A tale of two populisms: Do you want to live in Donald Trump’s New York or Bob Dylan’s America?

Bob Dylan is the author of America over the last 50 years. Donald Trump is the vandal trying to roll it back

Published November 5, 2016 9:30AM (EDT)

 (Getty/Chip Somodevilla)
(Getty/Chip Somodevilla)

Early in the 2008 election cycle, before each party picked their candidate, a brief but tantalizing window opened where it seemed the election could have turned into a three-way battle between Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani and Independent Michael Bloomberg. That battle would have resulted in America’s first female president, its first Jewish president or its first Italian-American president. It could have also provided a clear referendum on the direction America wanted to take after 9/11, before we turned it into a jingoistic Arbor Day.

For some, however, the significance was simpler than that. The prospect of a New Yorker vs. New Yorker vs. New Yorker election made for a no-lose situation for our country’s intellect. Writing in The New Yorker about the prospect of Bloomberg’s entrance into the race, George Packer says:

If a five-foot-seven divorced Jew with a nasal whine is taken seriously as a Presidential candidate, it would at the very least diminish the power of faux symbols in our political life; and a Clinton-Giuliani-Bloomberg race would so thoroughly explode the Sun Belt’s lock on the White House that an entirely new kind of politics might be possible, in which evolution is not at issue, no one has to pretend to like pork rinds, and the past tense of “drag” is “dragged.” It would also mark the end of New York’s longtime estrangement from the rest of the country and complete its post-September 11th return to being the great American city.

Eight years later, we have our all-New York showdown. Have we seen a grammatical, respectful and substantive discussion of the issues? Or has there been more racism, accusations of sexual assault and threats to imprison the losing candidate than that of the Illinois vs. Arizona match we actually got in 2008? Was it Jimmy Carter, the peanut-farming hick from unenlightened Georgia, who reassured debate audiences that, though his hands were small, his penis was adequate? Or was that the man with half of Manhattan named after him?

Did eight years prove the New Yorker wrong? Sure, it bears mentioning that saying “drug” as the past tense of “drag” is a rural colloquialism and not a bigly indicator of intelligence. And yes, it’s a little galling to realize that The New Yorker — the home of the nation’s best prose about suburbanites staring out windows regretfully, and cartoons that often surpass “Ziggy” for sheer laughs — believes that the average New Yorker masturbating in a peep show is better suited to be president than Wendell Berry. But they weren’t wrong in assuming New York is one of the nation’s hotbeds of creativity, humanity and complex thought. New York is a wonderful city, but Donald Trump is not an anomaly.

The problem was The New Yorker assumed there was only one New York. The New York of The New Yorker does not exist — or rather it does not exist exclusively. The New York of the New Yorker is a playland, no more substantial than the one that Mayor McCheese presides over at your local McDonald’s.

This isn’t about New York, but about faith. In order to believe that nominating two candidates from the city of public urination, middle fingers and Wall Street would automatically elevate the political discourse far beyond what nominees from rube states like Maryland and Minnesota could requires a faith so dogged that in any other context, The New Yorker would call it delusional. Ironically, it is that faith in the self that has made New York a great city. And it’s the same faith in self that made Donald Trump a pariah.

Donald Trump’s problem isn’t that he believes in himself — it’s that he believes in nothing else. Do his positions on the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Iran Nuclear Deal mean more to him than winning the election? I, no mind reader, can’t say, but I suspect a man who changed his political party and his position on abortion, the Iraq War and outsourcing cares less about the particular decisions being made and more that he is the one making them.

Why can Trump give no coherent argument as to why we should make him president? Because, to him, explanation is extraneous. His only selling point is that he — the smartest guy he knows — agrees with what he’s saying. “I’m great. I have a history of winning. I make the best deals.” That sounds less like a guy I want to have a beer with and more like a 7-year-old who won one of the 15 first-place ribbons in Self-Esteem camp, but it has replaced all political discourse. The closest he’s come to a foreign policy plan is calling Chinese people “motherfuckers,” which, in the name of even-handedness, I tried, and it did virtually nothing to erase the trade deficit. He doesn’t have to explain himself — he believes in himself.

Belief supplants explanation. If you have faith in yourself, then the explanation should be unnecessary. This is the real damage of the Trump campaign. It has murdered language as a useful rhetorical tool in our election.

During the primaries, Trump went to South Carolina, blamed George W. Bush for 9/11, called the Iraq war a catastrophe, and he won. So a candidate who supported the war convinced South Carolina Republicans — who, I’m guessing, never replaced those Dixie Chicks albums they burned — that the position they all held was a war crime, and they bought it. What he says doesn’t matter, only that he believes in himself, because the voters believe in themselves too. Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again” is a phrase so useless that most people didn’t realize it was an insult, akin to writing in your wedding vows, “I’ll make you even happier than you were before you got fat," until after the Iowa Caucuses.

