Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Political Report From Nebraska

This license plate redesign was the subject of much more discussion than the presidential election in my home state this week

Whenever I go back home to Nebraska I always keep my ears open to gauge the political mood, mostly because the political worlds of the Great Plains and the Northeast are so foreign as to be different countries. Nebraska (especially central Nebraska, where I'm from) is one of the reddest states in the country, and hasn't voted for a Democrat since the LBJ landslide of 1964. New Jersey, after decades of swinging back and forth, hasn't gone for a Republican since Bush the Elder in 1988. Essex County, New Jersey, where I live now, gave Obama 77.4% of the vote in 2012, compared to 32.1% for Obama in Adams County, Nebraska.

The differences have been striking. I remember back during the Tea Party upswing in 2009-2010, and hearing folks who I never pegged for that kind of thing loudly saying stuff like "America is a republic, not a democracy!"  I head a lot about creeping socialism. I saw a sign in the window of a gun store breaking Godwin's Law.  The attempt that the Republican party was making to oppose president Obama with massive resistance, assisted with the radical voices of the likes of Glenn Beck on Fox, was really having an effect. The whole atmosphere just seemed politically supercharged with Bircher ideas out in the mainstream, which surprised me considering that my home state's conservatism rarely tended in the radical direction.

I would have expected a lot of that charge in the air when I visited this week. After all, this is a hotly-contested election year. Despite that fact, the political issue most discussed in my time in Nebraska was the new design for the state's license plates, which many people in the state find to be sub-optimal. (I concur) I heard a great deal of passion on this issue, which might seem esoteric to an outsider. The silence on the presidential election, in contrast, was very telling. I heard the real estate developer's name spoken only once, and in disgust by a dedicated, conservative Republican. So what happened?

A look at the electoral map shows that Trump is very weak in the Plains states. His style rubs people the wrong way in a place where humility and substance are valued across the political line. Trump also has a very hard time getting the votes of regular church-goers outside of the South, and that demographic is the core of the Republican party in places like Oklahoma, Iowa, and Kansas, states that Trump has lost. The Republicans I know in Nebraska tend to be church-goers, and to place a great deal of importance on "values" issues. Trump disgusts them, but they don't really seem enthusiastic for any of the alternatives, even though Cruz has been trying hard to woo this group.

The lack of discussion of politics reminded me a lot of the later Shrub years, when even his former die hard supporters began to see him as an embarrassing screw-up. The silence I heard in Nebraska this time around spoke volumes, both about the feelings of many Republicans toward their party, but also for Democratic prospects in the upcoming election. Whenever conservatives in my home state seem low-energy, it's a pretty good indicator that their party is about to lose.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

A Letter From Nebraska

I arrived back in the Cornhusker State on Saturday, and so far have really been enjoying my time here. Spending day after day commuting to New York City and enduring its crush and push then coming home to parent two amazing yet rambunctious three year olds with my equally exhausted spouse can get really tiring. Last week I got to spend a day just exploring the city, which was helpful, since I could exult in New York's energy without feeling like a rat in a maze. Nevertheless, I needed to get some peace and quiet.

That exists in abundance in my home state. Getting off of the plane I was struck, as always, by the immense expanse of the sky, a sky so huge to seem threatening. When you are in Nebraska you get the feeling that the towns and cities are a middle finger to nature, which obviously never intended such things to exist here. That ever-present tension is responsible in large part for the humility of people who live here. You know full well that the wind and sky are permanent, and you are simply a temporary occupant of their space, and are there at their discretion. Occasionally a tornado comes around to remind you of that fact.

We landed in Omaha about 6:30, and that feeling of smallness got much more intense after the sun came down and we were driving west of Lincoln. It had been an overcast day, and the clouds blotted out the moon and the stars. Miles from any city the darkness was positively primeval, a kind of darkness that I had forgot could even exist in the world. It was so dark I couldn't see my daughters in the back seat, despite being on the one and only major interstate highway in the state. Under that huge dark sky you can feel as if the world outside of your car has simply disappeared. It felt good to be so isolated, the polar opposite of being packed cheek to jowl on the 2 train with someone's elbow in my kidney.

Easter morning I walked outside and smelled an old smell I had almost forgotten about: cow manure. My parents' house is near the edge of town, and just a few miles southwest there's a big feedlot. On the rare days the wind comes out of that direction, the smell saturates everything. As a child I hated it, but now I have to admit I exult in it a little. It is a wonderfully earthy smell, without the sickening burn of the ammonia in pig manure. And it was a welcome change from the unnatural chemical smells of New Jersey or the fuggy miasma of Penn Station. More old smells awaited, from the incense at Easter mass (used perhaps overzealously by a young priest) to my mother's ham baking in the oven.

Even better than the smells were the sounds of my daughters playing enthusiastically with their cousins. It made me feel a bit guilty that they only ever see them about once a year. I was lucky enough to have lots of great cousins, which made going to family events something to look forward to, rather than dread. I feel like out in New Jersey, where they don't have any cousins, that they are missing out on something important. My wife and my parents and I are currently plotting ways to get them out to Jersey this summer. Maybe we can introduce them to what real pizza tastes like before it is too late.

The smells of manure, incense and ham are all memory triggers, and coming home can be difficult for me sometimes because it reminds me too much of the person I once was. My home life was great growing up and I was lucky to have such caring parents and siblings and a tight extended family. However, much of what happened outside of that cocoon was shit. We walked all the cousins over to my old elementary school on Sunday to use the playground, and as I walked past the brick wall outside of the cafeteria I vividly remembered the time a kid shoved me, causing the skin on the tops of my knuckles to rip apart. I saw the kickball field where the other boys in the sixth grade banned me from playing with them during recess. I saw the spot in the schoolyard that very year where a bully literally spat on me and I finally cracked and started going after him. I wish I'd had the nerve to do that more growing up. I was a passive child, probably somewhere on the spectrum, and thought ignoring the bullies would make them go away. That passivity in my youth held me back so much in so many ways, from an inability to ask girls out to an inability to stick with student journalism because I was mortified at asking people questions. In my time growing up outside of my family I was as lonely and lacking in confidence as someone could be.

