Does Bruce Springsteen Explain Donald Trump?

Born-in-the-USAAndrew DeYoung has written a very interesting piece at The Stake suggesting that the message of Bruce Springsteen’s songs resonates with the concerns of people who are supporting Donald Trump for President of the United States.  It is a nuanced piece that I need to spend a little more time thinking about, but it is definitely worth the read.  See some of my initial thought below.

DeYoung writes:

It’s February 29, 2016, the night before Super Tuesday, and Bruce Springsteen is singing about choices. The Boss is performing at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center, his latest stop on a national tour celebrating the release of 1980’s The River. Each show on the tour includes a live performance of the double record in its entirety, and Bruce has just come to “The Price You Pay,” the album’s third-to-last cut.

You make up your mind, you choose the chance you take
You ride to where the highway ends and the desert breaks
Out onto an open road you ride until the day
You learn to sleep at night with the price you pay

“The Price You Pay” is an ode to unintended consequences. It’s a song about making tough decisions unsure of how they’ll turn out, about taking a turn down a dark road that might just as easily lead to ruin as to glory. It’s an appropriate song for the night before the Minnesota caucuses, when voters will choose which presidential candidate they’d like to represent their party in the fall—a choice with uncertain outcomes. That choice seems to be pretty far from the crowd’s mind right now, though. They’ve come here to be distracted from their problems, not reminded of them. And Springsteen is doing his best to oblige, the 66-year-old rocker singing and dancing and running around the stage with the energy of a much younger man.

But I’m thinking about Donald Trump all the same. The New York businessman has transformed the presidential race on the Republican side with his promises of border walls, mass deportations, a halt to Muslim immigration. He’s publicly supported torture and other war crimes. He’s bullied his opponents. He’s said racist and misogynist things like it’s his second nature.

If the Republicans choose this man as their presidential nominee, and if America chooses him as its president—what price would the country pay for that choice? America made great again? The rise of fascism? Something in between? It’s hard to say.

Such thoughts might seem out of place at a rock show—except that the crowd here at the X tonight is a Trump crowd. That’s an oversimplification, of course—there’s no way to reliably judge the political proclivities of 15,000 strangers. But it’s certainly true that Springsteen and Trump appeal to similar demographics. The Boss is the workin’ man’s rock star, and the crowd here tonight skews white, skews old, skews working class. That’s Trump’s core constituency, too: his supporters are generally white, not college-educated, and blue collar.

Again, DeYoung’s piece is a lot more nuanced than the excerpt I have chosen above.  He knows that Springsteen’s politics and message (especially in his last several albums) are much more in line with Bernie Sanders than The Donald.  But he also recognizes that Springsteen’s songs about economic hardship, the brokenness of everyday life, the reality of sin, and the slow but steady decline of American industry and industrial towns are also things that Trump supporters are concerned about. And he also knows about the whole George Will/Ronald Reagan/”Born in the USA” controversy in 1984.

But I do wonder if DeYoung’s assessment of the crowd at the Excel Energy Center on February 29 is correct.  I have been to a lot of Springsteen shows in the last ten years. Indeed, the crowd is white and the crowd is old(er).  And yes, there are probably some people in the audience who did not go to college.

On the other hand, most of the people I meet at Bruce shows in places like Philadelphia, State College, Hershey, and Baltimore are solidly middle class folks (they can afford the $150.00 ticket) who were raised in the working class and remain nostalgic for certain aspects of that upbringing.   They are mostly educated.  I am guessing a lot of them were first-generation college students in the 1970s and 1980s who are now paying tuition for their own kids to go to college. (Bruce played a lot of college campuses in the 1970s).  Many come to the show with their families, rather than with their drinking buddies from school. And if they do come with their drinking buddies from school, they spend more time reminiscing about the “Glory Days” than the social ills that Springsteen’s music tries to address.  Most of them come to hear “Dancing in the Dark,” “Hungry Heart,” and “Born to Run” over “The Price You Pay,” “Shackled and Drawn,” “The Wall,” or “Death to My Hometown.”   Some of Springsteen’s social justice message might even offer a stinging critique to the lives they have chosen to live.

Springsteen is still attracting the same people, but they are no longer living in the 1970s world of working-class struggle that probably drew them to his music in the first place. I am sure that there were some Trump supporters in the audience in Minneapolis, but I would imagine that the crowd was also politically diverse.

Read DeYoung’s entire piece here.

3 thoughts on “Does Bruce Springsteen Explain Donald Trump?

  1. But I do wonder if DeYoung’s assessment of the crowd at the Excel Energy Center on February 29 is correct. I have been to a lot of Springsteen shows in the last ten years. Indeed, the crowd is white and the crowd is old(er). And yes, there are probably some people in the audience who did not go to college.

    Yes: Interesting question whether the people in Springsteen’s songs are actually his fans.

    http://themiddletownblog.blogspot.com/2010/10/on-springsteen-and-working-class.html

    Would Ma Joad read The Grapes of Wrath?

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  2. Andrew: An “historical convergence” indeed. Great piece. Thanks for writing it. I will be thinking about it next month at State College and possibly Baltimore.

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  3. I agree with everything you say above. Trump supporters are a narrow slice of the electorate, and primary voters, too, represent a small percentage of America’s eligible voting population. Applying these data points to the crowd at the Xcel Energy Center that night yields uncertain results, at best.

    More accurate, perhaps, to say that I felt myself at the site of an historical convergence: the themes of Springsteen’s songs, the fate of the working class, the class anxieties at play in this election and in Trump’s candidacy, and the history of the conservative movement from 1980/84 through today. My analysis of the demographics of Trump’s base and Springsteen’s is mostly a rhetorical framing device for this convergence. Such things sometimes get lost in translation, however, and to the extent I’ve clumsily portrayed my fellow concertgoers monolithically or condescendingly, that’s something I regret.

    Thank you for reading and engaging!

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