Donald Trump knows what he’s doing when he calls LeBron James dumb. He did not explicitly say “dumb,” but the point he made in a late-night tweet on Friday was clear. According to the President of the United States, LeBron James — the NBA’s best player, a wildly successful entrepreneur, and one of the most giving athletes on the planet — is not smart. At the very least, he’s not smart enough to comment on his presidency, because in the eyes of Trump, the only way you can smartly comment on any aspect of his existence is to speak with complete reverence.
James fell back into Trump’s crosshairs because he appeared on CNN talking about education and eloquently explained why Trump’s rhetoric against athletes of color is meant to cause divisions. Earlier in the year, James swore while talking candidly about Trump, earning the now infamous “shut up and dribble” criticism from Laura Ingram that trod the familiar ground of dog-whistle critiques of black athletes.
That Trump constantly rags on athletes of color, using dehumanizing language and questioning their intelligence, is the veiled kind of racist rhetoric he’s expressed throughout his political career. Sports fans call athletes dumb when they want to dismiss them as people, to make them some kind of lesser being who happens to be supremely talented physically and financially well-off exclusively because of that natural gift. But there is no way in which James can objectively be considered dumb. He might even be a genius, really, but the truth doesn’t matter much these days. Trump knows that, and he also knows the damage he does to the perception of James by those who support the president above nearly everything else.