The man who stood behind Trump
Joe Davidson went viral as the man who laughed when the president made fun of Christine Blasey Ford, said Stephanie McCrummen. He wants you to know there’s a lot more to him than that video.
A man on his way to see President Donald Trump was speeding along a two-lane highway when his phone rang.
“Yes, ma’am…” Joe Davidson answered. “Tell ’em your name. Tell ’em you’re with me. We won’t have to get in a long line. We won’t have to stand out in the cold.”
He hung up and pushed the accelerator. He was going to a Trump rally, his third. He was a 61-year-old man in pressed khakis, a pressed blue oxford, and tortoiseshell glasses shining in the afternoon sun. He had a radar detector on his dashboard and a bag of lemon-honey cough drops on the console—“I just love these,” he said, reaching in—and the view through his windshield was of wide-open Mississippi Delta: blank blue sky, harvested brown fields, and little white puffs of leftover cotton trash that blew into the air as he zipped by doing a confident 85, explaining how all this came to be.
“I don’t know why, but I got a phone call one day,” he began. The call, during the 2016 presidential campaign, was from a state Republican official who’d heard he was a well-connected, can-do person around the Delta town of Cleveland, in Bolivar County.
“And she said, ‘Is this Joe Davidson?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ She said, ‘Joe. I hear you would be good up in that area to represent us in the Trump campaign.’ I said, ‘Well, let me think about it and call you back.’”
He thought about it. He loved Trump. It made him feel good to be asked. “So, I called her back and said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’”
And just that easily, Joe became not only the Trump campaign chair for Bolivar County, and not only a man on his way to see the president of the United States for the third time, but also one of the people chosen to stand behind Trump at his rallies. He was the one on the riser, clapping and cheering as the president spoke, usually within the frame of TV cameras beaming the rally onto screens across America, where people watching sometimes shifted their attention from Trump to the people behind Trump, and often to one face, and wondered who that person was.
That person was Joe.
He was a man of some wealth, his optimism high, his confidence strong, his place in a certain American firmament secure, speeding in a gold-colored sedan to a rally at the Tupelo airport, where his VIP pass was waiting. “I’m lucky,” he liked to say. “Privileged. I don’t mean privileged like I’m better than anybody. I just mean privileged like I’ve had everything just put there in front of me.”
He did not mind saying that he was living on family money going back a century. His father was a cotton farmer who once owned so much land in the Delta town of Beulah that when a stranger asked where the Davidson land was exactly, Joe said, “Go to Beulah and look around.” His mother grew up on an Arkansas ranch with its own commissary, and Joe was thinking about her now, driving along past miles of flat fields.
“Little Bun,” he said. “That’s what we called her. Had black hair to her waist. Always wore it in a bun at the nape of her neck. She was a Southern belle. Wore driving gloves. Had the most beautiful teeth at 94, the most beautiful teeth you’ve ever seen. You seen Gone With the Wind? She was the spitting image of Vivien Leigh. Loved anything to do with the royal family. Mama didn’t drink but later in life she’d drink Michelob Light and watch shows about the queen of England. Thought she was the queen of England. That tends to rub off on a child.”
He was above all his mother’s son, a carefree boy who became an open book of a man with enough self-awareness to understand what people must assume about a person like him in times like these. The ones who loved Trump probably figured he was a good guy. The ones who hated Trump probably assumed he was another angry white man, as if looking at one face for one moment on TV could explain a person’s life.
He was in good spirits. Joe was glad to be seeing the president again, although he had decided to be more cautious about expressing himself in front of the cameras, considering what had happened to him after the last rally he’d gone to.
He had been standing behind Trump, along with his friend Kenny—both wearing suits, Joe in a crisp white shirt and blue tie. They were having the time of their lives, cheering the president and feeling patriotic. As Joe put it, they were all “geehawing,” an old Southernism that meant they were aligned. Then Trump went on a tear about the Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh, and the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, who had accused him of sexually assaulting her in high school. Trump started mocking her spotty memory, repeating “I don’t remember!” and “I don’t know!” over and over as people in the crowd began laughing and clapping, and Joe had joined in. He clapped and laughed and elbowed Kenny, who laughed too, and soon a video clip of the two of them was flying around the internet. By the time Joe got back to Cleveland, friends were forwarding him angry online comments from all over the country.
“This is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen,” someone wrote. “Just like the people who would gather in the village square to cheer and jeer public executions,” someone else had written. He tried to brush it off, but the messages kept coming. When he turned on the television, there was his laughing face on the news. Joe posted a message on Facebook:
“Well, it’s been a whirlwind since Kenny and I attended President Trumps rally in Southhaven. We have been blasted by the left on social media, called everything in the book by people who don’t even know us…. I was in NO WAY making fun or trying to be insensitive to Dr Fords plight…. I really believe she went through a terrible time and something did happen, but not by Judge Kavanaugh….We live in the greatest country in world and I am super proud to be able to do so!! God Bless America.”
