In the age of Donald Trump, it seems many artists are determined to build a wall between the Left and Right and ask their patrons to pay for it. One voice calling for humility and reflection in a time of polarization is U2’s Bono, who, not coincidentally, is the most effective celebrity advocate of his generation.
In a recent interview published on U2’s site Bono said:
[I]n a democracy the people get the last word—and that’s the way it should be. I opposed Trump while all the time understanding that many of the people who support him are the kind of people I grew up with, and can see myself in to this day. In my head at least the election result demanded I ask myself several questions:
Am I missing something here?
Am I out of touch with American values?
Am I out of touch with the American people?
It’s clear a giant constituency in the country felt ignored or patronized … they are fearful of the future, as are a growing number of Europeans. I understand and respect that, and I want to try and understand those fears better …
I think a little humility might be important for me here. I certainly want to understand better what just happened, but I’m going to do that without crossing what are bright lines for me, things like standing against the [demonizing] of immigrants or refugees. I’m Irish for God’s sake.
A rock star calling for humility instead of berating Trump and his voters? That’s news. Yet, Bono’s comments have so far generated little buzz.
A rock star calling for humility instead of berating Trump and his voters? That’s news.
What did make international news were comments from The Edge, U2’s guitarist, announcing the band’s decision to delay the release of their next album “Songs of Experience” because of Trump’s surprise election. The Edge said the “world had changed” because of the election and the band wanted more time to reflect on this particular moment. Instead of releasing their next album, U2 will embark on a tour of North America and Europe to celebrate the 30th anniversary tour of their breakthrough album, “The Joshua Tree.” Tickets for the tour go on sale today.
Bono isn’t contradicting his band mate but he is adding essential context. And the answer to each of Bono’s questions is “Yes.” He and U2 are missing a lot. But they’re hardly alone. Most American journalists and politicians also got the election wrong and are still asking themselves why. I spent a decade working for a conservative populist and pushing for “anti-establishment” reforms and I was surprised by Trump’s victory.
As U2 reflect on this moment and try to “get it,” the stakes are higher than ticket sales. Bono’s ability to be an effective advocate on behalf of the poorest of the poor is on the line. It’s not a stretch to say his activism has helped save millions of lives. Bono played a central role in pushing through President Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a plan that is keeping about 11.5 million people alive in Africa. No other celebrity has come close to demonstrating his mastery of policy and diplomacy.
“Bono came in and floored me with his knowledge, his energy, and his faith,” President Bush said in 2015. “We had a comprehensive program. Our teams worked with each country to develop a program specific to their cultures and needs and politics.”
Bono has this platform because of the quality of U2’s art. As artists they should be true to their convictions and put their music first regardless of the consequences. But if they can avoid needlessly and gratuitously alienating the Trump Administration, its allies in Congress and the 63 million Americans who voted for him, they should.
As U2 prepares to hit the road here are a few insights from one lifelong fan that happens to be a musician and former crew member (for one glorious day on the Zoo TV tour). A couple of things to not do and do:
1. Don’t give the nationalists too much credit
The difficult journey for U2, and any thoughtful observer who was surprised by Trump, realizing that the world hasn’t changed as much as admitting one’s understanding of the world needs to change. For many writers, looking back at the certitude of our predictions about Trump’s loss is a little embarrassing and humiliating. U2 may be at the beginning of this journey.
Speaking at U2’s site, The Edge said, “It seems like we have come full circle from when ‘The Joshua Tree’ songs were originally written, with global upheaval, extreme right wing politics and some fundamental human rights at risk.”
Yes and no. Yes, there is global upheaval and fundamental human rights are at risk. But, no, things have not come full circle and extreme right-wing politics are not in assent. The world of 2017 is very different from the world of 1987. U2’s members should think deeply, not superficially, about the interplay between conservatism, nationalism and race in the American context.
