The controversy over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem has unveiled the true colors of some conservatives — and they’re not all red, white and blue.

Republicans and conservatives have historically sought to question the actions of their government and protect individual liberties. Our Bill of Rights and Constitution, which conservatives tout as their political bible, prescribe rights that chiefly protect people from the power of the state. But encouraged by President Donald Trump’s worst inclinations, conservatives and other traditionalists have focused too little on those principles and too much on nationalism. Populism has grown at the expense of constitutionalism.

They want Football Sundays to be free of the uncomfortable activism the First Amendment enables. But celebrating the national anthem means little without the freedom of speech and expression it represents.

Conservatism has had two strains. One is a commitment to smaller government that protects individuals. The other celebrates traditional American society, including religion and patriotism. There’s a deepening schism, and NFL players just happen to be feeding it.

Rush Limbaugh last week railed against the NFL and the “liberal elites” the league is trying to court. But if it’s suddenly liberal to defend freedom of speech, sign me up.

There’s a principle at stake with what NFL players are doing. You might not agree with what they’re upset about, you might not even agree with how exactly they’re protesting. Regardless, they have that right. And exercising it doesn’t disrespect the U.S. military. It’s why the military defends the United States to begin with.

It is both constitutional and, historically, quite patriotic to petition the government for a redress of grievances. The Constitution doesn’t put parameters on who can petition, or how to do it. And the pledge and the anthem shouldn’t be compulsory. Jehovah’s Witnesses secured the right to refrain from such activities in a 1940s Supreme Court case.

Conservative outlets like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, as well as Trump, advertise that public polling numbers are on their side. But that reeks of mob rule.

And even if it is true, the majority should never belittle the rights of any minority — as conservatives have historically argued. Alexander Hamilton says in the Federalist Papers that denying the liberty that creates differences is worse than the division they spur.

As the kneeling controversy also illustrates, conservatives don’t see police misconduct as a serious constitutional concern. Yet defending the rights of every citizen — living under a government that preserves life and presumes innocence until proven guilty — is central to that document. They should know that better than anyone.

Any abuse by government (are police not government officials with the power to kill?) should concern conservatives regardless of race, frequency, or other factors. To deny that blacks don’t have an entirely different experience with cops than whites do is naive. Conservatives might not want to believe it, but that only harms their cause.

They’re too focused on cheering America no matter what, rather than defending what makes America great.

Twitter: @KaitlynBuss

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