My dad showed me an old videotape of us playing a game of touch football with some of my relatives in my grandparents' farmyard when I was 16. I was a bit horrified by the gangly dork I saw before me, but watching it made my father really happy. I saw on the video that I managed to throw a pretty wicked bomb to my cousin for a touchdown, and started to feel a little bit better about myself. After all, I spent years and years pushing to not be that gangly, withdrawn dork. I'd like to think I've been largely successful. Coming home has been so relaxing as an escape from the stress of my daily life, but also an uneasy reminder that it took getting away from it for me to have any chance of coming into my own as a human being.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Track of the Week: Bruce Springsteen "Atlantic City"

It's not making too many headlines outside of the Garden State, but Atlantic City is in trouble again. The collapse of the casino industry there, hampered by new competition, is driving the city to bankruptcy. Governor Christie is exploiting the situation, withholding aid unless the city puts itself under state control, the kind of thing that has led to poisoned water in Flint and uninhabitable schools in Detroit. Like in the casinos themselves, in modern American life the house always wins, and the regular palooka always loses. Donald Trump famously invested huge in Atlantic City and helped build the reputation he is using to run for president, all the while the people of Atlantic City are seeing their lives fall apart.

The casinos came in the 1970s in an attempt to save a once bustling resort centered around a famous boardwalk. Generations of American families had grown up battling for supremacy over its streets in countless games of Monopoly, perhaps never aware that these were real places. By the early seventies, as the stellar film The King of Marvin Gardens illustrates, Atlantic City had died off as a tourist mecca in the age of interstates and airports. When the casinos came to Atlantic City, gambling was really only legal there and in Nevada. As other, more convenient places closer to the homes of the marks have built casinos, Atlantic City has suffered.

Back in 1982, when Bruce Springsteen recorded his austere Nebraska album, he seemed to grasp the dark lie behind the supposed salvation. The whole record is a document of the harsh reality underneath the "shining city on a hill" rhetoric of the early Reagan years, stories of people on the margins who are losing out. "Atlantic City" hits the listener right away with the lines "Well they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night/ They blew up his house too." This world of casinos and the hopes of easy money is infused with organized crime and assassinations. The character singing the song is desperate, he talks of having "debts that no honest man can pay." As he sings to his lady, he promises her a romantic night out in Atlantic City, and lets her know ominously that he's "met a man and I'm gonna do a little favor for him." It's implied that this desperate character has found his way out by killing someone else for money.

It is a beautiful, dark, haunting song. The harmonica cuts like a cold wind coming in off the ocean whipping the boardwalk, and the mandolin echoes spookily. The key, cryptic lines of the song have always stuck with me "Everything dies baby/ That's a fact/ But maybe everything that dies/ Someday comes back." It could be a cheap justification by this newly minted killer for hire about what he's about to do. It could be fatalism about chucking his soul in the garbage can to do it. Or it could be a comment on the once beautiful city fallen into disrepair hoping to make a comeback. Today it looks like Atlantic City is never coming back. Like the character in the song, it made a dirty deal to save itself, but the bill for that deal has come due.

The leading candidate in one of the major party's for president made so much of his money off of a town that's broke, desperate, and having to beg for mercy from one of his political lackeys. As "Atlantic City" tells us abundantly, that town is a window into the dark heart of the American Dream, and the human cost of its illusions.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Thoughts On An Imminent Trip To Nebraska

Tomorrow I depart with my wife and kids for my rural Nebraska hometown. I am very happy to be seeing my parents and sisters, nephews, nieces, in-laws, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends again.

At the same time, it is a bittersweet feeling. There are days when I feel like an internal exile. My hometown and the greater New York City area are such different places that they might as well be in different countries. My travels around the country, which have included residential stints in places as far-flung as Chicago and Texas, have taught me that this is a nation of regions.  By that I do not mean the facile "red state versus blue state" cliche. Places where I have lived, like East Texas and West Michigan, have a unique culture that is all their own, even if both are "red" regions.

Like most of my grad school peers, I am living in a place that I never expected to live in, even though I left academia. I certainly enjoy teaching in New York City, and I have learned to love New Jersey. At the same time, it's still easy to feel out of place. This happens most often when I tell people where I'm from, and they treat me as some kind of oddity, or say disparaging things about "flyover country" in casual conversation. I don't think I've ever encountered a group of people more provincial than the residents of the Upper West Side of New York, and that is saying something, since folks in my hometown often treat the world beyond central Nebraska as if it has "here be dragons" written on the map.

I've at least grown a little used to these feelings ever since I moved to Chicago in 1998 and had someone call me "country" for saying the word "supper" and having a clerk stare at me in bewilderment when I asked for a "sack" with my order. What's been a little harder is the feeling that where I am from feels more and more alien to me. Some of this is the natural process of living apart from it for almost twenty years.

It also has to do, in large part, with the growing political and cultural divisions in the country. In my return visits to my homeland, I've noticed an increasing turn inward, party having to do, I suspect, with the aging of the population in that area. It was always a very conservative place, but it has become radically conservative, in the talk radio mode I normally associate with places like Texas. I still remember a couple of years ago being amused and horrified by a flyer posted in my parents' church about an even called "Guns for Life" featuring a minuteman and a fetus. Evidently it was some kind of gun range anti-abortion fundraising event. That kind of thing never would've happened in my childhood. Last year I had to hear a sermon, demanded of the parish priests by the local bishop, attacking the Supreme Court's recent decision on gay marriage. When Barack Obama spoke his infamous line about people in these areas being bitter and clinging to guns and religion, I just nodded in agreement. I have yet to witness anything in the ensuing eight years to get me to change my mind.

So I am left negotiating two worlds, one where a public attack on gay marriage is mandated, another where it would be thought of as hate speech. (And trust me, I am well aware that other people have much harsher negotiations due to race, sexuality, etc. I'm just thinking out loud here about regional differences.) I wish there was a way to bring the best of both of them together. Rural Nebraska has got to be one of the most culinarily benighted lands in the nation, a place where cheese is a spice and corn is a vegetable, as a friend back home likes to say. Here in New Jersey, on the other hand, there is amazing food from a variety of culinary traditions, so much that it never fails to amaze me. On the other hand, the people of my homeland have an admirable humility, and are much, much less obsessed with status and material possessions as folks are here in the Northeast. (This is perhaps one reason why Trump has not won any states as of yet in the Great Plains.) The way people in these parts view one's college alma mater as a reflection of their value as a human being never fails to disgust me. People back home are a lot more rooted. Unfortunately, that rootedness often expresses itself in an exasperating narrow-mindedness. People in both regions by and large don't understand the other. New Yorkers think of rural Nebraskans (if they ever think of them) as a bunch of dumb hicks, and Nebraskans think of New York as some wretched hellhole of immorality and degradation. Both are completely wrong, and both will never change their minds.