As I argue here, and Rust Belt experts Mark Rodgers and Kimberly Hart (my brilliant wife) argue here and here, the big change in the world in 2016 was the collapse of the Clinton coalition more than a Trump revolution. Trump won because millions of people who voted for Obama twice either stayed home or voted for Trump. These folks didn’t suddenly become racists or neo-nationalists between 2008 and 2016. Instead, they lost confidence in the center-left status quo and decided to gamble that Trump would be a constructive disruptor rather than a destructive disruptor.
The big change in the world in 2016 was the collapse of the Clinton coalition more than a Trump revolution
In terms of the alleged return of right-wing politics, Trump himself thwarted that. Trump defeated several more conservative candidates in the Republican primary. Trump’s reluctance to reform entitlement programs, his skepticism of free trade orthodoxy, his wariness of foreign military intervention, his willingness to take a harder line about taxing “the rich,” his positive comments about European health care systems, all put him to the left of many American conservatives.
On immigration, Trump has backed away from plans to build a wall and create a deportation force. Last week, House Speaker Paul Ryan said the GOP had no plans to create such a force and Trump’s didn’t respond with any kind of tweetstorm. Trump’s first 100 days haven’t started but they will focus on center-right — not extreme right-wing — consensus solutions in areas like taxes, regulation and health care.
On race, Trump’s white-identity rhetoric was at times deplorable, but voters weren’t racist because they concluded the Left’s infatuation with identity politics and political correctness had gone too far and was a threat to the American (and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s) vision of equality. I watched U2 perform “Pride (In the Name of Love)” not “Pride (In the Name of Identity)” on the steps of the Lincoln memorial during Obama’s inauguration with a liberal friend who went on to work in the Obama Administration. That was an American moment: The Party of Lincoln creating an opening for the Party of Obama.
Another American moment: my former boss, Tom Coburn, a staunch conservative, hugging Obama on the floor of the House of Representatives on national television at the State of the Union and saying he “loved him as a man” during his “60 Minutes” farewell interview. That was countercultural. That was rock-n-roll.
U2’s passion for King helped awaken my interest in him. I served on the MLK Federal Holiday Commission’s College and University Committee in the early 1990s. When I came to Washington, I was dismayed to hear progressives misappropriate King’s legacy to foster a notion that Republicans were guilty of racism until proven innocent. That reaction to liberal hypocrisy and political opportunism came to a head in 2016. That discussion is ongoing. Last week, U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) just chastised the head of the NAACP for crafting a scorecard that by default gives Republicans a bad score and Democrats a good score.
MLK talked about love more than identity. Love is about embracing the other. Identity is about embracing one’s self. Yes, self-respect is important. But the heat under the American melting pot has always been the idea that we’re connected by common rights that come from an authority higher than culture or progressive academic consensus. American identity politics is a bad remix of European tribalism. Again, white identity politics is a horrifying corrective but rejecting identity politics in favor MLK’s understanding of equality is a good step.
As U2 reflects on conservatism, nationalism and race in the Trump era they may come to a thematically inconvenient conclusion. This was a “Zoo TV” election more than a “Joshua Tree” election. Trump’s victory signifies the cultural primacy of celebrity more than conservatism. Think about it. We just elected as president a reality TV star, pop culture provocateur and social media maestro. Trump has more in common with Bono’s onstage characters during Zoo TV than Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
In 2016, Americans felt like they were losing their minds in a “Zoo TV”-style onslaught of post-modernism, surrealism, and contradictions via all forms of media all of the time. It isn’t clear whether there is or ever will be any “ism” to Trumpism. If there is, it won’t be extreme right-wing politics.
U2 should begin their moment of reflection by looking at this moment through the lens of Zoo TV and its iconic warning: EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG.
Still, U2 was right to sound an alarm about the out-of-control rhetoric during 2016. Many Republicans did so as well and backed other candidates and even formed a loose “Never Trump” alliance that is now hoping for the best with varying degrees of open-mindedness. After all, what choice do we have?
