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.
Bruce Springsteen’s fan base, in other words, is similar to Donald Trump’s voter base.
There’s an irony there, because the Boss and the Donald could not be more different politically. Springsteen is a liberal, a Democrat who endorsed Barack Obama for president in 2008 and whose last great album, 2012’s Wrecking Ball, was an angry, foot-stomping polemic against the corrupt financial system that brought about the Great Recession. Bruce hasn’t endorsed anyone this time around, but it’s a fair bet that he wouldn’t feel out of place at a Bernie Sanders rally. If there are Trump supporters in the crowd, they’re deeply out of step with the politics of the man they’ve come to see.
And yet, as the crowd joins the Boss in singing lyrics about a people who “reached out for the open skies and in one last breath built the roads they’d ride to their death,” a kind of clarity forms. All at once the disjuncture between Springsteen’s politics and his audience’s seems less an anomaly than it does an explicable, even expected, mirroring. Bruce Springsteen and Donald Trump are very different men—and yet they’re beloved by some of the same people, and for some of the same reasons. The Boss’s career, while hardly causing Trump’s rise, can at least help explain it—as well as elucidating some of the contradictions of the conservative movement that unwittingly spawned Trump, and which the candidate currently threatens to destroy.
* * *
The River was released in 1980, the same year Ronald Reagan was elected president. I was born in 1983, too late to experience the Reagan revolution firsthand—but to hear it told it was an epochal political realignment, the kind that only happens once a generation. Reagan’s election, the story goes, was the final nail in the coffin of midcentury American liberalism; the other nails were the loss of Southern Democrats after the party’s support of Civil Rights, 70s stagflation, and the energy crisis. Into this situation came a former Hollywood actor offering a program of lower taxes and deregulation as the way to restore American prosperity.
Reagan accelerated America’s rightward ideological shift, and the demographics of Bruce Springsteen’s working-class fan base were critical to the revolution. “Reagan Democrats” were white blue collar workers, traditionally reliable Democratic votes, who left the party of FDR and unions to vote for Reagan in ’80. Many of them didn’t come back.
Springsteen wasn’t one of them, though. According to Springsteen biographer Marc Dolan, the Boss spoke out against Reagan the day after the election, at a show in Tempe, Arizona. Between songs he said to the crowd, referring to Reagan’s election, “I don’t know what you guys think about what happened last night, but I think it’s pretty frightening.”
Prior to this, Springsteen wasn’t particularly political—or at least his music wasn’t. The songs mostly just told stories. After two early, low-selling albums with Dylanesque lyrics drawn from his youth in New Jersey, Springsteen found his mythos in Born to Run, an album that touched on what would be his most durable themes: confinement and escape. Songs like “Thunder Road,” “Born to Run,” and “Backstreets” told stories of kids who yearned to shake the dust of this dead-end town off their feet by getting out on the road and just driving. They weren’t escaping to any place in particular; the road was its own destination, the only place they could transcend the weight of what tied them down, if only momentarily.
As Springsteen aged, his perspective on these themes matured with him in Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River. In these records, families and jobs and communities could be traps that tied men down, or they could be meaningful connections that kept men grounded and gave their lives meaning. In the opening track of Born to Run a speaker calls a girl named Mary to run away with him “to case the promised land”; in The River’s eponymous song the speaker gets Mary pregnant and receives for his nineteenth birthday “a union card and a wedding coat.” Escape from the responsibilities of work and family, meanwhile, is no longer a simple avenue to transcendence; in songs like “Racing in the Street” and “Stolen Car,” Springsteen’s characters run away from failing relationships but find only more emptiness and restlessness on the open road. Even the outwardly cheery “Hungry Heart,” Springsteen’s first Billboard hit, is about a guy who left his wife and kids: “I went out for a ride and I never went back.”
There is a political worldview at work here. Springsteen’s songs during this period are full of men who leave for the night shift with death in their eyes and live for the weekend, bossmen who won’t cut the working man any slack, and bad employment prospects “on account of the economy.” Springsteen’s political vision is probably best encapsulated with a few lines from his song “Badlands”: “Poor man wanna be rich / Rich man wanna be king / And a king ain’t satisfied ’til he rules everything.” (If there’s a better, more succinct summation of the Trump phenomenon, I haven’t found one.)
Still, Springsteen’s political perspective during this period was buried deep enough in the subtext of his songs that attendees at the Tempe concert back in 1980 might have been surprised to learn that the Boss wasn’t a Reagan Democrat like them. At the very least, Springsteen’s lack of political specificity left the mythic landscape that he’d been building—a landscape of men and work and hard times and small-town Americana—vulnerable to being coopted by the conservative movement.
That’s exactly what happened in 1984, the year Springsteen’s massively successful album Born in the U.S.A. vaulted the performer to superstardom—and the year that conservative columnist George Will packed his ears with cotton and attended a Springsteen show.
The results were fascinating and unintentionally hilarious. Will is happy that the masculine Springsteen has “not a smidgen of androgyny”; he speculates about whether or not the concertgoers around him are smoking marijuana; he asks a Springsteen fan what he likes about him and finds that it’s all about “faith and traditional values”; he opines that if American laborers worked half as hard as Springsteen and his band, the U.S. wouldn’t need tariffs to protect its industries (I wish I were joking). “I have not got a clue about Springsteen’s politics,” wrote Will, “but flags get waved at his concerts while he sings about hard times. He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: “Born in the U.S.A.!””