I know I will keep going on, enjoying the pizza and diversity in my new homeland, but silently shocked at the materialism. And I will go home tomorrow and enjoy the easy-going social interactions but be ready to be exasperated at the politics. Perhaps I'll just be satisfied that as an internal exile, I understand a lot of places a whole lot better than people who have lived there their entire lives.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Brussels And The Power of Nightmares

David Ortiz's fearless and unifying response to the terror attacks in Boston is one we ought to emulate, not the fearful hate mongering clogging up the airwaves today

After the attack in Brussels yesterday we saw the ever more predictable response. (Note as well we didn't see this response after similar attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Turkey.) Trump renewed his calls to ban Muslims from entering America and use torture. Ted Cruz, ever the eager Eddie Haskell trying to curry favor with the talk radio masses, proposed that law enforcement "secure" and "patrol" Muslim neighborhoods within our own borders. If there is a similar attack in this country I can expect that internment camps will be Republican orthodoxy within a matter of days.

Of course, this kind of stuff only helps the extremists who plan these attacks. As anyone except the American news media appears to know, terrorism is a tactic intended to provoke a disproportionate response that will hurt bystanders and thus get the people affected to support the cause of the terrorists, which they would normally find to be too extreme. "Carpet bombing," torture, and mass detentions plays right into the hands of terrorists. Of course, Trump and Cruz could care less, since fear is their biggest selling point, especially for Trump. When people are afraid, their lizard brains kick in and they become children, looking for mommy or daddy to protect them. Authoritarians like Trump know this, and feed off of it.

Keep in mind, however, that Trump and Cruz are merely less subtle practitioners of this dark art, which had been mastered by Dick Cheney and his crew of neo-cons. I've said it before and I will say it again: the most important political documentary of our times is the BBC's 2004 tour de force The Power of Nightmares. In three parts it tells parallel histories of neo-conservatism and Islamist extremism. The basic thesis is that after the failures of the political elite to improve the lives of their constituents, many of them turned to using fear of the other as a justification for staying in power.

Dubya and his handlers certainly understood this. Before 9/11 he was a semi-legitimate president whose one accomplishment was pushing through tax cuts for the wealthy that had little broad support. He exploited the attacks (which his administration had failed to prevent) to both gain popularity and re-election, and also to make the neo-con wet dream of invading Iraq to come true.

While Bush, Cheney, and their gang used the power of nightmares to advance an imperialist agenda under the auspices of "preserving freedom" and "expanding democracy," Trump and Cruz are more nihilistic. Cruz seems willing to say anything if it will appeal to the hardcore conservative base (hence his "New York values" comment). He knows that these people hate and fear Muslims, and speaks to them accordingly. Trump, I am more convinced, is not putting on an act. I really and truly think that he is a committed fascist, even if he wouldn't use that term. (More on that in a future post.) Like any good fascist, he wants to "cleanse" the nation and make it great through military conquest ("we're going to take their oil!") Increasing fear only helps him.

People who are usually level-headed can lose their minds in moments like this, driven by the imperatives of their fear reflex. If we are to break out of the fifteen year nightmare we have been living in, we must stop living in fear and stop looking for some authoritarian daddy figure to protect us. If not, the nightmare will just keep going on and on and on.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Let's Be Honest, The Democrats Are A Party In Crisis, Too

It's very easy these days to point and laugh at the Republican Party and mock it for getting itself into its current position. Years of a cynical leadership promoting supply side economics while throwing some culture war bones to supporters getting screwed by those economics created a base so rabid that it can no longer be controlled, and can be easily swayed by a Trumpian demagogue. The bill for decades of double-dealing has finally come due.

Because the Democrats are not imploding as spectacularly, it is easy to overlook their current mess. Their party's clear standard bearer has been losing states to a cantankerous outsider with few presidential bona fides who until recently held office as an independent socialist. The most enthusiasm from the base is coming from his supporters, even though he's not even really a Democrat. More crucially, while Republicans have turned "red" states like Louisiana and Kansas into one party governments capable of maintaining power even after running their states into the ground, Democrats have lost control of "blue" states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and New Jersey. This has led to once impossible things, such as Michigan becoming a "right to work" state.  Clinton is 69 years old, Sanders is 74. The party's failures on the state and local level have left it without a new generation of Democrats in office. Who the hell would even be able to run in 2020 with any real national following?

The crisis runs even deeper than these tip of the iceberg symptoms of decline. The Democrats have been getting squashed in midterm elections, effectively squandering the Obama presidency as the Republicans have gone into full-on resistance mode. The scene was set back in 2009, when the screamers and ranters went out to berate politicians who supported the Affordable Care Act, leading to the Tea Party midterm of 2010. As the current election has shown manifestly in the case of Jeb Bush, lots of superPAC money won't swing a presidential election by itself. However, in Congressional races, it makes a huge difference. With corporations solidly in the Republican camp, the Democrats play at a huge disadvantage when it comes to winning Congress. After that 2010 sweep, they also got to redraw electoral maps and gerrymander several states. On top of all of that, the Supreme Court invalidated parts of the Voting Rights Act, enabling voter suppression on a massive scale.

The only way for the Democrats to overcome these obstacles is by increasing their turnout, especially in off-year elections. Voter suppression makes that hard, as well as the fact that the Democratic party does so little for its base. Teachers and their unions are supposed to be a part of the coalition, but Democrats consistently enact education "reforms" contrary to what teachers want. It's as if Republicans passed major regulations on oil companies then expected their usual support. Latinos support the Democrats, but when the party had both the presidency and Congress, it increased deportations rather than push through comprehensive immigration reform. African-Americans vote overwhelmingly Democratic, but the party has been slow to move against mass incarceration after spearheading such efforts in the 1990s. How do Democratic politicians expect to win if they refuse to do the things their voters put them there to do? Is someone really going to be motivated to go out and vote in an off-year election for a candidate who will give them nothing but lip service?

