David Crisp: A musical campaign interlude


David Crisp

By their music shall you know them.

The first presidential campaign to hit Billings this month was Bernie Sanders’. Pre-speech music was by Satsang, a local group with an indie rock vibe.

Perfect. Sanders showed that he is independent, unconventional, in touch with the young voters who filled the Montana Pavilion at MetraPark.

Next was Hillary Clinton’s campaign, represented here by her lesser half, former President Bill Clinton. Music was by Star Nayea, a Seattle singer and songwriter accompanied by recorded music.

Perfect. Clinton showed that Democrats are the party of diversity and inclusion, without getting too far out of the mainstream. What better than solo singing by a Native American woman in town for a meth conference?

Finally came Donald Trump, preceded by recorded music heavy with the occasional aria and big cuts of classic rock: the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Perfect. If you vote for Trump, not only will America be great again, but the music will be great again, too.

The speeches also had a musical vibe. I listened to Sanders in person at MetraPark, then on YouTube to the speech he gave earlier that day in Missoula. I was initially struck by how different the two speeches were.

But on closer listen, it sounded like Sanders was just assembling bits at each venue from a longer stump speech. It was like going to see a vintage rock band; the set list may vary from night to night, but it’s basically the same show.

Listening to Bill Clinton reminded me of going to see B.B. King when he played at the Shrine Auditorium not long before his death. He had played bigger venues, and he may have been past his prime, but he still was better than almost anybody else at striking just the right note. Bill Clinton has done some ugly things, but he remains a master politician.

Trump’s disjointed style has been compared to improvisational jazz, but it struck me more like improv comedy, without the comedy. He got off a few one liners, but assembling those discordant notes into something resembling a full skit would have worn out Buster Keaton.

The most striking contrast between the three events was in tone. The Sanders and Clinton speeches each had a bright touch of “High Hopes,” but Trump’s talk was pure lowdown blues. Sanders complained as much about how the country is run as Trump did, but he left listeners with the feeling that it’s somehow fixable with conventional political tactics. We all just have to pull together, get out and vote, and elect some people who aren’t afraid of the word “socialist.”

Clinton’s talk was a wonk’s delight. We don’t need free college tuition, just some carefully calibrated tax breaks and student aid. We don’t need to lock up Wall Street financiers and throw away the key, just reward companies that do the right thing. Fixing America isn’t about revolution, it’s about tweaking policies.

Neither Sanders nor Clinton said much in Billings about Trump, but the Trump rally was all about his crazy, crooked opponents. Trump’s message was simple and depressing, at least for those of us who think America is a pretty great place. America never wins anymore, he kept repeating. Nobody likes us. We elect losers. Welcome to America, the world’s hellhole.

It’s the sort of talk that, had it come from Barack Obama, would have been taken as final proof that he is a Kenyan socialist who hates America and wants nothing more than to destroy what’s left of it. In Trump’s world, that kind of talk passes as patriotism.

Even when there was a positive message, it seemed to fall flat. One of the early speakers, Tammy Hall, asked for a show of hands by veterans. It was hard to tell for sure from my vantage point, but it seemed to me that MetraPark contained far more veterans than I saw hands.

That figures. If soldiers learn anything, it’s never to raise your hand without being sure of the consequences.

Even when Trump delivered his usual dismissal of the assembled press as “dishonest,” the assault lacked much sting. I was standing in the roped-off press section, so I suppose that is as close as I will come to ever being personally insulted by Trump.

If you remain among the few Americans not yet insulted by Trump, I can assure you, it ain’t that bad. I’ve been called worse things by better people.

Trump told the crowd that he can deliver such rambling speeches, without notes or teleprompter, because of the love he feels in the room. It may have been a telling admission since some authors of books about Trump have characterized his career as a lifelong search for the love he never quite felt at home.

For the Billings fans who love him, he kept it plain. We don’t need to fix Wall Street. We don’t need to fix Congress. We just need to elect one really smart guy, and he will take care of everything. Fortunately for us, that guy happens to be Donald Trump.

The rest of us can go back to whistling “Dixie.”

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