His Cleveland friends wrote back “YOU DA MAN!!!” and “I’m with you Joe” and “Love you! Joe for president.” But Joe found himself rereading the angry messages. “Who laughs at sexual abuse?” “Old white men afraid they will lose their privileges.” “Chilling.” “Sickening.” “Horrible people.” “How can they be so uncaring?”
When he got to the rally this time, Joe was directed onto the tarmac, where the music was blasting, and food trucks were selling hot dogs, and aides were tossing red “Make America Great Again” hats out into the crowd. Joe took his place on the metal risers behind the lectern with the presidential seal, more aware now of the rows of TV cameras and spotlights pointing in his direction.
Four hours later, feeling buoyed after hearing the president describe him and the rest of the crowd as “the men and women that make America truly great” and “hard-working patriotic Americans” with “big hearts,” Joe began the trip home.
After a while, the traffic thinned, and he was mostly alone on the two-lane, the fields and sky pitch-dark. He turned on a classic rock station at low volume. His phone rang.
“Hey, baby,” he said to his wife, who asked if her sister enjoyed the rally. “Yeah. She was eating it up. Just laughing and loving it. Yeah. Air Force One pulled right up to us. I mean right up to us. So. How you feeling? Oh, I’m sure. Aw, I bet. Well. Look, baby, I’ll see you in a little while.”
He hung up. He wished all the people judging him knew that he had been caring for his sick wife, who was home recovering from surgery. He wished they knew that before he left for the rally, he had taken her to the doctor to get a chemotherapy port installed. If people wanted to judge Joe Davidson, he would gladly tell them that.
He would happily tell anyone who asked that he did not have to work but chose to work part time as an assistant funeral home director. “I remember once, it was a baby who died,” he said. “I knew the family, and when we got to the house to pick him up, I said, ‘Look, we’re not going to take the stretcher in there. He’ll look like nothin’ on that stretcher.’ I said, ‘I’ll hold him,’ and I did. Held him all the way back to the funeral home. I remember his mother said, ‘I’ll never forget that.’”
Davidson and Matthews playing pool
He would love to tell all the people who said he must hate women that he had always been surrounded by strong women. He loved his wife, who was one of the strongest people he knew. He loved Little Bun, who used to sit in the back seat of his car while he drove her all over town, and was never afraid of expressing an opinion. And the woman who had essentially raised him, Edna Beatty.
“Was there from the day I was born till the day she died,” Joe said. “Made me feel like I was the No. 1 child. I’ve always missed her. A lot of people can’t understand that.”
Of all the assumptions he figured people made about him, the notion that he might be racist was the one that bothered him the most. He pointed out that Edna Beatty, for instance, was black and had been one of the most important people in his life. He wished people knew that another person he admired most in life was his high school baseball coach, Sank Powe, who was black, and who had helped ease the integration of the Cleveland public schools that Joe attended in the 1970s. Joe had recently raised money for a headstone for Powe’s grave, and a monument to Powe that was installed at the high school.
These were the people who had formed him growing up in the Mississippi Delta during the ’60s and early ’70s, he said, a place he had always seen through the lens of his own trouble-free experience. He did not remember the Delta being a place of hate, not toward anyone, including him. “Never felt any of that animosity, never,” Joe said.
He sped along in the dark through a place where civil rights workers were murdered and African-Americans were lynched in the name of maintaining white power. Joe had been spared such stories growing up.
He thought about the things he knew, and those he did not know as fully. He did not know much about the life and times of Edna Beatty. “Just knew she was there,” he said.
He did not know much about the people who did not support Trump, who in Bolivar County were mostly black and included Willie Matthews, who had worked at the funeral home for years and was the one who had told Joe that Sank Powe’s grave didn’t have a headstone because his daughters had run out of money paying for their father’s medical bills.
“You going to see that liar?” Willie recalled saying to Joe every time he took off for a Trump rally, and Joe would give it right back, making fun of Willie for wearing earphones all day long, listening to the late comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory rail against Trump.
Willie, who was 60, recalled other things about his life growing up in Cleveland: that he and other young black men would never walk anywhere alone, that they would always bring a stick or a bat to the movies or wherever they went in case they had to defend themselves against whites, and that even now there was a lingering sense of danger. Not that he and Joe had talked about any of that, he said.
“He’s never going to see nothing my way, and I’m never going to see things his way. But we’re going to remain friends,” Willie said, remembering what Joe told him every time he teased him about Trump.
Joe sped along, tires thumping on asphalt seams. He passed Ole Miss, where he still enjoyed his Saturday tailgates and football games like he did when he was in school. “I had a blast there,” he said. “That’s God’s country right there.”
After a while he passed near the road to his old family farm, where he’d lived in a big, old house that one day had caught fire and burned to the ground. He missed it. He missed Edna Beatty. He missed Sank Powe. He missed Little Bun and all the people he felt had loved him, who had assured him he was a good boy and a good man.
“You always want to go back to part of your life that you loved the most,” Joe said. “It was kind of my ideal back then. It was such a good time. I mean nobody had any hang-ups.”
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission.