Darkness on the Edge of Town

On the evening of November 5, 1980, a 31-year-old rock ‘n’ roller in a sweaty white shirt stood at a microphone in Tempe, Arizona, and ominously intoned to a crowd of thousands, “I don’t know what you guys think about what happened last night, but I think it’s pretty frightening.”

With that, he launched into one of his signature fist-pounding anthems, whose opening lines declare:

Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland

Got a head-on collision smashin’ in my guts, man

I’m caught in a crossfire that I don’t understand

The man on the stage was Bruce Springsteen, and the previous day’s “what happened” was the election of Ronald Reagan as the 40th president of the United States.  The song, “Badlands,” was written and recorded two years prior, but its driving rhythm section and portentous lyrics seemed to capture the national mood as no other track could—at least among the American left.  It was as though Bruce had been saving it up for just the right moment.  As it turned out, the dawn of Reaganism was it.

Indeed, the prince of the Jersey Shore would spend the balance of the ensuing decade fortifying his reputation as an apostle of blue-collar America—the embodiment of the desperate, unwashed workingmen who felt betrayed and abandoned by their country and government in favor of the upper 1 percent.  In this milieu, the Reagan administration, with its tax-cutting, “trickle-down” economics, would, in short order, become Enemy No. 1.

From that concert in Tempe onward, Springsteen’s whole musical identity assumed a more political bent, his songs coming to reflect the times as much as the dreams and inner torment of the artist himself.  Where Bruce’s earlier work breezily spoke of young love on the boardwalk and hemi-powered drones screaming down the boulevard, by 1978 he was already losing faith in the institutions that had raised him—the government, the social compact, his family—and increasingly threaded this perceived societal drift into otherwise personal tales of love, hatred, anxiety and midnight drag racing.  (A typical lyric from that time:  “You’re born with nothing / and better off that way / soon as you’ve got something they send / someone to try and take it away.”)

Because this heightened social awareness and unease coincided with the Reagan Revolution—and also because of his open advocacy for such people as John Kerry, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—Springsteen has long (and rightly) been associated with the Democratic Party and its base.  So it came as something of a shock for me when I recently re-listened—for, say, the dozenth time—to Springsteen’s 1982 album, Nebraska, and found that, song-for-song—in some cases, like-for-line—the record seemed to speak directly to the plight of the prototypical Trump voter in 2016.  Contained in those tracks—and, by implication, in the mind of the man who wrote them—are most (if not all) of the fears, disappointments and anger that drove millions of bitter, hardworking citizens—many of whom voted for Obama twice—to turn to Donald Trump as the last best hope to save the soul of their beloved, beleaguered country.  In many ways, Springsteen’s Nebraska—35 years old in September—serves as their voice.

You could begin with the album’s title track, which recounts the (true) story of a Bonnie and Clyde-like duo who senselessly murdered their way across the Midwest in the 1950s, only to conclude, “They wanted to know why I did what I did / well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”  Immediately following is “Atlantic City”—a concert staple to this day—whose protagonist bemoans, “I got a job and tried to put my money away / but I got debts that no honest man can pay.”  Worse still, in “Johnny 99,” we learn, “They closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late that month / Ralph went out lookin’ for a job / but he couldn’t find none.”  And so forth.

What is most consistent, and ominous, in these tracks—today and in their original context—is how inexorably the weight of economic despair eventuates in violence.  Along with the aimless, homicidal couple in the opener (“Me and her went for a ride, sir / and ten innocent people died”), the man in “Atlantic City” is forced to join the mob to make ends meet (“Last night I met this guy / and I’m gonna do a little favor for him”), while Ralph, aka Johnny 99, knocks off a town clerk in a drunken rage, later pleading to a judge, “The bank was holdin’ my mortgage / and they were gonna take my house away / Now I ain’t sayin’ that makes me an innocent man / But it was more ‘n all this that put that gun in my hand.”

Indeed, experience teaches us that certain acts of violence spring purely from desperation, hunger and a general lack of good options in life, and the ordeal of the 2016 election did little to disabuse us of this notion.

