Tomorrow Belongs to Me: "Freedom's Call", Donald Trump and Propaganda
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.
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.