For someone raised in New York, who lived much of his life in Latin America and now resides in Miami and Washington, DC, I confess to being less than an expert in country western music. However, exposed to this wonderfully American genre of music as a young Marine, the twangy melodies and song lyrics about hardscrabble farmers, struggling factory workers, lonesome cowboys, boozy Friday night lovers, and Sunday church folk, have been a constant staple of my life’s personal soundtrack.
At the same time, reggaeton and rap music are more likely to be playing in the bars and restaurants and other public spaces I tend to frequent along the East Coast of the United States and throughout Latin America. I confess to being even less knowledgeable about these genres than country western, but the contrast between these two styles of very popular music offers an interesting and ironic insight into how President Trump launched and maintains his base .... and how he continues to con them.
Let’s start with the lyrics of C&W and the manifestly obvious linkages to Trump’s campaign rally rhetoric. Country is all about old time values. It’s a confident rejection of big city slickers in favor of a quiet ride in your truck with your high school sweetheart, and purloined kisses out where the road ends, the creek runs full, and love between a good man and a good woman blooms like the night the stars fell on Alabama. It oozes sincerity in its glorification of home, hearth, safety, community. A little bit of hell raisin’, balanced by classic Jacksonian Republicanism that rejects the man, big government or any other authority that “ain’t from round these parts.”
These parts is a psychological as well as physical landscape where “Don’t Tread on Me” and NRA bumper stickers figure prominently on American-made trucks. Country music lyrics often tell the tales of military service, raising boys to make sacrifices for the things they believe in; women to do the same to keep traditional family values alive against adversity. Putting on airs and trying to be an elite anything (except a NASCAR driver or rodeo bull rider) is generally reviled.
It is the musical leitmotif of “Make America Great Again,” wistfully pining for simpler and better times. Its messages are immediately accessible and there is no coded language in them… “that kind of big city, liberal talk that unfairly calls us racists just because we believe in border security and the rule of law…,” as dear friends of mine have told me.
Without passing any value judgements, it is self-evident that most of modern rap and reggaeton quite literally comes from and belongs to another country within the United States. It is primarily made by and for Black and Hispanic audiences, although not exclusively. It’s crossover appeal, in fact, is astonishing.
Thematically, these two genres focus more on the acquisition and celebration of money, power, and status. Its videos feature often subservient and scantily-clad women parading before a pack of wooing suitors. Rap, in particular has long been criticized for certain artists’ glorification of violence, gang rivalries, and misogyny.
Rarely are issues such as values discussed, with the exception of chest pounding “RESPECT,” which often emerges as the great desire of the rapper who is dissed by colleagues or teachers or bosses – all frequently denizens of “upstanding society.” While love and infatuation are equally regular themes of rap and reggaeton, it is accurate to say that it ain’t the music you’ll hear at Trump rallies all that often.
So here’s the irony. Trump has sold to his supporters, a minority of Americans whose professed values align well with country music, a vision of America that more accurately reflects the self-aggrandizing and individualistic elements of reggaeton and rap.
Again, it is important to state that this is a generalization. There are examples of both types of music that speak to all manner of issues and values. But we are focused on the stereotype, precisely because Trump’s form of politics remains firmly rooted in stereotypical and superficial impressions.
He boasts of not paying taxes and claims that “is because I’m smart.” Because he is a billionaire, he feels empowered to grab women by the same bit of anatomy gangsta rappers often do in their videos. He boldly pounds his chest and claims that the United States is finally respected around the world when objective polling demonstrates precisely the opposite is true. Trump’s personal life is certainly not endorsed by country preachers who seek to model their flocks’ behavior on a compassionate, forgiving and just Jesus. Most cowboys would spot him a mile away in any bar as the central casting New York braggart of sardonic Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson songs.
In short, neither Donald Trump the man, nor his Administration’s policies truly represent the values or lifestyle that C&W often bemoans as belonging to a past tense, yet he sells to them a vision of getting it back again, all the while pedaling the snake oil of a carnival huckster’s rap.