For a band of U2’s stature there’s a real danger they’ll use their platform to give extreme voices more credit than they deserve. The anti-American and anti-immigrant elements are real in America, but they haven’t “changed the world.” Those elements are marginalized in Republican politics. Trump has condemned those voices, as has attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, who was considered by the Left to be guilty of being a racist until proven innocent. Many conservatives take their job of policing truly racist elements very seriously. Elevating those voices makes our job harder.
2. Don’t re-litigate the 2016 campaign
Artists have a vital prophetic — truth-telling — role in culture. U2 has a history of speaking truth to power in ways that are usually thoughtful and constructive. That said, Americans are sick of partisan politics. They’re fatigued and exhausted.
While the Russians may have been helping Trump, no intelligence report is necessary to know that a particular Irish band was helping Hillary Clinton. U2’s performance at the iHeart Radio Festival a month before the election was heavily anti-Trump. As a one-off performance that’s fine. Many Republicans also thought Trump would lose and had no problem with U2’s performance.
But as they plan for 2017, U2 should meditate on “This is Spinal Tap” — Rob Reiner’s classic satire and modern parable about artistic excess and self-indulgence. As Spinal Tap put it, “There’s a fine line between stupid and clever … Just that little turnabout.”
The iHeart performance may have been clever in October 2016. But in the summer of 2017, it will be subject to that little turnabout. Americans don’t want to go to a summer concert to hear montages of Trump making outrageous statements. They just spent a year hearing that. Spending $100 to hear an Irish band offer up outtakes from 2016 campaign ads won’t feel clever to concertgoers.
In fact, being reflexively anti-Trump and making Trump voters feel stupid would be clichéd, predictable, boring and not remotely creative or rock-n-roll. It would be a retreat into progressive conformity and the liberal cocoon.
Being reflexively anti-Trump and making Trump voters feel stupid would be clichéd, predictable, boring and not remotely creative or rock-n-roll
Beating up on Trump is rhetorical spandex for progressive artists. They think it’s cool but everyone else thinks it’s gross. It highlights the features they’ve surrendered to intellectual laziness and hypocrisy.
So, U2, consider keeping the Trump bashing to a minimum. Keep the iHeart Hollywood Liberal remix of “Desire” at home. A better way to be true to your convictions and draw contrasts is to describe what you’re for — the American Idea.
3. Highlight the Hands that are Rebuilding America, and the world
During its most recent tour, U2 segued “The Hands that Built America,” from the “Gangs of New York” soundtrack, into “Pride (In the Name of Love).”
The performances showed that Bono appreciates America more than many Americans. His description of the American Idea tears down the wall between the Left and Right. Glenn Beck praises Bono here for his insight into our founding principles.
“America is not a country. America is an idea … an idea that is still being born,” Bono says.
Later in the performace he says, “This is a moment to thank … the peacemakers [in Ireland] — the ones who had courage to compromise. Nobody won in Ireland. That’s why everybody won in Ireland.”
The performance was a beautiful celebration of the American Idea and a courageous defense of pluralism and compromise, principles our country can’t function without.
Bono also asked, “Where are the hands to rebuild America?”
This tour he should answer that question and look forward rather backward at 2016.
Every night from the stage U2 could pick two or three local doers who are rebuilding America in their communities and thank them from the stage. In Cleveland, thank Pastor Paul Grodell, who refuses to give up on people struggling with addiction in the Rust Belt. In Dallas, thank Antong Lucky, a former leader of the Bloods gang who has dedicated his life to non-violence and reconciliation in a city many want to divide by race. In Washington, D.C., thank Bob Woodson who is connecting these groups and the Appalachia Service Project that is caring for America’s forgotten poor.
In every city U2 will visit there are people laying down their lives for their neighbors who aren’t seeking any kind of recognition or credit. They are the hands that are rebuilding America. U2 could ask people of good faith on all sides for input and even offer up organizational support via the ONE Campaign. Simply acknowledging poverty and extreme hopelessness exist in America would be a good step.
