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Dan Snyder's Right-Wing Election Scam Is Working

Washington NFL team owner Dan Snyder's defense of his team's name may seem fully dumbassed, but he's drawing on classic right-wing tactics to hold his base.
November 4, 2014, 2:50pm
Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

To anyone with half a brain, Washington National Football League team owner Dan Snyder's ongoing campaign to justify his franchise's nickname reeks of stubborn lunacy, an ill-advised series of hamfisted gaffes that mostly have brought unfavorable attention to a topic that Snyder would prefer to bury.

Pushing back against reminders from Native American activists and other critics that his beloved club is, in fact, named after a dictionary-defined ethnic slur, Snyder has: (a) produced televised propaganda featuring a nickname-supporting Native American chief who isn't actually a chief and may not be Native American; (b) launched an astroturf-y pro-nickname website that looks like something funded by the Koch Brothers dark money; (c) pitched the equivalent of a Dan Gilbert comic sans fit, telling USA Today that he will "NEVER" change the name, and "you can use caps"; (d) started a charitable foundation for Native Americans that doesn't even refer to said Natives using the samenickname that Snyder insists is wrapped up in "honor" and "respect"; (e) used the aforementioned foundation to donate thousands of winter coats to several Native American tribes, because what could possibly go wrong when white people give Natives a cloth-based item that keeps people warm?

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Yes, Snyder's efforts can come across as inept, hardly befitting the owner of a public entertainment business that primarily profits from public goodwill. However, they're not as inexplicably dumb as they seem—or, at the very least, not as inexplicable. There's a method to Snyder's madness. A purpose to his nonsense. To grasp it, stop thinking like a football fan. Start thinking like a politician. After all, today is Election Day. Don't try to understand Snyder as a typical sports owner.

Instead, look at him as an incumbent member of Congress, safe and secure in a gerrymandered district.


Consider Representative Louie Gohmert (R-TX). By any reality-based assessment, he's off his fuckin' rocker. The Texas Congressman has argued that oil pipelines are nature-friendly because they provide warmth for mating caribou. He has theorized that Obama is encouraging immigration from violence-stricken Central American countries in order to swell the Democratic Party's voter rolls. On the same Congressional floor that once saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act, he has warned of "terror babies"—that is, terrorists paying undocumented immigrant women to give birth in the United States; raising those children as future terrorists; and ultimately setting them loose upon America to wreak havoc, all of which is completely bonkers, and also pretty darn close to the plot of Salt.

In short, Gohmert is the sort of person who would be busy forwarding emails about how Ebola is the fulcrum of a secret ISIS plot to elect Emperor Obama to a third indefinite term while setting the Constitution on fire, if he didn't have a job in Congress. Of course, Gohmert does have a job on Capitol Hill, and he's in no danger of losing it anytime soon. Not after his district reportedly was redrawn in the mid-2000s to favor Republican candidates, so much so that Gohmert has won four straight elections with at least 68 percent of the popular vote. Jon Stewart and Anderson Cooper may view Gohmert as a nimrod, but to the only people that really matter—the resoundingly Republican local voters who keep sending Gohmert to Washington—think his ignorant bluster is A-OK. And that, in turn, gives him scant incentive to change and plenty of reasons to double-down on dumbass.

Look at this idiot. Photo by Gage Skidmore

Back to Snyder. As the owner of a NFL team, he doesn't answer to voters. Nevertheless, he still has constituents. The fans of his franchise. Who happen to be passionate, loyal, and an inexhaustible source of income, despite two decades of football futility. Washington fans fill FedEx Field. They fill Snyder's coffers. They have made the franchise one of the most valuable in professional sports, with an estimated value of $1.7 billion. (Note: figure calculated before the Los Angeles Clippers, a basketball team, sold this year for a record $2 billion.) Snyder doesn't need to keep nickname critics happy—not even Jordan Wright, granddaughter of former team owner George Preston Marshall, who says that "If even one person tells you that name, that word you used, offends them, then that's enough to change it,"—but he does need to keep fans feeling good about his cash cow. And on the whole, D.C.-area sports fans are fine with "Redskins," the same way Texas voters are fine with Gohmert's views on wildlife intercourse.

In 2013, the Washington Post polled area fans on the team's nickname. Sixty-one percent of respondents said they liked the moniker; a similar number said the franchise shouldn't change it. Among fans of Snyder's team, roughly 8 in 10 said the nickname should remain the same; 31 percent said they like the name; and 51 percent said they "love" it. In political terms, Snyder's reelection machine isn't broken. So why would he fix it?


Native American protesters and others demanding that the Washington NFL team adopt a new moniker tend to be national: the Oneida Nation tribe fighting a public relations war against Snyder, for example, is based in New York, while the lead plaintiff in a federal case that saw the United States Patent and Trademark office cancel the team's trademark of "Redskins," Amanda Blackhorse, lives in Arizona. And like most national constituencies, they're basically asking Snyder to move toward the center. To compromise. Only Snyder isn't interested in the moderate middle, because he isn't running a broad-based campaign. He's not a uniter. He's running to rally his partisan base. Division suits him, so long as his supporters are sufficiently energized. People like CBS football announcer Phil Simms—who has vowed not to use the team's nickname during broadcasts—can pound sand.

