How to Clean Nothing: The Death of Anti-Inspiration in the Face of Trump’s America

Hutch Harris (the Thermals) would rather never make a record again than live in a country governed by Donald Trump.
HUTCHH

At a recent show, a Thermals fan approached me and remarked, “If Trump wins the election, I’m sure you’ll write a great record about it.” The thought sent shivers down my spine. Imagining a United States governed by Trump scares me. To think I could find inspiration and success from such a horrible reality is downright terrifying. Do I want to write a great record? Of course I do. Do I want it to come at the expense of my country, at expense of the rights of my brothers and sisters? Of course I don’t. I may be willing to suffer for my art, but I don’t want anyone else to have to suffer for it.

There are a lot of reasons why I don’t want to see a Trump presidency. I don’t want a TV reality “star” with zero public office experience running our still (but possibly not-for-long) great country. I don’t want to see a misogynistic, bigoted xenophobe as leader of the (again, possibly not-for-long) free world. I don’t want a cartoonish maniac with his finger on the proverbial button, ready to bomb us all back to the Stone Age. Trump promises to build walls, but instead smashes through them like an evil, bizarro Kool-Aid man: a blustery, red-faced man-child with the tone and monosyllabic “OH YEAH!” vocabulary of a belligerent frat boy. But the only walls Trump demolishes are those of common decency, and the party atmosphere he carries with him is one of blind intolerance and uninhibited hatred.

Trump is like the ultimate terrible open mic “comedian.” Give him a stage and he’ll spew the foulest insults at women, minorities and any other targets he deems easy. He’ll say anything to get a response, and fears no negative reaction — only no reaction at all. Love and hate are both just simple forms of the attention that he craves. Every day there is a new ridiculous but true story about Trump, and every day there are new jokes about Trump. But like with the angry, misguided open mic’er, real laughs are missing. The only punchline Trump is capable of delivering would be winning the election, at which point the joke would be on all of us.

How the hell did we let him get this far? Is the crash of our country not only so fascinating that we can’t look away, but also so mesmerizing that we’ve forgotten that we are not just passing by, that it is us who are all crashing along with it? Have we coalesced into a single deer stuck in Trump’s gaudy headlights, unable to move from the path of destruction? Trump should have been shown the door the moment he smashed his way into the party, but instead too many of us drank the Kool-Aid.

I wouldn’t define myself as political. I pay attention. I vote. When I was in high school, many of my favorite bands sang very serious lyrics about social and political issues. Like most music fans, my true taste was formed during those teenage years. I still love music as much as I ever did, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever be affected by any band as much as I was when I was seventeen and I listened to such records as Fugazi’s In on the Kill Taker or Propagandhi’s How to Clean Everything. Both records were released in 1993, the year I graduated from high school. The record that really summed up the true horror of modern human civilization for me was the Subhumans’ all-encompassing 1984 opus From the Cradle to the Grave. From the seventeen-minute title track: “You’ll conform to every social law and be the system’s slave/From birth to school to work to death, from the cradle to the grave.”

Sure, it’s way over the top, but so was Idiocracy, Mike Judge’s 2006 film about a moronic, mean-spirited dystopian United States — a film that today looks less like a ridiculous satire and more like a stark warning of a rapidly approaching Cowardly New World, our nation made great again with an endless supply of crude speech and crass advertising.

Ten years ago, I made the dubious decision to mix politics with my art. I (along with Kathy Foster) wrote and performed the Thermals’ The Body, the Blood, the Machine, a concept record of sorts. The lyrics illustrate a paranoid fantasy of escaping a fascist U.S.A. governed by faux-Christian warmongers. The content of the album was a response to the Bush/Cheney regime, with many of the lyrics sung from their point of view (and I apologize in advance for quoting my own lyrics): “Draw the bridges, dig the ditches deep, we’re gonna need a new border/Get thyself in line for your reassignment, for the new first world order.”

I didn’t feel inspired by the Bush/Cheney regime, I felt inspired against it. I felt anti-inspired by it.

The lyrics are from “An Ear for Baby,” a song that imagines a holocaust on U.S. soil, complete with concentration camps filled with anyone the state has found to be undesirable. “It’s time to groom you for judgment,” the preacher/politician amalgam of a protagonist shouts like a carnival barker at a conquered citizenry. His message is simple: get in line or be destroyed.

I used the term “anti-inspiration” when describing how and why I wrote the lyrics. I didn’t feel inspired by the Bush/Cheney regime, I felt inspired against it. I felt anti-inspired by it. I’m proud of these lyrics, and of TBTBTM, but I’m not happy with the fact that they sound like they were written this year — by Trump himself. (Trump has already begun naming his undesirables, starting with Muslims, Mexicans and pregnant women.) Who would’ve thought being relevant would be so embarrassing? These lyrics, of course, weren’t inspired by Donald Trump, but by George W. Bush. Remember when a lot of us thought he was the worst president we would ever see? A Trump presidency looks to be so disastrous as to make W.’s term look like his father’s: largely benign and boring.

TBTBTM may be the Thermals’ most-loved, best-selling record, but I have constantly tried to distance myself from the reputation it brought us of being a political band. I’ve tried to tell people that we are not a political band, that we are just a band that has (rather infrequently, in the grand scheme of things) sung about politics. “Punk” is another word I’ve felt to be a misnomer when applied to the Thermals. I don’t feel like a punk, and I don’t think of us as being a punk band. But the more I’ve tried to convince people otherwise, the harder the punk tag has hung around our collective neck like an albatross wearing a Pussy Riot T-shirt.

Fans of punk and other typically counter-culture genres count on the artists they love to speak out against corruption and injustice, something I have done in the past, but only when it felt right — only when it came from my heart. Donald Trump doesn’t inspire me. I don’t want him to. I don’t want to be anti-inspired anymore. That is to say, I want to be moved to create by positive forces of change, not negative purveyors of doom. To put it simply, I would rather never make a record again than live in a country governed by Donald Trump.

I will be voting for Hillary Clinton in November, but it will be a dispassionate vote. I do believe our country is way overdue for a female president, but as the Bernie Sanders fantasy fades away, it’s tough to get excited about what I see as a back-to-business-as-usual administration. I will, like a lot of people, be voting against the horror of a Trump presidency. I won’t be singing about politics at all, although many people may still interpret my lyrics to fit an agenda. I am OK with that; being misinterpreted or pigeonholed are things you just have to get used to as an artist in the public eye. The Body, the Blood, the Machine is an inspiring political record to many people, but isn’t about starting a revolution — it’s about running for your life, something a lot of us will be doing if Trump is elected.

(Photo credit: Jaclyn Campanaro)

Hutch Harris was born in New York City, raised in Silicon Valley and has resided in Portland, Oregon for the past eighteen years.  Harris founded and is the lead singer/songwriter of Portland post-pop-punk band the ThermalsIn fourteen years, the band has toured fifteen countries and released seven records. Follow Harris on Twitter here.