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Trump's rally playlist is the best metaphor for his shallowness

The Beatles and the Rolling Stones are crowd-pleasers — even when the songs clash with Trump's message.
Image: A play button with overlapping red and blue silhouettes of Trump dancing
President Donald Trump's rally playlist is a perfect distillation of his vacuous, surface-level campaign.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

As we finally — finally! — hit the homestretch of the presidential campaign, we're soon going to say goodbye to one of the most baffling things in politics right now: the Trump Rally Playlist — the music blared from giant speakers at the beginning and the end of each of President Donald Trump's campaign events. I truly believe that there's no better metaphor for the campaign or the man it's being used to get re-elected.

In a strange way, the campaign playlist may be the most on-the-nose part of a truly chaotic campaign. It's a heady mix of misplaced nostalgia and infectious feel-good energy. And to the campaign's credit, it works. It gets the people going. The crowds, for all their mean-spirited energy ready for Trump's cue, are genuinely having a good time listening to it.

The actual lyrics, words and themes that the songs are crafted around, they don't matter. Like the diatribes the president launches during each rally's set — his toxic, free-form jazz, spiked with seemingly random phrases and motifs, improvisational in its details but unified in its self-promotional foundation — it's not about what's said in these songs. It's about the vibe they inspire.

If you're somehow unfamiliar with the oeuvre of the Make America Great Again (Again) rallies, fear not. The Trump campaign has uploaded the full list onto Spotify, so you can feel as though you're surrounded by a crush of unmasked people in red hats or stranded 3 miles from your car, all from the comfort of your home.

Scrolling through the playlist yields a collection of songs that to the untrained eye make absolutely no sense when lined up together. Everything you learned about making mixtapes from building the perfect flow of songs for your friends or your crush? Out the window here. In its place is an aural experience that wouldn't be given a second thought at the most innocuous event you can imagine that would still have a DJ — your most straitlaced friend's wedding, maybe, or a 40th-year high school reunion. And yet this list still manages to be chockablock with songs that are absolutely out of sync with the tenor, tone and message Trump wants to project.

The most frequently mentioned song that fits this description — given its title alone — is the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want." It's been a mainstay on Trump's campaign trail for his entire political career, often played as a closer after he's finished speaking. BuzzFeed News' Katherine Miller, in a piece written shortly after the song followed Trump's acceptance of the Republican nomination at the GOP convention in 2016, noted this affinity even then:

"That song is a hallmark of the Trump rally — maybe a screw-you to conservatives, maybe just a song that Trump likes, or maybe just one he knows you like, since that's what Trump's playlist is all about. At Trump rallies, they play Motown. They play jock jams. They play 'Tiny Dancer.'"

It's not surprising that the same preference for a confused combination of feel-good songs has continued as the re-election effort has done its best to capture the same beats as four years ago. That devotion has led to some truly surreal moments this time, as well, like when Trump first learned of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death as Elton John gently sang about the seamstress for the band in the background.

As the rallygoers wait to hear Trump's latest recollection of whatever he's watched on Fox News that day, they're treated to the campaign's best impression of an oldies radio station, playing hits that everybody knows and loves: "Free Fallin'" by Tom Petty; "Paradise City" by Guns N' Roses; Sinatra crooning "My Way" — and Richard Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries"? That last one seems a bit out of place, as do the Beatles' "Revolution," "The Music of the Night" from Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera" and the delightfully homoerotic energy of the Village People's "YMCA" and "Macho Man."

That's not to say the playlist features only songs from before the Clinton administration. You'll also find crowd pleasers like the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way" and "Don't Stop the Music" by Rihanna, neither of which really have anything to do with the rallies' substance. And, for some reason that I can't quite understand, Linkin Park's "In the End" is near the top of the playlist. That one may be the most sonically strange choice they've made, but not nearly the most dissonant.

That honor belongs to Creedence Clearwater Revival's classic song "Fortunate Son," which really, truly epitomizes how little the campaign cares about the message a song is trying to convey. It has become a favorite in the last few months, and it was even blaring as Marine One flew in low over the crowd at Florida's largest retirement community last week.

Far be it from me, who has no real experience running political campaigns, to second-guess the choice to let a song railing against the privileged children of the elites — who get everything handed to them from their parents and managed to dodge the Vietnam draft — be played within 5 miles of Trump. But it seems like something you'd want to reconsider if you thought your audience would care about the connection.

As with many of the songs on the playlist, its use is not exactly cleared with the musicians. Which is to say the musician who wrote the song has issued a cease-and-desist order, which the campaign has ignored entirely. Actual veteran John Fogerty went in on Trump's use of "Fortunate Son" in a statement that he tweeted out Oct. 16.

The preference for a glossy, surface-level aesthetic over any deeper meaning that the songs on the playlist represent matches the president's energy in a way that absolutely tracks. He is the dense, dead star that catches all that drifts into its orbit, consuming them and rendering what was once discrete matter part of his mass. Because he is who he is, it's impossible for any part of the campaign — including the rally playlist — not to match the man, a truism seen from top to bottom.

Trump's well-documented habit of leaving people on the hook for goods and services provided to him — including $380,000 owed to a Las Vegas drapery factory and $83,600 to a New Jersey cabinetry business? The campaign follows suit there, as Politico reported in August that at least 10 cities hadn't been reimbursed for nearly a million dollars of work put in by local police and fire departments.

Stiffing lawyers for the legal fees he owes them? Trump has been sued by multiple lawyers over the years. And now it appears that his campaign hasn't been paying up there, either, as a delinquent $52,000 payment in the case against former White House staffer Omarosa Manigault Newman shows.

Because he is who he is, it’s impossible for any part of the campaign — including the rally playlist — not to match the man.

The campaign has also followed the president's lead in its lies and reneging on contracts — even those related to public safety in the middle of a pandemic. The Washington Post says Duluth, Minnesota's local government had gotten the campaign to sign an agreement limiting its Sept. 30 rally to 250 people. The campaign broke the agreement, letting 2,500 people onto the airport tarmac. Documents The Post obtained showed that "local officials suspected the campaign would violate the agreement but shied away from enforcing public health orders for fear of provoking a backlash."

The owner of an orchard in Maine likewise said in a note on its website Tuesday that the campaign had misled it about how many people would be attending an event on its property. Instead of the "small, unpublicized, surprise, private, photo op which gave us no cause for alarm," about 3,000 people showed up for the event, according to the Bangor Daily News. Treworgy Family Orchard said that while it normally enforces mask-wearing and social distancing, it had to turn over those functions to the Secret Service at Sunday's campaign stop.

And much as Trump has shown himself to be a financial garbage disposal, grinding through loan after loan without repayment and several trips to bankruptcy court, so, too, has his campaign laid waste to a $1 billion financial advantage in the lead-up to Election Day. "You could literally have 10 monkeys with flamethrowers go after the money, and they wouldn't have burned through it as stupidly," Republican consultant Mike Murphy told The Associated Press on Oct. 20.

There's not much that we're going to miss when this campaign season is finally wrapped. It's been a weird and wild one, even by presidential race standards. But I think one of the few things I will think back fondly on is this absolutely bonkers playlist. Much like the campaign that designed it, it is mendacious, glib, vacuous and aimed at the lowest common denominator — but at least you can dance to it.