Orem • Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox says President Donald Trump pulled a “diabolically brilliant” move by criticizing NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem — but one that deepens and exploits divisions in the country for cynical political gain.

Catering to extremists has become a winning election strategy that Cox warned is seen closer to home in Utah’s caucus-convention system.

“I don’t think it’s good for us. I don’t think it’s healthy as a nation,” Cox said, criticizing fellow Republican Trump, as he did consistently before the election.

Cox spoke during Utah Valley University’s annual Ethics Awareness Week, and was originally billed as speaking on the topic of how public officials should respond to white supremacy. Although racial injustice is the target of athletes’ early protests during the national anthem, Cox said that has been largely lost now in the Trump-fanned debate.

He said too many politicians worry more about re-election than fixing problems — so they deliberately fire up extremists in their parties because those are the passionate people most likely to vote and also to become convention delegates.

He says that was exactly Trump’s strategy when he attacked NFL players.

“We’ve got hurricanes, we’ve got people dying in Puerto Rico, we’ve got a dictator in North Korea who believes we’ve declared war on him through Twitter and is threatening nuclear holocaust, and President Trump goes all in on the NFL. Why? He’s campaigning,” Cox said.

“Who’s he campaigning to? His base, the people who elected him.” Cox said while that may pay political dividends, it divides the country and complicates addressing real problems.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lt. Gov. Spencer J. Cox speaks at Utah Valley University's Ethics Awareness Week, Tuesday September 26, 2017.
(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lt. Gov. Spencer J. Cox speaks at Utah Valley University's Ethics Awareness Week, Tuesday September 26, 2017.

“If you’re trying to change someone’s opinion, does attacking them or calling them names ever work?” Cox asked. “I think President Trump knows that. Was he trying to change anyone’s mind…? Was he trying to unite the country in rallying around the flag?” Cox said it was just campaigning.

In what the lieutenant governor said was a “diabolically brilliant” move to “put himself on the side of the flag,” Trump tried to redefine relatively small protests against police brutality and racial injustice as being against the flag and the people who defend it — which is something dear to the right wing.

However, “What he managed to do was unify the NFL,” as players united to protest against Trump calling some SOBs who should be fired, Cox said. “I think he did overplay his hand. I don’t think he expected owners to be out there linking arms with players.”

Politicians long have claimed to be “uniters while they are dividing,” Cox said, but “President Trump has kind of weaponized it…. This president pretty much admits it. That worries me.”

Cox said he personally isn’t worried about re-election, and said he almost declined when Gov. Gary Herbert appointed him lieutenant governor. Cox still lives 100 miles from Salt Lake City on a farm in Fairview, and likes life better there. “So if I get fired, I’m really cool with that.”

He adds, “I just woke up one day and was lieutentant governor,” so “I see the world a little differently than some do because I didn’t really want this job” and didn’t make a lot of promises to obtain it.

“If you define yourself by the office you hold and you can’t see yourself as anything else, then the only thing that matters is getting re-elected,” he said — and that now means campaigning is largely directed at extremists in the parties who vote.

The traditional caucus-convention system in Utah, Cox said, fuels that.

He said when he ran for the Utah House of Representatives, he needed only to persuade about 33 Republican delegates to support him to get the required 60 percent of convention votes to be the nominee. No Democrat ran in his area, so just 33 votes got him elected to represent an area with 38,000 people.

“Does that sound like a good idea? I’ll leave that up to you to decide,” he told his UVU audience.

Cox said convention delegates may not represent the will of voters at large and cited two recent examples.

He pointed to the Herbert-Cox landslide victory in last year’s Republican primary after receiving only 45 percent of the GOP convention vote. Another example, Cox said, was when the GOP convention this summer rejected Provo Mayor John Curtis as a congressional candidate. But Curtis went on to win the primary after collecting signatures to get on the ballot.

“If all I care about is being re-elected, then what is my message going to be” if winners are selected by extremist delegates, Cox asked. “Where does that leave us as a nation where everyone is trying to get elected and is only representing the most passionate part of the base?”