The Democrats have been able to console themselves with presidential wins, but the current favorable conditions won't last forever. A nightmare scenario could be coming. Trump could well be the nominee, then go down in flames in the general election. That might give the Romney wing of the party the ability to say "see I told you so" and push the party in a more moderate direction, especially on immigration. If the Republicans are able to pivot on those issues while not totally losing their base, the Democrats will be in deeper trouble. I'm not putting any money on this, but this is a party whose success has more to do with the dysfunction of their opponents than any other quality. That's not a good place to be.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Track of the Week: The Jacksons "Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)"

I recently watched Spike Lee's new doc about Michael Jackson's career transition from the Jackson 5 to his solo breakthrough with Off The Wall in 1979, and really got into it. I hadn't known much about that liminal time, or the songs he did with his brothers (minus Jermaine and with now with Randy) as The Jacksons for Epic Records, their home after leaving Motown.  While the music Michael Jackson made in this period is not as consistent or iconic as what he would go on to do, some of it is really fantastic. My favorite of these songs is "Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)," a superbly funky groove with Earth Wind, and Fire's horn section adding some sparkle.

Michael's voice has really matured at this point, and that ineffable Michael Jackson "feel" is already in effect.  The most bittersweet point in the documentary was seeing the Jacksons perform this song on American Bandstand, and seeing Michael's electricity as a performer, and the smile on his face as he was obviously just enjoying himself so much. At this point he was still only 19 years old, but aware of his powers and his ability to master them, and gleeful at that knowledge. He looked so young and so real, before the years of disfiguring his face and of fame warping his mind. I could feel tears welling up in my eyes thinking about what was to come for him. The decades of tabloid stories and the relatively mediocre nature of his later output had made me forget just how amazing he was in his day.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Disco Musicals: The Ultimate So Bad It's Good Genre

I am a sucker for what the hosts of The Flop House podcast call "good-bad movies." These are movies whose badness is so unique and fascinating that they elevate themselves into a realm of awful genius. No genre of film has produced a higher rate of good-bad movies than disco musicals. They were are sort of perfect for the role, combining the cashing in on a played out cultural trend, the interestingly wretched fashion of the period from 1978 to 1980, and a music genre that could produce maximum cheesiness.  If you, like me, enjoy these kinds of movies, I'd recommend all of them on the following list.

Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

This is a film so transcendently bad that it prompted me to write a long blog post just to be able to process it. It stars the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton as the make-believe group from the famous Beatles album and perhaps the most asinine plot ever put on film.  Words cannot do justice to this. The brothers Gibb appear at the height of their disco period, and many of the songs get a disco-makeover. At the very end of the film a bunch of B and C-list celebrities do some terrible disco dance moves as the reprise of the title song. The YouTube video has been taken down, likely due to extreme embarrassment on the part of one of the participants. Here's what I said about it after my first viewing:

"At this point I didn't think the film could possibly go any lower or be any more ridiculous, but boy, was I wrong! It ends with a bunch of mid-level 70s celebrities singing the reprise of the title song, making poorly choreographed disco-by-numbers moves in the process. For some reason the camera keeps finding Carol Channing, whose eerie grin unfortunately distracts from a young Tina Turner standing right beside her. Many of the assembled celebs look bored, stoned, hungover, or all three. The hokey dancing, awful wardrobes, shaggy haircuts, and complete lack of taste on display manage to encapsulate all that was wrong about the 70s and put it into one coke-addled package.

When I finished watching Pepper, I then realized its disturbing implications. Is it actually so bad that it is beyond bad? That made me wonder if there is anything in the world that is as good as Pepper is bad. Can evil in fact sink deeper than virtue can soar high? Furthermore, does a truly horrible piece of culture leave a more lasting imprint on my psyche than a sublime one? Or is something this bad sublime in its own way? Needless to say, I think I'll have to see it again."


At least the Sgt Pepper film came out right when the Bee Gees were standing on top of the world (although the film would help knock them from their perch.) Xanadu came out in 1980, right as disco was playing itself out. It starred Olivia Newton-John, fresh off of Grease and at that time both a hit maker and object of desire.  The theme song was written by Electric Light Orchestra, still riding high on a wave of prog meets soft rock hits.  Xanadu could've been a contender, but like the other disco musicals, the writing is just downright awful.  Michael Beck, who had just played badass Swan the gang leader in The Warriors the year before, stars as a struggling artist who meets a muse, played by Newton-John. Disco and Greek mythology ensue. The plot has something to do with a nightclub called Xanadu, and Gene Kelly appears to boot, in what would be his last film.  I get the sad feeling that this one broke him.  There isn't just disco, but ROLLER DISCO here, people.  The theme song is actually pretty good as this style of music goes, and Newton-John is as appealing as always. The problem is, the song comes at the end, after the viewers have already longed for the sweet release of death to get them away from the film. The dance scenes in parts look more like an industrial film than Busby Berkley.  But hey, there's so much light-hearted cheese here that someone recently made this into an ironically bad musical and it was a Broadway hit.

The Apple

Also from 1980, The Apple truly one of those movies that has to be seen to be believed. I learned of it through the stellar Electric Boogaloo doc about Cannon Films. This musical was intended by Cannon impressario Menachem Golan to be his magnum opus and entree into Hollywood success. Instead, it was so bad that the premiere audience started throwing promotional copies of the soundtrack at the screen. The premise is so insanely awful that I feel like I lose IQ points just trying to type it. It is 1994, and an authoritarian regime keeps the masses in line through pop music and enforced dancing. A cute folk-singing couple are tempted to take the "apple" of fame in one of many convoluted Biblical metaphors. (In case this is all too hard to grasp, you can watch one of the tempters in a loincloth holding a giant apple.)  They eventually flee to a hippie commune and when the evil music exec/dictator/Satan named "Boogalow" comes to get them, they are Raptured as God appears in a translucent Rolls Royce. No, I am not kidding. Before we get there we witness the musical number for "Coming For You" (featured above), a piece of Donna Summer knock-off disco and the least veiled metaphor ever in the history of pop music. (The MPAA had to be asleep at the switch to give this one a PG rating.)

