1. It Can’t Happen Here?
When you see and hear a group of children in star-spangled cheerleader outfits lip-syncing the words “Cowardice! Are you serious?” to an EDM reworking of the 1917 patriotic song “Over There”, that is the moment you should wake up. This is not a dream. It is reality being crafted, a certain kind of war made into comfort and innocence, politics shaped into entertainment.
The song is “Freedom’s Call”, and in January it was performed before a Donald Trump rally in Pensacola, Florida by three young girls called USA Freedom Kids. While it’s unlikely to overtake Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” for the most popular contemporary bit of musical propaganda, the song had its moment to shine. The video of the Kids’ performance went viral; we lined up on social media to take potshots at it, comparing it to Hitler Youth and North Korean propaganda, and we ridiculed preteens for their bad dance moves. A few people seemed horrified, the only correct reaction, but mainly it was entertaining. Even writers who heard some echo of infamous totalitarian propaganda never really dug into that history in their articles, or considered that said history might be repeating itself.
Why? Because it was bad music? Or because we still imagined that Trump’s candidacy was a put-on, a reality-television hoax of some kind?
Now, little more than a month later, Trump is winning the Republican nomination by a wide margin. Two days after a scathing and brilliant takedown of Trump on the HBO show Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, during which the host noted that nothing sticks to Trump, the candidate dominated Super Tuesday. Only Florida and Ohio stand in his way, and he’s leading in both states.
There’s a severe disconnect between those who can’t imagine how Trump has become a viable candidate for a major political party and the flag-waving, angry, almost entirely white Americans who right now are on your television or laptop explaining to a reporter why they think Trump is the real deal. I want to suggest that, if you’re in the former group, all you need to know is contained in that video clip of “Freedom’s Call”. What you’re watching is the reassurance of turning politics into art. In this case, music. Tinny, shabby, awful music, but music nonetheless.
2. Family Values
David Popick, manager of USA Freedom Kids and father of its youngest member, is a self-described entrepreneur. He doesn’t seem to lack for confidence bordering on a delusional sense of self-importance. On the group’s website, Popick wedges a quote of himself — “Refuse oppression in all its cunning forms. Accept nothing less than total freedom!” — between quotes by General George S. Patton and Abraham Lincoln.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Popick claims he approached “almost all the campaigns” about USA Freedom Kids performing at their events. Only Trump’s handlers showed any interest. Although he claims in a Vice documentary that “Freedom’s Call” was originally written about Patton and rewritten after an inspiring speech by Trump, you have to wonder it he’s just a smart businessman that decided to dance with the one who brought him.
Plenty of the Internet backlash to “Freedom’s Call” centered on the intersections of children, politics, and exploitation for commercial gain. The whole enterprise is suspect at the least. But the focus on this one instance of creepiness might obscure, I think, the insidious appeal, to some, of not only a particular patriotic song but also Trump himself.
Let’s treat “Freedom’s Call” like a real song. It’s horrible, isn’t it? I give it zero stars. At the center of the music is an eerie hollowness. Like a lot of cheap techno pop, the song scoops out the midrange, leaving only pale, simplistic and cheesy synth bass notes on the low end and the girls’ highly compressed voices dominating the high end. The percussion sounds like it was played on paper. A paranoid synth pattern skitters its way throughout the song, unique only in the way processed cheese is unique.
Whatever Popick is paying the studio engineer and producer would be too much if not for the fact that this is precisely what such a song needs to sound like for its intended audience: harmless, accessible and contemporary. It can’t be threatening, of course, but it also can’t sound like art without alienating its audience. While the music must sound modern in order to seem relevant, it can’t be distinctive enough to distract us from its message. Propaganda songs are always of their time, not outside of time; there can be no ambiguity about history, since the only history that matters is the romanticized, glorified past and the present moment: history as the singer, the group, or the state would like to make it.
The message of “Freedom’s Call” is front and center and that, of course, is what most of us latched onto. It’s beyond disturbing to hear the girls ape Trump’s shtick, from the opening “Cowardice! Are you serious?” to when they chirp, “Deal from the strength or get crushed every time!” More standard for wartime patriotic songs are lines like “Enemies of freedom face the music / Come on boys, take ’em down!”, which makes war seem like a football game, and plenty of calls to stand up, spread freedom, and be strong. Popick incorporates lyrics from “Over There”, probably the patriotic song of World War I, and also “The Star-Spangled Banner”, but he also throws in the immediately-hashtagged “Ameritude!” line and some clunky phrases like “Inspire proudly freedom to the world”, a lyric that might have been composed by Sarah Palin.
Oh, it’s a good laugh and everything, until you scent the running theme of war and imagined victimhood. This is, maybe first and foremost, what we need to understand about the rising tide of authoritarianism that this song represents.
