The musicians and celebrities who stood by Donald Trump

The latest award of two National Medals of Arts was a surprise, because the arts world has never been pro-Trump. Who has bucked the trend?

Jon Voight receives the National Medal of Arts from US President Donald Trump in 2019
Jon Voight receives the National Medal of Arts from US President Donald Trump in 2019 Credit: AFP

It’s a lonely time to be Donald Trump. After the storming of the Capitol on January 6, the House of Representatives, including 10 Republicans, voted to impeach the outgoing US President for an unprecedented second time, charging him with “incitement of insurrection”. 

Meanwhile, his corporate chums have been fleeing the floundering ship in droves. Companies from JP Morgan Chase to the Marriott hotel group have paused donations to the Republican Party. And the Professional Golfers’ Association decided to hit Trump where it hurts: confirming they will not use his courses for the 2022 men’s tour. 

But it seems that Trump still has support from an unlikely source: musicians. Even as that historic second impeachment was being finalised, it is reported that country music stars Toby Keith and Ricky Skaggs were at the White House to receive the National Medal of Arts. 

Established in 1984, the medal is the highest award given to artists and patrons by the US government, and recognises individuals or groups for “outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts in the United States”.

Keith and Skaggs’s awards have a last-gong-out-of-Saigon feel to them. But they are predictable choices. Keith played at a rally during Mr Trump’s 2016 election campaign, and at his subsequent inauguration concert – notoriously one of the most toxic tickets in town that year. A former star of American football, he is best known for his stomping, flag-drapped single, Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue. Otherwise known as the Angry American, it vaunts the US military and promises: “It’s going to be hell when you hear Mother Freedom come ringing her bell/ This big dog will fight if you rattle his cage.” 

Skaggs has a similar pedigree. Inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2018, the 66-year-old multi-instrumentalist is notable for his virtuoso banjo picking – and evangelical Trumpism. “I believe Donald Trump is the right person in the right place, and that it’s prophetic,” he said in the run-up to the 2016 election.

Trump has been uncharacteristically retiring in dishing out National Medals of Arts. Including Keith and Skaggs’s silverware – which was not announced beforehand, and has not entered the official record yet – the president has only awarded six. Barack Obama, by contrast, doled out a lavish 70. Though it might be an accurate reflection of Trump’s interest in the arts, it could equally indicate that few people with a high profile, creative or otherwise, wish to be photographed grinning bashfully next to him. 

The New England Patriots’ coach, Bill Belichick, for instance, recently turned down the chance to receive a medal from the President. “I was offered the opportunity to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which I was flattered by out of respect for what the honor represents and admiration for prior recipients,” he said.  

“Subsequently, the tragic events of last week occurred and the decision has been made not to move forward with the award. Above all, I am an American citizen with great reverence for our nation’s values, freedom and democracy.”

Perhaps to avoid similar snubs, Trump’s previous picks for the National Medal of Arts, in 2019, were cautious. They include the country singer Alison Krauss, the media entrepreneur Sharon Percy Rockfeller, the musicians of the US military, and the actor Jon Voight. 

Voight is the most outspoken of the bunch. The Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy star has long been a redoubtable Maga-fan. He posts regular videos on Twitter, backed by an American flag, in support of the outgoing president; on January 11, for instance, he released a video praising Trump’s four years in office, and warning that the voices of the Capitol rioters “will be heard”. (He also stressed that “violence isn’t who we are”.)

The rapper Ariel Pink has been dropped by his label after being pictured at the US Capitol riot

After the scenes last week on Capitol Hill, however, there are signs that any public association with Trump will be seriously career-denting. The indie rockers Ariel Pink and John Maus found themselves at the centre of a social-media storm after they were pictured on Instagram at the rally; Pink has subsequently been dropped by his record label, Mexican Summer. 

By contrast, the roll-call of musicians who came out in vocal support of president-elect Joe Biden during the election campaign was extensive, including (to name only a few) Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Billie Eilish and Cardi B. Next, Tom Hanks will front a TV special celebrating Mr Biden’s inauguration on January 20. Among those performing will be Demi Lovato, Justin Timberlake and Jon Bon Jovi. 

Trump’s roster, by contrast, was scantier. The rappers Lil Wayne and Lil Pump said they would vote for him. And Kanye West has at points expressed somewhat erratic support, though he dropped out and ran for president himself.

These artists are unusual, though. The bulk of the president’s musical champions are still likely to come from the country and bluegrass heartlands, from which Keith and Skaggs hail. After all, their stridently individualistic lyrics and thumping patriotism appeal to audiences who proudly cling to Hillary Clinton’s label “deplorables”. 

It doesn’t look like the Trump show will slow down any time soon. Just expect the soundtrack to be a little more monotonous from now on.