How a song by Protomartyr keeps taking on new meaning in the age of Donald Trump.
Listen to Protomartyr's "The Devil in His Youth" and you might hear a story about Donald Trump. The titular kid grows up wealthy, steeped in white privilege, and is surprised and angry whenever the world doesn't bow before him. So he doubles-down, becoming a Pied Piper of hatred and self-pity.
The meaning of a song can expand in time, though, changing to reflect the history being made around it. We're the ones who enlarge the meaning, as listeners, but the song houses the potential.
"The Devil in His Youth" is barely two and a half minutes of springy punk-rock furor. It starts with guitarist Greg Ahee freely strumming a simple chord progression and a simple riff that doesn't yet sound like it's on the offbeat. The band's singer, Joe Casey, steps in, his voice low and weary: "Before recorded time / in some suburban room, see / the devil in his youth".
Drums, bass, distortion -- the song plows ahead. The riff's syncopation turns anxious, desperate. Alex Leonard pushes martial rolls, bursts of anger, into the drumbeat. The kid's father knights him with "the promise of adoring", but Casey sneers as he sings it. The end of every line, every final word, Casey drops like a stone into water.
This is a song that marries its structure to its story. "But it all changed / when he came of age", sings Casey, and the music has lifted, clenched. For our tyrant-in-the-making, real life is nothing like the video game; he's rejected by women, "ignored" by people of color who, presumably, are not interested in his appropriations of their culture and, in the crucial turn of the song:
His proclamations failed
So he screamed,
"Now you bend!"
Under the refrain, Ahee's syncopated riff now becomes as sinister as the protagonist's outpouring of aggression. Casey woofs and growls the kid's new proclamations:
I will make them feel the way I do!
I'll corrupt them 'til they think the way I do!
You will feel the way I do!
You will hurt the way I do!
There's a final catch before the song's over. "He was easily abused", Casey sings almost as a throwaway while the music caterwauls behind him, but it's a critical line. Here is this kid who takes every setback as an unfair condemnation, every failure as an unjust sleight by a culture in which he was supposed to be king. A kid who rails against "social justice warriors" because he thinks he's the true victim despite the banquet of opportunities laid out for him. A kid who doesn't understand, in the words of a recent and popular aphorism, that "[w]hen you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression".
The power of "The Devil in His Youth" is the intimacy of its form-content marriage. While Casey stands at a distance, laying out the scene and taking up the kid's words later in the song, the rest of the band barrels forward. The music is entirely from this little shmuck's point of view. It sounds oppressed, and oppressive. The kid has no doubt, so he has no need to slow down or reconsider; in fact, the faster he can spew his hatred, the easier it is to believe that he's just being honest or un-PC, as if either of those things equate with truth.
Again, I don't want to suggest that Protomartyr intends or agrees with the idea that now, in July 2016, "The Devil in His Youth" is about Donald Trump. But when you consider even a short list of Trump's recent actions -- banning press from his rallies; saying he wanted to "hit a number of [DNC] speakers so hard, their heads would spin"; responding to bereaved Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan, who at the DNC said Trump has "sacrificed nothing", by claiming, as only Trump can do, "I think I've made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard. I've created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I've had tremendous success. I think I've done a lot," as if putting in a long night at the office is equivalent to dying heroically to save others -- it's clear that boiling beneath Trump's ego, self-righteousness, and contempt, and the contempt he's relying on for votes, is a profound sense of victimization.
Again: "When you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression."
This concise statement was written in a slightly longer form by Mark Edward Caddo, a Cincinnati-based staff representative for the labor union AFSCME, on his Facebook timeline in March 2015. After it was quoted by his friend Neil Carter in a pair of essays and re-posted by Carter in its briefer, current form on Reddit, the aphorism went viral, perhaps because it so succinctly explains the contemporary trend of imagined reverse-discrimination among primarily white, straight men in the United States. (See "Ten Things Christians Accidentally Tell Me About Themselves" and "To My Evangelical Friends Upon the Legalization of Gay Marriage", by Neil Carter on Patheos.) It's also clearly a way into understanding the cult of false dispossession, fear, and rage that surrounds and is cultivated by Trump.
For all of the fantasy and distorted perceptions, you have to begin with two realities. The first is that wages for men with no college degree have dropped significantly in real dollars over the past 25 years. Plenty of studies show that while the economy has recovered for many since the 2008 nosedive, those without a college education continue to struggle. This is part of a longer-term problem. The jobs worked by those with no more than high-school diplomas were shipped overseas (beginning well before Bill Clinton and NAFTA, by the way) and have dried up here. The middle class is shrinking according to numerous sources. In 1979, the middle class earned 51.8 percent of the national income. In 2013, that figure stood at 45.8. In the same time period, the top one percent of the nation saw its income rise 181 percent.
However, as surveys of his supporters have shown, Trump's constituent base is not entirely comprised of white men without a college degree, though they form a significant portion. According to a May 2016 report by FiveThirtyEight.com, "The median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000… well above the national median household income of about $56,000." Although Trump lost white college-educated voters after the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, according to one CNN poll he still garnered 39 percent of their vote.
Which brings us to the second reality: the ongoing ideological shift in American politics toward truly democratic rights and equality. Despite resistance, we have made progress. During the Obama administration we have seen two groundbreaking pieces of legislation that establish and protect the equal rights of truly marginalized social groups, the under- or uninsured and the LGBTQ+ community. Where we have failed so far, we still strive to correct: law enforcement prejudice and brutality against people of color, equal rights for transgender individuals, protection for Muslim-Americans, fairer voting access for marginalized communities, equal pay for women, to name a few.
The greater equality achieved and still being fought for is the source of the perceived oppression coursing through "The Devil in His Youth" -- and it's the same equality and the same so-called subjugation that form the webbing that binds Trump's followers. More than economics, a belief in an unjust reversal of power is what holds together the uneducated and the educated, the working poor and the wealthy, the southern and the Midwestern, who believe that in America's "pure" state they are destined to be successful. Their fathers blessed them. They were promised adoration. When they say "America First", they mean only themselves.
But victims are supposed to be innocent, and so we've seen a parade of innocence, from the star-spangled get-ups at rallies where black women are pushed around to the claims that Trump is just "being himself", as if that excuses his vitriol and pettiness. Although he trails behind him bankruptcies and lawsuits, he smirks and shrugs and does that "Whaddya gonna do?" face. This is the presumption of one's own innocence that privilege often requires and cultivates.
Near the end of "The Devil in His Youth", though, Casey has the kid say too much, and in doing so, complicates this whole picture I've painted. It's that line, "I'll corrupt them 'til they think the way I do!" I can't stop replaying it. Does this little hell-boy think of himself as corrupt? What a secret he's blurted! In an inversion of the purity I just described, the kid realizes that the goodness of the world has exposed the evil he used to get away with, what his privilege once allowed him to call "good" or, at the least, "innocent".
Isn't this what Donald Trump truly offers? Not a return to the gilded age of polite racism, sexism, and xenophobia, but the triumph of its inherent corruption, sharpened now, blatant and red-faced, without any pretense of goodness or innocence, only competition, power, and money?
If the familiarity with privilege turns equality into oppression, then what you hear in "The Devil in His Youth" is the sequel: the lashing out and the choking sense of abasement and victimization that some choose to live by. In the song's final moments, you can hear that suffocation as the tension and pain sucks all of the air out of the room, out of Casey's lungs.
It makes for a great song, a great performance, but it's a miserable way to live.