For those of us that grew up with our politics oriented or ratified by listening to the Clash, Dead Kennedys, and Gang of Four, to see “Trump is Punk” emblazoned on T-shirts and trucker hats elicits reactions somewhere between horror and head-scratching. “Being a Donald Trump supporter is the new punk,” declared former Breitbart editor and alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulous in a speech to Lousiana State University students in September 2016. And so was born the sub-tribe “Trump punks”.
Surely their idea of punk amounted to little more than the lowest common denominator caricatures of the subculture. Yet, there was Johnny Rotten, king of the punks, wearing a MAGA shirt during the 2020 election campaign, parroting the very same Orwellian “drain the swamp” bromides trotted out daily from Trump media central. Was this a joke? How could a movement aligned with socialist, anarchist, and liberal sentiments be co-opted by forces on the other end of the political spectrum?
The Trump punk phenomenon has little to do with music and a lot to do with the marketing of attitude. Co-opting punk has enabled the far-right to re-brand, to shed its unfashionable and unpopular associations with the Ku Klux Klan or grizzled old Republicans, reinventing itself as youthful, energetic, and hip. In her book, No Logo, Naomi Klein explains the rise of branding during the 1980s. Trump was the poster child for a new “breed of businessman” back then, selling not just products but “a way of life, an attitude, a set of values, a look, and idea.” By co-opting punk’s stereotypical “attitude”, recent Trump campaigns have sought to remedy a lingering problem for the Republican Party: reaching and recruiting the youth and youth-inclined demographic.
If, as many presume, it is so antithetical to the politics of the far-right, how could punk’s “set of values” be redirected into that camp? Nostalgia and romanticism often lead us to re-see punk through rose-colored glasses. However, punk was never as left-aligned or ideologically transparent as we sometimes portray it in reflection. Indeed, as Matthew Worley observes, there was anxiety from its earliest days that “punk harbored a fascist germ”. Like political populism, punk’s traits and tenets are sufficiently vague, contradictory, and unmoored to be vulnerable to co-option by any and all political opportunists—including the far-right.
Whether real or imagined, Trumpers position themselves as outsiders, as victims of the forces of oppression. Those forces—the media, the “deep” state, and even the law—are regarded as arms of the establishment intent on suppressing expressions of rebellion, speech, and independence. Trumpers see apocalypse everywhere, enemies around every corner, and decline as an inevitable outcome of the existing system. In response, they rage their cultural resentments, strike out at adversaries, and find solace solely within the bubble of their own tribe. With attitudes like these, there is little wonder that the alt-right might consider punk a potential suitor.
The argument that “Trump is Punk” is not just rooted in a list of common grievances, either. The ex-president’s performance techniques, too, elicit the kinds of responses punk groups once received from critics and observers. Vulgar, inarticulate, and shocking are adjectives as likely to be used to describe a speech from Trump as the showmanship of a punk singer; both offer spectacles of outrage aimed to inspire chaotic and inflamed audience reactions. Arguably, in the artistically barren world of right-wing culture, a Trump speech at a rally is about as close as attending “fans” will get to an exciting and entertaining punk rock concert.
The alt-right’s co-option of punk is not about stealing art for the artless, though. Its purpose is the same as for any company practicing branding: to sell a product—in this case proto-fascism—to a target demographic—in this case mostly white males—by “establishing emotional ties”—in this case to fear, anger, and hatred (Klein). Such an assessment of motive might be dismissed as alarmist or speculative had not the same process happened before, 47 years ago in the UK, when another far-right party, the National Front, waged a similar war over the hearts and minds of alienated youths, likewise strategizing to co-opt punk for the purpose of recruitment.
Establishing a Punk Front
Despite existing as a small subculture within late ’70s British society, punk attained an outsized stature of social significance by virtue of being courted by both the right-wing National Front (and the further right British Movement) and the left-wing Socialist Workers Party (and its youth-oriented associate Rock Against Racism. At the center of a tug-of-war not of their making, punks felt the pull of both left and right as each attempted to appropriate the upstart subculture for their respective political ends. While most punks sympathized with the goals of Rock Against Racism, some were captivated by the National Front’s appeals. How and why the latter occurred can offer us insights into the efforts of Yiannopoulous et al. to revive that courtship.
