On Sunday night, at the American Music Awards, pop-punk icons Green Day decided to get political.
This is not a new look for the Berkeley rockers, who revitalized their image in 2004 with the rock opera takedown of the Bush Administration, American Idiot (which was adapted into a Broadway musical in 2010, and received a spiritual follow-up via the band’s 2009 record 21st Century Breakdown): a record which received a befuddling amount of praise for, not just its content, but its supposed political bravery.
But last night, Billy Joe Armstrong and company showed no interest in George W. Bush, instead turning their sights on Republican president-elect and white nationalist Donald J. Trump, whose upcoming tenure as the head of America’s executive branch has grown more terrifying day by day, especially in light of his choice to appoint proud racist and anti-Semite Steven Bannon of Breitbart News as his chief strategist. Taking to the stage to perform “Bang Bang” off their latest LP revolution radio, the trio led their audience in an impassioned chant: “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!”
As far as displays of political rebellion go, this is right up there with the “Not My President” hashtag in terms of emptiness and wrongheadedness: a war cry that--on its surface--seems like a vital condemnation of a dangerous social evil, but is--actually, at its core--an exercise in back-patting and dangerously missing the point.
From the way social media has responded, you might never guess this. Cultural critics and commentators have come out to praise Green Day’s staying power as a voice of dissent in American pop music, expressing their gratitude for the band’s bravery and willingness to, pardon the cliche, fight the power. With the way this angry interlude is being discussed, you might even be tempted to believe that Green Day said something uniquely powerful or politically enlightened.
Now, this is not meant to be a criticism of the band, themselves, whose music I find inoffensive and trite at worst, superficially empowering at best. In short, Green Day is not a rock outfit that I have especially strong opinions on, and this AMAs stunt has really not changed that. I really don’t have much of an issue with what Green Day actually said, because (and this is, I believe what has convinced many to attach more potency to the chant than it deserves) nothing in the text of that proclamation is technically something I disagree with. I think Donald Trump is a horrid in every way, shape, and form--a festering mess of corruption, racism, xenophobia, and misogyny that has spilled into American government after decades of lying in wait, just barely beneath the surface of our social discourse. I think the Ku Klux Klan is pretty terrible too (I trust that I don’t need to elaborate on this. I also believe that many of Trump’s proposed policies resemble those of famous fascists, and that his wanton disregard for the (supposed) integrity of our political system is deeply troubling. I don’t blame Green Day for shouting all of this, and I don’t blame the people in the crowd for getting excited about it. I mean, who doesn’t love the chance to seem like a rebel while participating in as garish an establishment even as the American Music Awards.
I do think, however, that “No Trump. No KKK. No fascist USA” is a spectacular example white American liberalism missing the point in exactly the way that allowed Donald Trump to achieve the presidency. I am, also, deeply disappointed to see it being spoken about by usually astute writers as though it is anything but that.
What do I mean by this? The main issue with Green Day’s chant is that it is placing the blame for the current state of America’s social infrastructure on easy, non-controversial targets that--while some of the most visible peddlers of the evils that are rotting this nation from the inside out--are not the most powerful forces in perpetuating the dangerous and hateful status quo.
And make no mistake: it is the status quo. The racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and ableism that Donald Trump and the white nationalist movement embody is most definitely America’s resting state. Even as neo-Nazis and bitter racists have complained about their views being suppressed by an oppressive establishment that fetishizes political correctness; and as Steven Bannon and his lackeys have trumpeted in the last couple of weeks that they are now the establishment, these men have always been the foundational basic conception of American society, no matter what idealistic historical whitewashing you want to employ. At best, the status quo has been a dilluted and slightly obscured fulfillment of these white supremacist fantasies. But it has never been a rejection of them.
But by tying this state of bigotry and social decay to boogeymen like Bannon and Trump, to groups like the KKK and Stormfront, (predominantly) white liberals are missing the point. Because blaming our current political tragedy on figureheads so unabashedly evil only gives us an excuse to avoid self-examination, and reject the depressing truth that the most dangerous racists in America are not the Ku Klux Klan, but the men and women who use the outsize violence of the Ku Klux Klan to excuse the smaller but more insidious affirmations of white supremacy they practice daily.