The vainglory of American exceptionalism is married to and dependent upon a sense of being threatened. An article earlier this month in Vox showed how recent research suggests that “[p]eople do not support extreme policies and strongman leaders just out of an affirmative desire for authoritarianism, but rather as a response to experiencing certain kinds of threats.” Are those threats sometimes fictionalized? Yes, but they’re also exaggerations based on changing social and cultural reality.
Trump’s supporters are not all low-income high-school graduates, recent polls show, but he scores well with that group when it’s also comprised of conservative, white men whom the economy has hit hard. Manufacturing was shipped away by Republicans and Democrats alike, domestic wages stagnated as prices rose, and meanwhile the one-percent got wealthier. What joins the dispossessed working class with college-educated and more prosperous Trump adherents is not just the desire to get back what they’ve lost — they have lost way more and face a much more uncertain future than a young Republican at a posh Ivy League school — but the fear of losing what remains of their social and cultural power.
“Freedom’s Call” doesn’t address the internal reasons why so many Americans are angry. But then, it doesn’t need to. Coupled with Brand Trump and aiming its fear in a more predictable and traditionally propagandistic outward direction, “over there”, the song covertly draws upon the old anxiety that America’s enemies are creeping into the nation to take its freedom and prosperity, though the latter word is never mentioned and “freedom” is just code for traditional hierarchies. In fact, the entire song is code, using the language and melodies of American intervention overseas as a patriotic stand-in for Trump’s isolationist and domestically repressive policies. It conjures a vague enemy abroad and the flattering heroic image of America to justify what it’s really concerned about: the enemies at home.
After all, it doesn’t take Joe McCarthy to tell you that before freedom can be spread around the globe it must be protected at home by banning Muslims and building a wall between the United States and West Germany — oops, sorry: Mexico.
Jauntily singing about keeping people of a darker complexion out of America is too blunt, though, unless you’re a hardcore neo-Nazi punk band. It sounds immoral, and “Freedom’s Call” is also meant to reinforce the essential goodness of its message and audience. I’ve gone back and forth lately, tempted to think the worst about humanity; it’s easier to assume everyone is corrupt and purely motivated by self-interest. Some people truly are mean-spirited and utterly racist and don’t mind embracing what society deems to be, in a word, evil. But far more people can’t bear to see themselves this way. They need the mask of benevolence, reassurance that while their methods might be harsh, the essence of their ideology is sound. This is what propaganda provides.
In “Freedom’s Call” any fear of maliciousness is assuaged by drawing upon the ideal of the family. This is why children sing the song. The family unit is never mentioned in the song’s lyrics, but it courses through the performance of “Freedom’s Call” that went viral. The girls represent those who will be taken care of by the homeland, and in their performance, they acknowledge this gratefully by parroting the words of their caretaker. The children are loyal to their parents, which here are America and the father figure of Donald Trump.
What’s rather, I don’t know, depressing or gross or infuriating is that those who are protected must demonstrate their gratitude. They’re put to work, industriously acting out a kind of theatre for the sake of the adults in the audience, who in turn become proud parents of the nation with a responsibility to take care of it.
The theatricality of the performance matters, too. It’s a visual display, reinforcing its commitment, and heck, it looks shiny and prosperous. It’s worth noting that on YouTube, the live performance has five million views while just the audio track, released two months before the Trump rally, has only nine thousand.
But it goes deeper than all of this, too. The obvious appeal to cuteness reinforces the pure goodness of what’s being said. If it’s appropriate enough that it can be sung by a child, how can it be corrupt?
So, when we talk about how these girls are being exploited, it’s not just that they’re being involved in politics, but that they’re being manipulated to represent an ideal: the social conservative’s nostalgia for a pure and innocent nation that has never had a bad intention, has never consciously made terrible decisions, has always protected and attacked those who deserve it — a nation that, truly, has never existed. The girls’ innocence justifies the belief in the innocence of the social conservative’s vision of America, which in turn justifies and obscures all kinds of ugliness, whether it’s taunting the disabled or practicing misogyny or promoting hatred of certain religions.
There’s a long history of propaganda aimed at children, but I wonder if the use of children in propaganda aims to make adults think of themselves as children.
This fundamental perception of innocence goes hand in hand with the ability to excuse the racist, sexist, xenophobic and class-warfare rantings of the leading Republican candidate. In fact, it’s a requirement. We yearn for the innocence of our childhoods — another fiction — but as adults, the best we can do is hold that as an ideal in our hearts, so long as someone is strong enough to protect it. If a candidate seems to understand this, it doesn’t matter how rudely he speaks; in fact, we actually appreciate his domineering style, his crass putdowns, his penis jokes. Under his guidance, we can remain children at heart, no matter how rich we become.