The 2016 election has, in this way, turned into a halftime interview. Sports fans know that halftime interviews are bizarre rituals where reporters, athletes and viewers all want it to end, yet still it happens. “Both teams played hard.” “We got to come ready to play.” “To Xenu be the glory.” No one likes these interviews, but when someone varies from the standard script — be it Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman calling out Michael Crabtree or Greg Poppovich rolling his eyes at the sideline reporter — we immediately demand an apology. Our political debate seems a lot like our football sideline interviews — a woman offering inoffensive pre-packaged nothingness talking to a man who sounds like he just suffered a concussion.

This has come up unexpectedly in an issue that the two candidates clearly disagree on: grabbing un-consenting women by the vagina. Clinton is against it, while Trump can see both sides. Trump offered as much contrition as he could, but still seemed not to understand his offense. “It was locker room talk. I’m sorry you had to hear it.” He felt remorse for profanity, for saying something interesting, for actually stating beliefs. The word “pussy” was not the issue.

But as the right commits harakiri on the English language, the left seems happy to play the same game, taking the low-hanging fruit from disaffected Republicans. It’s smart short-term strategy, but it’s doing damage to our lexicon, and setting the path for an American calamity if she loses. Calling her slogans banal is an insult to banality. “Trumped up trickle down.” “I’m with her.” “Stronger together.” “Love trumps hate.” She’s talking in a word gumbo, saying her sideline interview form of nothing, so as not to lose votes. “When they go low, we go high,” she said in the second debate, quoting Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention this year. It would have been more interesting, more accurate and better advice to girls across the nation to say, “When they go low, we guard our pussies.”

Political realities are what they are, and right now it’s looking like Trump won’t get in position to deport the illegal aliens he’s hired, so why all the worry? Because he’s already won.

He’s reshaped the conversation in his image. There will be future Trumps. And their ideas will seem more and more reasonable. A toilet-trained Trump who didn’t tell Howard Stern his wet dreams every week, and didn’t seek sexual validation from Billy Bush, could win. Clinton is running against Trump’s personality, giving credence to his grandest implicit lie: that the presidency doesn’t matter. “Our slogans mean nothing, their slogans mean nothing. Vote for the person less likely to embarrass you.”

As the right shapes itself in the mold of Donald Trump’s fever dream, the left will expand its base, until it becomes large and apathetic. In order to keep disaffected Republicans in the fold, the tent will have to keep expanding. Once an ideology means everything to all people, it means nothing. Meanwhile, the alt-right is powering the conversation. Sure, Trump’s ideas seem radical now, but in 10 years, when building a wall represents the halfway point between the status quo and making Mexico pay for a crocodile-infested moat, then it’s going to seem downright reasonable. After all, this election has left more than a few liberals pining for the more restrained, inclusive conservatism of George W. Bush.

So is it hopeless? Have liberals accepted the language of Trump and consigned us to a future of increasingly simple-minded bullies? Maybe. But for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The counterpunch came when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature. For all the hemming and hawing in the days that followed, nobody called it what it was: a protest vote.

The Nobel Committee gave the Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore and then President Obama, while Obama was in the midst of fighting two wars. If they could, they would have given it to every single American except George W. Bush. Bush’s sin was war, and they gave the Peace Prize to his opposite. Trump’s sin is language, and they give the Literature prize to his opposite. 

Many people called “out of bounds” when Dylan won the prize. What he does, we are told, is performance, meant to be heard, not read, and therefore is not literature. (Fair enough, but do we posthumously strip the award from Samuel Beckett, Eugene O’Neill and all playwrights?) Others thought Dylan won the award merely because the committee only rewards white American male baby boomers, which also explains how Svetlana Alexievich won it last year. In a PEN America roundup of writers responding to Dylan’s Nobel, novelist Porochista Khakpour offers a bemused response to the committee’s selection. First, she complains about how few of her students, “born in 1998,” have heard of Bob Dylan. “I immediately felt it reflected the climate of Trump and Brexit, the sign of 'populist' times, the bard for the masses! And how American too: a Literature Laureate you didn’t even have to read.” So Bob Dylan doesn’t matter to people anymore, but he only received the world’s highest literary honor because he matters to too many people? Fine. Logical consistency is overrated anyway. But to conflate Bob Dylan’s populism with Donald Trump’s doesn’t just seem misguided, it seems dangerous.

We do this country a great harm if we let Donald Trump become our avatar of populism. Donald Trump’s populism gains power from the lie that governance is easy. “The economy’s bad? Well, has anybody tried making great deals? What about the best deals?” “I sure would like some kind of structure around our border that would keep rapists out, and a door that could let good people in, but a wall sounds expensive. Could we make another country pay for it?”

