The mild autumn weather, the grassy slope of the outdoor amphitheater, the anticipation for a rock-star headliner — they all gave Donald Trump’s Oct. 14 rally in Greensboro the feel of a small music festival.
It didn’t hurt at all that the campaign’s playlist, which never varies, heavily favors late ’60s and early ’70s classic rock, with no act better represented than the Rolling Stones.
The Stones’ swagger is undoubtedly an appealing part of the association, but given the cascade of revelations and allegations involving sexual misconduct by the candidate, the lascivious aspect of the music has become impossible to ignore. Maybe it’s time to retire “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” a song that was considered so risqué when it was released in 1967 that many radio stations refused to air it. Of course, when triage mode for a campaign involves urging the candidate to stop insulting women and veterans, no one should expect such a small matter of nuance and tone to top any staffer’s list of concerns.
Besides, the songs are part of a complete package that builds the audience’s adoration for their misunderstood antihero. The throbbing rhythm underneath Mick Jagger’s pleading vocal, “Don’t hang me up and don’t let me down/ We could have fun just foolin’ around,” seemed to buoy the middle-aged woman swaying on the grass while holding a “Make America Great Again” sign overhead as she danced with a young boy who might have been her grandchild.
Of course, a song like that is also a jab at a sense of prudish sexual propriety. It feels right for an audience that would squeal with delight when Trump mocked Jessica Leeds — the woman who accused him of grabbing her breasts and trying to put his hand up her skirt on an airplane — by saying, “When you looked at that horrible, horrible woman last night, you said, ‘I don’t think so.’”
Trump’s supporters appreciate the earthiness of their candidate, the fact that he doesn’t mask his appetites with phony sophistication. And yet it’s baffling that Trump continues to play to the passions of his dwindling hardcore base. Elections are won and lost at the margins. The lusty throngs packing the arenas to see him are already in his column. The audience he needs to reach are the reluctant independents who get their information through the television and other “mainstream” media that Trump regularly denounces as “corrupt.”
The multi-generational crowd reminded me of a rainbow gathering, and stylistically the comparison wasn’t too far off, considering the large cohort of people unostentatiously dressed in denim and faded working-folks attire, men with full beards and women with long hair tied back in utilitarian fashion. From the senior citizen wearing an oversized Uncle Sam hat to the dude sporting a biker-style full beard and shaved head while dressed in military fatigues with a T-shirt inscribed with the word “infidel,” they seemed bound together as a tribe of misfits hopelessly outnumbered by a hostile mainstream. There was the African-American man who chanted, “Blacks for Trump,” during the candidate’s litany of inner-city woes and drew looks of appreciation from the mostly white crowd. There was the white man with short sandy hair wearing an American-flag collared shirt who made me think of a right-wing Hunter S. Thompson character — someone who believes deeply in America and yet feels alienated by the America he sees before him. Out of sorts with society, they’re finding community with each other and an imperfect candidate whose demand for loyalty is embodied in an early Stones song in the rotation that repeats the desperate entreaty: “You gotta tell me you’re coming back to me.”
When “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” came on, a youngish television reporter called up to his cameraman, “Is that ‘Brown Sugar’?” Fortunately, it wasn’t. There’s an undercurrent of misogyny and racism in much of the Stones’ catalogue, and nowhere is it more evident in the lead track from Sticky Fingers, which explicitly eroticizes racial oppression with the lyrics, “Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields/ Sold in a market down in New Orleans/ Scarred old slaver knows he’s doin’ alright/ Hear him whip the women just around midnight/ Brown sugar, how come you taste so good/ Brown sugar, just like a young girl should.”
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” with its distinctive intro featuring church-choir vocals and gently strummed acoustic guitar, holds a special place in Trump’s musical pantheon. It’s not only part of the rotation, but plays the candidate out as he leaves the stage.
There must be some special significance. I somehow find it doubtful that it’s a subconscious admission that the candidate knows he’s going to lose this election.
I’d like to think instead that it’s a wink to his audience signaling that they shouldn’t really believe his magical promises to bring back their jobs and make America great again, that this is all a showbiz stunt playing suckers for great ratings.