Is Donald Trump punk rock?
The question has come up recently in articles in the Atlantic and Taki’s Magazine. In the Atlantic’s “Donald Trump, Sex Pistol,” James Parker writes that “with his followers,” Trump “has co-created a space in American politics that is uniquely transgressive, volatile, carnivalesque, and (from a certain angle) punk rock.” Trump has done it even though he’s a conservative candidate— “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. Electrifying!”
In Taki’s Magazine, Steve Sailer compares Trump and his supporting political movement, the Alt-Right, to punk: “Hillary’s recent speech denouncing the alt-right has raised eyebrows. It was as if in 1976 progressive-rock titans Emerson, Lake & Palmer had released a double album devoted to excoriating this new band nobody had ever heard of before called the Ramones. If you can remember back four decades, it might strike you that the alt-right phenomenon of 2016 is basically political punk rock: loud, abrasive, hostile, white, back to basics, and fun.”
In his abrasiveness, honesty, and ability to implode establishment dogma, Trump is punk—but only up to a point. In August 2015 he was asked by FOX News’ Megyn Kelly about some of the terms he’s used to describe women. “You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals,” said Kelly. She had more, but Trump cut her off — “Only Rosie O’Donnell,” he quipped, referring to his war with the celebrity actress and comedian. The joke was not just funny, but witty, reflective of the biting merriment of Johnny Rotten, the erstwhile lead singer of the seminal 1970s punk band the Sex Pistols. Trump’s line was also iconoclastic, cutting like a buzz saw through the miasma of political correctness that has settled over America. In her slowly building question, Megyn Kelly attempted to stack up a feminist indictment the way pre-punk prog rock bands stacked up solos, and Trump ripped through the virtue-signaling like punk legends the Ramones blasting through a song. Like a lot of punk songs, the rejoinder also had the ring of truth: yes, Rosie O’Donnell is annoying.
Yet there is also validity in Megyn Kelley’s accusation about Trump’s attitudes towards women, and it’s an indictment that extends to the Alt-Right. Alt-Right personalities like Milo Yiannopoulos and Gavin McInnes speak many politically incorrect truths that make the left squirm. But they also make claims that are borderline (and sometimes outright) racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic.
Women aspire to be—and are—journalists, doctors, musicians and scientists, and it is anything but punk to deny them these roles. Punk has always been about more than just giving offense—it has been about the ability to “become what you are.” That phrase was once sung by punk-inspired musician Juliana Hatfield, who came to music in the 1970s, when a babysitter introduced her to the great Los Angeles punk band X. The lead singer for X is Exene Cervenka, a poet and political conservative who recently moved to Texas because California has become “a liberal oppressive police state.” Punk music would be far less rich had Exene done what Gavin McInnes advises—stayed home and had children. Ditto the women in the punk bands Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney. Of course, it’s also possible to be a working female musician and have a family.
One last point is worth noting. One of the most infamous moments in punk history was the live 1976 interview the Sex Pistols did with British journalist Bill Grundy. The Pistols cussed on the show, dropping S-bombs and F-bombs, and the appearance became a sensation. Most rock and roll fans know the story, citing it as a flashpoint of punk nihilism, but few remember what actually set the band off. In the Pistols’ entourage was a nineteen-year-old woman named Siouxsie Sioux, who told Grundy, an established, middle-aged man who goaded the Pistols throughout the entire interview, that she’d “always wanted to meet you.” Grundy replied they could “meet after” the show. The Pistols’ guitarist Steve Jones called Grundy a “dirty old sod” and a “dirty bastard” and a “f***ing rotter.” Siouxsie Sioux would go on to become one of the most talented and accomplished songwriters to come out of the punk movement.
So a pivotal punk rock moment was not about louche rebellion and senseless anarchy, but defending a talented woman, an artist, against a leering old man with views about women that belong in another age. Trump and the Alt-Right should get that story right, and think about its implications, before calling themselves punk.