How Jason Aldean Explains Donald Trump (And Vice Versa)


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The commercial success of the country star Jason Aldean’s ode to small-town vigilantism helps explain the persistence of Donald Trump’s grip on red America.

Aldean’s combative new song, “Try That in a Small Town,” offers a musical riff on the same core message that Trump has articulated since his entry into politics: that America as conservatives understand it is under such extraordinary assault from the multicultural, urbanized modern left that any means necessary is justified to repel the threat.

In Aldean’s lyrics and the video he made of his song, those extraordinary means revolve around threats of vigilante force to hold the line against what he portrays as crime and chaos overrunning big cities. In Trump’s political message, those means are his systematic shattering of national norms and potentially laws in order to “make America great again.”

Like Trump, Aldean draws on the pervasive anxiety among Republican base voters that their values are being marginalized in a changing America of multiplying cultural and racial diversity. Each man sends the message that extreme measures, even extending to violence, are required to prevent that displacement.

“Even for down-home mainstream conservative voters … this idea that we have to have a cultural counterrevolution has taken hold,” Patrick Brown, a fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, told me. “The fact that country music is a channel for that isn’t at all surprising.”

Aldean’s belligerent ballad, whose downloads increased more than tenfold after critics denounced it, follows a tradition of country songs pushing back against challenges to America’s status quo. That resistance was expressed in such earlier landmarks as Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.,” a staple at Republican rallies since its 1984 release. Aldean even more directly channels Merle Haggard’s 1970 country smash, which warned that those opposing the Vietnam War and “runnin’ down my country” would see, as the title proclaimed, “the fightin’ side of me.” (Earlier, Haggard expressed similar ideas in his 1969 hit, Okie From Muskogee, which celebrated small-town America, where “we don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street.”)

Haggard’s songs (to his later ambivalence) became anthems for conservatives during Richard Nixon’s presidency, as did Greenwood’s during Ronald Reagan’s. That timing was no coincidence: In both periods, those leaders defined the GOP largely in opposition to social changes roiling the country. This is another such moment: Trump is centering his appeal on portraying himself as the last line of defense between his supporters and an array of shadowy forces—including “globalist elites,” the “deep state,” and violent urban minorities and undocumented immigrants—that allegedly threaten them.

Aldean, though a staunch Trump supporter, is a performer, not a politician; his song expresses an attitude, not a program. Yet both Aldean and Trump are tapping the widespread belief among conservative white Christians, especially those in the small towns Aldean mythologizes, that they are the real victims of bias in a society inexorably growing more diverse, secular, and urban.

In various national polls since Trump’s first election, in 2016, nine in 10 Republicans have said that Christianity in the U.S. is under assault; as many as three-fourths have agreed that bias against white people is now as big a problem as discrimination against minorities; and about seven in 10 have agreed that society punishes men just for acting like men and that white men are now the group most discriminated against in American society.

The belief that Trump shares those concerns, and is committed to addressing them, has always keyed his connection to the Republican electorate. It has led GOP voters to rally around him each time he has done or said something seemingly indefensible—a process that now appears to be repeating even with the January 6 insurrection.

In a national survey released yesterday by Bright Line Watch—a collaborative of political scientists studying threats to American democracy—60 percent of Republicans (compared with only one-third of independents and one-sixth of Democrats) described the January 6 riot as legitimate political protest. Only a little more than one in 10 Republicans said that Trump committed a crime in his actions on January 6 or during his broader campaign to overturn the 2020 presidential election result.

The revisionist whitewashing of January 6 among conservatives helps explain why Aldean, without any apparent sense of contradiction or irony, can center his song on violent fantasies of “good ol’ boys, raised up right” delivering punishment to people who “cuss out a cop” or “stomp on the flag.” Trump supporters, many of whom would likely fit Aldean’s description of “good ol’ boys,” did precisely those things when they stormed the Capitol in 2021. (A January 6 rioter from Arkansas, for instance, was sentenced this week to 52 months in prison for assaulting a cop with a flag.) Yet Aldean pairs those lyrics with images not of the insurrection but of shadowy protesters rampaging through city streets.

By ignoring the January 6 attack while stressing the left-wing violence that sometimes erupted alongside the massive racial-justice protests following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, Aldean, like Trump, is making a clear statement about whom he believes the law is meant to protect and whom it is designed to suppress. The video visually underscores that message because it was filmed outside a Tennessee courthouse where a young Black man was lynched in 1927. Aldean has said he was unaware of the connection, and he’s denied any racist intent in the song. But as the Vanderbilt University historian Nicole Hemmer wrote for last week, “Whether he admits it or not, both Aldean’s song and the courthouse where a teen boy was murdered serve as a reminder that historically, appeals to so-called law and order often rely just as much on White vigilantism as they do on formal legal procedures.”

Aldean’s song, above all, captures the sense of siege solidifying on the right. It reflects in popular culture the same militancy in the GOP base that has encouraged Republican leaders across the country to adopt more aggressive tactics against Democrats and liberal interests on virtually every front since Trump’s defeat in 2020.

A Republican legislative majority in Tennessee, for instance, expelled two young Black Democratic state representatives, and a GOP majority in Montana censured a transgender Democratic state representative and barred her from the floor. Republican-controlled states are advancing incendiary policies that might have been considered unimaginable even a few years ago, like the program by the Texas state government to deter migrants by installing razor wire along the border and floating buoys in the Rio Grande. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy raised the possibility of impeaching Joe Biden. The boycott of Bud Light for simply partnering on a promotional project with a transgender influencer represents another front in this broad counterrevolution on the right. In his campaign, Trump is promising a further escalation: He says if reelected, he will mobilize federal power in unprecedented ways to deliver what he has called “retribution” for conservatives against blue targets, for instance, by sending the National Guard into Democratic-run cities to fight crime, pursuing a massive deportation program of undocumented immigrants, and openly deploying the Justice Department against his political opponents.

Brown, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, pointed out that even as Republicans at both the state and national levels push this bristling agenda, they view themselves not as launching a culture war but as responding to one waged against them by liberals in the media, academia, big corporations, and advocacy groups. The dominant view among Republicans, he said, is that “we’re trying to run a defensive action here. We are not aggressing; we are being aggressed upon.”

That fear of being displaced in an evolving America has become the most powerful force energizing the GOP electorate—what I’ve called “the coalition of restoration.” From the start of his political career, Trump has targeted that feeling with his promise to “make America great again.” Aldean likewise looks back to find his vision of America’s future, defending his song at one concert as an expression of his desire to see America “restored to what it once was, before all this bullshit started happening to us.”

As Brown noted, the 2024 GOP presidential race has become a competition over who is most committed to fighting the left to excavate that lost America. Aldean’s song and video help explain why. He has written a battle march for the deepening cold war between the nation’s diverging red and blue blocs. In his telling, like Trump’s, traditionally conservative white Americans are being menaced by social forces that would erase their way of life. For blue America, the process Aldean is describing represents a long-overdue renegotiation as previously marginalized groups such as racial minorities and the LGBTQ community demand more influence and inclusion. In red America, he’s describing an existential threat that demands unconditional resistance.

Most Republicans, polls show, are responding to that threat by uniting again behind Trump in the 2024 nomination race, despite the credible criminal charges accumulating against him. But the real message of “Try That in a Small Town” is that whatever happens to Trump personally, most voters in the Republican coalition are virtually certain to continue demanding leaders who are, like Aldean’s “good ol’ boys raised up right,” itching for a fight against all that they believe endangers their world.

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