Not too long before he was captured in Franco-controlled Spain in 1940 and killed himself rather than be deported back to France, the philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote that “[t]he logical outcome of fascism is an aestheticizing of political life.” What Benjamin meant by “aesthetics” is difficult to fully think through here. Leaning on the Greek origin of the term, “sense perception”, Benjamin doesn’t rule out beauty as we might normally think of it, but he most certainly means the terrible beauty that occurs when men craft social life into a nightmarish work of art. His examples in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” include Emilio Marinetti, the founder of Futurism, and Adolph Hitler hanging out in an arts district in Munich with other Nazis as they planned the Beer Hall Putsch. Trained as artists, such men scrawl their ugly designs on the world and call it beauty.
Exposing this core-rotted beauty is the brilliance of an infamous scene from Cabaret in which a blonde-haired lad sings a lilting tune with pastoral lyrics: “The sun on the meadow is summery warm / The stag in the forest runs free / But gather together to greet the storm / Tomorrow belongs to me.” As he finishes this titular line, the camera pans down from his face to the swastika on his arm. It’s a terrifying moment, not just because of what we, the audience, already know, but also because you can imagine hearing the song for the first time, humming along pleasurably, and slowly realizing what its beauty truly means.
But this is America, 2016, and since propaganda must be of its time, even when it’s singing of a glorious past, “Freedom’s Call” matches the crassness and awkwardness of Trump himself, even with its subtle familial undertones.
It might be more on-target, or simply more understandable, to suggest that the aestheticizing of politics that we’re witnessing today is more like an “entertainicizing” of politics. This, like authoritarianism, is not new, but it’s taken on new form. (The term is as ugly as what it describes.) Political talk shows aren’t any different from sports talk shows, the Republican debates have been spectacles of juvenile behavior, the 24-hour news cycle has become reality television, and politicians seem more concerned with maintaining their ratings than actually accomplishing anything. But it also entails our ability to “have our voices heard” on social media and the like, though we should remember what Benjamin wrote: “[Fascism] sees its salvation in granting expression to the masses — but on no account granting them rights.”
A friend of mine told me a story once that illustrates most of this. He was visiting his parents at the start of the Iraq invasion in 2003, which happened to coincide with March Madness. His parents flipped back and forth between channels, checking for updates, catching some of the action, until there didn’t seem to be much difference between either event. The games were war and war was a game. Pass the chips, you know?
I think we’ve all experienced this at one point since, at the very least, the turn of the millennium. It’s a matter of the perception of reality from a distance, which is where popular entertainment and propaganda meet in purpose and method. Crucially, media gives us a sense of control over what we see and hear, which in turn makes it easier for us to see and hear only what we want to believe.
Trump presents a new phase of this trend, a culmination if not the final outcome. For whatever the reality of his net worth and business ventures, Trump excels at branding himself, which is really just the “entertainicizing” of oneself: the creation of a persona that promises more than it ever needs to deliver and exists only to keep people watching. This was all well and good on The Apprentice, if you were into that sort of thing, but like the would-be artists who stumbled out of the Munich beer halls, Trump has carried his brand of entertainment with him into the political arena, sensing, perhaps, that the arena was already primed for it.
In other words, Trump is the perfect candidate for the America in which politics is presented as entertainment and entertainment avoids the political.
Entertainment sells, and Trump knows this, too. He knows that endless competition, pitting people against each other, is what glues us to the television and to social media, where we can join in. He knows it’s beneficial to not place himself above that competition, so he throws around the word “scum”, calls a breast-feeding mother “disgusting” (see aforementioned misogyny), and mocks Marco Rubio for being a “little man“. He knows that we love villains, especially when they crack crude jokes and say what we would rather not say ourselves. He knows that as reality becomes entirely mediated, attitude and style are sufficient enough if they translate well to the screen. The brasher the better. Having a lot of money doesn’t hurt, either.
The total domination of economics as the standard of worth is the final plank in Trump’s platform, the final reason why he is admired by so many who have so little, and the final revision of Benjamin’s diagnosis of fascism in the ’30s into the nascent brand of American authoritarianism that Trump champions: politics merged with entertainment merged with wealth. Financial success indicates strength, strength indicates prestige, prestige indicates financial success and strength, rinse and repeat. The art of politics only matters when it’s on the same level as The Art of the Deal. It’s not coincidental that Popick is an entrepreneur, or that, in the Vice documentary, the USA Freedom Kids arrive at a gig in a pink limousine. What are they going to ride in, a Prius?
Benjamin writes, “Humankind[‘s] self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure.” The difference today, the possibility looming, is that there will be no real pleasure in it at all. Instead, it’ll be entertaining enough to keep us occupied, even if it sounds like crap.
Thanks to Matt Mitchem for the suggestion, and to my students, who’ve already caught on.