Music, White Nationalism, and the Trump Campaign
The recent election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States constitutes major gains for what has been coined the “Alt-Right,” a loose affiliation of white nationalists who supported Trump’s candidacy. Though Trump has denied formal affiliations with white nationalist organizations, since the election many such organizations have claimed victory— from the American Nazi Party’s Rocky Suhayda (Guerra 2016) to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke (Morton 2016). In the week following the election, Trump appointed Stephen Bannon to a post as campaign strategist, as he looks towards taking control of the White House in January. Bannon is the former chairman of Breitbart News Network, the leading platform of the Alt-Right (Shear 2016).
While the precise relationship between the Trump campaign and the explicitly white supremacist Alt-Right movement remains nebulous, it is clear that Trump’s authoritarian rhetoric has both emboldened and resonated alongside a surge in white nationalist movement building in the United States. Many scholars have noted that white nationalism had a renewed impact in the public sphere following the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Political psychologist Howard Levine argues that in a moment of heightened public diversity, authoritarianism has the power to coalesce around white racial anxieties (Black 2016). This idea was further explored by political scientist Matthew MacWilliams with a survey of voters in the run up to the 2016 election. MacWilliams made a surprising conclusion in this study: that authoritarianism is the primary trait consolidating Trump’s voting bloc (MacWilliams 2016).
In what follows I will analyze three musical scenes from Trump’s presidential campaign, arguing that these were important aesthetic sites for consolidating a renewed white nationalist movement through the use of fear and authoritarian logic. Scene 1 explores the music playlists used at Trump rallies, arguing that the presentational intensity of this music stimulates an affect of anxiety. Scene 2 reads a song and dance routine by the USA Freedom Kids as modeling a normalization of authoritarianism. Finally, I turn to Trump’s appropriation of the lyrics to Al Wilson’s “The Snake” to explore how fear is rhetorically employed to justify an authoritarian politics. Throughout, I make a broader argument that Trump has relied on the politics of fear to rationalize authoritarianism, and has by extension renewed a latent white nationalist movement in the U.S.
This study connects to a broader body of ethnomusicological literature on the role of music in spaces of conflict and emergency. In their introduction to Music and Conflict, O’Connell and Castelo-Branco argue for the significance of ethnomusicology in scholarship relating to conflict. As compared to other disciplinary perspectives, “ethnomusicologists might be in a better position to examine with critical depth and cultural awareness the many ways in which music is used as a tool to aggravate and to appease conflict” (O’Connell and Castelo-Branco 2010, 10). Chérie Rivers Ndaliko advances their call to build an engaged scholarship around the intersection of music and conflict in her study of music, film, and cultural institutions in the context of charitable imperialism in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Her monograph Necessary Noise sets contemporary cases studies against a historical backdrop of power coopting artists in the region. She writes that under Mobutu Sese Seko,
A very distinct relationship developed in Congo between art, specifically music, and the political agenda. There were, of course, instances of subversion, but by and large music was a tool wielded, by force of coercion, in service of power. The general population was conditioned to the culture of musicians serving as the mouthpieces of a dictator, and musicians were conditioned to yield artistic autonomy for survival. This was an era in which Mobuto used music and, in so doing, linked it in the collective psyche to propaganda rather than free creative expression (Ndaliko 2016, 128)
This paper will wrestle with ways in which Trump’s unique brand of white nationalist authoritarianism is, as Ndaliko put it, “wielding” music in the “service of power.” While it is too early to judge what the results of Trump’s presidency will be in terms of the growth of white nationalist organizing and authoritarian policy implementation, his campaign rhetoric gestures towards an emergent crisis, as nativist, xenophobic and authoritarian priorities come into explicit political power. To become prepared to resist future assaults, it is important to explore the cultural strategies the Alt-Right, and the Right more broadly, are using to build an authoritarian, white nationalist vision for the nation.
