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The Master and Mar-a-Lago
By Hugo Drochon

By exploring the legacy of the nineteenth-century composer Richard Wagner through his afterlife, rather than through his life, music critic Alex Ross offers a rich meditation on the role that art plays in the world. But while Wagner was a man of all seasons, his work has often been invoked during the darkest of winters.

The list of musicians who opposed Donald Trump’s use of their songs at his rallies during his failed 2020 election campaign is almost as long as the playlist itself. Artists and bands such as The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Neil Young, Linkin Park, Phil Collins, the Village People, Guns N’ Roses, Bruce Springsteen, Rihanna, Pharrell Williams, Aerosmith, Adele, Queen, and R.E.M. all publicly condemned Trump’s use of their music, with some issuing cease-and-desist orders to make him stop. The estates of Tom Petty, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Luciano Pavarotti, and others protested as well. But it was all to no avail.

Of all those on the Trump campaign’s publicly available Spotify playlist, only one musician publicly endorsed the campaign’s use of his music: the country artist Lee Greenwood. His song “God Bless the USA” often served as Trump’s walk-up anthem, and was sometimes performed live by Greenwood himself.

The Trump campaign’s choice of artists was in tune with the man’s nostalgic vision of making America “great again,” in the sense that it was overwhelmingly white and dated from the last century. By contrast, President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign playlist had a perfect 50/50 split between white and black artists, and featured walk-on songs like Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own,” which was meant to underscore the candidate’s blue-collar credentials.

Both candidates made musical gaffes on the campaign trail. After being introduced at a Florida rally by Luis Fonsi, famous for his hit “Despacito,” Biden pulled out his phone and played the song, dancing awkwardly behind the podium. As Trump supporters were quick to point out, “despacito” means “slowly” in English, seemingly echoing Trump’s nickname for Biden: “Sleepy Joe.”

But, of course, many of Trump’s musical choices raised eyebrows, too. He seemed unable to resist dancing along to the Village People’s 1970s hit “YMCA,” which became one of his campaign’s staples, alongside their song “Macho Man.” Trump seemed oblivious to the jarring contrast between the group’s homoerotic swagger and his faux strongman image (not to mention the values of his conservative Christian base).

As a closer, Trump liked to play the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” As many commentators noted, this was meant to troll his opponents and reaffirm his status as an outsider taking on the political establishment. Yet the song was an ironic choice for someone who was born into the lap of luxury and given to toddler-like tantrums.

Even worse was Trump’s use of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” which was played when he arrived by helicopter to attend a rally at a retirement community in Florida. As the song’s composer John Fogerty pointed out in his own public repudiation of Trump, the lyrics clearly denounce the privileged children of elites who managed to dodge the Vietnam War-era draft (Fogerty is a veteran), as well as the wealthy who don’t pay their fair share of taxes. “Mr. Trump is a prime example of both these issues,” Fogerty’s statement concluded.

APOCALYPSE TRUMP

But chief among the songs that stood out on Trump’s campaign playlist was Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” In his book The Art of the Deal, Trump claims that when he was seven, he gave his music teacher a black eye for not “knowing anything about music.” Whether or not anyone believes this anecdote, there can be little doubt that Trump’s knowledge of Wagner is limited at best.

Indeed, it is more likely than not that Trump’s familiarity with the song stems from the scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film, Apocalypse Now, when US Army helicopters blast it from loudspeakers during an assault on a Vietcong-held village. But as Alex Ross reminds us in Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, Coppola did not include that scene as a celebration of American supremacy. Rather, he intended it as an indictment of the American empire’s decadence and descent into insanity. (The film, after all, is based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.)

Ross is best known as The New Yorker’s classical music critic and the author of The Rest Is Noise, a celebrated, lucid study of twentieth-century classical music. As his fellow critic Jed Perl put it in his own review of Wagnerism, Ross has the gift of being able to “make readers feel they’re right next to him in the concert hall or the opera house, sharing his excitement.” But it is not only that. Ross even has the ability to make the reader hear the music: in his description of the opening of The Ring of the Nibelung, the notes dance off the page.

That said, Wagnerism is more of an exploration of its titular subject’s political and literary afterlives, focusing surprisingly little on his musical legacy. There is not much about the man himself, except for his relationship with Friedrich Nietzsche, which becomes a constant theme running through the book.

