If Trump Opposed The Iraq Invasion, Why Did He Hire Toby Keith For His Inauguration?

flickr/U.S. Army
The country singer, who bullied Americans in opposition to the Iraq war, is a deeply hypocritical choice.

I n March of 2003, a little over a week before George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, country music superstar Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks remarked to a London concert crowd, “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.”

After her statement, Toby Keith, the man who will today perform as Donald Trump’s pre-inauguration concert headliner, began performing his concerts in front of a backdrop showing a doctored image of Maines locked in a romantic embrace with Saddam Hussein below the words “Dixie Duo,” continuing the time-worn practice of portraying women who speak out politically as sexual traitors.

“Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” did more to popularize the Iraq invasion than any of Bush’s bumbling speeches possibly could have.

Keith’s bullying of Maines for opposing the Iraq invasion stoked the fires of jingoist outrage at a time when a pro-war, far-right website was organizing a call-in campaign that pushed country radio stations across the country to drop the Dixie Chicks’ songs. It came at a time when talk-radio hosts and cable personalities had renamed them the “Dixie Sluts” and online harassers had threatened to murder them for vocalizing their opposition to the invasion. Though Keith later claimed that he never supported the Iraq War, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” his song about putting boots in people’s asses, did more to popularize the Iraq invasion than any of Bush’s bumbling speeches possibly could have. Later observers even noted that his attack on Maines installed him as the “brawny poster boy for the war in Iraq.”

The song’s video shows American soldiers cheering as Keith belts out:

“Justice will be served and the battle will rage / This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage / You’ll be sorry you messed with the US of A / We’ll put a boot in your ass; it’s the American way.”

According to Keith, the song’s title ended up written on American tanks and bombs in Iraq and served as the nickname of the tank that toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein. The single went Platinum and sold nearly 1.5 million digital copies. His 2003 album Shock’n Y’all, a play on Bush’s “shock and awe” campaign that marked the March invasion, also included “The Taliban Song,” performed in the voice of an Afghani camel herder grateful to the U.S. for “dropp[ing] little bombs all over the holy land”:

“Now they attacked New York City ’cause they thought they could win / Said they would stand and fight until the very bloody end / Mr. Bush got on the phone with Iraq and Iran he said now / You sons a’ bitches, you better not be doin’ any business with the Taliban.”

The album went to number 1 on Billboard’s country chart, while the American Music Awards named it the year’s “favorite country album.”

Considering Trump’s repeated claims that he criticized the invasion from its outset (claims that are, unsurprisingly, dubious), his choice of Keith — whose music became a sort of soundtrack for the Iraq War — demands more scrutiny than it has so far received in the media… especially since Keith, despite his previous criticism of Trump, has been one of the most vocal in defending his choice to perform.

What are we to make of a politician, one who went on and on about how he spoke out against the Iraq invasion, hiring as his inauguration headliner a singer who viciously bullied a female colleague for speaking out against the Iraq invasion? Surely, the choice reveals the hypocrisy of Trump’s excoriation of Hillary Clinton for voting in favor of the Iraq Resolution.

Honestly, did anyone really think Trump cared about Clinton’s vote on the Iraq Resolution any more than he cared about her emails? (Let’s not forget that David Petraeus, who shared state secrets with his mistress, was on Trump’s Secretary of State shortlist, after all.) Trump hasn’t even taken office yet, but we are already in a constant state of being played.

One assumes that at Trump’s celebration, Keith will sing his song “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.” When he croons, “We’ll put a boot in your ass; it’s the American way,” to whom, exactly, will he be singing? To undocumented college students? Enemy beauty contestants? Women who don’t want their pussies grabbed? Perhaps to the “underrated” Meryl Streep or the “all-talk” Congressman John Lewis? It will be difficult to listen to that song and not hear it as just one more of Trump’s insults, and nearly impossible to avoid the creeping suspicion that in its 2017 rendition, it’s the American people themselves who are on the receiving end of Toby Keith’s boot.

In its 2017 rendition, it’s the American people themselves who seem to be on the receiving end of Toby Keith’s boot.

Keith’s inaugural performance also challenges the story he has built around himself as a patriotic supporter of the presidency and veterans. Despite attacking Maines for daring to criticize a sitting president, today he will be performing for a man who gained his political fame by attacking and blatantly lying about the birth certificate of a sitting president.

Compare Keith’s horror at Maines’ act of voicing her shame on the (friendly) foreign soil of England with his own lack of shame when it comes to Trump’s dalliances with (not-so-friendly) Russia. Keith reminds us that he has performed concerts for American troops, but with today’s concert, he will lend his voice to a politician who, in an effort to denigrate John McCain, asserted that only subpar soldiers get captured in battle. In using his music and celebrity to prop up Donald Trump, just as he used it to prop up the Iraq invasion, Keith cements his place in history as a poster boy for the lesson that blind support of tyrannical leaders is not patriotism.

Toby Keith has cemented his place in history as a poster boy for the lesson that blind support of tyrannical leaders is not patriotism.

This is unfortunate, because Keith is actually not as simplistic a character as the one portrayed in his songs. Like many in the Bible Belt before the Bible Belt realized the Democrats had become the liberal party, Keith was raised a Democrat. He had disavowed the party by at least 2004, though, telling Larry King that “this Democrat today is not exactly . . . your daddy’s Democrat. You know, it’s — the parties have changed.” Once the Iraq War turned sour and the gleeful macho fantasy of invading another country had been replaced by its grim reality, Keith began issuing disclaimers. In late 2003, he said in an interview that as for the war in Iraq:

“The math hasn’t worked out for me on it. But I’m smart enough to know there’s people smarter than me. Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, George Bush — this is their job, and I have to trust in them.”

By 2007, when George W. Bush’s approval rating had sunk to 31%, Keith was telling reporters he had never supported the war at all.

But in the spring and summer of 2003, he was certainly doing a fine impression of someone who supported the Iraq invasion, going as far as to vilify a woman who had dared to question it. If he truly hadn’t supported it, he would have put his country above his career the way Maines did by speaking out in defense of what was right when it counted — and certainly before it became trendy to do so. One imagines that one day, when Trump has tanked the economy, gotten indicted, faked his own death, and retreated to a secret luxury villa on the Russian banks of the Black Sea, Toby Keith will tell us he never supported Donald Trump’s presidency either. When that day comes, we can only hope someone will bring out a photo of John Lewis and remind him of what not supporting tyranny actually looked like in 2017.

Or, for that matter, one could just point to Natalie Maines herself, whose Twitter feed last week proved that she’s still not ready to make nice:

Well, that makes 65 million of us.

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