| Princeton University
Many journalists on my Twitter feed, especially those of a liberal perspective, were rather giddy over the supposed embarrassment derived from the unwillingness of A-List celebrities to perform for the inauguration of Donald Trump. Nevertheless, there were some stars on the stage. One of them was Toby Keith, a veteran country music singer.
Several commentators have rekindled a discussion about a song that Keith played at the inaugural concert, a tune called “Beer For My Horses.” The song contains these lyrics:
"Take all the rope in Texas
Find a tall oak tree, round up all of them bad boys"
Hang them high in the street for all the people to see"
It is abundantly clear that Keith is describing lynching. However, there is some context worth exploring. Other lyrics in the song, including the title, indicate that Keith is singing about vigilante justice is the Wild West. He affirmed this back in 2008, as controversy over the lyrics surfaced when a film, starring Keith and loosely based on the song, was released. Keith said the song was not “racist,” that instead it was about “the Old West and sheriffs and horses.”
In fact, this is believable. The glorification of violence in the Wild West is not an uncommon theme, as is evident in films starring everyone from John Wayne to Jamie Foxx. Lynching by hanging, while rightfully associated with white racism in the South, was also a grotesque punishment for criminals of all colors in the Wild West. Of course, discussion of lynching at a political gathering is uncouth, especially in the wake of multiple instances of unnecessary police violence inflicted upon African Americans, and Trump's strong language concerning the detention, and deportation of Latino, and Muslim immigrants.
Now, does the fact that the song was played at the inauguration mean something? Perhaps not directly; there is no indication that the United States is going to become lawless in the way that the Wild West was, or that an epidemic of lynching will arise. However, there is a dangerous nostalgia in the song that reflects the sentiment that put a supremely unqualified man behind the Resolute Desk.
In our wealthy, electronic, comfortable 21st Century, many of us like to revisit the riveting storylines of Roman legions, pirates, and cowboys. This is not a new phenomenon, of course. What is important is that we are capable of enjoying these stories because they don’t happen to us anymore; we do not physically feel the pain of ancient (or not-so-ancient) violence.
Yet Donald Trump promises to “Make America Great Again,” and most are still scratching their heads trying to determine the time period to which he seeks to return. He has harped on the idea that urban crime is rising, which is true in places and false in others. He has emphasized the criminality of a subset of immigrants. He has weaponized legitimate fear of terrorism into a gross campaign against Muslims in general. In “Beer For My Horses,” Keith sings about similar concerns about the proliferation of crime. In addition, the first stanza talks about a newscaster disseminating information about criminal activity, although the Wild West did not have the “six o’clock news.” This indicates how the blurring of the past and present occurs seamlessly.
Nostalgia for those times, as previously mentioned, is possible because they aren’t happening to us.