Still, Ross offers a fascinating story with a cast of characters that includes James Joyce, Marcel Proust, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and J.R.R. Tolkien, whose series The Lord of the Rings scarcely conceals the influence of Wagner’s Ring cycle (“one ring to rule them all”). Similarly, Ross spots a Wagnerian imprint on films such as The Birth of a Nation and Star Wars, the recent HBO series Game of Thrones, as well as on movements like Jewish, Black, Feminist, and Gay Wagner.

The result is an exciting, wide-ranging, erudite yet highly readable tome. Exceeding 700 pages, the book is brimming with insights and archival finds that allow us to see all the figures, objects, and themes surrounding Wagner’s life and legacy with new eyes. We often try to understand a period through the lives of its most emblematic figures; but Ross crafts a history of the twentieth century from the afterlife of one of the preceding century’s artistic icons.

WAGNER IN TIME

Ross does not mention Trump, but in an afterword, he writes of being an “American ashamed of my country’s recent conduct on the international stage.” Because of the ambiguity of Wagner’s legacy – the undeniable musical genius, the crass anti-Semitism – Ross concludes that Wagnerism is more a reflection of the historical period in which he is considered than of the man himself. In other words, the Wagner we get is always the one we deserve. Today, we have Trump’s Wagner – the Wagner of the “America First” rallies, where the “Ride of the Valkyries” conceals an underlying decadence and descent into madness.

That said, Ross is wary of directly linking Wagner and repugnant political leaders. To do that, he explains, would be to “let civilization off the hook” – excusing our own share of responsibility. Instead, we should ask what role art plays in the world. Today, that means examining “how popular culture has participated in the politics and economics of American hegemony.”

For similar reasons, Ross is also suspicious of the shopworn Wagner-to-Hitler narrative, which regards the composer as a “proto-fascist” who anticipated the Third Reich. This perspective relies on what Ross calls “backshadowing”: retrospectively seeing all of German history as a teleological progression toward Hitler’s rise.

To be sure, there is no question that Hitler was a fan of Wagner, and that high-ranking Nazi officials such as Alfred Rosenberg, the party’s self-styled philosopher, and Joseph Goebbels, its chief propagandist, exploited Wagner’s anti-Semitism for political purposes.

But that is only half the story. Plenty of non-Nazis also admired Wagner, and many Nazi officers did not share their Fuehrer’s taste in music, which is why they had to be forced to sit through performances by “the Master,” as Wagner liked to be called. Those who failed to sell off their tickets beforehand often slept through the event, much to Hitler’s annoyance.

The truth is that performances of Wagner dropped, along with attendance, in Germany during the Nazi era, while Verdi, Puccini, and Lortzing remained popular. The opera house Wagner built at Bayreuth, the famed Festspielhaus, survived only thanks to Hitler’s financial backing. In contrast, Wagner’s popularity in America surged.

Aside from the anti-Semitism (always more explicit in the composer’s political writings, especially his odious essay “Judaism in Music,” than in his compositions), Wagner’s themes simply did not suit the Nazi regime. The Ring cycle opens with a critique of corrupt power and ends with a nod to Christian compassion – Mitleid – which the Nazis associated with weakness. As Ross writes: “The Meister (Wagner) served the regime better when he was kept away from the specifics of policy.”

Wagner was most suitable to the Nazis as a symbol (even if Rosenberg did sniff some of the “high decadence” the regime was combating around Bayreuth). According to Ross, Hitler’s relation to the composer was ultimately of a personal nature. Hitler’s spirits had been kept up by Wagner’s music when he was a soldier in World War I, and so he tried to administer the same medicine during World War II. Wounded and demoralized German soldiers were prescribed a “restorative” trip to Bayreuth, which became a “sort of Magic Mountain spa treatment for the warrior spirit,” as Ross puts it. “Hitler was attempting to impose on the entire military population his own experience as a soldier, when Wagner had been a balm to him.” The results were mixed.

AN OLD CYCLE

Whether Trump has “brought fascism to America” is an ongoing debate, with many commentators drawing historical parallels between Trump’s term and the Weimar Republic. Certainly, there are neo-fascists in Trump’s disparate coalition, and the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, precipitated street battles reminiscent of the clashes between Communists and Nazis in interwar Germany.

Yet the alt-right/neo-Nazi/KKK rally in Charlottesville now seems more like the high-point for America’s fascists than the start of something bigger. According to Federico Finchelstein, a leading historian of fascism and populism, the difference between the two is that the former leads inevitably to dictatorship, whereas the latter does not. “Populists most often play the democratic game and will eventually cede power after losing an election,” he writes. By this criterion, Trump is a populist. Though he did everything he could to undermine the 2020 election, including inciting a mob to attack the US Capitol, on January 20 he departed from the White House as scheduled.