Scene 1: The Trump Rally Playlist
Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign rallies became cultural spectacles of authoritarianism. Overwhelmingly white, Trump rallies were spaces largely insulated from American multi-culturalism. When protestors intervened in these spaces, they were forcibly removed and on several occasions violently attacked (Payton 2016). These rallies prefigured the authoritarian white nationalism at the heart of the Alt-Right movement, a movement that played an important role in Trump’s election (Friedersdor 2016). Following the election, Alt-Right public figure Richard Spencer talked to NPR about his vision for the formation of an American white ethno-state:
What I would ultimately want is this ideal of a safe space effectively for Europeans. This is a big empire that would accept all Europeans. It would be a place for Germans. It would be a place for Slavs. It would be a place for Celts. It would be a place for white Americans and so on. For something like that to happen and really for Europeans to survive and thrive in this very difficult century that we’re going to be experiencing, we have to have a sense of consciousness. We’re going to have to have that sense of identity. (10)
In curating a public spectacle for the celebration of Trump’s authoritarian rhetoric, music was deployed at high volume during each of these rallies. As pop music critic Chris Richards observes, “Trump has provided this toxic American moment with its own distinct soundtrack – his rallies feature a variety of benign rock songs played at unforgiving volumes. And while the pundits have enjoyed some high-quality giggles over the quirkiness of Trump’s song selection, what matters far more is how this music shakes the air, how it shapes the psychology of the room” (Richards 2016). This observation points to the importance here of musical affect. The severe volume and repetition with which the Trump rally playlist was deployed generated an affect of anxiety, as Trump supporters waited for hours for the man himself to emerge onto the stage.
While it is hard to find a unifying message in the Trump campaign playlist, one strong theme is that, with few exceptions, the songs blared at the awaiting crowds were authored and performed by white men. John Mellancamp, Credence Clearwater Revival, The Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, Elton John, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, the Beatles, and a few unexpected choices such as Luciano Pavarotti, emerged as the soundtrack for Trump’s authoritarian displays. Notably, several of the Trump campaign’s most favored songs are more traditionally heard as anthems of the counter-cultural Left. The Beatles’ “Revolution” was written in the context of massive political protests in 1968, though some on the Left criticized the song for its critique to more militant activist tactics (Platoff 2005). Similarly, Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” is often associated with American progressivism (Viney 2015).
Indeed, the ability of this wide-ranging collection of mostly nostalgic classic rock to cohere in the space of a Trump rally points to the flexibility of sonic objects once removed from their performance contexts. Murray Schafer conceptualized schizophonia as the split between an original sound and its recorded transmission or reproduction. Schafer writes, “I coined the term in The New Soundscape to be a nervous word. Related to schizophrenia, I wanted to convey the same sense of aberration and drama” (Schafer 1977, 91). In his essay, “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts,” ethnomusicologist Steven Feld expands on this notion.
Unlike Schafer, I do not use the terms principally or simply to refer to the technological process of splitting that constitutes sound recording. Rather, I am concerned with the larger arena where sound recordings move into long- and short-term routes of circulation and patterns of consumption. At stake, then, in the splitting of sounds from sources is the possibility of new social life, and this is principally about the recontextualization and resignification of sounds (Feld 2012, 41).
In the context of Trump rallies, the playlist songs inhabit a tertiary level of
schizophonia. As sonic objects become detached from their more familiar meanings, they take on new resonances – in this instance serving as a space holder for white nationalist authoritarianism. Chris Richards, in the same article referenced above, sums up the flexibility of music’s meaning “If anything, this is an important reminder that once a tune leaps off a singer’s lips, it becomes a sort of public utility, a container that can be filled with opposing ideas. Ultimately, a piece of music represents whoever’s listening to it” (Richards 2016). However, in Richards’ engaging account of the music blasted at one such Trump rally, he observes that attendees don’t seem to outwardly connect with the music. “Nobody’s singing along to any of these tunes. Nobody’s bobbing their head. Nobody’s even chewing their Doublemint to the backbeat. Nothing. Instead of energizing this crowd, Trump’s playlist simply replaces silence with a different kind of emptiness. It creates an absence of mood, an anti-mood — authoritarian hold music” (Richards 2016).
In his description of the sonic world of a Trump rally, Richards notes that this “authoritarian hold music” grates on for hours on end until Trump finally takes the stage. As people wait, they are treated to a second, third, and fourth helping of “Uptown Girl” or “Rocket Man” at ever-increasing volume. He writes that these songs don’t pump people up, “They make everyone feel comfortable – in their indignation, in their suspicion, in their hostility. The songs that Trump has chosen couldn’t be more banal, yet it’s precisely their banality that makes them so incredible effective. They infuse the hateful atmosphere he cultivates with an air of utter normalcy” (Richards 2016). I would argue that the affective experience of this is an agitating, nervous one (recalling Schafer’s schizophonia), and one that interpellates the audience into a dynamic of compliance. Cultivating this affect of anxiety in the preshow music, Trump’s playlist sets the stage for his authoritarian oratory to be met with a powerful willingness. I will turn now to another scene that subtly communicates his authoritarian rhetoric through musical performance.
