Did somebody say Hitler? Critiquing Trump's Bruce Springsteen song and dance

Revisiting "Born in the USA" as it turns 40, we see how Trump puts a totalitarian spin on its messaging

Published June 5, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

Bruce Springsteen performs at SuperValu Páirc Uí Chaoimh on May 16, 2024 in Cork, Ireland. (Kieran Frost/Redferns/Getty Images)
Bruce Springsteen performs at SuperValu Páirc Uí Chaoimh on May 16, 2024 in Cork, Ireland. (Kieran Frost/Redferns/Getty Images)

Politicians often get cease-and-desist letters from musicians whose songs have been deployed at campaign events in service of ideas with which they disagree. Sometimes, as in the case of Donald Trump’s use of material from Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” album, such disagreement is quite evident to anyone even half-listening to the lyrics. This clash between the Boss and the Donald ignites debate about artistic integrity, copyright infringement, and the rights of artists to protect their intellectual property by granting licenses to use their songs at political events—in a characteristic move, Trump did not seek Springsteen’s consent. The musician has been vocal in his opposition to Trump's policies and rhetoric, emphasizing the disconnect between the values portrayed in his music and those championed by the former president. 

Although Reagan and Trump offer differing visions of Republican politics, “Born in the U.S.A.” can be seen as critiques of both.

In honor of “Born in the U.S.A.” turning 40 this month, let’s dig into the true liberal politics of the album track by track and examine why, despite their messages being in deep disagreement with his values, Trump persists in finding a way to deploy anthems like “Born in the U.S.A.” and “My Hometown” at his rallies anyway. As people speculate on the recent news of Trump’s 34 felony convictions and how he seems poised to be able to turn the hush money verdict to his own advantage, analyzing how he has effectively turned Springsteen's work in service of his agenda may give us some clues.

1984 in 2024

June 1984 marked a pivotal moment in both American politics and cultural history. The release of "Born in the U.S.A." coincided with the second term of Ronald Reagan, who campaigned on anticommunism and military might in a period characterized by conservative economic politics and a blind eye for the AIDS epidemic. Springsteen's album was — and still is — considered a powerful commentary on the struggles of working-class Americans in stark contrast to prevailing narratives of national pride and prosperity. Although Reagan and Trump offer differing visions of Republican politics, “Born in the U.S.A.” can be seen as critiques of both. Here’s a brief track-by-track analysis that should leave no doubt the messages of these songs cut against Trump’s campaign.

1. "Born in the U.S.A.": This song critiques the disillusionment and struggles faced by working-class Americans, highlighting the gap between the American Dream and reality. Often misunderstood as a patriotic ode, this anthem reveals the harsh realities for veterans returning from Vietnam. They struggled to get work, to make use of their VA benefits, and to grieve the deaths of their fellow soldiers. Its gritty verses paint a picture of economic hardship with “nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go,” contrasting sharply with Trump's rose-tinted vision of American exceptionalism. By highlighting the struggles of Vietnam vets and blue-collar refinery workers, the song challenges Trump's contempt for American troops, instead urging an empathic examination of the social injustices facing everyday Americans.

2. "Cover Me": This song suggests the need for communal support rather than individualistic bravado. Beneath its catchy melody lies a narrative of vulnerability and dependence set against a whole world “out there just trying to score.” The song’s speaker seeks refuge and protection, a far cry from Trump's rugged narcissism. In contrast to Trump's overall divisiveness and his refusals to give aid in any cause from Ukrainian democracy to California wildfires, "Cover Me" suggests the importance of cooperation to face life's challenges as a community in solidarity. The only place it might safely be said the song agrees with Trump requires a joke about the Stormy Daniels hush money trial — he was “looking for a lover who will come on in and cover” him.

3. "Darlington County": A portrayal of the desperation of blue-collar workers set against the backdrop of hardship and desperation, Springsteen's tale of two friends “looking for some work on the county line” thanks to a “union connection” underscores the systemic issues facing working-class Americans. Trump's promises to bring back manufacturing jobs ring hollow in the face of deeper structural challenges, highlighting the need for comprehensive policies that address root causes rather than providing superficial fixes.

4. "Working on the Highway": This upbeat track belies its dark subject matter, exposing the exploitation of laborers and the cycle of poverty that traps them. Springsteen's protagonist toils endlessly with little hope for improvement, which poses questions about the impact of Trump's economic policies to boost the wealthy at the expense of fair wages and workers' rights. Shedding light on the plight of marginalized workers by drawing a parallel to prison chain gangs, "Working on the Highway" reveals the harsh realities faced by those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

5. "Downbound Train": This melancholic ballad emphasizes the precarity faced by ordinary Americans, contrasting with Trump's narrative of prosperity and stability. With its haunting melody and introspective lyrics, the song delves into themes of loss, despair, and existential struggle: "The room was dark, our bed was empty / Then I heard that long whistle whine / And I dropped to my knees, hung my head and cried." Against the backdrop of Trump's bombastic promises of greatness, "Downbound Train" serves as a poignant reminder of the fragility of human existence that political rhetoric cannot transcend, “where all it ever does is rain.”