“America is not a country. America is an idea … an idea that is still being born” – Bono
Also recognize the audience for their generosity as taxpayers. Americans don’t know the story of PEPFAR and Bono can tell it. Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President Bush and a policy fellow with the ONE Campaign, said PEPFAR is “perhaps the greatest American work of mercy since the Marshall Plan. And Americans should know about it and be proud of it.”
Finally, as Bono thinks about the hands that are rebuilding America, he shouldn’t be shy about defending commerce as the best way to lift people out of poverty. In 2012 at a speech at Georgetown University he said, “Rock star preaches capitalism — wow. Sometimes I hear myself and I just cannot believe it. But commerce is real … It’s real. Aid is just a stopgap. Commerce, entrepreneurial capitalism takes more people out of poverty than aid.”
4. Let the music do the talking
For longtime fans, U2 could spend 15 minutes showing a PowerPoint presentation on the ONE Campaign’s work with the band performing B-side instrumentals in the background, like “Bass Trap” and “Sixty Seconds in Kingdom Come,” and we’d be pumping our fists or holding up lighters. But that isn’t going to work with everyone.
Have “we get it” and “we’re listening” moments through the songs. “Red Hill Mining Town,” which is about economic dislocation from a European perspective, is a natural connecting point. U2 should also consider debuting “Drowning Man” from the “War” album.
To deliver a message, perform the rousing December 19, 1987 Tempe, Arizona version of “Mothers of the Disappeared.” Imagine 60,000 people in Rust Belt cities like Cleveland or Pittsburg singing in Spanish “El Pueblo Vencera” which means “a people united will overcome” to close the show. That moment would do more to curse the darkness than a 10-minute Bono speech or an anti-Trump video montage.
60,000 fans in the Rust Belt singing “El Pueblo Vencera” would do more to curse the darkness than a 10-minute Bono speech or an anti-Trump video montage
Also, since Bono is on a humility kick — and is physically unable to play guitar due to his bike accident — it’s time to bring another guitarist on stage to do “The Joshua Tree” songs justice. The obvious choice is “Joshua Tree” producer Daniel Lanois. Fans don’t want to hear stripped down workaround versions of side-two songs that need another guitar. “The Joshua Tree” is a muscular album that deserves muscular arrangements. No piano duets. And no cowbell. Perhaps bring along co-producer Brian Eno to play keyboard. Acknowledging the creative and mentoring role Eno and Lanois — U2’s unofficial fifth and sixth members — played would be a special moment for fans while protecting the integrity of the music.
U2 also shouldn’t overthink how to be relevant and they think about their next album. Every artist and writer struggles with knowing when something is finished and whether it’s overdone or under-done. Leonard Cohen struggled mightily with the lyrics to Hallelujah. The production value was odd and no one paid much attention to it until years later. It’s now one of the most covered songs in history.
Waiting, letting things gestate and thinking deeply, humbly and honestly about the moment is fine but relevance has to be a byproduct rather than a goal. U2 usually gets this right. As Bono said, “[T]he reasons our albums have lasted the test of time is, ironically, that the best of them can find a truth in the moment they were made that’s constant in changing times…”
He’s right. Relevance is the residue of transcendence. The fact that U2 is still a cultural force that can bring disparate people together is remarkable.
Finally, it’s probably too late for U2 to be invited to Trump’s inauguration, but the band should consider shocking the entertainment world by wishing Trump and the nation well on Friday. It’s fine to say you supported the other candidate and don’t like the winner and are even a little worried. In fact, that’s the point. U2’s defense of the American Idea is something we need more of, not less. Paying the price of pluralism means recognizing and learning to live with the legitimate elections of people with whom you passionately disagree. America’s peaceful transitions of power are still historically counter-cultural and a miracle worth celebrating.
Maybe U2 could play a special version of “One” from a secure location if not the National Mall:
One life with each other: sisters, brothers.
One life, but we’re not the same.
We get to carry each other, carry each other.
That would tear down the wall between the Left and Right. That would be countercultural. That would be rock-n-roll.
John Hart is the Editor-in-Chief of Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @johnhart333.