Trump and Keith are a natural fit, to the extent that Keith performed at the inauguration concert in January despite not having supported Trump’s candidacy. “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” released in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, infamously warned Al Qaeda that “you’ll be sorry that you messed with / The U.S. of A / ’Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass / It’s the American way.” Country music, especially Keith’s radio-friendly contemporary kind, has become inextricably linked to the sort of people who are stereotypically associated with Trump’s unlikely success: rural, working-class Americans who may lack exposure to cultures from beyond the United States—and who, in today’s political climate, aren’t always friendly to Arabs or Muslims.
The uncompromising, sometimes-abrasive masculinity that both men embody is an aspect of American culture that the State Department isn’t always eager to showcase abroad. Public-affairs officers in embassies worldwide perhaps recognize the ugly reputation that the United States has in certain places, and so rush to compensate by instead highlighting America’s contributions to ballet, painting and, yes, jazz.
But besides our swaggering president and his salt-of-the-earth supporters, Toby Keith is also reminiscent of something else: the proud, nostalgic, masculine Arab culture of the Gulf. Both the American heartland and the Gulf states are places that revere the wild and past, when life was simpler and purer—whether cowboys on the sweeping prairies or bedouins who, in some cases, only settled down a few decades ago. God, the land, the military and traditional family values are inescapable in both. Even Toby Keith’s stars-and-stripes guitar is a direct descendent of the Arab oud that he’ll be sharing a stage with on Saturday. And both cultures feel pulled between the idealized, noble past and the comforts of the present—a tension that’s audible in Keith’s pop-country as well as his Saudi counterpart’s synth-heavy Arab dance music.