Can't Stop The Music

Just when you thought 1980 couldn't have been more saturated with bad disco musicals comes Can't Stop The Music, starring Steve Guttenberg and the Village People. It starts with Guttenberg on roller skates wearing flared trousers and an Izod shirt, and only gets worse/better from there. My favorite thing about the trailer is that it proclaims this will be "the movie that launches the 80s." Instead it feels like the last groaning gasp of the 70s, a decade now totally exhausted, its polyester torn and frayed. Don't believe me? Just take a look at the "Milkshake" number in the trailer. The Village People themselves had already reached their very short expiration date, I am sure no one in the film thought that Steve Guttenberg would emerge as the one star from this piece of dreck.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Classic Albums: The Smiths, Meat Is Murder

An album can be classic even if it's not perfect or has some dud tracks, and The Smiths' 1985 record Meat Is Murder might be the best example. The good songs on this album are just so damn good that it's easy to forget the ones that don't hit. The Queen Is Dead might be a better album, but its best songs are not as good as the best songs on Meat Is Murder.

Meat Is Murder was the dreaded sophomore album for The Smiths, a band that had hit the ground running with their first, self-titled album. The title is about as stark as it gets, accompanied by a grainy picture of an American soldier in Vietnam. This is a kind of statement of purpose, to let you know that this is going to be some hard-hitting stuff. And it is, from the slaughter of animals to child abuse. The first song, the masterful "Headmaster Ritual," sets the tone. It hits hard with one of Johnny Marr's best churning riffs getting things off to a rolling start before Morrissey intones a perfect Morrissey line: "Belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools." It's an indictment of abusive and authoritarian educators, one that's always resonated with me after surviving a hellish kindergarten. It sets the tone for the album, one that concerns itself with inhumanity, cruelty, and abuse. Musically it seems to perfectly integrate all the band's elements into an almost seamless whole.

The next song, "Rusholme Ruffians," is one of my favorite Smiths deep tracks. It has a certain rockabilly swing to it, unlike almost any other Smiths songs, and some incidental noise to evoke the mood of the local fair that it describes. It reminds me of that elegiac feeling of the end of summer, of going out at night but needing to wear a jacket, aware of the hint of winter in the evening chill. It's followed by "I Want The One I Can't Have," a typical Morrissey unrequited love lament. I was a very romantic teenager with a complete inability to speak to the opposite sex, which of course meant listening to the Smiths was love at first hearing, because of songs like this. I made my pathetic secret crushes grandiose by imagining them sung in Morrissey's high voice. While this type of song would be made too many times by this band, this time around the approach is pretty fresh.

"What She Said" is less romantic and almost claustrophobic. It's fast and dirty, and finds the semblance of a groove, rare for a Smiths song. It's also a song that shows the importance of track listings on albums, a lost art in this age of playlists. So far side one has gotten faster and faster, and this song even seems to come close to classic punk territory. It ends abruptly, and throws the listener into the languid, slow burn of "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore."  This song is a real stunner. It starts beautifully with a little acoustic guitar figure, Morrissey sings "At the car at the side of the road" then the drums and bass come in as he finishes his thought with "Time's tide will smother you/ And I will too." Marr goes from riffing to some gorgeous, feedback-laden moods in the background over a tight little groove by Joyce and Rourke. It is hard for me to listen to this song with any objective remove, since I associate it very strongly with a particular person in my past life. We were once inseparable friends, and while in Chicago would often frequent a bar with a CD jukebox (remember those?) that had a Smiths compilation on it. Almost every time we went to the bar one of us would play this song, and we would sing along together. Even when time's tide sent me to downstate Illinois and her to Toronto, we maintained our friendship, up until a sad falling out five years ago. We haven't talked since, and hearing this song will always remind me of a once beautiful friendship that went sour, appropriate for the theme of this song.

"That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore" is probably my second favorite Smiths song. My favorite? Without a doubt, it's "How Soon Is Now," the next song on the album. That might sound cliched, but things get cliched for a reason. (And yes, I am aware that this song wasn't on the UK version of the album, but I've only ever listened to the US one.) Swirling reverby guitar, big beat, and "I am the son and heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar," perhaps the most Morrissey line that ever Morrissey-ed. The dance-y beat is atypical for the band, but it really works. When Marr's crystalline guitar backs Morrisey's "I am human and I need to be loved/ Just like everyone else does" I am immediately transported back to my adolescence. This song is adolescent longing personified, in all its silly grandiosity and self-pity. I have been listening to it for well over twenty years and ever time it still completely grabs me and won't let go.

It's hard to top that, and the rest of the album doesn't really try. "Nowhere Fast" revives the rockabilly feel with a clickety clack I'm used to hearing from Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two. This song is a sign that side two of the album is going to be more political, as Morrissey takes the persona of a stuffed shirt incapable of expressing a "natural emotion" who wants to drop his "trousers to the queen." Cheeky! "Well I Wonder" goes back into melancholia, with some Morrissey crooning and mooning over unrequited love. Andy Rourke's bass, strong on the whole album, sounds especially good here.

The album ends with two long, more political songs. "Barbarism Begins At Home" has a funky groove to it, a kind of goth disco. It concerns domestic violence against children, but the message is blunted by the music, which doesn't quite fit. Marr's guitar sound is pretty interesting, though. Last and certainly least comes "Meat Is Murder." I've got no problem with vegetarianism, but direct political songs are so often clumsy and ham-fisted (excuse the metaphor) and this song is a case in point. The music is unformed and plodding, meant to evoke a funeral march, but it just doesn't connect.

But hey, I just don't bother listing to the last two songs on the album when I put it on, which vastly improves the experience. The Smiths might not have had quite enough good songs to make a flawless album, but they were smart enough to put the weakest ones last.  And in any case those songs are a small price to pay for the amazing likes of "Headmaster Ritual," "How Soon Is Now," and "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore," songs I expect I will listen to until the day I die, far far removed from an adolescence that they evoke so well.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Reports Of The Nation State's Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

In 1913 world trade was at an all time high and Germany exported to the world. It also completed this massive nationalist monument. Globalization and nationalism coexisted then, and appear to still coexist now

I've spent a lot of time talking about Donald Trump in historical terms, but it's probably better to ground him in a present day, international context.  As I have been saying on repeat, Donald Trump's rise has to do with the power of American nationalism. I will add today that his appeal to nationalism is indicative of a rise in nationalism's impact worldwide. This I feel has caught a lot of people off guard, since globalization seemed to be bringing about the weakening of nation states. Of course, as any student of the past well knows, history does not move in a straight line. In 1913 the world looked as if it were globalizing, but after the bloody events spawned by 1914 levels of world trade would not return to 1913 levels until the late 20th century. Nothing guarantees that a similar shift is impossible today.

