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The politics of punk in the era of Trump

Trump is Punk! It’s a hashtag. It’s a slogan on t-shirts and trucker hats. It’s a click-bait headline.

Milo Yiannopoulos, a former Breitbart editor, may have started this buzz with his speech (delivered in drag) at Louisiana State University on 22 September 2016, in which he claimed that “being a Donald Trump supporter is the new punk” because it would “piss off your teachers, piss off your parents, piss off your friends.” Then in October, The Atlantic published “Donald Trump, Sex Pistol: The Punk Rock Appeal of the GOP Nominee,” and after the election, the New York Post ran an opinion piece with the headline “Trump is the Punk-Rock President America Deserves” (9 November 2016). Despite social media protestations, “punk” became shorthand for Trump’s rule-breaking, anti-establishment campaign filled with unapologetic vulgarity and appeals to white male grievance.

Recently, a month before the 2020 election, photos of Johnny Rotten in a MAGA t-shirt set off a Twitter storm that revived the “Trump is punk” debate. Has Trumpism hijacked the meaning of punk like it has the Republican party?

The internet is warehousing a digital media archive that reduces punk to pissing people off—a caricature that belies the complexity and longevity of the political discourse embedded in punk’s confrontational style. Punk has been around for over forty years, and its material and musical archives offer ways to push back on the digital one.

Establishing the anti-establishment

Punk rock emerged in the mid-1970s as a rejection of bloated corporate rock stars who were out of touch with the lives of the late baby-boomers then coming of age. Its energetic back-to-basics music lowered the technical skills and financial requirements for kids to form a band. That’s one reason punk is described as “democratic.” Insofar as Trump represents a deskilling of the presidency—well ok, I’ll give that point to the “Trump is punk” folks.

However, Trump does not qualify as anti-establishment. He is a white man born into wealth, gifted a million dollars by his father to grow a real estate empire and a corporate brand. There’s not much scrappy Do-It-Yourself to that biography. Yes, he breaks established political norms, but he replaces them with autocratic ones—the polar opposite of punk’s rallying cry “Anarchy!”, which literally means without (an) a chief or ruler (arkhos).

To be sure, punk has a lot to answer for: its flirtation with Nazi symbols, the ritualized violence of the mosh pit, and the overwhelmingly white male demographic of its artists and fans. Punk has long been considered the musical language of outsiders, though not necessarily issuing from the perspectives of actual outsiders to the white patriarchal power structure. Yet punk’s cultural ethos has given rise to a diverse global ecosystem of punk rock subcultures including Afropunk, Latinx punk, riot grrrl, queercore, Taqwacore, and the activist collective Pussy Riot.

Nevertheless, punk has been claimed by the left and the right on the political spectrum to describe different visions of populism—one leading to a cooperative egalitarian society, the other to libertarianism and white supremacy. The ambiguity of punk politics originates with its early shock tactics that often attacked the idea of commonly held values.

Hijacking meaning

Punk’s fascination with Nazism started with the Dictators’ “Master Race Rock” (1975), and the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” (1976). As Steven Lee Beeber describes in The Heebie Jeebies at CBGB’s, these bands, populated by Jewish kids, used morbid humor to grapple with an identity for which the Holocaust loomed large. London punk clothing designers Malcom McLaren and Vivienne Westwood went a step further to design inflammatory t-shirts and neckties with decorative swastikas. Punk historians explain this as a punk version of Situationist détournement—the hijacking and rerouting of symbols and images in order to neutralize their propagandistic impact.

Johan Kugelberg Punk Collection, circa 1974-1986, # 8060. Rare and Manuscript Division, Cornell University Library

In theory, a British punk youth in 1977, with few job prospects and no tolerance for patriotic nostalgia, might have gleefully worn the swastika necktie to hijack the necktie’s aspirational symbol of a white-collar job. In practice, however, wearing a swastika necktie does not also neutralize the swastika as a symbol of rationalized genocide. Rather, it signals the person’s allegiance or sympathy, or at best indifference. Such cavalier treatments of swastikas beg the question of a shared understanding of history across racial, ethnic, and generational divides. This is how punk looks like Trump.

Punk songs, however, convey a more nuanced response to the historical fallout of World War II in terms that still resonate. The Sex Pistols’ “Holiday in the Sun” (1977) confronts the absurdity of a wall—in this case the Berlin Wall—as a political and physical barricade. At the end of the song, Johnny Rotten unleashes a verbal overflow (“I got to go over the wall, I wanna go under the Berlin wall, before they come over the Berlin wall”) that voices the desire to breach the wall from both sides. Listening to this song today, Trump’s obsession with building a wall along the US-Mexico border readily comes to mind. The queer Latinx punk band Downtown Boys has answered this moment with “A Wall” (2017), whose lyrics neutralize the symbol of a wall by pointing to the banality of its material existence: “from the broad side, to the hidden side . . . a wall is a wall, and nothing more at all.”

Reagan-era punks in the US also played the game of détournement, especially in homemade flyers advertising local shows. A 1982 flyer for the Dicks, a self-proclaimed “commie faggot band” from Austin TX, hijacked the police badge, turning a symbol of oppressive state authority into a punk logo and queer fetish.

Johan Kugelberg Punk Collection, circa 1974-1986, # 8060. Rare and Manuscript Division, Cornell University Library

A 1983 flyer for “Texas Night” at UC Berkeley’s notorious Barrington Hall features the Marlboro Man to evoke the media-constructed Wild West. With the Dicks in the list of bands, however, the image of a rugged cowboy becomes yet another queer signpost.

Aaron Cometbus Punk and Underground Press Collection, #8107. Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

This flyer also brings to mind a song by the headliner MDC entitled “John Wayne was a Nazi” (1982) with lyrics that flip the script on another media cowboy and beloved American icon: “late show Indian or Mexican dies, Klan propaganda legitimized… When I see John, I’m ashamed to be white.” The song indicts the United States for its own history of white supremacy and glorified genocide using a clever double détournement of punk’s Nazi imagery. The ambiguous hard-edged irony of 1970s punk gave way in the 1980s to direct political language and a new activist consciousness.

Rerouting punk

On 5 March 2012, three members of the Russian activist collective Pussy Riot were arrested for staging illegal protests and making punk music videos critical of Vladimir Putin. Two of them, Masha Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova, spent nearly two years in Russian prisons and labor camps. Days before the 2016 presidential election, I had the privilege of interviewing Masha; in one exchange with me, she made this remark: “Punk is a way of life…  a way to express yourself, you can shout as loud as you can, you can be totally abnormal because I kind of hate norms.”

In a topsy-turvy world of disinformation and corruption, it’s hard to say what is normal and what is abnormal. The memoirs of Masha (Riot Days) and Nadya (Read and Riot) offer gripping accounts of how they advocated for better conditions in their prisons through letter writing campaigns, legal briefs, and hunger strikes. In other words, they became committed to certain norms—of rights, justice, and the law.

This conceptual shift from illegality to legality has ramifications for punk as a political practice. The Clash once sang: “I fought the Law and the Law won.” Pussy Riot’s post-trial punk message is: Use the Law! This is not a vision of anarchy; rather, it is a vision of a functioning legal system and government institutions that protect human rights.

What is left to punk in the aftermath of Trump? Shocking confrontation may no longer be a viable punk strategy now that through Trump it has become a political norm, and a means of bludgeoning facts and institutions. In the face a lawless autocracy, punk politics may take the form of a methodical and rigorous response that thoroughly invests in the rule of law and restores faith in the democratic system.

 

Feature image by David Todd McCarty

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