Arts & Entertainment Editor
“[Donald Trump] could be Oi!” my brother says when I broach the topic of the conflating of Trump with punk, most recently circulating the internet following yet another viral photo of Sex Pistol’s Johnny Rotten in a Make America Great Again shirt. “They welcomed skinheads.” However, what’s missed in this conversation and the greater context of considering Trump as punk is the ideological groundwork punk that skinheads have come to work to subvert and erase. It is this ideological heart of punk that keeps it alive and beating today. Yet, that doesn’t stop some punk musicians and fans alike from rallying behind Trump. With the election impending, it’s time to scrutinize the romanticization of Trump’s anti-political correctness.
So, what the f—k even is punk, and why do people think Trump could be it? Every generation has it’s sound of counterculture: from jazz to rock to punk to grunge to hip-hop and beyond. It’s a statement against the mainstream. “[Punk] is a passionless and immediate dismissal of intimidation,” said Henry Rollins of Black Flag in a New York Times article discussing the implications of punk 40 years post-popularization. “A contempt for organized power structures that registers as pure instinct.” The sounds of punk itself, taking inspiration from the words of Steve Diggle of the Buzzcocks, can be best described as an understandable cacophony of chaos meant to disturb the senses, mix-up complacency, and cause a reaction. This is where the correlation between Trump and punk arises: chaos and positioning oneself against the establishment.
“[Trump] has co-created a space in American politics that is uniquely transgressive, volatile, carnivalesque, and (from a certain angle) punk rock,” James Parker writes in The Atlantic. “It’s as if the Sex Pistols were singing about law and order instead of anarchy, as if their chart-busting (banned) single, “God Save the Queen,” were not a foamingly sarcastic diatribe but a sincere pledge of fealty to the monarch.” There’s this idea among certain supporters that Trump’s “drain the swamp” will turn out to be anti-establishmentarianism, instead of focusing on the scholars linking Trumpism to the rise of fascism. However, after almost a full term in office, one thing has become clear: while Trump has positioned himself against corporate democrats, he is certainly not against his own sense of establishment. All of Trump’s “performative fascism,” as Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, puts it, has emphasized the roots of fascism in ultra-nationalistic institutions.
It’s no secret that racist skinheads infiltrated punk for the aesthetic, sound, and anger, misdirecting this towards minorities instead of institutions (just as skinheads became synonymous with neo-nazi after moving from a working class statement to a far-right ideology). Take a look at the Riots of 1981 in Britain, particularly the Southall Riot, where skinhead youth attacked an Asian woman, leading to a conflict in the predominantly Indian and Pakistani area. This was a pinnacle moment, marking a rise of conservatism and the familiar phrase “law and order” (a fun marker of fascism too) and the convergence with punk sound and aesthetic. Police played an active role in these conflicts, but these riots marked a transfer from the economically disenfranchised alliance against the police, to police protecting skinheads and other fascist movements, but not just in Britain. In the lyrics of Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedys: “We ain’t trying to be police / When you ape the cops it ain’t anarchy.”
“Nazi Punks F—k Off” includes Trump. Yeah, there’s no one way to be punk, but, as GQ’s oral history of punks fighting off skinheads (who police often protected) shows, being a white nationalist certainly isn’t it. Yet, that’s where the idea of Trump being punk comes from, right? Nope. It traces back to when Johnny Rotten and The Sex Pistols, for instance, became infamous for swearing on TV (they also thought nazi symbols were a fashion statement, so) and other bands who were famous for crude language and even sexual displays. The idea of Trump being punk comes from him defying political correctness — such as saying f—k when talking about Iran on Rush Limbaugh’s live radio show. Punk is anti-political correctness, right? Only to a degree. Punk’s used slurs in their songs — you can look back to the Dead Kennedys for that — as a form of satire. Whether correct or not, it was a way of mocking and saying “why are you getting mad at me when you can be getting mad at the people actually saying/doing these things?” Calling things as he sees them isn’t enough of a reason for Trump to be punk because he isn’t endangering institutions but, instead, marginalized communities. Just because it quacks like a duck doesn’t mean it is one.
These old (and new) punks who’ve come out in support of Trump — or, hell, let’s even go back to Johnny Ramone endorsing Bush — illustrate the death of a common ideological punk and sound of punk. They have become what they positioned themselves against; just as racists infiltrated skinheads, fascism has infiltrated punk under the guise of anti-political correctness. Based on a formula that scores leader’s fascism based on certain actions, measured out of a total of 76 Benitos across various categories such as “information and media policy” and “chaotic administration” worth four Benitos each, The Washington Post gives Trump a score of 62 percent (though, published not even two months ago, this article is already outdated and ignores how the social environment of the U.S. differs from Italy and other fascist regimes).
Sure, Trump has the chaos (scoring four out of four Benitos for “chaotic administration”) and crudeness of punk, meaning, arguably, he is not the complete antithesis of punk. Trump could be Oi! or a skinhead or punk because of how White supremacists have misappropriated what was originally class anger. But why does it even matter that Trump and punk have become confused among some? People failing to separate Trump’s fascist tendencies from the anti-capitalist, anti-institution ideological founding of punk and even glorifying his promotion of White nationalist violence is dangerous. It marks a normalization of Trump’s fascist behavior in other cultures and trends. However, if you acknowledge the ideological roots of punk as separate from what we know today, as long as leaders like Trump exist as iconoclasts of progressivism, the spirit of punk will live on in protest songs of different sounds and genres.
Featured Image: Courtesy of Sage Amdahl