Seen through the prism of dysfunctional electoral politics, Snyder's non-charm offensive suddenly makes far more sense. If you're indifferent about the nickname, his "NEVER" proclamation reads as childishly stubborn; if you're against the nickname, it reads as industrial-grade assholery; if you're for the nickname, it reads as Strong Daddy Protector Talk, the same sort of rhetoric that has worked for candidates ever since Americans decided to disregard their superpower status and massive nuclear arsenal in favor of becoming bed-wettingly afraid of, well, everything. Likewise, Snyder's move to sue the five Native Americans who petitioned the Patent and Trademark office to cancel the Washington NFL team's federal trademark registrations of the term "Redskins" on the basis of the Lanham Act—a 1946 law prohibiting "any marks that may disparage persons or bring them into contempt or disrepute"—could come across as petty, contemptible bullying. An abuse of the legal system, even. After all, isn't Snyder's real beef with the federal government, or at least with the two judges who ruled against his team? Shouldn't he have appealed their verdict?


No matter. If you love the nickname and want it to remain, then whatever Snyder does is simply a necessary means to an appropriate end. A desired end. Indeed, the reason that Snyder's elaborate pro-nickname agitprop campaign seems utterly tone-deaf to his opponents isn't because it's amateurish and poorly conceived; it's because moniker critics aren't part of the target audience. Like Fox News or MSNBC, the Redskins facts website preaches to the converted. Consider the following nuggets, lifted from the site:

"We believe the Redskins name deserves to stay. It epitomizes all the noble qualities we admire about Native Americans—the same intangibles we expect from Washington's gridiron heroes on game day. Honor. Loyalty. Unity. Respect. Courage. And more."

"The Redskins name is a self-reference in the context of the football team itself—and in no way should it be considered a slur targeted at a specific ethnic subgroup of Americans."

"Tired of liberal media pushing its agenda on the Redskins? You're not alone."

Do the Native Americans who produced this commercial count as members of the liberal media? Can a slur also be a term of honor? Could a self-reference in the context of the football team itself be any more tautological?

The answers aren't important, because Snyder's public relations push isn't designed to make fence-sitters think. It's designed to make true believers feel, to keep loyalists from breaking ranks with the party, to help fans who already support the nickname continue to do so without any pesky, encroaching guilt. Small wonder, then, that the self-proclaimed "online community of passionate Washington fans" reportedly looks very much like a product of crisis management firm Busron-Marsteller, which previously has burnished the public images of military contractor Blackwater USA and the manufacturer of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant. And no surprise that Snyder's team has hired the likes of former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, former White House adviser Lanny Davis, and political messaging guru Frank Luntz to craft and massage their nickname strategy. A political-style campaign calls for political expertise—are the feel-good optics of Mission Accomplished all that different from the Washington NFL team recently feting Navajo Nation high school students with gratis tickets to an Arizona Cardinals game, or trotting out a group of Navajo Code Talkers clad in team logo-festooned varsity jackets?

Earlier this year, comedian and HBO television host Bill Maher launched a half-joking "Flip a District" campaign, a Quixotic attempt to unseat an otherwise safe Republican Congressional incumbent. Eschewing Gohmert—too obvious, really—Maher settled on John Kline, a 12-year Capitol Hill veteran who represents a district outside Minneapolis. Maher mocked Kline for his voting record; for being a puppet of the for-profit education industry; for being the "living embodiment of legislation for hire." He paid a visit to Minnesota, where he blasted the candidate for voting "exactly like crazy people." Meanwhile, Kline wore Maher's derision as badge of honor—and used it to raise money, too, sending an email to supporters that in part read:

"… as promised, Maher is turning his liberal guns on our districts and using his TV megaphone and million-dollar war chest to defeat me in November …

… my opponent … is walking hand-in-hand with Maher and has practically named him his campaign manager, focusing on the #FlipADistrict campaign against me and doing whatever he can to pander to Maher and his extreme liberal friends …"

Kline is expected to win his race handily. In a way, perhaps Snyder can relate. Never particularly popular in Washington—losing early and often can be hell on one's NFL owner approval ratings, as can handing millions of dollars to Albert Haynesworth — the owner has found a kind of common ground with his team's supporters, at least when it comes to the nickname debate. The candidate and his constituents share the same myopic sense of pride, nurse the same sense of beleaguered grievance. The night before the team's season-opening road game against Houston, Snyder addressed a group of fans at a local pub. Thanking the crowd for their support, he was drowned out by a chant: Keep the name! Keep the name! For a moment, at least, the incumbent didn't sound crazy, didn't seem out of touch. He was a man of the people. His people. Everything made perfect sense.