It already seems to be happening. Nationalism is on the march all over the world. In Europe anti-immigrant parties have gone from fringe elements to major political forces. Witness the National Front in France, UKIP in Britain, and Alternative for Germany, which won big in local elections recently. In Eastern Europe full on nationalists have won in Hungary and Poland, and Vladimir Putin has pitched his appeal in terms of national renewal. In India the Hindu nationalist BJP is in power. In China Xi Jinping has made nationalism a hallmark of his time in power. Even the famous non-state actors like Islamist terrorists have gotten in on the act, as ISIS strives (as its name suggests) to build a new nation-state.

We should not be surprised, then, that a politician like Trump has come around to exploit American nationalism, in yet another riposte to the silly notion that America is an exceptional nation. Based on what's happening in Europe, we should also not be surprised by who supports him. In both Europe and America nationalist politicians draw from working and lower-middle class voters anxious about their status. In Europe the traditional parties of the working class, like the SPD in Germany and the Socialists in France, were successful in setting up a robust welfare state, union recognition, and hybrid economy. Those ideas are now the political consensus, meaning that it is hard for those parties of the left to have much political ground to stand on. The nationalists offer a new scapegoat for their uneasy voters, and profit. In America the dynamics are a little different, as a combination of racist resentment by whites and the Democratic party's adherence to pro-corporate policies makes it hard for them to appeal to the white working class.

The nationalist wave in the West at least has everything to do with the consequences of the last four decades of neoliberal globalization. It created a new global elite, but also a system that shut out a lot of people who had been conditioned to prosperity in the immediate postwar period. The nationalists in Europe and America are not neoliberals in economics. They want to maintain a robust social state, but to do it for people "like us." The Left is in tatters and the progressive parties are often run by privileged members of the global elite, making so many voters easy pickings for nationalists. Part of the reason that Bernie Sanders has energized so many despite being a 74 year old with one real issue is that he is actually speaking to the discontents of globalization from the Left side.

The rise is nationalism is disturbing because I find it to be such a noxious, anti-humanist ideology. You could argue that it is the "ism" that killed to most people in the 20th century, responsible for the First World War and countless others, and the biggest ingredient in Fascism. It is crucial for the Left to reconstitute itself, because it is the one force capable of breaking the nationalist wave. Instead of hate and tribalism, the Left needs to once again preach the message of solidarity and humanity. Failing to do so will have disastrous consequences, I fear. Nationalists are never happy until they destroy the "enemies within" and start invading other peoples' countries.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Track of the Week: The Beatles "Strawberry Fields Forever"

This week brought the sad news of the passing of Sir George Martin, the man who signed the Beatles to their first record contract and produced all but one of their albums. He always seemed such a contrast to the band, especially in their psychedelic period when their long locks, facial hair, and love beads clashed with his suit and tie wardrobe and Brylcreemed hair. Despite those differences, Martin continued to make his mark on the Beatles' music.

I am of the adamant belief that creativity is an inherently collaborative thing. We have become overly enamored with the cult of the genius, forgetting that even the greatest geniuses had help along the way. George Martin's brilliance was that he was able to take the visions of Lennon and McCartney and help make them real.  This was no small feat at a time when recording technology was pretty primitive by modern standards, and the studios at Abbey Road could only record on four tracks.  In 1966-1967, the Beatles really began to broaden their horizons and revolutionize their approach, and maybe no one song is more emblematic of that change than "Strawberry Fields Forever."

It famously underwent drastic changes in its history, going from a quiet folkie song to the final product, which is heavy, mysterious, and off-putting as it is beautiful. It sounds absolutely nothing like the Beatles had written before, and certainly like nothing else on the radio in February of 1967. I remember hearing it for the first time as a child, and its difference from the likes of "Love Me Do" shocked me. While the song is ostensibly a longing for childhood, it seemed to me an uncanny sonic evocation of the dream world.

Perhaps its mysteriousness had to do with its genesis. The final song is actually two different takes spliced together, even though they were recorded in different keys. The slight change in speed (necessary to change the pitch) adds greatly to its unreal feeling. Without Martin's efforts, this song would not exist in its current form. May he rest in peace.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Dread And Loathing In America

Feeling the spirit of the good Dr. Thompson tonight

I'm in the mood to get a bit more personal here. Yesterday I felt myself suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling of dread about political life in America.

Much, but not all of it, has to do with the rise of the Trump phenomenon.  Ever since the late 80s I've viewed him as the avatar of America's post-Reagan vulgarity.  He has always represented a corrupt and selfish values system utterly corrosive in its search for fame and lucre.  He has now added to it racism, sexism, and noxious nationalism. His flacks assault journalists and his fans sucker punch protestors, but more people vote for him. He lies constantly, his mouth an open sewer of bigoted mendacity, but more people vote for him. He uses time in a presidential debate to talk about his dick size, and more people vote for him.  It is dawning on me that the vulgarity Trump has so long represented has a lot of fans, and they vote.

I also just don't understand these people. Perhaps the kid I worked with detasseling in the corn fields of Nebraska in high school who joked about nuking Mexico is a Trump voter now. I sure as shit didn't understand people like him when I was surrounded by them, either. Hell, it's part of the reason I fled my hometown. And please spare me the talk of Trumpism as the angst of the dispossessed. Plenty working and middle class folks who've fallen on hard times, both white and not, have avoided blaming their plight on immigrants.

I can't stop thinking about the fact that there is a significant chunk of this country, including prominent elected officials like Chris Christie, who actually support Trump. Celebrities and athletes have started endorsing him publicly. When Trumps speaks he just talks out of his ass, and the only coherent things he says are hateful garbage. Who is impressed by this? As far as I can tell, a large number of Americans are political nihilists. Even if Trump gets slaughtered in the general election, they'll still be around, waiting for some other demagogue to rally them.

For beneath this I see two major reckonings. The first is the unresolved consequences of 9/11. The response to that attack included an unnecessary war in Iraq, and generally the United States has failed to win a lasting victory against Islamist terror. As with Vietnam, the sense of defeat and wounded nationalism leaves many vulnerable to narratives of national renewal through violence. Reagan exploited it then, Trump exploits it now. The other major reckoning is with the economic shift of the last forty years, which has left the rich richer, the middle class shrinking, and the poor in desperate straights. Neither party has adequately responded.  The Republicans have doubled down on the very policies contributing to income inequality, while Democrats have been too chickenshit and weak to move the needle the other way. The failure to change this problem though normal means makes it easy for a man like Trump to flourish, and things aren't getting any better.