Will should’ve taken the cotton out of his ears. “Born in the U.S.A.” is no grand, cheerful affirmation. The song only sounds jingoistic if you’re not listening. In reality it’s a darkly ironic tale of a working class kid who gets sent to Vietnam, then comes home to find that the American dream he thought he was fighting for has up and gone. Reagan asked to use the song in his 1984 reelection campaign and Springsteen said no; later the Boss would wonder aloud whether Reagan even listened to his music. In later presidential elections, Springsteen would have similar fights over the same song with the Pat Buchanan and Bob Dole campaigns.
Republicans may not have had much luck using Springsteen’s songs at their rallies, but they managed to capture the essential ingredients of Springsteen’s appeal all the same. From 1984 onward, the Republican party’s pitch to the working class was an appeal to the heart and not to the head, shallowly aping elements of the Springsteen mythos: personal freedom, small-town values, and a vaguely religious sense of uplift (e.g., Reagan’s talk of a “city on a hill” and “morning in America”).
Even more critical, perhaps, was the Republican party’s ability to embody the Boss’s regular-guy appeal. Springsteen’s fans love him because he’s one of them. From Reagan in the 80s to George W. Bush in the 2000s, Republicans kept winning national elections because they were able to paint the race as a choice between an effete snob and a regular guy you’d like to have a beer with. (Bill Clinton was among the only Democrats to evoke this he’s-just-like-me appeal, but the eight years of his presidency were less a reversal of America’s rightward ideological drift than they were a progressive accommodation to the country’s increasingly conservative mood.) Fast-forward to today, when there’s another candidate blue collar white voters say is just like them.
That candidate is Donald Trump.
* * *
Of course, the whole thing was a con. The Republicans may have convinced working-class voters that the party had their interests at heart, but the reality was quite the opposite. We can argue whether Reagan’s program of tax cutting and deregulation was the right strategy to jump start the American economy in the 80s. What is now beyond question is that supply-side economics did not help the Reagan Democrats who returned to the ballot box to vote for it again, and again, and again. Thomas B. Edsall lays out the evidence in a recent article for the New York Times: between the 1970s and today, the share of GDP going to labor fell while the share going to capital rose; the number of manufacturing jobs shrank while the population grew; hourly wages, adjusted for inflation, stagnated.
Conservatives sometimes bemoan the increasing negativity of Republican politicians and yearn for the days of Reagan, the so-called “Great Communicator” who framed the conservative agenda in positive language evoking Americans’ hopes and aspirations for themselves and their country. What they fail to acknowledge is that you can only promise prosperity, a renewed manufacturing economy, and a strong working class so many times before you actually have to deliver the goods for the people who’ve voted you into office. After that, you either have to change your policy agenda, or go negative.
Republicans chose to go negative, stoking their constituents’ cultural anxieties about welfare money going to the “undeserving” (i.e. minority) poor, immigrants stealing jobs, and immoral urban sophisticates (feminists, LGBT people) attacking traditional family values. George H.W. Bush had Lee Atwater crafting race-baiting campaign ads for him; W had Karl Rove crafting a strategy to boost conservative voter turnout with anti-gay-marriage ballot initiatives in swing states.
Bruce, meanwhile, did what he’d always done: he chronicled the demise of the American working class, singing of anxieties that Trump now stokes to win primaries. But Bruce never lied. While his fan base was going conservative, he was rediscovering the Depression-era populism of John Steinbeck in The Ghost of Tom Joad. While the Republican Party was telling its constituents that wealth equals virtue and might makes right, that intelligence is stupid and bluster is awesome, the Boss was eulogizing 9/11 dead in The Rising and bemoaning the Iraq war in Devils and Dust. While the Tea Party was sweeping midterm elections in the wake of the housing crisis, Springsteen was singing in Wrecking Ball of a financial system in which “A banker man grows fat / A working man grows thin / It’ll happen before / It’ll happen again.”
And now, in 2016, a candidate comes along who speaks to perfectly to the anxieties of the white working class, and reflects their anger, and tells them exactly who to blame for every one of their problems. Where did Trump come from? What made him possible? Those questions have many answers, but one of them must be: he is the result of choices made decades ago when there emerged a conservative coalition that contained within it the seeds of its own destruction—or the country’s. Back when Bruce Springsteen sang prophetically, on The River, of costly choices with unforeseen consequences.
“Now you can’t walk away from the price you pay.”
* * *
Back at the X, the band gets quiet. Bruce steps to the microphone under a circle of light. There’s an ache in his voice—pleading, plaintive—as he sings a story from the Bible.
Little girl down on the strand
With that pretty little baby in your hands
Do you remember the story of the promised land?
How he crossed the desert sands
And could not enter the chosen land
On the banks of the river he stayed
To face the price you pay
It’s tempting to overestimate the historical significance of the present moment. To believe that the times we are living through now are important and singular—when perhaps what we are going through is just a version of what’s happened before and will happen again. There is nothing new under the sun.
But certainly it feels as though we are coming to the end of something. As though we’re stepping up to the bank of a river. Is that the promised land on the other side? Or something else? Heaven on earth, or a hell of our own making?
I don’t know.
But as we stand there in the darkness watching Bruce on the stage, listening to him preach, it feels for a moment like there are still others standing with us in the auditorium. The ghosts of laborers who organized and fought for fair wages and safe working conditions, activists who marched against racism and sexism and homophobia and ignorance of every kind, ordinary people who stood up and demanded fair and equal treatment. People who died in the wilderness. People who never lived to see the promised land.
Each moment is so heavy with the moments that came before it. Each choice is weighed down by the cost of other choices made long ago.
And it’s such a strange feeling that comes over me—a little bit like despair, a little bit like hope—that I hardly know what to do. So I do the only thing I can think of in that moment.
I close my eyes. I raise my hands in the air.
And—with thousands of strangers, like congregants praying for forgiveness at a tent revival—I sing.