What can art teach us about politics? More than you’d think. Signals offered in creative expression can tell us a lot about the mood in the real world. But you have to be listening.
Clearly I wasn’t, and many of us weren’t, when Donald Trump pulled off his stunning victory in last month’s presidential election. Few pollsters, media analysts and pundits on the left or right saw it coming. Count me among them. Right up through the early evening of Nov. 8 there was no doubt in my mind that Hillary Clinton would be the next president of the United States.
Well, there was a small blip that, in retrospect, might have been a clue for me. That came in July, when rabble-rousing documentary filmmaker Michael Moore predicted a Trump win in what I dismissed as Moore’s typically outlandish political pessimism designed as a call to arms for complacent liberals. As an unapologetic partisan, Moore blurs the line between art and politics, but I’ve seen enough of his films to acknowledge his unique grasp of blue collar America. “Roger & Me” cataloged the human cost of Michigan’s disappearing industrial economy at a time when most of the media were focusing on the tech-driven economic revival of the 1990s. While terrorism and security dominated headlines in the early 2000s, “Sicko” called attention to what would become the defining policy debate of Barack Obama’s presidency — health-care reform. From the perspective of 2016 blue collar America, neither economic transformation nor crippling health care costs have been adequately addressed by leadership. Despite his annoying penchant for spinning the documentary form into screed, Moore has demonstrated an effective finger on the pulse of a disaffected constituency that was likely to buy into Trump’s vision and, as it turned out, was instrumental in delivering crucial swing states for the Republican.
In the aftermath of November’s election, Moore’s prophecy forced me to recalibrate my antennae for this constituency. It’s not an alien one, in fact quite familiar — generally (but not exclusively) white, lower educated, rural-based and highly vulnerable to the forces of globalization. It’s a group of people with whom I’m well acquainted through the music of John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen. Like Moore, both artists embrace liberal politics, and both have an uncanny understanding of the issues affecting this demographic. Listen to “Pink Houses” and you’ll hear the despair of people for whom America represents a failed promise. Given Mellencamp’s political leanings, I’d assumed his descriptions to be grounded in a liberal vision, but listening more closely, those lyrics outline a displaced class of people — high school educated industrial laborers and farmers — for whom a Trump presidency is a plausible alternative.
Springsteen has long billed himself as the voice of the working man, and nowhere was that voice more authentic than on his landmark “Born in the U.S.A.” album. The songs document the symptoms, on a human scale, associated with the demise of the manufacturing sector that once fueled the Rust Belt. But what they’re really about is a loss of a way of life. Where do people who took a union job out of high school at the local factory fit into an economy that suddenly requires new skill sets or new education levels? The hard answer, of course, is they don’t. They must adapt, and it’s those who haven’t who are susceptible to the Trump message. You can argue that it’s beyond the power of any president to control or roll back economic transformation, but it’s not a matter of choice for the characters in “Born in the U.S.A.” The world changed, and they feel abandoned. The implicit social bargain of blue collar America has been broken. As Springsteen says in “My Hometown,” “Foreman says these jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back.”
It goes without saying the clues offered here could never tell the whole story of the 2016 presidential race. There are too many complex forces in play in any election to lazily point to a few movies or songs as definitive social barometers. But after an event that many of us swore we didn’t or couldn’t see coming, let me be the first to admit that I missed — or disregarded — signals hiding in plain sight within the pop culture. After all, I’d been hearing it for years. I just wasn’t listening.