To wit:  It is a matter of public record that the core of Donald Trump’s minions viewed themselves (rightly or wrongly) as the most economically stretched class of people in a generation—folks without jobs, prospects or any real political power—and that Trump’s campaign, in turn, was the most physically intimidating in modern times, with scores of campaign rallies descending into fist fights, the aggressors egged on by the candidate himself, who bellowed, “If you see somebody with a tomato, knock the crap out of them,” adding, “I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.”  (He didn’t, of course.)

Certainly nothing good can come from lashing out at your own society in such an ugly way.  Yet Nebraska does not look down on its characters when they commit despicable acts.  Bleak as it is, the album is fundamentally an exercise in empathy for those whose circumstances have led them to feel that a life of crime is the only choice they have left.  In their shoes, are we so sure that we wouldn’t behave the same way?

Encouragingly, perhaps, Springsteen himself has not changed his view on this one whit.  In an interview with Rolling Stone last October—during which he couldn’t summon a single positive word for the president-to-be—he posited, “I believe there’s a price being paid for not addressing the real cost of the deindustrialization and globalization that has occurred in the United States for the past 35, 40 years, and how it’s deeply affected people’s lives and deeply hurt people to where they want someone who says they have a solution.  And Trump’s thing is simple answers to very complex problems. […] And that can be very appealing.”  Asked if he is “surprised” to learn that the man who inspired his 1995 song “Youngstown”—an elegy to the American steel industry—is now a Trump supporter, Bruce responded, “Not really.”

Trump, he seems to agree, is what David Brooks once characterized as “the wrong answer to the right question.”

Which is all to say that Springsteen understood the American electorate in 2016 better than the Democratic Party—as, in their own way, did the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—and that unless the party makes a more honest reckoning with its relationship to America’s basket of deplorables, it will be quite some time before Democrats win back the House, the Senate, the presidency and the Supreme Court.

If you’ve lost Springsteen, you’ve lost America.

Advertisements

The People v. Donald J. Trump

I can tell you the exact moment on Election Night when I realized the world was about to explode.

It was when PBS (or whatever I was watching) flashed a series of exit polls across the screen, and it was revealed that 53 percent of white women had voted for Donald Trump.

Seeing that figure, and performing a bit of number-crunching in my head, it was all I could do to reach for the whiskey bottle and think, “This is gonna be one long f**king night.”

Of all the statistics about how America chose its 45th president on November 8, none was more painful or disappointing than that, in the end, women did not come together as a bloc to elect their country’s first female commander-in-chief.  We knew that men couldn’t be counted on to get this done, nor could we expect that white people, as a whole, would ever make any bold, progressive move if they could possibly avoid it.

But women voting for Trump under any circumstances, let alone against Hillary Clinton?  It boggled the mind:  Whatever you might think about Trump’s so-called policies, how could any self-respecting woman throw her lot in with a candidate who regards all women merely as sexual objects and who has bragged about committing sexual assault and been accused by a dozen women of doing exactly that?

But then I recalled the moment in FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson, in which Marcia Clark assumed that having a largely female jury would guarantee that O.J. Simpson would be found guilty of murder.  Clark’s thinking was that women jurors would instinctively sympathize with Nicole Brown as a battered wife and condemn Simpson as a brute who controlled, tortured and ultimately killed her.

It made sense in theory.  In practice?  Not so much.

As it turned out, the ten(!) women on the O.J. jury were more sympathetic toward Simpson—a beloved athlete, actor and all-around celebrity whose natural charisma and calculated charm proved as irresistible in court as in all other facets of his life.  In the end, the Simpson trial became a referendum on the Los Angeles Police Department and 400 years of institutional racism in America, and not—as Marcia Clark hoped—a narrow case of spousal abuse gone berserk.  If anything—and quite counter-intuitively—Clark’s own standing as a strong, independent woman only made matters worse.

The gender dynamics in the O.J. trial proved nearly as compelling as the racial dynamics, and the entire Simpson saga is instructive to us now in understanding the $64,000 question, “How could Donald Trump possibly be elected president of the United States?”

In truth, the answer is almost exactly the same as it was in the fall of 1995, when every white person in America asked, “How could O.J. Simpson possibly be found not guilty by a jury of his peers?”

In short:  Because the team responsible for preventing it fundamentally misread its audience.