Beyond the rise of Trumpism, I despair at what's being done to education in this country. Public higher education is being gutted even worse than before. Even in flush times states are slashing budgets because schools are being starved of funds by governors hell-bent on protecting the wealthy from taxation. States like Louisiana and Kansas are making drastic cut-backs at all levels of education, and in Illinois some schools might not be able to stay open until the end of the academic year due to a budget impasse. Netflix billionaires give their money to education "reform" initiatives aiming to further limit and degrade teachers. When I was an academic and now that I am teacher I feel like I am part of a group of people who is absolutely loathed by the powers that be.

It doesn't matter who's elected president, tinpot tyrants like Sam Brownback and Bruce Rauner will keep gutting education so rich people can buy another yacht. There doesn't seem to be any way to stop the Republican juggernaut on the local or state level. The Democrats are too weak, and the post-Citizens' United reality means big money can make a huge impact, and that money is usually coming from conservative ideologues.

My dread and loathing keeps welling up. Young black people are murdered by the police, and despite the massive movements in protest, it keeps happening.  State legislatures vote to legalize discrimination against gay people, and call it "freedom of religion." A fascist demagogue approaches the presidency, and most people treat it as humorous as much as anything else. Some day I fear my daughters will take me to task for having brought them into such a world.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

What If? (Trump's America On Inauguration Day)

BBC) Today's presidential inauguration was perhaps the most surreal in American History.  Donald Trump gave the first off-the-cuff inaugural address, rambling for two hours with some heightened moments interspersed.  At one point he asked those present to raise their right hands and pledge to loyally carry out his agenda, then led those present in a chant of "USA! USA! USA!"

A large number of the raucous crowd are members of the Real Americans, the controversial group of red-capped Trump supporters accused of harassing racial minorities at several polling stations across the country on election day.  These actions led to several lawsuits in many different states, but a deadlocked Supreme Court, still with only eight members after months of Republican filibustering, was unable to to intervene.

Trump also broke with the typical decorum of the occasion to assail Barrack Obama as a "loser" as he was sitting just a few feet behind him.  The crowd roared its approval as the now former president tried to keep his composure. Sources say that Obama is considering living in seclusion in Hawaii after a raft of death threats and Trump signaling that he might block Secret Service protection for Obama once he is no longer president. He has also promised a criminal investigation of the Obama administration in regards to the Benghazi attack in 2012, promising his supporters to put the former president behind bars.

There was little of substance in Trump's inaugural remarks.  He repeated himself a lot, saying the phrase "make American great again" more than 30 times.  He also bragged extensively about the inaugural ball, saying multiple times that it would be "huge" and "classy."  The ball has already attracted criticism for the giant gold-embossed "Trump" sign placed on the White House for occasion.  Some inside sources claim that the president wants to make the sign permanent.

While some protestors had planned to line the parade route from the Capitol to the White House, gangs of Real Americans armed with bats and clubs set themselves upon those protestors brave enough to show up, all while the DC police looked on.  Many have claimed Trump's promise to support the nation's police forces by calling off all Justice Department investigations into police brutality has emboldened local police forces to tacitly support violence carried out by Real Americans across the country.

The inauguration also saw a new feature, a torchlit parade at night led by members of the Real Americans. The participants were extremely enthusiastic. Tom Hickenlooper of Flower Mound, Mississippi said "This is the greatest moment of my life, and I am a father of three!" Grace Benedict of Mount Vernon, Illinois, proclaimed "Trump is going to clean this country up once and for all!" Joe Hess of Fort Smith, Arkansas, yelled out "Today America, tomorrow the world!" several times to lusty cheers by his compatriots.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Track of the Week: Billy Joel "Allentown"

I've been thinking a lot lately about a weird sub-genre of 80s music, which I guess you could call Rust Belt Decline Rock.  In the 80s deindustrialization weaponized by Reaganomics smashed factory towns like an economic hurricane, except that the storm has raged for decades, rather than a couple of days.  That experience would get discussed in the rock music of the era, but from a weirdly nostalgic angle.  "My Hometown" by Bruce Springsteen is a great example, along with Billy Joel's "Allentown," of songs from this genre actually entering the charts.

"Allentown" is ostensibly about the decline of the steel industry in eastern Pennsylvania, although the song title's city was less impacted than other cities in the area like Bethlehem.  It came out in 1982, in the depths of the Reagan recession, a time I remember well.  I found out later from my dad that the small factory he worked for almost went under during that period, which was a fate others didn't escape. Collective memory of the Reagan years tends to forget the double-digit unemployment of the year this song came out.

"Allentown" is nostalgic, and the video even more so, with all kinds of 1940s imagery and longing for a time of economic prosperity. Musically it's poppy and catchy, a world apart from Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska album of the same year that dealt heavily with hard time stories.  The Boss grew up in the Rust Belt, working class world, while Billy Joel came from the Long Island suburbs, and that tells the tale. Joel was looking for some lyrics for a song he'd already written, and got inspiration from one of the issues of the day.  Springsteen was commenting directly about the world he grew up in being destroyed and a lot of the people he knew being crushed.

While "Allentown" laments the economic downturn, there's no anger or anguish in the singing or in the lyrics.  It's quintessentially 80s in that respect; you wouldn't want politics to get in the way of a money-making radio hit.  And it's certainly a great bit of pop music, but it makes me sad to contemplate that the degradation of the American working class has been cultural wallpaper for over three decades now.  The Flint water crisis is a national shame, but the rest of the country has stood by for decades while an economic Katrina has been battering that city, like so many others, from Detroit to Youngstown to Camden to Stockton. We don't hear any jaunty pop hits about it anymore, either, it's become so routine.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Billboard Top Ten March 10, 1979

[The newest post in my continuing series of looking at what was in the top ten in times past during the same week.]

So far we've been looking at 80s top tens, let's dip back a little bit into the 70s, shall we?

10. Dire Straits "The Sultans Of Swing"

Before Dire Straits started rocking sweatbands and getting money for nothing and chicks for free, they managed to update blues rock for a post-New Wave world.  This song shows off the beauty of Mark Knopfler's guitar tone, which can cut through the pedestrian lyrics and flat singing.  This is by far the best thing the band did, and they never equaled it, despite having songs that were more popular.

