Ted Leo and the Pharmacists released Hearts of Oak in early 2003; not quite full swing into the Rock Against Bush era, but barreling toward it. The administration was making the case for war, global opinion of America was in the tank and the malaise of unending war was upon us. That was enough for political art and protest songs to take shape and feel urgent. There were crooks in the White House, the recession was hitting and for the first time in decades the American public was grappling with full scale war. People had to speak out.
On its 15 year anniversary, Ted Leo is touring Hearts of Oak on a bit of a nostalgia tour. I went on Thursday night at The Echo. It was an all-time great concert, a marvel of singing and song construction, but very much a weird echo of the Bush era and the things we worried about back then.
In 2018 I think about the malaise of the Bush administration often. If you were politically inclined and tuned in, there was no escaping the pessimism in the air. Every week the Executive Branch would make some doublespeak statement that reflected a willful denial of reality. It felt like they were trying to create an entirely different reality by just saying it was so: we would be greeted as liberators, torture was just enhanced interrogation, and mission accomplished was declared just 2 months into the war.
Yet I have a hard time comparing the Bush malaise with the Trump malaise. For all their similarities, they produce entirely different feelings of doom. George W. Bush made us grapple with the unending war of American imperialism. Donald Trump's driving force is stoking racial resentment and the piggish brutality of a spoiled child. Bush (or more accurately Cheney) was coldly competent in their PR campaign to wage unsanctioned war, if not the war itself. Trump is reckless, a multi-faced, chaotic evil, that seems to put up with PR but really just wants to say "Why can't I just have it my way?"
And despite the great ugliness that is playing out in American society today, whose full consequences we will not see for some time, I have a hard time believing the devastating damage and unconscionable landscape of death that is the Iraq War can be topped. We speak of the evils of governments like China and North Korea yet none of them can lay claim to one million deaths in an invasion.
Ted Leo finished his set with "Ballad of the Sin Eater," the one diversion from the Hearts of Oak sequencing. This is because "Sin Eater" is both a high energy song, and the most enduring anthem of the album. It's an unassailable part of Ted Leo's canon. In 2018 it's still the quintessential song about Ugly American syndrome.
You didn't think they could hate ya now, could ya?
There's a lot of genius in "Sin Eater" -- the relentless, rattling rhythm, the amped-up spit-out verses, the hyper literate writing and references -- but mostly it captured the feeling of taking the ricochet bullet for the neoconservative decision to buck the international community. There was a probably-naive sentiment buried in there: sorry about this Bush guy, he's not reflective of our values, the whole freedom fries thing is embarrassing, sorry. What Trump did in November 2016 is turn this on its head. No reasonable Democrat could deny that this ugliness was the American face. Not an anomaly, not an embarrassing distant cousin, but the heart of the problem with the American empire.
The 2016 popular vote count would be a reason to deny this reading, but it stands to reason that it shouldn't have even been this close. A man who represents an obvious callousness, cruelty, and authoritarianism winning that many votes at all is a sobering slap in the face. We're all sin eaters here. We should've known this the entire time.
"The Anointed One" is another track that fans think of as a definitive anti-Bush take, but research indicates it's probably about Republican Congressman Mike Ferguson, a former college roommate of Leo. It works in either context: it's still about some privileged son predestined for the halls of power and wrestling with deception. How could I not have seen what you'd become? he croons at a fevered pitch that bares the wounds of betrayal.
Among a certain class of milquetoast limousine liberal, there's a popular belief that George W. Bush represented a respectable, civil Republican. They wax nostalgic about his days in office, revel in his anti-Trump statements, and gush about his cuteness as an old man making clown paintings. If this continues, the eventual rehabilitation of George W. Bush will be one of Trump's crowning disgraces. We may be living in the unending doom of ICE detention centers, muslim bans and white nationalist invigoration, but it's not dramatically new or unrelated to our history.
For those of us that came of age in the shadow of our forever war, still on-going, still taking civilian life, we should have known this was coming. We should know today that it will never stop coming. Even when the gloom lifts and Trump has left office, even when some optimistic liberal sits in the Oval Office, the American machinery and populace will ensure this strain of darkness will always be with us. I hope that this time we'll be vigilant, no matter who is in office, to stand for the lofty ideals we set for ourselves, yet so often fail to meet.