6. "I'm on Fire": With its simmering intensity and raw emotion, this song delves into themes of desire, temptation, and poignant longing. Springsteen's haunting vocals and sparse instrumentation create a mood of yearning and vulnerability, the “six-inch valley / through the middle of my soul” in opposition to Trump's image of brash confidence and impenetrable self-assuredness. The only times Trump has gotten close to such a nuanced exploration of human frailty and the complexities of romantic attraction would be when he's talking about his daughter, Ivanka.

7. "No Surrender": This track celebrates resilience and unity in the face of a divisive “war outside still raging.” It’s an anthem that celebrates an enduring spirit of camaraderie over adversity, rather than one delusional man’s fantasies of triumph through sowing polarization and discord. Springsteen’s impassioned vocals on "No Surrender" reject the politics of fear and division, instead advocating for a united front of “blood brothers in the stormy night with a vow to defend” against injustice and oppression.

8. "Bobby Jean": Reflecting on friendship and loss, this ballad emphasizes the importance of real connections over superficial networking. Against the backdrop of Trump's volatile alliances and shifting allegiances, "Bobby Jean" serves as a reminder of the importance of being steadfast and genuine in concern for others. Common lore has it that Springsteen was writing about his nostalgia for the teenage years he shared with guitarist Steve Van Zandt when Little Steven was leaving the band. Some bonds of friendship do endure despite distance or change, but imagine Trump singing this song of bittersweet reminiscence to Mike Pence after previously condoning his vice president’s hanging.

9. "I'm Goin' Down": This introspective song explores themes of heartache, disappointment and resignation. Springsteen captures the sting of unfulfilled expectations with lyrics like “sick and tired of you setting me up” just to get knocked down. Compared to the ego-driven bravado of Trump’s persona, "I'm Goin' Down" offers a more vulnerable portrayal of human emotion and a candid exploration of personal struggle. If we know anything about Trump, it’s that he never admits when he’s lost.

10. "Glory Days": While nostalgic on its surface, the song more deeply portrays how fleeting success can be and how people who cling to past successes become stagnant over time. This anthem celebrates ephemeral joys of youthful exuberance but cautions against getting stuck in the memory of them: “Well time slips away and leaves you with nothing, mister / but boring stories of // glory days.” Trump's fixation on supposed past achievements is so much in evidence that a basic internet search of his name plus the phrase “glory days” yields more than 100,000 relevant articles. He’s still at it during this election cycle, opting for rambling 90-minute campaign speeches driven by nostalgic rhetoric.

11. "Dancing in the Dark": With a catchy rhythm that conveys restlessness, this song delves into themes of alienation and disillusionment. Trump's worldview is simplistic compared to “Man, I’m just tired and bored with myself.” Lest we forget, the final minute of the original video for this song involves the Boss bringing an unknown young fan up on stage to dance with him — Courteney Cox, who went on to become one of the stars of the hit '90 television show "Friends." Imitating her kicky little shuffle from the video is a go-to move when dancing to this song, turning Cox into a proxy or avatar for the track. This yields perhaps the most entertaining and unexpected critique of Trump, in that Cox also went on to participate in the Women’s March the day after his inauguration, and she has a history of endorsing Democrats, including Joe Biden when he ran against Trump’s reelection in 2020.

12. "My Hometown": Reflecting on the decline of small-town America, this song criticizes the neglect of rural communities and the failure to address systemic issues affecting them. Springsteen captures the nostalgia and sense of loss that accompanies the decline of traditional communities, running contrary to Trump's promises to revive struggling Rust Belt and manufacturing towns. "My Hometown" points out deep-seated challenges facing these forgotten communities, in which the speaker admits he and his wife are “talking about getting out, / Packing up our bags, maybe heading South.” It’s a bittersweet counterpoint to Trump's empty rhetoric about making America great again, urging listeners to confront the complexity of systemic failures.

Trump follows Hitler’s manipulative playbook

Slavoj Žižek is a psychoanalytic philosopher whose first big foray into writing on politics after many years focusing on ideologies in the arts, was “Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?: Five Interventions in the (Mis)Use of a Notion,” published by Verso Books in 2001. In "Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?" the chapter “Hitler as Ironist?” particularly made waves. The ideas here are sadly all too easily applicable to the situation of Trump using Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” tracks. At first glance, Trump's use of these anthems might seem incongruous given the stark dissonance between the lyrical content of these songs and Trump's political messaging laid out above. However, through Žižek's theory of irony, we can begin to unravel the underlying dynamics at play.

