The man who stood behind Trump

After his laugh was heard around the country, Joe Davidson is wondering: “I’m a good person. Isn’t that what people say about me?”

The man who stood behind Trump

After his laugh was heard around the country, Joe Davidson is wondering: “I’m a good person. Isn’t that what people say about me?”
Photos by Michael S. Williamson

A man on his way to see President 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 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.

In an image taken from video, Joe Davidson (in white shirt and blue tie) laughs behind President Trump on Oct. 2, 2018, as the president mocks Christine Blasey Ford's allegation of sexual assault against then-U.S. Appeals Court Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, who later was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice. (Video still)

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.”

The lucky life of Max Joseph Davidson II: A cousin was a former governor. In-laws were corporate executives. Friends were politicians and sheriffs. Joe’s contacts were such that he had met the chef Anthony Bourdain, the actor Chuck Norris, the singer Michael Stipe, the band Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the guy who played McLovin in the film “Superbad,” who had wanted to go to a college football game, which led to a call to Joe, who invited the actor to his tailgate at Ole Miss, where Joe had gone to school.

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.”

Joe Davidson displays a photo from the 1950s of his father, Max, and his mother, known as “Little Bun,” taken at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Joe Davidson jokes that this snapshot of himself holding a toy gun is proof that he has supported the Second Amendment for a long time. (Family photo/Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
LEFT: Joe Davidson displays a photo from the 1950s of his father, Max, and his mother, known as “Little Bun,” taken at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. RIGHT: Joe Davidson jokes that this snapshot of himself holding a toy gun is proof that he has supported the Second Amendment for a long time. (Family photo/Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

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.

“I got friends everywhere — I don’t know why that is, maybe ’cause I ain’t shy,” Joe was saying, and soon his phone rang again.

“Yes ma’am,” he answered. It was his sister-in-law, who was meeting him at the rally. “You told ’em you were VIP? Good. Good. All right. That’s perfect.”

He sped past more miles of fields with sprawling pecan trees and bales of cotton wrapped in pink plastic.

“These people got tons of mon’,” he said, looking out at all the farms.

He was in good spirits. He 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 M. 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.

“Shame on all of them!!!” wrote someone else.

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. When he went for a beer, a friend came over and said, “Hey, you famous?” and others stopped to shake his hand. 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”

Joe Davidson, standing in a field in Merigold, Miss., holds up one of the many banners in support of President Trump that he keeps in the trunk of his car. He was the Trump campaign chair for Bolivar County in 2016. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

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?”

He was still thinking about it all as he reached the outskirts of Tupelo.

It wasn’t just the angry reaction to the laughing that unsettled him, it was all the anger coming toward Trump, and by extension, Joe felt, him. If Trump was insensitive, he said, it meant Joe must be. If Trump was racist, it followed that Joe might be. He turned on the road to the airport, joining a line of cars.

“I do have feelings,” he said. “I’m a good person. Isn’t that what people say about me?”

He stopped at a police checkpoint, rolled down his window and looked up at the officer, squinting in the late afternoon sun.

“Yes, sir,” Joe said, handing him his ID. “I got VIP parking?”

The officer looked at the license and looked at Joe’s face.

“You’re good,” the officer said, waving him along, and he kept getting waved through one checkpoint after another until he reached the entrance for people who stand behind Trump.

“Is this VIP?” Joe asked a guard.

The man directed him 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.

Joe Davidson, presiding over a rainy day funeral at a cemetery in Merigold, Miss., takes the hand of an attendee who needed help getting over a mud puddle. Davidson works part time as an assistant funeral home director. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

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.

Loved it,” he said, pulling out of VIP parking. “Thought it was great.”

Everything Trump had talked about, he said, he loved. The border wall and making America “respected again.” Low unemployment numbers and a booming economy, which rang true to Joe, who was seeing his trust-fund check rise and new restaurants and hotels go up around Cleveland, including one affiliated with the Trump Organization. And when Trump had joked about looking like a blond Elvis when he was younger, Joe loved that too.

“I mean, how do you not agree with what he’s doing?” Joe said.

He knew Trump said crass things at times. But he also thought people judged the president too harshly, just like Joe thought people had judged him too harshly for laughing. He could see how people could disagree with Trump, but he didn’t see why people thought Trump was such a bad person — just as he didn’t see how standing behind Trump made him a bad person. Joe Davidson: immoral person, selfish privileged person, racist person, insensitive person who would laugh at sexual assault. It wasn’t at all how he saw himself.

