In one of George Will’s funnier columns, he wrote about his desire to trim the family’s Christmas tree with “28 glass balls bearing the emblems of major league baseball teams,” a decorating strategy with which his wife didn’t agree.
Baseball is a passion for Will, who has written several books on the subject. It’s a good fit because baseball is commonly called “the thinking man’s sport” and Will is a thinking man’s columnist, one who is said to have done as much to advance conservative principles as the late William F. Buckley.
Will’s form of conservatism, however, hasn’t played well with another team within the GOP: those whose favorite sport is car racing. Setting aside the age-old debate over whether NASCAR is actually a sport, it’s clear that there are two kinds of Republicans these days: baseball Republicans and NASCAR Republicans.
The NASCAR Republicans took center stage this year when a handful of them at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama inadvertently made “Let’s go, Brandon!” a universal anti-Biden slogan. A synonym for a vulgarity, it’s not something you’d ever hear a buttoned-up baseball Republican say. But the chant is entirely in keeping with a boisterous NASCAR crowd, many of whom who are new to the sport of politics and come to it by way of former President Donald Trump.
Trump himself straddles the NASCAR/baseball line, having attended an Atlanta Braves game earlier this year and also taken laps at the Daytona 500 in 2020. Trump, however, is neither a NASCAR nor baseball Republican, but a golfer, which complicates the matter.
“I know that there is nothing more democratic than golf,” William Howard Taft, the 27th president and a zealous golfer, wrote. “There is nothing which furnishes a greater test of character and self-restraint, nothing which puts one more on an equality with one’s fellows, or, I may say, puts one lower than one’s fellows, than the game of golf.”
But despite those lofty words, Taft ran up against the perception that golf is a rich man’s game, which doesn’t play well in a populist moment. As Matthew Algeo wrote for The Washington Post, Taft’s mentor, Theodore Roosevelt, begged him to stop playing because so many people wrote to complain about the optics.
That said, there’s a curious compatibility when it comes to presidents of disparate political persuasions and golf. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush played golf with varying levels of skill, as do Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden. In fact, in 2017, Clinton, Obama and the younger Bush jovially appeared together at the Presidents Cup golf tournament in New Jersey.
I, for one, am warmed by the images of former political adversaries cozying up at golf tournaments and memorial services, and I hope to see the day when today’s seething animosities fade and Trump can join their ranks and enjoy the genuine affection that exists between, say, the Bushes and the Obamas. For the first time, there was a vapor of a suggestion that this could actually happen, when Biden gave the Trump administration credit for developing the COVID-19 vaccine, and Trump responded with gratitude.
This was a Christmas miracle of sorts, a gracious exchange between bitter rivals, although some NASCAR Republicans might have booed if the men had been on a stage, like some people recently booed Trump for having had the COVID-19 booster shot. The goodwill doesn’t rise to the level of the joint ad that then-gubernatorial candidates Spencer Cox, a Republican, and Chris Peterson, a Democrat, produced in Utah last year, but it’s a start and heartwarming nonetheless.
Will NASCAR Republicans and baseball Republicans ever come together and reside under the GOP’s big tent amicably? Perhaps not, just like Will didn’t get those baseball ornaments on his Christmas tree. “Mother won,” Will wrote. “So the tree is decorated with angels and elves and trains and gingerbread men and other bric-a-brac that presumably add up to something, but they seem to the untutored eye to be so much flapdoodle.”
Golf seems so much flapdoodle to me, but in the friendly duffer club of ex-presidents, there seems an aspirational metaphor for all of us. Meanwhile, Brandon Brown, the NASCAR driver whose interview with NBC Sports reporter Kelli Stavast started the “Let’s go, Brandon!” craze, is finally speaking out, diplomatically saying he doesn’t want to get involved in divisive politics but is willing to talk about “the problems we face together as Americans.”
Them’s golfing words, and it’s good to hear them from a NASCAR driver. Even better is Brown’s suggestion for a new slogan to replace the one that bears his name: Let’s go, America. Surely that’s one on which Democrats and Republicans, NASCAR and baseball fans, and even George and Mari Will could all agree.