Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” is “not exactly” Donald Trump’s life story, as Oscar Giner observes in his most recent post for Hunt the Devil. Not exactly.
Trump’s personal experience does not conform to Springsteen’s lyrics. Trump has not been beaten up by life, drafted and sent off to war, suffered inadequate care in a VA hospital, or walked in the shadow of a penitentiary with nowhere to go. He is instead, as Wikipedia succinctly says, “an American business magnate, billionaire, investor, socialite, author, television personality,” and now a candidate for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. The closest he got to military service was as a high school “cadet captain” at a military academy. Four student deferments during his college years and, after graduation, a medical deferment (he says for heel spurs) kept him out of the military and the Vietnam War.
That’s the irony of Trump playing Springsteen’s song at political rallies. But “Born in the USA” is a metaphor that captures the feeling of Trump supporters, the feeling that they have been uprooted and betrayed by their own country. Trump gives voice to their frustration and anger. He “tells it like it is” for them, not him.
And who are they? For the most part: working-class voters; working-class whites; working-class whites who identify with evangelicals; working-class whites who are being displaced by job losses; working-class whites without a college education; “natural” Americans. They are people who equate their identity and demise with the downfall of real America. It’s a tribal thing, and an end-of-empire thing.
“Donald Trump represents an America that is literally disappearing,” and “Trump supporters want to make America white again.” That Alternet headline for a recent Salon story by Heather Digby Parton sums up quite nicely the metaphorical appeal of Springstreen’s musical lament, despite the irony. Parton’s story draws on Ronald Brownstein’s analysis of the voting demographics behind Trump’s muscular rhetoric of restoring American power—white power.
Trump personifies white power. The more muscular his rhetoric becomes, the greater its mythic appeal. Which goes a long way toward explaining why Trump says, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” Righteous outrage, in domestic affairs and foreign policy, is a measure of imperial nostalgia. Trump gives voice to primal fear, to the terror of being displaced, of being left behind without a place to be somebody in post-imperial America. But he also offers his supporters hope. His own whiteness and his success story—after all, he is a self-made billionaire—convey the faith that America can be made great again by electing a white knight.