“That’s stupid, ‘punk rock’, you know. I just think of it as rock’n’roll, cuz that’s what it is.”
“What do you like about it?”
“Well, I like that it’s like, something new, and that it’s just reviving old rock ‘n roll, and it’s raw again, and it’s for real. It’s not bullshit—there’s no rock stars now—you know.”
—Eugene, punk rocker. The Decline of Western Civilization
Boston’s relationship with punk rock was a lot like its relationship with 1960’s flower power; Boston was there at inception but let the West Coast steal the spotlight. But like twins separated at birth, Boston and her Left Coast cousins tend to agree in general. Today, many liberal Bostonians and Los Angelenos might easily agree with the sentiment that President Trump is a punk, but in easy agreement, the progenitors of punk might be showing their age. If Trump is a punk, then national politics is in for a rude and raucous awakening.
When Penelope Spheeris titled her 1981 punk-rock documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization, she surely intended to mock Los Angeles’ punk-rock critics, like LAPD Police Chief Daryl Gates who wrote a letter demanding that the film not be shown in LA. The film chronicles the rise of punk in LA, and was probably titled after German historian Oswald Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes (Decline of the West), read aloud by Germs’ front man, and the film’s protagonist, Darby Crash. In hindsight, it’s clear that Darby Crash successfully channeled Spengler into America’s music zeitgeist, as Donald Trump now channels Darby Crash into America’s political life—a haze of German foreboding obscuring a singularly American interpretation of the end of civilization.
Published in 1918, Der Untergang des Abendlandespostulates that every culture is a superorganism with a limited and predictable lifespan and that, sometime around the year 2000, Western civilization would enter a so-called “pre‑death emergency” that would be countered by 200 years of tyranny—Western governments led by an executive unconstrained by any constitution. Twenty years into the new millennium, if the governing class of the world’s most powerful Western power agrees on one thing, it’s that tyranny stalks the land—either in the guise of the Deep State or Donald Trump—and one or the other needs be taken to the woodshed for civilization, rule-of-law in essence, to reemerge. But what if Spengler was right? What if like any organism, Western civilization is dying and cannot return to the glory of its youth?
Even as far back as 375 BCE, Plato understood music’s power and wrote “When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them.” If punk marked the end of DJ’s mediating rock’n’roll to the masses, Donald Trump likely marks the end of a national representative government and the mainstream press mediating power to the people.
Early on in The Decline of Western Civilization, Ron Reyes, the first front man of Black Flag, yells to the back of the audience, “So why’d they let all you longhairs in here tonight? What’s the problem? It’s 1980. Can’t you afford a f*cking haircut?” calling out the by-then dated aesthetics and assumptions of the hippies, who had blown any moral authority they once had on 1970’s discos’ mirrored tables (even if they didn’t know it yet, and still don’t know it today). Punk rock, after all, is not about making timeless music, about building on the splendor of Bach and Beethoven; it’s about lighting the arena on fire with one hand and flicking off the firemen with the other.
If music foreshadows power, President Donald Trump, preening for fans in “Trump 2020: F*ck Your Feelings” t-shirts and shouting at the press, penned in at the back of his rallies, “Look back there, the live red lights. They’re turning those suckers off fast out there. They’re turning those lights off fast. The dishonest media!” should not surprise anyone. If punk rock is any guide, what comes next in American political life should be even less surprising.
“There are no rock stars now.” Eugene, the LA teen punk, was prescient. While plenty of people know the names Darby Crash (Germs), Henry Rollins (Black Flag), and Joe Strummer (The Clash), they are hardly household names like John Lennon, Mick Jagger, James Brown, or Chuck Berry. The icons of punk ended an era. From its ashes rose alternative rock and, later, indie music, unmediated by DJs and democratized by music services like SoundCloud and Spotify. Similarly, Donald Trump is hardly a statesman. It is too soon to tell if his Presidency ushers in an era of Ceasarism or central-government disintegration and more local control. If punk rock “just revived rock’n’roll” then perhaps Donald Trump is just reviving a long-cherished, and long disused, American political principle of local-and-state sovereignty. But no doubt about it, the era of bullshit is over—there is no single source of Truth anymore—there are no statesmen now…and Donald Trump is a punk.