This logic is moronic on its face, but its simplicity matters. It is a counterweight to the market-tested empty calories that pass as normal political rhetoric. When Hillary Clinton asks people to express their feelings about college loans in emojis, then a voter can be forgiven for thinking that language no longer matters. When Trump says the system is rigged, and the economy is run by people who don’t care about the average worker, he’s right. Never mind that it’s rigged in his favor to line his pocketbook — he says a basic truth that no one else says. The problem is that Donald Trump seems to actually think governance is easy. Trump is a horrible populist because he only sees the population as it relates to himself. He sees one America, one New York — the one with his name emblazoned in gold at the top of it.

Is Bob Dylan a populist? Absolutely. He sold himself to America as the bard of the everyman. Instead of a band, he had a slightly out-of-tune guitar. Instead of backup singers, harmony was provided by a harmonica affixed to a clothes-hanger around his neck. Instead of a classically chiseled handsome face with every hair in place, he looks scuzzy and frizzy-haired, like a hillbilly scarecrow. Most importantly, while America usually listens to perfect voices hitting every note, Dylan has a dog’s yowl, a singing voice that sounds like what would happen if you stuffed a pack of cigarettes down a garbage disposal. It’s hard not to listen to Bob Dylan and think, “He’s just like me. I can do that.”

The difference between the populism of Bob Dylan and Donald Trump is that you can’t actually do what Bob Dylan does. People have tried. For every Bruce Springsteen, John Prine, or Shane MacGowan, there are millions of imitators who couldn’t master this seemingly simple formula. Bob Dylan sold a ruse: his guitar and harmonica, while not technically perfect, convey immense emotion. Take a second look and see that the grimy guy with smoke-stained teeth is actually gorgeous. And his voice, derided by every hack comic in Hollywood, is perfect. Otherwise, explain how 54 years into his career — a career as probably the most covered songwriter of all time — that almost no covers have surpassed the original? Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower” is the go-to example here, but beyond that who really resonates? The Byrds? Garth Brooks? The most successful covers have been songs Dylan never recorded (Joan Baez’s “Love Is Just a Four Letter Word”) or never completed (Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel”). Obviously, there are lusher, more versatile voices than Dylan’s, but saying they improve a Dylan song is like arguing that a snapshot of a starry night is better than Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” because you can see it more clearly.

To do what Donald Trump does, you need skill with the media, shamelessness about self-promotion, and a $15 million head start. Maybe it’s more complicated than that, but despite the rarity of Donald Trump’s origins, the world has produced many, many Donald Trumps and only the one Bob Dylan.

Bob Dylan is Donald Trump multiplied by negative one. Dylan is complicated, multifaceted, seeking to process deeper meaning from everyday life. Trump is a linguistic anarchist whose words mean less than the expression on his face. It’s all about inarticulate feeling and ego. Dylan’s spiritual life is sly, slipping between Judaism, Christianity and Gnosticism. He communicates with the ghosts that haunt America. Trump was told he needs the Christian vote 15 minutes before a speech, so he talked about “Two Corinthians” like he was setting up a joke about them walking into a bar. Trump’s only asset is his name, a name made valuable and soulless by his racist father. Robert Zimmerman has a dad, but Bob Dylan is his own father, inventor of his own name and unceasing actor in the process of self-creation.

To me, this is the choice on the ballot: Do you want to live in Donald Trump’s New York or Bob Dylan’s America? A land of self or selves? Aggrandizement or introspection? I’m not saying that Hillary Clinton is the embodiment of Bob Dylan’s America, but I am saying that Bob Dylan’s creation may not survive a Trump administration. The complaints about Bob Dylan’s award seem to come from Donald Trump’s worldview, even from people who disagree with Trump. They want Dylan to be more transparent, more disposable. They seem uncomfortable with a poet who can contain multitudes.

Bob Dylan invented America more than any other living person. Even if you limited his influence to music, had Robert Zimmerman never invented Bob Dylan, then Rock, Punk, Folk, Hip-Hop, and Country music would either not exist or look so wildly different that we wouldn’t recognize them. Bob Dylan is the author of America over the last 50 years. Donald Trump is the vandal trying to take the country back to the ’50s, to the pre-Dylan America.

Bob Dylan understood Donald Trump 40 years ago. No pundit — left, right or center — has offered a more cogent summary of Donald Trump and the political climate that promulgated his rise than what Allen Ginsberg called “the great disillusioned national rhyme”: “Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your skull/From The Grand Coulee Dam to The Capitol.” Still, the Dylan line that strikes me as the most relevant to our current situation is an obscure interview he gave in the ’80s. "I always thought that one man, the lone balladeer with the guitar could blow a whole army off the stage if he knew what he was doing.” In 2016, with our country in crisis, it might be time for all of us to look inward, embrace Bob Dylan’s America, and blow the army off stage.

By Willie Davis

Willie Davis is the author of "Nightwolf," a novel forthcoming from 713 Books.

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