9.  YMCA "The Village People"

The song that launched a million grandmas to hit the dance floor at Midwestern weddings.  This song may be played today than any more on the countdown, primarily at sporting events.  The music itself is B-grade disco, but the fact that it hides a subversive message of cruising for guys at the Y in an ostensibly family fun song deserves to be saluted.

8. The Doobie Brothers "What A Fool Believes"

Ah, the first true Yacht Rock crossover song.  The Doobies had been around for awhile, putting out rootsy rock with some rhythm behind it.  Then came the late 70s and the entrance of Michael McDonald, whose voice practically defined Top 40 in the 1979-1981 period.  That voice is almost indescribable, as powerful as it is uncannily off-putting.  (And not necessarily in a good way.)  The segue into the "wise man has the power" falsetto is pure pop magic, though.  It's also noteworthy that Kenny Loggins, whose smooth sounds were also of the moment, co-wrote the song.  Notice as well the airy synthesizers, a sign of the decade to come.

7. Peaches and Herb "Shake Your Groove Thing"

This song is what I love about late period disco music.  It is silly and frivolous but also fun and funky. All these years later it still gets them out on the floor.

6. Olivia Newton-John "A Little More Love"

People easily forget just how huge Olivia Newton-John was between 1978 and 1981.  Sure, between her twin peaks of Grease and "Physical" she appeared in Xanadu, but it was hardly a career-killer.  She had that wispy blonde look that was so of the moment, and a gentle voice that was both homey and sexy. This song has kind of a gritty vibe to it, the guitars glitzy yet rough.  Unfortunately, it's a bit clunky, which is why it's one of those hits that never made it into the oldies pantheon.

5. Donna Summer (with Brooklyn Dreams) "Heaven Knows"

Donna Summer too was "hot stuff" in the late 70s, but this is not one of her iconic tracks.  Unlike her collaborations with Giorgio Moroder, this is disco by numbers, except for the sparkling synthesizer on the bridge.  This song might as well be Exhibit A in the decline of disco from the perfect dance music to manufactured pablum.  Fun fact, the male singer is Joe "Bean" Esposito, the guy responsible for "You're The Best" from The Karate Kid, one of the all time great 80s hype songs.

4. The Pointer Sisters "Fire"

This song in a lot of ways is a sign of things to come. It isn't disco, and it combines R&B with rock, a formula that would yield a big bonanza in the 80s.  In fact, it even has a little bit of a country feel to it.  The reverby guitars remind me of the decade to come as well, but without the overdone production.  Man this is a great little song.

3. The Bee Gees "Tragedy"

The Bee Gees ruled the late 70s after their contributions to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, managing to weld their unique voices to some great disco tracks laid down by Miami-area R&B vets.  What they did afterward has been lost in the mists of time.  Their follow-up, Spirits Having Flown spawned some hits, but those songs never seemed to having staying power in the pop cultural memory. "Tragedy" is a case in point.  It hit near the top of the charts during Bee Geemania, but has basically been forgotten.  It's an odd song, sounding like minor-key ABBA with a dash of early 80s dance music.  If they hadn't been so popular at the time, I doubt this would've been a hit (and I say that as someone unafraid to profess his love of the Bee Gees.)

2. Rod Stewart "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy"

This song is Exhibit B in disco jumping the shark.  It was a music form song so dominant that rockers like Stewart got into the act, hoping to cash in.  This song also embodies the transformation of the sexual revolution from free love in the 60s into soulless pleasure-seeking in the 70s.  Above all, it shows the sad depths that Rod Stewart had sunk to in the late 70s.  He began the decade with an amazing run in the Faces and a quartet of fantastic solo records.  At some point he decided to sell his soul for fame and fortune, scoring hits with crap like this, which can't hold a candle to the likes of "Stay With Me."

1. Gloria Gaynor "I Will Survive"

Now this right here is a number one song, people. I still remember when the alternative rock band Cake put out a cover of this in the mid-90s and people thought it was a joke, and the band quickly shot that accusation down.  They understood the emotional power of this song, perhaps the most iconic song about being jilted ever written.  It's different because it is defiant.  The singer gets over her feelings of loss and demands that her former lover's ghost never haunt her anymore.  The music itself is not remarkable, but Gloria Gaynor sings the everloving shit out of this song and imbues it with much more meaning than it has any right to have.  It will live forever.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

It's The Nation, Stupid

I am going to repeat myself, but I am saying something I have been saying for years and it bears repeating: nationalism is an extremely powerful force in American politics and Trump is exploiting it.  Most Americans are under the self-serving delusion that Americans are "patriotic" and not "nationalistic," which is just not true.  Scholars of American history are surprisingly susceptible to the soft-pedaling of nationalism as a force in American life.  On top of that, so many scholars in the humanities have been talking about diasporas and the declining power of the nation-state, as if it were an inevitability.  While we have experienced a great deal of globalization over the last three decades, those forces have done much to stoke the flames of nationalist resentment. Look no further than Trump.  He is using global trade and immigration to throw gasoline on those nationalist fires.

The lack of an understanding of the centrality of nationalism in American history and politics is causing many pundits to just miss the boat.  They scratch their heads and say "Trump is getting support from across class and regional and religious lines, how is he doing this?" He's doing it because nationalism is a force that has the ability to transcend other identities and bring people together who might not normally see themselves on the same team.  It is a force that can whip up the masses in a frothy frenzy to be channeled by demagogues.

Because let's be clear here.  The vast majority of Republicans probably don't give a flying fuck about the capital gains tax or the estate tax.  Unless you are a millionaire, those taxes are pretty irrelevant to your life.  Most Republicans probably don't even really care all that much about supply side economics.  That's for the small number of people who read National Review.

They do, however, invest a lot of themselves in their national identity.  When someone comes along and tells them that the nation has been brought low, and that he can bring it back, that message will resonate with them.  When he is able to finger scapegoats and blame them for all the troubles of the nation, heads will nod in agreement.  Because of all of the bullshit drilled into us in our youth, appeals to nationalism hit most people right at their emotional core.  While Republicans got emphatic about the tax code but only gave their supporters dog whistles when it came to immigration and Islam, Trump started throwing out the red meat, and the hounds of the Right leaped on it.

Until the pundits seriously try to understand American nationalism, they will fail to understand Trump.  If the Left does not gain an appreciation of how nationalism feeds Trump's popular appeal, they may well lose to him.  That can't happen, so I am going to repeat this message over and over and over again.