weekend, turning the peaceful protests by NFL players into a question of patriotism – another screaming culture war – and away from the central, challenging questions of race that sparked the protests.

And it was all because of a U.S. Senate race in Alabama.

DRIVING ANGER

On Friday, Trump declared that any NFL player who fails to stand for the national anthem is a “son of a bitch” who should be fired.

Those remarks reverberated throughout the country, but they were aimed at a particular population – voters in Tuesday’s Republican primary between Trump’s candidate, Sen. Luther Strange, and challenger Roy Moore.

The president’s comments, made at a rally for Strange, likely resonated with a lot of those voters, and they pulled all the air from the room just before the election, certainly hindering Moore’s ability to be heard in the final days of the campaign.

It was classic Trump – bombastic and quotable, focused on a culturally divisive topic, and delivered with enthusiasm derived not from his passion for the issue itself but from its ability to drive the angry crowd immediately around him.

Later, he showed just how little he knew about a topic that dominated his public statements for three days, saying the issue had “nothing to do with race,” when it has everything to do with the experiences of black men and women in the United States.

The protests are about a country whose institutions continue to devalue minorities, where black and brown Americans face structural hurdles to things like housing, employment, education and health care.

HIGHLIGHTING INJUSTICE

They are about a country that imprisons, brutalizes and kills minorities with alarming frequency.

They are about a country whose president has so little to say about white men marching with torches and racist chants, yet repeatedly and angrily tells black men exactly how they should quietly make their point.

And how a congressman can tell successful black men they should just shut up and be happy to be there.

If that upsets some white fans, so be it. It’s not about them, and it’s not about disrespecting the flag or the military – it’s about confronting everyday inequality.

Many of the players who took a knee or locked arms in solidarity Sunday took pains to make that message clear, even as the president was sullying it.

It’s not a knock on the military, but on a country that is failing to live up to its own standards.

OPEN YOUR EYES

As Trump ranted on Twitter, Denver Broncos linebacker Shane Ray took to social media too, wrestling with this complex issue in ways far more thoughtful than the president.

The military, he said, is the “heart of America,” and it is multicultural:

“Those same people will come home and be discriminated against regardless of (their) military sacrifice simply because of the color of their skin,” he wrote.

“When I hear the anthem it’s not the words that make me feel like an American. It’s us as people for one moment feeling united standing together.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize we are kneeling because we need everyone’s focus and eyes so that we can work for a change. We have your attention now.

“Time to start opening your eyes so that we can change and have all people proudly stand for our country.”