In 1994-95, Clark and company thought their case was about male aggression when it was actually about the racism of the LAPD.  And now, in 2016, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats thought the presidential election was about the character of Donald Trump when it was actually about the “forgotten Americans” who’ve felt screwed over by their government and want radical change in Washington, D.C.

In both cases, the two sides weren’t just making separate arguments:  They were speaking entirely different languages.

In the Simpson trial, the prosecution argued that O.J. had to be guilty because the science said so:  A trail of blood containing his, Nicole’s and Ron Goldman’s DNA was found leading from Nicole’s house to O.J.’s house via O.J.’s white Ford Bronco.  That’s to say nothing of the pair of matching gloves and O.J.’s long, long history of violent behavior toward Nicole.

Like any confident prosecutor, Clark trusted that the 12-member panel could put two and two together; all she had to do was present the information that would enable them to do so.

Same thing with Hillary:  Beyond her wonkiness and stamina, her entire campaign boiled down to quoting Donald Trump’s most vulgar and outrageous statements and assuming the electorate would realize how obviously unfit he is to hold any public office, and then vote for Clinton by default.

If your brain worked the same way as Clark’s and Clinton’s, you viewed their cases as offers you couldn’t refuse.  Of course O.J. was guilty!  Of course Trump is a moral disgrace who doesn’t belong within 100 miles of the White House!  How could anyone possibly think otherwise?

Fairly easily, as it turned out.  Not because they disagreed with the evidence, per se, but rather because they rejected the premise that the evidence could only be interpreted one way.

Sure, the DNA showed that O.J. murdered Nicole and Ron.  But how do we know the DNA itself wasn’t tainted?  The LAPD had proved itself corrupt and bigoted in the past; why should we give it the benefit of the doubt now?

And sure, Trump has made racist and sexist comments on an almost hourly basis and has no experience in government.  But that’s exactly what we need:  A disruptive outsider who tells it like it is.

Of course, O.J. was guilty and Trump is stupendously unqualified for high office, and deep down, I suspect many people who claim otherwise secretly know the truth.

But what we cultural elitists didn’t appreciate was the overwhelming power of symbolism, and the notion put forth by New York Times columnist David Brooks, who mused that “Trump is the wrong answer to the right question.”

In the mid-1990s, with Rodney King still fresh in everyone’s minds, the question within Los Angeles’ black community was, “How can we stop law enforcement from brutalizing us with impunity?”  Although O.J. Simpson had spent his entire life running away from his African-American identity—associating with a mostly white crowd and marrying a white woman—his arrest and trial became an opportunity—maybe the only opportunity—for black America to strike back loudly and clearly by asserting its right to exist.  O.J. was hardly the ideal vessel through which to transmit this righteous anger, but that doesn’t mean the anger itself wasn’t real or justified.  It was both, and if it meant allowing a black man to get away with murder—after four centuries of white men getting away with murdering black men—then so be it.

Likewise, prior to last year, Donald Trump was nobody’s idea of a working class hero—or, indeed, as someone with even a shred of interest or compassion for anyone who isn’t exactly like him.  And yet, through a combination of Trump’s own cynicism and the genuine fear and panic among America’s blue-collar white folk, that’s exactly what he became.

As O.J. suddenly decided to embrace his blackness when it served his own selfish purposes, so did Trump embrace his “silent majority” when he realized it could enhance his brand and maybe even make him president.

The tragedy in all this—and the central lesson we can glean from the Simpson fiasco—is that few lives are ever made better through latching onto false idols.

The O.J. verdict undeniably provided catharsis for much of black America—demonstrating that it was possible for a black defendant to cheat justice the way white defendants have for centuries—but it certainly didn’t bring an end to police brutality or the glaring racial disparities at all levels of the American justice system.

And now that Trump is heir apparent to the most powerful job on Earth, there is little reason to think he will follow through on any of his promises to the economically dispossessed—a group of citizens who will presumably be hung out to dry just like every other sucker that Trump has ever used as a means to an end.

When push comes to shove, Trump does what is best for Trump.  Through his greed, vulgarity and unhinged narcissism, he is the human embodiment of everything that is wrong with America, and now that he has somehow risen to the highest office in the land—both despite and because of his shortcomings—his story has become intertwined with that of the country itself.