Whether helping end racial segregation or the war in Vietnam, rock culture has long played a role in bringing about socio-political change. Its fans often revel in rebellion, using music as a vehicle and focal point for activism and advocacy. In turn, artists have reciprocated, producing messages, sounds, and imagery that frame cultural concerns in distinctly youthful ways. Nowhere is this more apparent than in punk, where through music, style, and other forms the subculture expresses its disaffection, challenges norms, and calls for action as the routine responses of its modus operandi.
Thus, when punk arrived in 1976, organizations like the National Front and Rock Against Racism quickly sought its valuable (pre-)political players. Cultivating and capitalizing upon an atmosphere of pervasive racism where immigrants were being scapegoated and blamed for Britain’s economic woes, the National Frong hoped to channel punk’s grievances in nationalistic directions. Rock Against Racism, formed after Eric Clapton’s infamous racist outburst while performing a concert in September 1976, were fearful that punk might succumb to the rising wave of white ethnocentrism. Rock Against Racism hoped that by offering a cause, punk’s natural inclination towards representing outsiders and underdogs might steer the movement leftwards, away from the swastika-wearing sieg heilers within its ranks. Fears were further exacerbated by punks’ public criticism of their hippy predecessors as ineffective activists, their ‘60s liberalism denounced as the politics of complacency and failure.
Since its emergence, punk has been something of a Rorschach test, sufficiently unclear in (political) identity to be interpreted in multiple ways for myriad means and ends. Up for grabs, the National Front reached out to punk via its Youth National Front arm, created in 1977 as the subculture expanded. With few of their own, the Youth National Front cherry-picked bands from the punk and ska scenes, reframing them as right fighters for the readers of their Bulldog, Punk Front, and Rocking the Reds publications. Thus, as Sham 69, the Lurkers, Madness, and Bad Manners inadvertently attracted and were adopted by racist skinhead followers, these bands became fair game for appropriation as far as the far-right was concerned.
Was Punk Infected with “Fascist Germs”?
“Stop the steal” was the cry of Sham 69’s Jimmy Pursey as his band and others—despite their liberal, socialist, or a-political track records—got dragged into the orbit of the extreme right. However, were these misappropriations just acts of daylight robbery, or did punks harbor traits or display signs that might encourage their co-option?
When dangling it in front of youth audiences today, Yiannopoulous recognizes how punk’s contrarian attitude can be updated as a selling point. Even the gleeful malice and provocative wit that accompanies punk’s demeanor have been adopted by the alt-right, its smug and mean-spirited acts of mockery employed as a key technique in “owning the libs”. In their refusal to be told what to do or be, the Stranglers and the Jam would sometimes veer from the liberal-left orthodoxy, if only to show the likes of Rock Against Raricsm that they were unwilling to march in lockstep to their demands or tow the party line. Individualism and autonomy are traits treasured by both left and right; thus, even when an anarchist group like Crass proclaimed “No authority but yourself”, this was—and still is—a sentiment the extreme right could grasp and twist as a weapon of pride.
When drawn into the realm of politics by journalists, punk bands were often reluctant to take a stand, more likely to position themselves as anti-government or a-political than to declare any allegiances. Lest we forget, the anti-social outbursts emanating from early punk bands landed while liberal-left leaders were in power on both sides of the Atlantic, so their critiques can hardly be interpreted as party-driven. The right fighters knew and know this, co-opting punk’s culture war generalizations as their own, applying punk’s striking but indeterminate slogans and symbols for their own anti-establishment protestations. “Punk politics were messy. They could be contradictory and formative; implicit and explicit; liberatory and reactionary,” informs Worley.
Particularly “messy” was the “homology” of symbols in punk’s visual arsenal, each reconstituted into “darkly comic signifiers”. Whether intended for shock-ironic humor or not, when National Front leaders saw punks walking up and down the King’s Road wearing swastikas, iron crosses, and Union Jack t-shirts, they saw potential recruits. In alerting audiences to impending totalitarianism, songs also ran the risk of dramatization being misconstrued as literal advocacy. The Clash’s 1977 song “White Riot” may have been about solidarity with and envy of black protesters at the 1976 Notting Hill carnival, but the right knew that most of its potential base would not hear beyond the chorus line, “White riot, I wanna riot…of my own”. This, alongside the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” played into the hands of the extreme right, whose own messages of looming mayhem, self-determination, and assertive resistance could be read into these songs’ lyrics.
