Eric Wolfson on Elvis, the man who admired Nixon, and Elvis, the American brand
On June 9, 1972, Elvis held a press conference about his upcoming shows at Madison Square Garden in New York City. By this point, Elvis had already begun his Vegas tenure and was largely viewed as part of the establishment. Midway through, a female reporter asked him what he thought of war protesters and whether he would accept being drafted today.
Elvis responds, “Honey, I’d just—I’d just—sooner keep my own personal views about that to myself ’cause I’m—I’m—just an entertainer and I’d, I’d rather not say.” In a follow-up, she asks if other artists should keep their views to themselves—he replies with a simple “No.”
Elvis was never too political, though everyone seems to agree his default setting was as a conservative Republican. Elvis’s bottom-line appeared to be that you should support the country and its president no matter what, but he certainly seemed more engaged by Richard Nixon than any other president in his lifetime.
A year and a half after Elvis released From Elvis in Memphis, he famously met with Richard Nixon at the White House. Elvis was disturbed by the counterculture and requested becoming a federal agent to combat illegal drug use in America. He loved the trappings of societal authority—guns and police badges—and his holy grail was a federal narcotics badge, which he believed would allow him to help crack down on drug use, like a secret spy or a superhero. There is a childlike quality that undercuts the stark irony of the scene: Elvis, who would die an early death from drug abuse, believed he could save America from its drug epidemic.
Today, America is just as divided as it was in the Nixon years, if not more so. And when Donald Trump was elected President in November 2016, it only poured salt on America’s wounds. Over his years as President, Trump proved himself to be Nixon’s spiritual inheritor, increasingly repeating Nixon’s dog-whistle terms about “law and order” and the “silent majority”—not to mention overseeing the most corrupt administration since Watergate.
Many Trump supporters see the country as a showdown between “us” and “them,” as Trump tapped into the nostalgia for a past that never quite was (“Make America Great Again”). Theirs was a land of the free that willfully ignored the fact that the first slave ship arrived over half a century before the Declaration of Independence. Stereotypically, these Trump supporters like things they think of as “America”: Guns and Jesus, confederate flags and motorcycles, apple pie and Mom.
The fact that Elvis was a poor white male born in the Deep South, kept his mouth shut about Vietnam, and openly embraced Nixon (and guns) in his lifetime, it’s disturbingly easy to draw one political conclusion: If an 81-year-old Elvis had voted in November 2016, it likely would have been for Donald Trump.
If so, Trump returned the favor two years later when he gave Elvis the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 2018. Many speculated that one reason Trump honored Elvis was in part because there were relatively few people who would want to come to the White House to receive that honor from him, as nearly half of the awards were given to people who had passed away (Babe Ruth was another).
After Trump announced Elvis’s name—last, because really, who could follow him?—he showed a clip of Elvis singing “How Great Thou Art.”
“That was Elvis,” said Trump, beginning to stray from the script.
That was my idea, I said, “Give me a little—a little song.” That was, I guess, a little promotional ability. But I will tell you, he was something special. I’d like to hear the rest of that song. I don’t know why they cut it off so short. They have no promotional ability, that’s why.
To Trump, promotion is everything. He is reminiscent of Elvis’s manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, who literally began his career as a carnival barker, tricking people out of their money. When Elvis died and people asked the Colonel what he was going to do, he said that he was going to keep doing what he’s doing, just like when Elvis was in the Army. The fact that Elvis has arguably grown in fame and popularity since his death only further verifies that although Elvis, the man, is gone, ELVIS, the brand, lives on. That’s something Trump clearly appreciates.
Trump’s comments about promotion, coupled with his telling reporters that people used to think he looked like Elvis, caught Trump in his perfect dichotomy: He is a Colonel Parker who thinks he’s Elvis.
In Eugene Jarecki’s 2018 documentary The King—in which the director drives across America during the 2016 election year in Elvis’s Rolls Royce—he uses Elvis’s demise as a metaphor for America’s demise in the Trump era. Even before Trump gave Elvis the Presidential Medal of Freedom, I felt like Trump evoked the “Fat Elvis” caricature—a player past his prime, living only for the adulation of fawning crowds, as though it can fix the illness inside of him. He is a man who can no longer live up to his brand.
At the same press conference where Elvis was asked about war protesters in 1972, a reporter asked him how close ELVIS, the image, is to Elvis, the man. “Well, the image is one thing, and a human being is another, y’know,” Elvis replied. “It’s—it’s—it’s very hard to live up to an image, I’ll put it that way.”
If he is capable of self-awareness, I think Donald Trump would understand.
Want more insights into Elvis’ complicated identity as a cultural icon? Grab a copy of Elvis Presley’s From Elvis in Memphis today!