Syndicated columnist Byron York: Trump's J6 national anthem mashup

Former President Donald Trump does not usually play the national anthem when he appears at rallies around the country. Trump enters the arena to the strains of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA." He walks around the stage, soaking up his fans' enthusiasm and support, and begins his remarks when the song finishes.

The former president did things a little differently at his first campaign rally of the 2024 campaign on Saturday evening in Waco, Texas. Trump's 757 - "Trump Force One" - was parked behind the stage, forming the backdrop for the speech at Waco Regional Airport. When "God Bless the USA" began, Trump appeared in the doorway of the plane and slowly walked down the steps to the stage as the crowd cheered.

This time, when "God Bless the USA" finished, Trump did not walk up to the microphone to start his speech. Instead, he stood near the podium as an announcer said: "Ladies and gentlemen, please rise and place your hand over your heart for the No. 1 song on iTunes, Amazon and the Billboard charts - 'Justice for All,' featuring President Donald J. Trump and the J6 choir." Trump placed his hand over his heart and stood at attention.

The "No. 1 song" is the national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," with a twist. It begins with an ominous-sounding synthesizer chord, and then a chorus of men singing the anthem's first words: O say can you see, by the dawn's early light, What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming ... Then the voices stop, the synthesizer returns, and Trump's recorded voice begins the Pledge of Allegiance: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America ... Then the pledge stops and the singing returns: Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight, O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming ... And then Trump's voice again: And to the republic for which it stands ...

And so on. In Waco, the song was accompanied by a video of scenes of Washington, D.C., the American flag and Trump's presidency, interspersed with pictures of men in orange prison jumpsuits. When the national anthem got to the words, And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air, the video switched to pictures of rioters fighting with police at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Then, as the anthem continued, the video turned to more scenes from Trump's time in the White House. It ends with the singers chanting "USA! USA! USA!" and a slide that says: SUPPORTING CERTAIN PRISONERS DENIED THEIR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS.

"That song tells you a lot," Trump said when the video finished, "because it's No. 1 in every single category. No. 2 was Taylor Swift, No. 3 was Miley Cyrus. So we have our moment, and that tells you that our people love those people. They love those people." The reference to "those people" was apparently to some number of accused or convicted Jan. 6 rioters.

What to make of that? Well, first of all, the national anthem is a durable song. Just go to sports events and political conventions and you'll hear it performed, and sometimes mangled, in a million different ways. There are some really bad versions of "The Star-Spangled Banner" out there. It is fortunate that most of them cover only the first verse.

But what Trump did was different. Like something played by a club DJ in the early 2000s, "Justice for All" is a mashup - in this case, of the national anthem and Trump reciting the pledge. Trump recorded his part earlier this year at Mar-a-Lago, his home in Florida. The J6 choir part was recorded by a group of Jan. 6 prisoners singing over a jailhouse telephone. "When Trump heard about the original plan [to record the song], the former president asked to be directly involved," Forbes magazine reported recently.

Here's the problem. "Justice for All" is not the national anthem. Substituting it for the national anthem, and asking a crowd to stand with hands over hearts while the song is played as if it were the national anthem, is a violation not only of the national anthem but of the patriotic moment that happens thousands of times every year across the United States when crowds rise to sing it.

Over the years, various activists have used the occasion of the anthem to make a political statement. In recent years, NFL football players and other athletes knelt during the playing of the anthem, ostensibly as a protest against racism. Then-President Donald Trump called for them to be fired.

Before that, it was fairly common for protesters to refuse to stand during the playing of the anthem. And before that, in 1968, came perhaps the most famous anthem protest of all, when two American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised fists with black gloves as a sort of black power salute on the winner's stand during the playing of the national anthem at the Mexico City Olympics.

Now, a former president has joined in using the national anthem to protest. Trump even surpassed the earlier protesters by actually altering the anthem to insert himself reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. What would President Trump have told protesters who did such a thing for their own cause? He would have told them to knock it off, right now. Don't mess with the national anthem. But now, Trump is doing it himself.

© 2023, Universal

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