As it happens, Wagner himself had a populist streak. He was often seen at the side of the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, and he actively participated in the 1848-49 revolts in Dresden. Fleeing to Zurich to escape the counterrevolutionary backlash, he spent most of the next ten years writing political tracts – including “Art and Revolution,” “The Artwork of the Future,” and the aforementioned “Judaism in Music” – wherein he attacked the aristocracy and capitalism, demanded universal suffrage, and extolled German nationalism.

All of these themes would feed into his later musical compositions; and in his book-length treatise Opera and Drama, he set out the principles of what was to be his masterpiece. But the Ring cycle, Wagner promised, would be performed only at some later date, after the “great revolution of humanity” had taken place.

Inspired by ancient Norse and Germanic myths, the Ring revolves around Wotan, the king of the gods, and his consuming desire for a magic ring, forged by the Nibelung dwarf Alberich, that bestows on its wearer the power to rule the world. As Ross points out:

“The terms of the political analogy are clear. Wotan is a ruler in the modern mode, willing to allow limited freedoms but prepared to resort to violence… The lesser gods are the aristocracy; the giants are the restless proletariat; Alberich is a self-made capitalist. Loge [the Norse god of fire] is like a renegade philosopher-politician who has joined Wotan’s coalition for pragmatic reasons. Many commentators have likened Loge to Bakunin, who, according to Wagner, imagined a world conflagration arising from peasant rebellion.”

At the end of the cycle, Wotan and the other gods at Valhalla are consumed in flames, their power transferred to the people. Similar to what Wagner had called for in his political writings – “All that exists must go under” – the fall of the gods is a necessary prelude for the true uprising.

By pitting a pure people against a corrupt elite, Wagner’s populist anti-elitism is clear: Wotan’s world is compromised from the start, and the gods are complicit in the general corruption. It is hard not to hear some dim, distant echo of Trump’s call to “drain the swamp.”

THE NEW-OLD MEDIA PROBLEM

A theme that worries Ross throughout his study is the relationship between mass media and unsavory political regimes. Wagner initially wanted tickets for his performances to be free. Though the need for subscriptions quickly overwhelmed that idea (making the opening of the Bayreuth Festival a well-heeled event), Wagner refused to set aside aristocratic boxes at his Festspielhaus, demanding instead that the audience form a homogenous parterre.

Wagner wanted the performance to stoke the nationalist emotions of the masses. Similarly, Ross describes Nazi culture as in large measure a “modern, technologically driven, American-style media landscape,” and wonders whether “the Third Reich was to some extent a Fascist makeover of American consumer society, with mass culture, sports and high-tech gadgetry predominating.”

Wagner’s role in Nazi propaganda might have been ambiguous. But in turning to myth to replace the waning religious sentiment of the time, he opened the door to something that underpinned both the Nazi and Trump regimes: a reliance on conspiracy theories.

There are strong affinities between myths, conspiracy theories, and populism, in that they all espouse a Manichean worldview in which the forces of good and evil are pitted in uncompromising opposition. Unsurprisingly, Hitler and the Nazis seized on Wagner’s anti-Semitism (often at the root of conspiracy theories in any age) as well as the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion to justify their murderous regime.

Similarly, Trump’s political career started with a conspiracy theory – the “Birther” claim that then-President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and thus held the office illegitimately – and ended with another: that the election was “stolen” from him through fraud and corruption. Throughout Trump’s term, there was growing momentum behind the QAnon conspiracy theory (which has even spread to Wagner’s homeland). Born on online message boards, QAnon holds, among other things, that the “Deep State” – in league with Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and George Soros – is presiding over an international pedophile ring that only Trump can destroy.

Given that QAnon was made possible by technology, Ross is right to worry about the links between “mass manipulation and mass destruction.” America, sadly, is not immune to repugnant politics. But technology is a tool; it is what one makes of it. After Trump, with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, Americans and the world look to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris for compassionate and selfless leadership. The gods are dead, and Valhalla is burning. But there is still hope in America’s own Siegfried and Brünnhilde.

Hugo Drochon, Assistant Professor of Political Theory at the University of Nottingham, is the author of Nietzsche’s Great Politics.
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