In her new single “Commander in Chief,” Demi Lovato speaks directly to President Donald Trump, not about him. She appeals to a sense of humanity that, she seems to argue, most of us have. “Were you ever taught when you were young,” the first line goes, “If you mess with things selfishly, they're bound to come undone?”
In her new single “Commander in Chief,” Demi Lovato speaks directly to President Donald Trump, not about him.
It’s an interesting approach to a protest song about a person who, as Lovato and her co-writers posit, “[gets] off on pain.” She references most of Trump’s recent greatest hits in the lyrics: the deadly downplaying of Covid-19, the depiction of Black Lives Matter protests as a violent uprising, the lack of a response to the California wildfires, the pandemic plunging more and more Americans into poverty. But throughout, the song characterizes this dark watershed moment in our country’s history as being us vs. him. Less than three weeks before Election Day, it couldn’t be more clear that this framing is inaccurate.
While this tremendously momentous election hinges on Americans not becoming complacent about Trump’s cruelty, it’s just as important to remember that he’s never acted alone. Lovato’s song paints a picture of a monster operating individually and unchecked, while the rest of the country watches in horror. As Republicans race to confirm his Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett in what many have characterized as a bid to ensure that Trump is declared the victor of a contested election, this kind of sentiment is narrow — and even naive.
If we did live in the country this song describes, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other Justice Department officials wouldn’t have enforced Trump’s directive to have children separated from their parents at the border, as The New York Times reported early this month. Elected officials like Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn would speak out against the president publicly, instead of claiming he has voiced opposition behind closed doors. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would have consistently shared the most accurate and up-to-date information about the novel coronavirus instead of allowing Trump’s administration to influence messaging for its own gain. The president would have been impeached last December, or even before. Members of his own party would have spoken out during his campaign as he mocked people with disabilities and stoked racially motivated hatred. They wouldn’t have been silent as sexual assault accusation after sexual assault allegation was levied against the candidate.
Going back to her single’s first line, Lovato sings about selfishness like it’s something to be ashamed of — something we should overcome as children when we learn to share our toys. But selfishness is woven into the very fabric of “the American dream.” It if wasn’t, “socialist” wouldn’t be thrown around as an insult. Americans are encouraged to succeed for their own benefit, not to help others rise along with them. Whether or not they find him personally off-putting is irrelevant; Trump has been a boon for those who see opportunity in his chaos.
If we did live in the country this song describes, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other Justice Department officials wouldn’t have enforced Trump’s directive.
In her lyrics, Lovato wonders how Trump can sleep or breathe knowing what he’s responsible for. But I think what’s even more demoralizing for most of us is that he’s been enabled every step of the way; by supporters who loudly and explicitly admire his barbaric tactics and by politicians who don’t mind riding his coattails to get close to what they want. It’s his base hand-waving Trump’s shocking tax returns because they admire that he’s gamed the system, as they wish they could. It’s politicians the other way when people seeking asylum are abused and medically sterilized because they may have otherwise utilized some of our resources. It’s Christians knowing Trump has made a mockery of faith America, but tolerating him in order to continue their fight against reproductive rights or protections for transgender citizens.
It’s telling that The Lincoln Project, the media-savvy super PAC of "Never Trumpers" who’ve drawn criticism for neglecting to acknowledge the Republican party’s role in bringing (and keeping) Trump in power, have already latched onto “Commander in Chief,” putting together their own music video for the track. Continuing to prop up Trump as a convenient (and singular) boogeyman is in the best interests of those who hold some responsibility for unleashing him on the country, but who would like to continue their own political careers without carrying that stain.
Of course, Lovato has every right to express herself through her art. And with “Commander in Chief,” she’s knowingly opened herself up to blowback, a risk many progressive singers have not taken. On Instagram, she addressed a fan who took issue with her politics and wrote that they hoped the song wouldn’t “ruin [Lovato’s] career.” The singer responded that she didn’t care whether it did, adding, “As much as I would like to be sad that I disappointed you, I’m too busy being bummed that you expect me, a queer Hispanic woman, to silence my views/beliefs in order to please my audience.”
Pop protest music has a proud American legacy, dating back decades and encompassing everything from Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” to Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” Though “Commander in Chief” is a valiant and valid entry into that canon, it lets everyone but Trump off the hook. Trump’s sins are the most blatant, but he’s not the only one who shouldn't be able to sleep at night.