“No how. No. Not never,” he said. “That’s a person with no heart.”

He kept thinking about it as he pulled out of Tupelo. 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.

Evening falls at Thompson Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Lula, Miss., north of Cleveland and in the heart of the Delta region. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

“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.

And some other things. Like how he’d made a silent promise to himself when he inherited his trust fund that he wouldn’t act like some rich jerk, but that he would be a good person according to all the rules he’d been taught about what that meant in a place such as Cleveland. He opened doors for the elderly. He tipped well. He said, “Love you, appreciate you!” to the lunch waitresses at the Senator’s Place.

“I’m a softy,” he said. “I care. It’s just the way I was raised.”

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 precisely because he considered himself a big-hearted, sensitive person. It made him feel good to comfort people.

“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.’ ”

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.

Joe Davidson comforts his teary, 18-month-old grandson, Cooper, after the boy bumped his head while playing. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

“Was there from the day I was born till the day she died,” Joe said. “Made me feel like I was the number one 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. He had called Powe’s family to make sure the inscription was okay — “I didn’t want to do anything that would hurt their feelings,” he said — and brought Powe’s family to Cleveland for the dedication. He wished people could have seen it, how Powe’s sister Dorothy had hugged him goodbye and said she would be praying for his wife, and how Joe had said “love you” as she left, and what he had said about her brother to a local TV reporter.

“He was real,” Joe had said, looking in the camera. “He was real. And it was right here from his heart. He cared about you. He was there for me whenever I needed him.”

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 didn’t remember seeing segregated bathrooms or water fountains in the Delta — “I just don’t remember that,” he said. He did not remember hearing about any racial violence, not even about Emmett Till, who was murdered in 1955 in the town of Money, about 50 miles from where Joe grew up. “Never,” he said. “And we spent a lot of time in Grenada, right off Money.”

He did not remember the Delta being a place of hate, not toward anyone, including him.

Women pick greens in a field in Beulah, Miss., next to cotton farms on land once owned by Joe Davidson's father. Thanks to a trust fund, Davidson lives on family money that goes back a century. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

“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 routinely lynched in the name of maintaining white power in Mississippi. Joe had been spared hearing such stories growing up, and as an adult, it was nothing he wanted to dwell on.

“If I’m in my space, and there are no problems, why am I going to go looking for a problem?” Joe said.

He thought about the things he knew, and the things 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 what Sank Powe’s sister had said, after the dedication ceremony, about her brother’s relationship to whites in Cleveland. “He made them think everything was fine,” Dorothy Powe 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 when he was dying. Joe and Willie played pool here and there, and lately Willie had been giving Joe a hard time about Trump.

Joe Davidson and Willie Matthews, co-workers at Cleveland Funeral Home, shoot some pool in Cleveland, Miss. They avoid in-depth conversations about President Trump. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

“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.

“Willie, that’s fake news!” Joe would say without getting into it further. He did not see how anyone could think Trump was so awful.

“Is there something I’m missing?” he said now.

He 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.”

Max Joseph Davidson III, left, has a friendly debate with his father, Max Joseph Davidson II, over NFL statistics as a recent Sunday game is projected onto a wall. Max and Joe face off against each other in a fantasy league. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

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.”

Nowadays, he said, people seemed so mad.

“It bothers me, you know? I want to be friends with everybody,” Joe said. “But people look at you with a hint of curiosity, and suspicion.”

He did not like being doubted.

He did not like being misunderstood.

He liked feeling good about himself, good about America and good about his place in it, standing behind the president. He glanced out the window at the clear black sky.

“Moon’s pretty,” he said. “That’s one thing about a Delta sunset and moon and a sunrise. You’re going to get it flat. It’s going to be right out there.”

The moon was almost full, and as Joe crossed into Bolivar County, it rose higher, lighting the empty fields and sprawling trees and the whole familiar landscape of his lucky life.

“What a great day,” he said.

Joe Davidson, seen in silhouette, stands next to an old sharecroppers shack in Merigold, Miss., where he was able to buy alcohol when he was in high school. In many ways, he says, he misses the old days. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

 

Credits: By Stephanie McCrummen. Photos by Michael S. Williamson. Designed by Joe Moore.