Hitler's speeches and writings often contained paradoxical statements and vague promises, allowing him to appeal to a wide range of audiences.

Žižek delves into the concept of Hitler as an ironist to challenge conventional understandings of totalitarianism, ideology and the nature of political power – even though the notion that Hitler was operating ironically may seem paradoxical or even offensive to many. Rather than interpreting Hitler's words and deeds as straightforward expressions of his beliefs or intentions, Žižek suggests that they should be seen as part of a complex strategy of manipulation and control. He argues that Hitler's public persona and propaganda were characterized by a deliberate blurring of boundaries between sincerity and cynicism, truth and falsehood, ideology and pragmatism.

One key aspect of Hitler's irony, according to Žižek, is his ability to exploit the inherent ambiguities within language and ideology. Hitler's speeches and writings often contained paradoxical statements and vague promises, allowing him to appeal to a wide range of audiences while avoiding commitment to any specific policy or principle. This strategy of linguistic ambiguity enabled Hitler to maintain flexibility and adaptability in the face of changing circumstances, while also sowing confusion and discord among his opponents. 

This strategic use of irony allows Trump to exploit the cultural significance of Springsteen's music while sidestepping the ideological contradictions.

Similarly, Trump's use of Springsteen's songs can be seen as a form of strategic ambiguity, where the surface meaning of the music is subverted or distorted to serve a particular political agenda. By appropriating anthems that resonate with working-class Americans and evoke themes of struggle and resilience, Trump seeks to tap into the emotional and cultural capital associated with Springsteen's music while simultaneously distancing himself from the deeper social critiques embedded within the lyrics. Playing these songs at rallies becomes a spectacle, divorced from any genuine commitment to the values or ideals they represent. In this sense, Trump's use of Springsteen's music becomes a form of political theater, where the surface appearance of authenticity and connection with ordinary Americans masks a deeper cynicism and manipulation.

The second key aspect Žižek suggests is Hitler's ironic use of performative contradiction to undermine the very foundations of rational discourse and political debate. By blurring the distinction between truth and falsehood, sincerity and deception, Hitler created a climate of uncertainty and instability in which traditional norms and values were subverted and undermined. Similarly, Trump's use of Springsteen's music can be seen as a form of performative contradiction, where the surface meaning of the song contradicts its deeper ideological implications. Trump's usage serves to reinforce his nationalist rhetoric and cultivate a sense of nostalgia for a bygone American greatness while glossing over Springsteen’s nuanced critique of American collapse. By co-opting anthems associated with progressive values and working-class struggles, Trump seeks to reframe his image and appeal to demographics traditionally outside of his base of support. This strategic use of irony allows Trump to exploit the cultural significance of Springsteen's music while sidestepping the ideological contradictions between his platform and the lyrical content of the songs.

Overall, Žižek's concept of Hitler as an ironist challenges us to deeply analyze how Trump's use of Springsteen's songs offers insight into contemporary political rhetoric and manipulation for totalitarian goals. By using strategies of linguistic ambiguity and performative contradiction, Trump co-opts cultural symbols and narratives to advance his agenda. Žižek's discussion of Hitler as an ironist serves as a warning about the dangers of irony in the public sphere, suggesting media literacy as a solution. Žižek urges deeper critical engagement with political discourse to recognize and expose performative contradictions and linguistic ambiguities, preventing the manipulation and distortion of public sentiment and ideology.

To combat Trump's ironic use of Springsteen’s songs, critical media education can increase public awareness of the songs' true meanings, while journalists and critics can highlight discrepancies between the songs and Trump's agenda as this article has done. Artists can reclaim their work's intended meanings through cease-and-desist letters, interviews and press releases, and activists can organize events to promote the songs' authentic messages of social justice and economic struggle. These approaches expose the contradictions and manipulations in Trump’s political rhetoric. And of course, stocking his rallies with Springsteen fans ensures that when Trump weaves the Boss into his web of deceits, as he did in mid-May in New Jersey, he gets promptly roasted.

By Megan Volpert

Megan Volpert has written or edited more than a dozen books, including "Boss Broad," which won a Georgia Author of the Year Award. Her latest is "Straight Into Darkness: Tom Petty as Rock Mystic" (University of Georgia Press, 2022). She is an assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at Kennesaw State University and a fellow at the American Institute for Philosophical and Cultural Thought.

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Adolf Hitler Born In The Usa Bruce Springsteen Commentary Music Philosophy Slavoj Zizek Totalitarianism Trump