The Parallels Between Trump’s America and Springsteen’s U.S.A.
To get a deeper look into the minds of Donald Trump’s supporters, I suggest listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. (again). Springsteen is the maestro of ballads for the American downtrodden. His characters used to work in the factory, don’t recognize their hometowns, lose economically. And lately we’ve watched them vote for Donald Trump in the Republican Primaries.
Of course, there are outdated references on Born in the U.S.A. The Boss — Bruce, that is — wrote about America in the wake of Vietnam and the culture clashes of the ’60s and ’70s. His characters pine for the ’50s and break down under the weight of nostalgia for a bygone era. But with minor tweaking, the songs are easy to update. We can replace “Saigon” with “Baghdad” or “Kabul.” Clashes over racial equality and women’s rights in the ’60s are now clashes over gay marriage and, well, racial equality. And Springsteen’s own decade, the golden age of Reaganomics, is something like America’s temporal Eden.
Politicians have infamously misinterpreted the title song, often using it as an appeal to American pride. However, beyond the song’s irony, there’s one line that sticks with me:
Had a brother in Khe Sanh, fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone.
Bruce’s character is palpably angry here. It’s nearly incomprehensible to him as an American that we have lost, and it has become a source of deep resentment. This is Trump’s rallying cry.
The injustices mount in “Born in the U.S.A.” The same boy who had a rifle in his hand couldn’t find a job at his local refinery and couldn’t get help from the V.A.
It mounts as we travel down the tracklisting too. My favorite song “Downbound Train” is probably the saddest of all. Of his new job, Joe croons, “Now I work down at the carwash, where all it ever does is rain.” The subtle poetic flourish is rare for the album’s no-frills approach, making it that much starker and more beautiful.
The Boss was singing about the decline of manufacturing a good decade before NAFTA was signed in 1994. Bruce didn’t know that he was in the midst of what would become halcyon days for factory workers.
Now, Trump has harnessed the emotions of a new Springsteen class.
The makeup of this class is relatively uniform on Born in the U.S.A. Characters often identify with traditional values, (“Bobby Jean”) are nostalgic (“Glory Days”; “No Surrender”) and ache from the loss of their livelihoods (“My Hometown”; at times “Dancing in the Dark”). I love Born in the U.S.A. not because I identify with these views or feelings. What I enjoy are the sullen and uniquely American portraits. Springsteen plumbs deep into lives with intimate details. Joe, who’s lost his job at the lumberyard and feels like he’s on a downbound train, dreams about his ex-wife and runs to look for her in their old house, only to find their bedroom empty.
Trump never dreams of the electorate. He doesn’t deploy the admittedly cheesy trope of “voters he met on the campaign trail.” However, without these stories, we understand the danger of their absence. It’s like a fiction story that isn’t specific enough to be believable. What happens to the anger Trump is representing? It becomes faceless, and it becomes easier to insert scapegoats. China is the reason you don’t have a job. So are Central American immigrants. Never mind the tales of children escaping horrific violence is Guatemala. The details don’t matter.
Springsteen values are insidious in the hands of Trump. The Donald’s campaign has been a sickening entanglement of reality and fiction. He lacks the nuance to connect on a personal level. Trump makes a better subject than author.
From Donald I hear only anger. Obviously there are perils to comparing politicians and artists, but I believe there are better uses for that emotion. In “My Hometown,” Bruce makes the hurt and pain Trump represents more complex.
They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says ‘these are going boys and they ain’t coming back to your hometown.’
That’s a man I can sympathize with.