The White House has always welcomed the famous and the influential, a group that has long included celebrities.
Harry Truman met with Duke Ellington; Dwight Eisenhower was friendly with Bob Hope; John F. Kennedy was the same with Frank Sinatra; Lyndon Johnson shared the stage with Dick Van Dyke; Richard Nixon famously met Elvis Presley; Gerald Ford hosted George Harrison; Jimmy Carter met with Willie Nelson; and presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush both hosted Michael Jackson. Bill Clinton once invited Steven Spielberg to stay in the Lincoln Bedroom, and George W. Bush met Bono in the Oval Office. Hollywood stars and famous musicians were a fixture of Obama’s White House, a fitting presence for a president who brought an aura of celebrity to Washington.
It’s hard to call these meetings political, at least in the narrow sense of partisan politics (save, perhaps, for those cases where campaign donations were involved). But they weren’t without meaning; who a president brought to the White House said something about the image he sought to project and the people he tried to speak for.
Obama, in particular, brought a rotation of popular and esteemed black artists to the White House for performances and meetings, from singers and musicians like Beyoncé and Stevie Wonder to actors like Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker to rappers like Kendrick Lamar, directors like Ava DuVernay, and documentarians like Deborah Riley Draper. This elevation of black art and black performance, from the first black president, was a statement of inclusion, a declaration that the story of American achievement is also the story of black art forms and black excellence. That the latter is an integral part of the former. These meetings weren’t political per se, but they were part of Barack Obama’s politics.
Donald Trump is a celebrity and has met his fair share of the same while in the Oval Office. On Thursday, a photo from one of those meetings made the rounds. It shows the president at his desk with five visitors. To his right, musician Kid Rock with fiancée Audrey Berry. To his left, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, musician Ted Nugent, and Nugent’s wife, Shemane Deziel.
If cultural representation is part of what the president does, then these visitors reflect Trump’s base, nothing more and nothing less. Palin rode her paeans to “real America” in the 2008 presidential election to a reality television career before settling as a frequent presence in conservative news and entertainment. (She was also an early and barely coherent endorser of Trump.) Kid Rock is a staple of the white, blue-collar entertainment circuit, and Nugent is a vocal advocate for gun ownership and hunting, who roots his message in a kind of white rural identity (and who also, you may have heard, wrote “Cat Scratch Fever”).
But there’s more at work in this picture than just representation—additional meaning that isn’t too hard to extract. As a candidate for vice president, Palin wasn’t just an avatar of folksy traditionalism, she was a demagogue who attacked Obama as a racialized other, a quasi-foreigner who “palled around with terrorists.” And with these attacks, Palin presaged Trump’s rise to prominence on the strength of “birtherism,” the conspiracy theory that Obama is not an American citizen and is also possibly a Muslim. Kid Rock wasn’t as outwardly hostile to the former president—though, in one interview, he knocked him as “Obummer”—but his image is rooted in a similar culture of opposition and resentment, where you fly the Confederate flag and tell black protesters to “kiss my ass.”
Then there’s Nugent, who made racism his signature during the Obama years. In 2012, he wondered if it would have been better for the Confederacy to have won the Civil War, thus saving “limited government.” In 2013, he blasted Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton for speaking in “Ebonic mumbo-jumbo.” That same year, writing for right-wing conspiracy website World Net Daily, Nugent blamed Trayvon Martin’s death on “the same mindless tendency to violence we see in black communities across America.” He later called Martin a “dope smoking, racist gangsta wannabe.” On Twitter, he’s called Obama supporters “subhuman varmints,” adding that “Pimps, whores & welfare brats & their soulless supporters have a president to destroy America.” Most infamously, he denounced Obama himself as a “subhuman mongrel.” And this is not to detract from a litany of misogynist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic comments. That is who the president brought to the White House. And like other presidential meetings, it means something.
Donald Trump built his political brand on racist conspiracy theories and rode to the White House on a wave of reactionary white rage, stoked by his demagogic campaign against Muslims, Hispanic immigrants, black activists, and assorted foreigners. Trump thrives on this anger, and he’s collected a coterie of celebrities—especially Palin and Nugent—who do the same. He is, in other words, a president who ran a racist campaign, meeting with men and women who sell racial defiance to an angry multitude of white Americans.
That image, of Trump and his visitors gathered around the Resolute desk in the Oval Office, sends a clear and unmistakable message. It’s one part cultural representation and one part cultural repudiation. It’s an attack on Obama, his legacy, and the ethos of inclusion he brought to the White House. And it’s a not-so-subtle declaration of victory. We took our country back, and now you have to live with it.