Clay Aiken’s video announcing that he’s running for Congress in 2022, seeking a seat in North Carolina eight years after his first, unsuccessful bid, has raised a lot of questions. Is North Carolina ready to “elect the South’s first gay Congressman,” as Aiken puts it? Do the kids know what American Idol is? And is making people post “I feel old” on social media an effective campaign strategy?
(My answers are, respectively, “I don’t know,” “No,” and, “Sure, here I am writing about a guy running in a crowded Democratic primary in North Carolina’s Sixth District.”)
In any case, Aiken may face a bigger hurdle than fading celebrity: his onetime defense of Donald Trump.
He and the former president have a tumultuous history. After taking second place on American Idol in 2003 and launching a successful singing career, Aiken competed on The Celebrity Apprentice in 2012, finishing in second place once again. Though Trump played the boss on the reality competition show, Aiken later claimed that, unsurprisingly, producers actually decided which contestant to cut; Trump just read their instructions off a teleprompter that looked like a phone on his desk. “He didn’t make those decisions, he didn’t fire those people,” Aiken said.
Aiken revealed all this on a July 2017 podcast interview, during which he described Trump as a “very gracious person” and “a nice guy,” even as he questioned his leadership skills. As some supporters of Aiken’s primary opponents have already started pointing out on Twitter, he went even further in defending his former TV “boss” during the 2016 campaign. In a March 2016 Fox Business Network interview, Aiken said he liked Trump, and described him as “kind of like that uncle that gets drunk at the wedding and embarrasses you. You love him, but you wish he’d shut up.” Aiken added that while he disagreed with Trump politically and was worried about how he’d behave in office, “I don’t think he’s a fascist. I don’t think he’s a racist. I think he’s a Democrat.”
Aiken felt compelled to retract this admittedly muted praise after Trump blamed “both sides” for the violence during a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Aiken said in two tweets that have since been deleted (but were captured at the time by HuffPost):
— Clay Aiken (@clayaiken) August 15, 2017
— Clay Aiken (@clayaiken) August 15, 2017
Today, failing to accept that Trump was racist in the middle of the 2016 campaign makes Aiken’s political judgment seem a little suspect. But in his defense, he was quite a bit more clear-eyed than most political analysts about how that election would go down.
His prescient analysis hasn’t received much attention, perhaps because he shared it with the likes of Khloé Kardashian during a roundtable of former Celebrity Apprentice contestants on Chelsea Handler’s Netflix show. In a July 2016 episode, Aiken said that while he hoped Hillary Clinton would win, he was worried that she wouldn’t generate enough enthusiasm to overcome Trump’s appeal to certain voters.
“One of the things I found interesting as I was running [was that] Republicans would come to me and say, ‘I’m going to vote for you just because I’m sick and tired of politicians.’ And that I think is the question this year,” Aiken said, as Billboard reported at the time. “I think that those folks who don’t like politicians are more motivated to vote. As much as it pains me to say it, I think that Hillary Clinton doesn’t inspire people enough to get folks off their asses on November 8 to go and vote.”
Aiken went on to argue that people were too confident in Clinton’s prospects. “We say Hillary has no chance of losing, Trump’s never going to be president, and people continue to say that and they will stay home and it’ll end up being like Brexit in England where we end up having a clown president for four years,” he said.
Aiken’s remarks start at the 4:40 minute mark in the video below.
Clearly, political prognostication is a tricky business. Take, for instance, my own sarcastic quip in a 2014 post on Aiken announcing his first run for Congress: “Someday we’ll look back on today as an important milestone in our march toward abandoning elections in favor of selecting our leaders via reality competition show.” Right nightmare scenario, wrong candidate.