The inherent tension of such a consequential, outsize life was the driving force of Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, the eight-hour documentary from earlier this year that is not only the best movie of 2016 to date, but also a defining document of what it means to be an American today—for better and for worse.

Donald Trump is the latest chapter in that story, and every last one of us has a stake in how it all plays out.  We are about to learn just how much abuse the American way of life can sustain without collapsing under its own weight and, once again, we’ll be able to watch every riveting moment as it unfolds.  Live and in color.

If Stoners Were Angels

Haven’t we been through all of this before?

One group of citizens agitates in favor of legalizing some long-verboten practice, while another group of citizens argues to the contrary, insisting that such a move would hasten America’s moral decline.

The activity in question becomes legal in one of the country’s 50 states.  Then another.  And another.  Time passes, and when we are given enough data from which to formulate some conclusions, it turns out that the initial hubbub was unwarranted and overblown, and the whole business really isn’t that big of a deal after all.  Everyone’s life returns to normal, and the world just keeps on spinning.

That’s roughly what America has experienced with gay marriage over the last decade, and now, thanks to the states of Colorado and Washington, what we are about to experience with recreational marijuana.

Not that legalized pot and legalized same-sex marriage have anything further in common.  Nor, for that matter, do we know for certain that the trajectory of the former will mirror that of the latter.  One should never be too presumptuous about these things, no matter how strong the urge might be.

However, there is one way in particular that pot-smoking is different from most previous national prohibitions, and one that should hint at how its legalization will pan out.

Everyone has already done it.

OK, not everyone.  But a pretty sizable chunk of everyone.

In an August 2013 Gallup survey, 38 percent of respondents acknowledged that they had “tried” marijuana at some point in their lives.  The number rose to 49 percent among those aged 30-49, and 44 percent among those aged 50-64.

Mind you, these are merely the people with the nerve to admit it to an anonymous poll-taker.  While we cannot know how much higher the true figure is, we can probably agree that “higher” is the correct word.

As such, most who have written or spoken about the benefits and drawbacks of legalizing cannabis have, with little or no hesitation, noted their own past use of it.  More interesting still, none of these folks particularly regrets having done so.

In a widely-circulated New York Times column from the past week, David Brooks argued against the legalization of marijuana on largely moral grounds, writing, “[I]n healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship.”  By legalizing pot, Brooks argued, Colorado and Washington “have gone into the business of effectively encouraging drug use.”

However, this was not before Brooks recounted his own smoke-filled youth, reflecting, “It was fun.  I have some fond memories of us all being silly together.  I think those moments of uninhibited frolic deepened our friendships.”

You don’t say.

Brooks has been duly ridiculed for his highly mixed message, but I suspect his ambivalence reflects that of countless others, and it illustrates the unique conundrum of arguing against this particular drug’s normalization in American life.

To wit:  How can you credibly say that the wide availability and use of cannabis will alter our society’s moral fabric when, in truth, cannabis is already widely available and used, as it has been for the better part of half a century?

The argument from Brooks et al. seems to amount to, “Marijuana would be fine if only everyone else were as responsible with it as I was.”

On the one hand, one hears this and reflects upon James Madison’s observation in Federalist No. 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”  In other words, the whole point of most laws is to rein in those who are too dumb or too sociopathic to rein in themselves.

On the other hand, one cannot help but turn to the likes of Brooks and inquire, “If pot was so enjoyable and beneficial for you and your friends, why are you so quick to withhold its pleasures from everyone else?  What gives you the right, let alone the nerve?”

Here’s a thought:  In a future world where marijuana is a socially acceptable substance from coast to coast, maybe more Americans will act responsibly with it than we think.  More to the point:  Maybe this is already the case.  Maybe we who can handle our weed are not the prodigious outliers we fashion ourselves to be.

Maybe those who personify the “lazy stoner” stereotype come by it honestly:  They smoke too much pot because they’re useless idiots, not the other way around.

Gay marriage has turned into a less-than-apocalyptic reality in the United States because, in truth, it was not nearly the seismic realignment of national values it was made out to be.  Gay people already existed and marriage already existed.  What was the big mystery we were supposed to fear?

Likewise, when the dust settles, the legalization of marijuana may yet turn out to be one giant nothing burger, albeit one that, for some mysterious reason, is tastier and more appetizing than it ever used to be.