In his seminal “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (who seems to have become equally synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement and white racists trying to stealthily deploy respectability politics) wrote:
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season. Shallow understanding from people of good will [sic] is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
If you are not already familiar with this particular evaluation of white allyship in America, I encourage you to reread Dr. King’s words. Then reread them again. Because despite the white left’s fetishization of Martin Luther King’s rhetoric, this particular assertion of his seems to be woefully overlooked: the idea that the greatest danger to people of color are not the few men who would put on robes and burn a cross, but the many who would do everything it takes to excuse those actions, to ensure that they needn’t feel uncomfortable with reaping the rewards of white supremacy. The thousands who would gleefully shout slurs and assert their own supremacy are horrible, but their poisonous footprint will ultimately be smaller than that of the millions who try to pretend racial strife does not exist, and will quietly and unquestioningly benefit from the assertions of extremists.
We can safely assume that around 59 million (slightly fewer) Americans voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Now, the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that there are chapters of the Ku Klux Klan in 41 states, each with between 5,000 and 8,000 active members. Which means that there are probably no more than 330,000 Klansmen in the United States right now (at the Klan’s peak in the 1920s, there were most likely never more than 4 million). Whether or not the numbers here are exactly accurate, we can safely assume that at least 55 million of the men and women who voted Trump into office were not members of the KKK.
If the argument that it wasn’t just racist extremists who supported Donald Trump sounds familiar, it is because it has been peddled for months in the deluge of think pieces about the white working class, those suffering Americans who would gladly ignore the ravages a Trump presidency could incur on nearly every marginalized group in America, just for the chance to have another president leave them hanging. In most of these articles, these men and women are portrayed as victims, which is--frankly--ridiculous. These are men and women who were angry that people of color were getting attention that they weren’t and found themselves, on November 8, more than willing to sacrifice millions to regain the comfort of being the undisputed center of the American narrative. On top of these voters were millions of others, who were happy to ignore the idea of racial strife, to enable the continuation of unofficial American apartheid because they were promised they would be able to retain their privilege. And very few of these people probably see themselves as racists.
Nor do many Democrats, I imagine,who voted against Trump and campaigned for Former Secretary Clinton passionately, decrying the Republican nominee’s free-flowing bigotry and fear-mongering, while still ignoring the calls to action from Black Lives Matter activists and those fighting for trans rights nationwide. White liberals--many of whom will change their Twitter handle to #NotMyPresident and retweet videos of this Green Day performance--have gotten increasingly good at confusing “not openly racist” with “not racist” in the last few years, making fun of writers and commentators of color who have taken issue with prominent white feminists or have taken Hollywood to task for its history of whitewashing; criticizing young leftists for questioning the roles of language and academia in reinforcing white supremacist powers. These are men and women who, in many ways, have predicated their entire sense of morality on not being the worst or most visibly terrible element in American social discourse, who have happily silenced people of color through tone policing and respectability politics and then patted themselves on the back for never carrying out a lynching.
America is what it is and Trump is where he is not because of the supervillains of this nation’s history. The current situation is not simply the result of proud white supremacists and rapists and homophobes. America is where it is because of centuries of a population willing to enable the most insidious of social forces by assuming they simply had to criticize the ones to champion those forces most passionately. America is where it is--poised to do incalculable damage to people of color, trans and queer and disabled Americans, and immigrants--because of the white Americans who have been comfortable with engaging in soft white supremacy, and the self-congratulatory culture of ascribing the fallout to monsters we could assure ourselves we were not.
“No Trump. No KKK. No fascist USA” may be catchy, and on the surface it may seem harmless. However, as an anthem, it is an embodiment of white liberal complacency at its worst. It is one more way for Americans to reject their role in enabling Trump’s rise, simply because they didn’t vote for him, or they’ve never said the n-word. It is a mechanism for the denial and whitewashing of the role all white Americans have played in creating and benefiting from a system that a man like Trump could so effortlessly commandeer; and a mantra for the sort of anti-meditation that often accompanies whiteness in this nation: the abject refusal to look inward, the impassioned search for the more obvious devil. That this chant is being heralded as brave and rebellious by so many on social media is disturbing, because it signals white liberals’ inability to learn the lessons of this election, to continue wallowing in righteous dismissal of their potential for racial violence, to privilege good intentions and bare minimum decency over tangible allyship and rigorous self-examination.
It may be fun to imagine ourselves standing on that stage or in that audience, bellowing our nursery rhyme rebuttal of the dangers on the horizon, but if we make the mistake of buying into a narrative of this particularly American horror story as simple and self-exonerating as the one we heard at the AMAs tonight, we will pretty quickly find ourselves back in the exact same position with far more blood on our hands.