California Forum

Donny Rotten rages against the have-nots in America’s punk presidency

The Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten mugs during a 1997 appearance on the “Judge Judy” show.
The Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten mugs during a 1997 appearance on the “Judge Judy” show. AP

Shortly after the November 2016 election, a friend – a man whom I first met nearly a quarter century ago, when he wore a leather jacket, covered with metal studs and emblazoned with a variety of anarchist slogans – said that, in some ways, Trump reminded him of a punk.

Every so often, the phrase returns to me. There is indeed a perversely punk-like aesthetic to the old geezer, a man who shocks pretty much on reflex, and who seems to gain pleasure not from the intellectual value of his thoughts, or from genuine emotional connections he has built up with those around him, but from the sheer orneriness of his interactions with other human beings.

It’s as if Sid Vicious had been spirited away from New York’s Chelsea Hotel and put into a cryogenic slumber before he could successfully O.D., and then, in 2016, been thawed out as a cantankerous, stink-bomb-throwing senior citizen.

It’s as if Sid Vicious had been spirited away from New York’s Chelsea Hotel and put into a cryogenic slumber before he could successfully O.D.; and then, in 2016, been thawed out as a cantankerous, stink-bomb-throwing senior citizen who gets his jollies by humiliating and ridiculing others, and delivering absurdist soliloquies on his own greatness.

Trump’s semi-literate, exclamation mark-laden tweets, so jarring to the civilized eye and ear, are the cyber equivalent of the safety pin through the nose, the spiky pink haircut, the lyrics attacking Queen and country, the television thrown out the window of a sky-rise hotel room, the drunken-stupor vomit that follows out that window soon after. They are intended to shock and to break down norms, to shake up institutions, and to corrode, at speed, accepted social attitudes. Sow enough chaos, Trump’s Svengali, Steve Bannon, believed, and a new order can be created out of the ruins of the old.

Along that line, Trump’s hiring of one incompetent, corrupt, conspiracy-minded, sycophantic, or simply blindingly stupid person after another to head major government agencies is a deliberate wrecking ball policy, a poke in the eye to propriety. Trump surely can’t believe that out of 320 million Americans none is better qualified to manage the country’s massive education systems than Betsy DeVos. Or that EPA secretary Scott Pruitt is anything other than a man with his nose buried firmly in the trough.

Or that neurosurgeon Ben Carson knows the first thing about complicated housing issues. Or that Mick Mulvaney, who has spent his career seeking to weaken consumer protections, now that he is head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau gives a good god-damn about the well-being of ordinary, non-wealthy consumers.

So too, Trump’s rambling phone-ins to Fox News, in which he seems to deliberately place himself in legal jeopardy by all-but-admitting that he previously lied about what he did or didn’t know regarding hush payments to porn stars who allege he slept with them, are as needlessly exhibitionist, as tempting of fate, as a hardcore punk rocker stapling his eyebrow on stage just to goad the audience.

Yet punk was a revolt from below, a class-conscious, if nihilist, rage against the machine. It was, noted John Lydon – aka Johnny Rotten – in a 2016 interview with Lower Class Magazine, about overturning age-old class and wealth hierarchies. “One percent run the world,” Lydon continued in that interview. “One lousy percent run everything! Surely that has to change.”

Trump’s, by contrast, is faux-nihilism from above, the spectacle masking the plutocratic content. It is a grotesque rage of the haves against the have-nots, the moguls against the prols.

He has somehow resurrected the Sex Pistols’ deliberately anti-literate fury, the Clash’s wrenching, discordant, songs about impending nuclear annihilation, the Dead Kennedys’ lyrics about revolution. But in doing so he has turned them all malign and deprived them of their progressive political content.

In my writing classes, I sometimes ask my students to imagine speeches put to music. After all, some speakers, and writers, think rhythmically, musically, and others don’t. One can – and many have – put Churchill’s stirring words to marching band music, say, or to symphony accompaniment, in a way that one can’t with the words of his bland, Eeyore-like predecessor, Neville Chamberlain.

One can almost see Trump striding onto one of his flag-bedecked rally stages, wearing a ripped trash bag as a shirt, his scuffed Docs kicking some poor loser in the head as he goes, a medley of his tweets spewing forth from his mouth, faster and faster, louder and louder.

I’ve long thought that Trump’s murderous assault on the English language could never be translated into music. Now I’m not so sure. Those ugly, crude tweets, the barrage of exclamation points, the misspelled insults, the misogyny, the casual racism … there is, indeed, something punk-gone-‘orribly-wrong about it.

One can almost see Trump striding onto one of his flag-bedecked rally stages, wearing a ripped trash bag as a shirt, his scuffed Docs kicking some poor loser in the head as he goes, a medley of his tweets spewing forth from his mouth, faster and faster, louder and louder.

“Total witch hunt! TOTAL witch hunt!! TOTAL ****ING WITCH HUNT!!! Slimeball Comey! Lyin’ Ted Cruz! CROOKED HILLARY!!!!!”

He stops momentarily, picks his nose, flicks the snot into the audience – just because he can. He hawks a gob of spit on the concertgoers in the front row, those poor chumps who he once said would vote for him even if he shot someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue. The inflicting of humiliation will give him an almost erotic charge.

“It is only by way of pain one arrives at pleasure,” wrote the infamous 18th century chronicler, the Marquis de Sade. As the punk-politico knows they would, his spit-covered supporters scream their approval.

The president looks out over the rapture. “Biggest ****ing crowd ever,” he howls into the mic. “Everybody agrees. Biggest ****ing crowd.”

Sasha Abramsky is a Sacramento writer who teaches at UC Davis. His latest book is “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.” He can be reached at sabramsky@sbcglobal.net.

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