Scene 2: The USA Freedom Kids
In January of 2016, as the Trump campaign to win the Republican nomination for president began to gain sure footing, he presented a patriotic song and dance group, USA Freedom Kids, during a rally in Pensacola, Florida. The group’s performance received 2.1 million views in just two days on YouTube (O’Neill 2016). This performance was a surreal synthesis of nationalist rhetoric, militarist imagery, authoritarian themes, and personal praising of the candidate himself – all emanating from the bodies and prerecorded voices of preteen girls in glittered American flag leotards.
The lip synching performance begins with an interplay between two preteen girls singing in unison and a response by the youngest of the three, who replies to their call of “Cowardice?” with the rhetorical, “Are you serious?!” Then again in the same scheme: “Apologies for freedom?” “I can’t handle this!” The young girls perform a nationalist masculinity, miming ideals of authoritarian strength through domination. The lyrics to the song – written by real estate developer and manger of USA Freedom Kids Jeff Popick – continue,
When freedom rings –
Answer the call!
On your feet!
Stand up tall!
Freedom’s on our shoulders.
Enemies of freedom
Face the music
Come on, boys – take ‘em down!
President Donald Trump knows how
To make America great.
Deal from strength,
Or get crushed every time!
The choreography of the performance vacillates between stereotypically feminine gestures (such as quick flicking of the hips/ wagging of the finger, the inviting gesture of uncrossing and slowly opening the arms out wide) to militant/ militaristic gestures (such as a raised fists and salutes). While textually reinforcing Trump’s authoritarian rhetoric, the most salient aspect of this performance is the way that it seeks to normalize and soften this ideology through its presentation by dancing, preteen-age girls. In this way, the performance accomplishes a similar purpose as the preshow playlist – it interpellates willing viewers into authoritarian ideology. On its surface this performance is reminiscent of patriotic spectacles familiar to American audiences in everyday settings. However, in the broader context of the Trump campaign’s authoritarian spectacle, the USA Freedom Kids’ performance is especially significant for the ways it softens the edges of Trump’s rhetoric and interpellates viewers and listeners into an ideology that pushes patriotism in the direction of authoritarianism.
Scene 3: Appropriating Al Wilson’s “The Snake”
A recurrent element of Trump’s campaign rally performances was his recitation of Al Wilson’s “The Snake.” The song was written by black civil rights activist and composer Oscar Brown, Jr., who seems to have taken inspiration from “The Farmer and the Viper,” one of Aesop’s Fables. “The Snake” became famous in 1968 when it was released by R&B singer Al Wilson, first as a single and then on the LP Searching for The Dolphin. The song charted at 27 in the US but gained greater popularity in the Northern Soul scene in the UK, where the song was featured on dozens of compilation albums released during the 1960s.
In Wilson’s rendition of the song (produced by Johnny Rivers) a rhythmic electric guitar and clavichord introduction gives way to delightful 8-drum roll, sweeping left to right across the stereo field. The bass enters with a plectrum-inflected groove as brassy horns seize the upbeat and sing out a theme. A tape edit, not well-masked, is audible in the opening measures of the tune. The tempo drags slightly in the first verse, as Wilson’s voice recounts the story of a woman encountering a nearly frozen snake upon a path on her way to work early one morning. More tape edits are audible here, as Wilson narrates the women expressing concern for the snake and volunteering to help it: “‘Poor thing!’ she cried, ‘I’ll take care of you.’” The chorus and second verse continue,
“Take me in tender woman
Take me in, for heaven’s sake
Take me in, tender woman,” sighed the snake.
She wrapped him up all cozy in a comforter of silk
And laid him by her fireside with some honey and some milk.
She hurried home from work that night and soon as she arrived
She found that pretty snake she’d taken to had been revived.
Wilson marks the third verse dramatically as the key steps upwards by a half step. He constricts his throat into a nearly screamed falsetto, taking on the voice of the woman in the first line:
She clutched him to her bosom, “You’re so beautiful, ” she cried.
“But if I hadn’t brought you in by now you might have died.”