Even after (most of) the punk movement got wise to how the far-right was exploiting its “confrontational symbols”, fascist germs continued to spread, infecting subsequent post-punk mutations and manifestations. By naming themselves after the prostitution wing of a concentration camp, Joy Division signaled from their inception a fascination with nazi Germany; moreover, when they proceeded to choose New Order as their new moniker after the death of singer Ian Curtis, they not only doubled down but seemed, too, to be associating themselves with the oppressors.
Bands from other punk sub-genres like goth, industrial, and positive punk showed similar interest in fascist imagery of yore to the present, parading it in lyrics or look for shock, intrigue, or ironic reasons. Few self-identified as fascist sympathizers; nevertheless, each flirtation provided food for thought from which subsequent alt-right believers have found sustenance. This long-term consequence is evident, too, when tracing the histories of the punk fundamentalist oi! and hardcore scenes that followed punk’s first wave.
In the late ‘70s, as primary punk dissipated, its energies dispersing into the more industry-friendly new wave or the more cerebral post-punk, those bands unwilling to dispense with the primitive qualities of the original wave became known as street punk, hardcore, or oi! The latter was coined after a slang term commonly used in London’s working-class districts, pithily capturing the raw street identity of regional bands like Sham 69, the Cockney Rejects, and the 4-Skins, as well as some beyond the capital like South Shields’ Angelic Upstarts and Derbyshire’s Blitz.
Hyped by Garry Bushell, a journalist from Sounds, he envisioned the movement to be the musical embodiment of the principles of working-class solidarity and pride he believed in as a member of the Socialist Workers Party. Encouraging his charges to write songs about their yearnings for freedom and autonomy and to do so using the same slang and slogans they used on the streets, Bushell soon saw his project slipping into the hands of the National Front. The National Front, too, promoted such traits and techniques and already had an army of young foot soldiers at the ready, many embedded in the very streets from whence these bands came.
Oi! concerts quickly became stalking and breeding grounds for the Youth National Front, its “bonehead” troops instructed to engage in “active interventions”, recruiting with pamphlets or creating publicity by disrupting shows. Those bands that dared to resist, like Sham 69, were met with reprisals of more violence and more neo-nazi presence. Those that sat silent, hoping the unwelcome interlopers would go away, like Madness, became embraced as one of them anyway. I recall having to broach an unavoidable phalanx of Bulldog-selling British Movement skinheads to enter Leicester’s De Montford Hall for a Madness show in 1985.
Similar intimidation and violence occurred at hardcore gigs in the US. Attending a Black Flag or Circle Jerks show became a rite of passage for young violent fascist wanna-be’s. Some fought back, like the Dead Kennedys, whose 1981 “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” song became a clarion call for generations of anti-racist punks and “sussed” skinheads to repel any right-wing attempts at colonizing their movement.
Although the Youth National Front in the UK and assorted neo-nazis in the US made few major inroads into punk, they made enough minor ones to establish a lasting impact. One of just a handful of avowedly far-right punk bands, Skrewdriver, and their frontman Ian Stuart, became figureheads around which a transglobal—if largely underground—white power movement spawned and spread in the ’80s and ‘90s, bringing a youth-oriented guise to tired and torn organizations like the National Front and the Ku Klux Klan.
Skrewdriver’s legacy of far-right punk lingers on in this century, too, though black metal and (neo-)folk are as likely as oi! and hardcore to provide the “white noise” to rally around. In some pockets of the alt-right nowadays, ‘80s-era electro-pop is all the rage, the white European chic of Depeche Mode and Ultravox evoking in their videos and soul-less synth sounds escapist fantasies of pre-multicultural societies. Punk’s sounds may no longer provide the soundtrack to far-right insurgencies but its “ideals” are still romanticized with nostalgia, re-historicized, re-interpreted, and co-opted whenever youth rebellion and recruitment are required to revitalize the right-wing brand.
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Routledge. 1979.
Klein, Naomi. No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Chapter One, “New Branded World”. New York Times on the Web,
Peraino, Judith A. “The politics of punk in the era of Trump”. 24 October 2020, OUPblog.
Worley, Matthew. No Future: Punk, Politics and British Youth Culture, 1976-1984. Cambridge University Press, 2017.