I watched all four nights of the Republican convention in Cleveland. All four. I did it in part so I could follow along as Andrew Sullivan live–blogged it: since he retired his epic blog The Dish, I’ve been in serious withdrawal from Sullivan’s incisive, insightful, and often entertainingly cantankerous perspective on politics, American and otherwise. But mostly I did it to bear witness to history in a way not available to those who watched the Reichstag burn down. They could not have known what was coming, that a comical Chaplinesque clown would use his influence over populist rage to vanquish the forces of the moderate establishment. The Junkers and the bourgeois conservatives assumed that Hitler would be malleable once in power, that he would be a useful cudgel to hammer the socialists, and that ultimately they could use him to their own ends.
Well, we know how that worked out.
Don’t go calling down Godwin’s Law on me. Smarter people than I have pointed out the similarities between Trumpism and fascism, including Adam Gopnik (twice) and the aforementioned Andrew Sullivan. Read them and come back to me with a denial on this point.
But that’s not my primary concern in this post. In this post, I want to talk about the idea of winners and losers, something near and dear to Donald Trump and his idiosyncratic rhetoric.
After everything that went down over the four nights of the RNC, I find it interesting that one of the things that continues to rankle for me is his Beyonce-like entrance on the first night to the strains of Queen’s “We Are The Champions.” I’m not alone: there was a chorus of anger that the putative figurehead of the Republican Party would appropriate Freddie Mercury to his own ends. Trump’s brief shout-out to the LGBT community in his keynote speech on Thursday night does nothing to obviate the GOP’s systematic opposition to, and attempts to roll back, gay rights; it certainly does nothing to counter the fact that he chose one of the Republicans’ worst offenders to be his running mate. That he would use the music of a gay icon to accompany his entrance is tone-deaf at best, and actually obscene at worst.
All that aside, it is utterly unsurprising that Trump would favour “We Are The Champions.” Taken entirely out of context, the song articulates what is quite obviously something close to Trump’s sense of self. If I had to guess what his favourite lyric is, I’d have to say “No time for losers!” Even if you ignore his biography to the point of his announcement on June 16th, 2015, there is no avoiding the fact that Donald Trump’s primary method of interacting with the world is to divide it into winners and losers. He, obviously, is a winner. Those people he likes and approves of are also winners (though this is a redundant observation, as one assumes being a winner is a prerequisite for the Donald’s approbation). His opponents and enemies, just as obviously, are losers. He chose to run for president because America is no longer a winner, and that is unacceptable. America has been losing for too long: to China, to Mexico, to Russia, to ISIS. His entire candidacy is about being a winner again. “We’re gonna win so much,” he famously declared at a rally, “we’re gonna win at every level, we’re gonna win economically, we’re gonna win with the economy, we’re gonna win with military, we’re gonna win with health care and for our veterans, we’re gonna win with every single facet, we’re gonna win so much, you may even get tired of winning!”
The rhetoric is childish and risible, and has justifiably come in for a great deal of mockery, but we make a mistake to dismiss it out of hand. It is less Trump’s actual words than his world-view that resonates: there are winners and losers, and if you stand with me you’ll be a winner like I am. Trump is essentially the schoolyard bully writ large, who inevitably attracts a sniggering entourage of toadies eager for the bully’s approval, people who really are just desperate to not be the objects of bullying themselves. There is no sense that making common cause with the others being bullied is an option, because winners vs. losers is a zero-sum game: if you are to win, someone else must lose, so best to hitch your wagon to the hugest, most bombastic star in your firmament.
The irony of Trump’s use of “We Are The Champions” is that, in spite of its soaring anthemic chorus, the song contains a distinct measure of pathos in its slower, quieter moments. It speaks of paying dues and suffering, of making mistakes, and—that great mark of the loser!—having sand kicked in one’s face. And let us not forget that the struggle is ongoing: “We’ll keep on fighting till the end!” Mercury sings, suggesting that “champion” is less an achieved status than a state of mind, and that the struggle never ends—a sentiment made all the more poignant by his high-profile death at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
Perhaps if Freddie Mercury was still alive, still touring with Queen and headlining shows alongside the Rolling Stones; perhaps if “The Show Must Go On,” which now indelibly inflects “Champions” with an elegiac quality, wasn’t the last song Mercury recorded before succumbing to his illness; perhaps if his career had not been a great, glorious, campy fuck-you to the voices of censure, of disapprobation, of authority; perhaps then “We Are The Champions” might fit a bit better into Donald Trump’s ethos.
But of course none of those things are true, and we can add Trump’s use of Queen to the long list of politicians completely misapprehending the nuances of songs they use while campaigning (the ultimate example of which is perhaps Ronald Reagan’s use of Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” in 1984, though Paul Ryan’s professed love of Rage Against the Machine is even more cognitively dissonant). And in the long run, playing “Champions” to accompany his entrance on stage is small beer compared to his countless other outrages: fomenting anti-Islamic and anti-Hispanic sentiment, playing upon people’s fears and anxieties to further his personal brand, and basically reinventing the Gish gallop by an order of magnitude such that fact checkers quite simply can’t keep up with his mendacity, all of which have immediate and pernicious real-world effects.
But the rhetoric of winners and losers as a zero-sum game really should disqualify anyone seeking high office—or really, office at any level. If government has a responsibility, it is to the “losers.” This has been the guiding principle of all our great humanitarians and humanists, and is the central tenet of almost every single religion in history—including the Christian faith to which Trump pretends. I am an atheist, but was raised Catholic, and to this day the part of the Gospels that resonates most for me is Matthew 5:3-11, the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus celebrates the meek, the poor, the peacemakers, and so on. As a witness to American politics, I have yet to see the right wing square their devout Christianity with their dismissal of the people Christ specifically sought to elevate.
Despite his ultimate fame, Freddie Mercury was a loser: a shy young man born as Farrokh Bulsara in colonial Africa (in the British protectorate of Zanzibar) to Parsi parents, whose savant-like musical skills made themselves obvious at an early age. As his fame grew, his sexuality asserted itself more and more, becoming something akin to an open secret. But it was something he reveled in in his public persona, and he was as frequently vilified as he was celebrated. In the world of social conservatism, Mercury is doubly suspect: not just gay, but foreign. And not just foreign, but born in Africa to parents of Iranian extraction.
It is perhaps no wonder that the music of Queen speaks so frequently to the underdog. Not that this is unusual in the history of rock and roll, which has so often given voice to society’s losers, as has so much of rap and hip hop. And what is blues music, if not the cri de coeur of the downtrodden? It puts me in mind of the wonderful speech Jon Stewart delivered on the occasion of Bruce Springsteen receiving the Kennedy Center Honor. He talks about working in a bar in central New Jersey, hinting at his aimless and angst-ridden youth, but that when he listened to the music of Bruce Springsteen, “everything changed … and I never again felt like a loser.” When you listen to Bruce’s music, he says, “you aren’t a loser. You are a character in an epic poem … about losers.”
I have no pithy end to this post, no rhetorical flourish. At one point I thought I could end on something like “But if Trump wins, we’re all losers,” but I think if I wrote a sentence like that in earnest I might actually have to stab myself in the eye with a knitting needle.
I came relatively late to the music of Queen: they weren’t on my radar in high school for the simple fact that no one I knew listened to them (or admitted to it). I chalk this up in part to the fact that a Catholic high school in the 1980s is about as homophobic a place as you’re likely to find. I watched the Freddie Mercury tribute concert in 1992 almost in its entirety, largely because of all the guest musicians, and ended up being transported by the Queen songbook.
After night four of the GOP convention, as I thought about going to bed, I felt I needed a life affirming anthem.