Trump’s campaign renditions similarly emphasized the line “‘You’re so beautiful,’” suggesting that he is familiar with the Al Wilson version. In a survey of the six videos of Trump’s “The Snake” narrative that are posted online, I never heard Trump offer credit to the composer, Oscar Brown, Jr., or to Al Wilson. Instead the (black) authorship of the narrative is obscured as Trump appropriates the lyrics as an allegory for the dangers of immigration. Trump’s appropriation of the song, once disconnected from its original sonic context, is wielded as a xenophobic tool to instill a sense of fear, linking immigrants to the image of the snake. The reference to the land of milk and honey was no doubt resonant for Trump and his campaign as well, for they selected this text as a central theatrical moment of the campaign’s spectacles. In prefacing his recitation of the lyrics at a Toledo, Ohio rally, Trump says simply, “Think of the border, people coming across. You know bad things are going to happen. It’s only a matter of time” (Speeches). Trump especially relishes reciting the last line of the second verse:
She stroked his pretty skin again and kissed and held him tight.
Instead of saying thanks, the snake gave her a vicious bite.
In the 1968 version, Wilson’s voice rises to a crescendo for the fourth verse, as the band modulates up another half step:
“I saved you, ” cried the woman
“And you’ve bitten me, but why?
You know your bite is poisonous and now I’m going to die.”
“Oh shut up, silly woman,” said the reptile with a grin
“You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.”
Throughout the lyric, Trump deviates from the original text in several significant ways. For instance, the woman’s expression of concern, “‘Poor thing!’… ‘I’ll take care of you,’” is changed to “‘Oh well…I’ll take care of you.’” This revision signals resignation or unwillingness rather than empathy. Second, the original lyric, “She found that pretty snake she’d taken to had been revived” is changed by Trump to “She found that pretty snake she’d taken in had been revived.” The switch from “taken to” to “taken in” marks a similar effort to express obligation rather than compassion. Third, as the choruses unfold Trump adds adjective flourish to each line, describing the snake as “broken” then “vicious.” These narrative shifts reflect Trump’s appropriation and recontextialization of the lyrics in the service of xenophobic rhetoric.
As I will suggest in conclusion, rhetorical devices such as Trump’s appropriation of “The Snake” were essential elements of his campaign’s spectacle and message. Inculcating fear as a basis for rationalizing authoritarianism was a primary theme of Trump’s ascendency to the presidency.
Threat, Authoritarianism and White Nationalist Logic
Trump strongly relied on the use of fear throughout his campaign. In an article for The Atlantic entitled “Donald Trump and the Politics of Fear,” Molly Ball writes, “Trump is a master of fear, invoking it in concrete and abstract ways, summoning and validating it” (p. 13). My analysis of “The Snake” shows one way in which Trump appropriates song lyrics as xenophobic allegory, intended to instill fear in his realized or potential constituency. In the article “Perceived Threat and Authoritarianism,” Feldman and Stenner inventory psychological studies that make the link between perceived threat and inclinations towards authoritarianism. Their nuanced empirical study does not support a blanket correlation between threat and authoritarianism; however, they do conclude that “threat appears to be critical to the activation of authoritarianism” (Feldman and Stenner 1997, 765). Trump’s fear rhetoric—and in this case his use of “The Snake” allegory—gained wide traction via Internet media. I would argue that these threat tactics did in fact activate a renewed authoritarianism amongst Trump supporters.
Furthermore, Feldman and Stenner show that “Those high in authoritarianism become more punitive and ethnocentric under conditions of threat” (Feldman and Stenner 1997, 762). This conclusion suggests that personalities already predisposed to authoritarianism become more willing to engage in punitive and ethnocentric logic when they feel threatened. This tendency is on display in the contemporary U.S. as Donald Trump’s campaign has reopened space for racist and xenophobic attacks, and for a resurgence of white nationalist organizing. As Trump welcomes Stephen Bannon into his budding administration, the latent connections between the Alt-Right and Trump are becoming more manifest.
In the context of this emergency, we need political and cultural formations that can combat the authoritarian-activating logic of Trump. As we have seen with the three cases outlined above, music, aesthetics and allegory are important sites of contestation in the political and social struggles we face today. It is my hope that better understanding how gains were made by the Right in this moment might provide a catalyst for renewing strategies to challenge and contain the surge of white nationalist authoritarianism that helped lift Donald J. Trump to the presidency.
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 Interpellation, a term coined by French Marxist philosopher Louis Althousser, describes the process by which ideology addresses the individual. To illustrate how interpellation functions in the context of ideology Althousser used the example of the policeman who shouts “Hey, you there!” At least one individual will turn around (most likely the right one) to “answer” that call. At this moment, when one realizes that the call is for oneself, one becomes a subject relative to the ideology of law and crime. According to Althusser, this is the way in which ideology generally functions. Adapted from: (Brooker 1999)