President Donald Trump attended the 62nd annual Daytona 500, the season-opener of the NASCAR Cup Series, on Sunday, marking the first presidential appearance at the event in 16 years. White House reporters wasted no time vilifying Trump’s visit as a selfish, “political event,” ignoring the race’s significance as an American cultural event.
When Trump took the field on a pace lap in the presidential limo, a.k.a. “The Beast,” NBC White House Correspondent Kelly O’Donnell said he was “looking for NASCAR fans support in his re-election bid,” and noted the “official White House event” would be paid for by taxpayers, just as all presidential outings with Secret Service have been for all modern presidents.
This was an official White House event therefore paid by taxpayers as @realDonaldTrump @FLOTUS attended Daytona 500 today and “The Beast” limo ran a pace car lap around the track. pic.twitter.com/xb0QdBYEEI
— Kelly O'Donnell (@KellyO) February 16, 2020
New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman called the historical limo lap “using the official apparatus of government for what appears to be a political event.”
Using the official apparatus of government for what appears to be a political event https://t.co/GWNm8io8O1
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) February 16, 2020
Haberman and O’Donnell’s ignorance is two-fold. First, their apparent acute eye for taxpayer-funded presidential events only developed when Trump took office in 2017.
Were the multiple Major League Baseball games former President Barack Obama attended and threw the first pitch at considered political events? How much did Obama’s Secret Service detail cost taxpayers when he attended the Cuban National Team’s baseball game in Havana? What about Obama’s appearances on Jimmy Kimmel or “Between Two Ferns” with Zach Galifianakis? Those were undoubtedly political events strategically sanctioned to cater to his base.
Beyond the whataboutism, the media’s unfamiliarity with NASCAR as an American cultural event explains why they might assume it’s simply a “political event.” Yes, the people who attend NASCAR races are generally the same people who supported Trump in 2016: “God-fearing, country-loving Americans,” as one Trump adviser described to Politico. But they are NASCAR fans first, and Trump fans second. It’s a genius political move for the president to attend and to pay tribute to those supporters, but they didn’t attend to see the president. He attended to see them.
NASCAR fans are not just in Daytona or Florida, or even just the South. NASCAR race tracks span the Carolinas, the Deep South, Texas, the Midwest, and even up into the Northeast. The sport’s redneck, “good-ol’ boy” culture often causes outsiders to overlook that some of the most legendary race moments of the last century happened at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, far from the South. The Indy 500 started in 1911, long before any National Football League, National Hockey League, or National Baskteball Association games were played.
While they share a base demographically, NASCAR is bigger than Trump and bigger than politics. The sport’s fan base is estimated to include 75 million consumers. Last year’s Daytona 500 drew 9.17 million TV viewers on a single Sunday. Haberman’s employer, The New York Times, has about 4.7 million subscriptions total.
A NASCAR event typically begins with a prayer, the national anthem, a military color guard presentation of the flag, and a fly-over by some branch of the service. Many jokes were made on Sunday about the race turning into a Trump rally, but the fact is, many more Americans have celebrated one of the country’s favorite pastimes than will ever attend all the Trump rallies combined. The president’s attendance didn’t make it any more a “political event” than reporters’ tweets are “journalism.”