U2 vs Trump: five things to consider

U2 have certainly been making news the last couple of weeks. Check out just a few of the headlines:

  • U2’s Bono says Trump threat to ‘American Dream’ –Washington Examiner
  • U2 Blast Donald Trump During San Francisco Show –RollingStone.com
  • Bono conducts angry ‘face-off’ with Donald Trump during U2 show –Irish Examiner
  • Bono: Trump ‘hijacked’ the Republican Party, could ‘destroy’ America – Washington Times

So why are U2 so upset with Donald Trump? Are they just grabbing for headlines? Maybe pandering to political partisanship? I don’t think so. It’s much deeper than that.

At each of the only two concerts U2 have played in 2016 (I attended both), they used their setlist to make statements not just about Trump, but about a core set of American ideals. Though they were limited to only ten songs at the Sep. 23 iHeart Music Festival in Las Vegas, the band used precious stage time to challenge Trump with a scorching version of “Desire.” Featuring video of the presidential hopeful’s announcement that “the American Dream is dead,” Bono retorted, “The American Dream is ALIVE!”

“Desire,” September 23, 2016, Las Vegas iHeart Music Festival 

On Oct. 5, at the Dreamforce concert in San Francisco, U2 channeled all the anger and emotion of the original version of “Bullet the Blue Sky,” this time using footage of Trump chanting, “Build that wall,” while an angry Bono countered with a quote from the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

“Bullet the Blue Sky,” October 5, 2016, San Francisco Dreamfest

What is this Irish quartet up to? Why on the 40th anniversary of their founding (September 25, 1976) are they wading into American politics?

Here are five things to consider when listening to the U2 vs. Trump debate.

1. This is not a partisan attack

U2 have a long history of collaborating with both Republicans and Democrats. During the Jubilee 2000 campaign, Bono teamed up with US Senators on both sides of the aisle, resulting in America’s commitment to forgive $6 billion in Third World debt. In 2002, he established DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade for Africa) to promote debt relief, AIDS education and fair trade legislation. In 2004, Bono co-founded the ONE Campaign, an organization that now includes 7.5 million members who regularly advocate for Africa, regardless of political ideology. In 2006, he helped create Product (RED), an initiative merging philanthropy with corporate merchandising that has raised over $350 million and aided over 60 million people across sub-Saharan Africa. Uncommonly skillful at American politics and well-studied on the sources of African poverty, Bono has gained endorsements from conservatives such as US Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and Senator Jesse Helms. In 2003, Bono found an ally in President George W. Bush, whose administration authorized an unprecedented $15 billion for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), an amount that grew to $60 billion by 2016. No president since—Republican or Democrat—has matched that level of contribution to Africa.

Trump-dollars, both sidesAt the iHeart concert, U2 littered the audience with fake money during “Desire.” These “Trump dollars” contained a myriad of messages, many of which were direct quotes from Republicans.

  • If we ever forget that we are One Nation Under God, then we will be a nation gone under. -Ronald Reagan
  • America has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by ideals. -George W. Bush
  • Others may hate you but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. -Richard Nixon
  • Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. -Dwight D. Eisenhower
  • My dream is of a place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last best hope of earth. -Abraham Lincoln

U2’s argument is not with Republicans or those who are following Trump. The band members know that there are a lot of smart, compassionate and motivated conservatives out there. Nor are the boys endorsing Hillary Clinton. They are going after Trump because of his lack of commitment to many of this country’s great ideals, as well as his threatening position on foreign relations and immigration. Bono’s advice in Vegas: “Peace is not just the absence of violence. Peace is love organized! So get out and vote, whoever you vote for.”

2. This is satire

Both of the concert videos U2 have recently released (see above) demonstrate a style of rhetoric the band are really good at. Satire and irony are common throughout U2’s 40-year story. They have always fought absurdity with absurdity. We see this in Lypton Village, a surreal world they invented as teens to protect themselves from the harshness of a violent Dublin. On the Joshua Tree tour, the boys donned costumes and were their own warmup act, posing as a country band called the Dalton Brothers. In the ’90s, Bono took on various shady, evil-looking personae to call out contemporary topics. Who better to speak to devilish issues than the devil himself? (Bono has credited Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis for this inspiration). On the Zoo TV tour, U2’s use of irony and absurdity culminated in nightly calls from the stage to the White House—none of which were answered.

Satire creates awareness by using humor to exaggerate an issue. That’s exactly what U2 are doing in both the Vegas and San Francisco shows. The audience knows Trump never actually told Edge that he would “like to punch him in the face.” But to accentuate the attitude and meaning behind Trump’s words, U2 bring the phrase to the surface multiple times in a comical way. It worked. Lots of people in the crowd laughed, just like when political candidates are lampooned nightly by Stephen Colbert.

And there’s another gem of top-shelf irony that’s happening at the Dreamforce show. In San Francisco, Bono never referred to Trump by name, but always called him the “Candidate.” Reminiscent of the Dark Lord in Harry Potter (“He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”), or the monsters in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (“Those we do not speak of”), Bono recognizes that speaking the name of a foe gives that entity power and legitimacy. Bono also knows his Old Testament. In Genesis, the act of naming is inextricably tied to the act of creation (God said, “Let there be light.” God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.”) Throughout the ancient biblical text people’s names are changed to signal new identities (Abram became Abraham when he moved his family to the Promised Land). U2 know the power of naming and they sing about it on No Line on the Horizon—in “Unknown Caller,” the listener is told, “You know your name, so punch it in.” It’s a masterful use of irony. In un-naming Trump they disarm him.

One of U2’s strongest features has always been their inclination toward satire. They’re at their best when poking at Trump.

3. This is prophetic

Bono loves the prophets. At the end of the Old Testament, there are 15 books written by a group of people who functioned as spokesmen for God. Throughout their proclamations, these prophets called the lapsed Hebrews back into a relationship with their creator, Yahweh. What was their sin? How had they wandered away? The accusation repeatedly made by Jeremiah, Isaiah, Hosea, Amos and others is that God’s nation had consistently ignored three groups of marginalized people: the widow, the orphan and the foreigner. From the Ten Commandments (“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt,” Exodus 22:21), to the last book of the Old Testament (“I [God] will be quick to testify against . . . those who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice,” Malachi 3:5), the message is clear.

U2 are modern day prophets as they say some incredibly harsh things, which, just like the ancient prophets, might make them unpopular. But the words always point back to issues of justice. The Hebrews believed they were God’s people, his nation, yet they were guilty of oppressing the poorest of the poor, including the foreigner in their midst. When Bono fights back at Trump’s restrictive foreign policy, he is mimicking the actions of Old Testament prophets.

And Bono is not afraid of a fight. In fact, the older he gets, the more he seems to rekindle the righteous zeal that was so evident in the Joshua Tree era when he would cuss out the IRA or name those who wouldn’t support anti-apartheid sanctions. When asked by Michka Assayas whether he is ever afraid or intimidated by global leaders, Bono responded like a prophet of old:

I represent a lot of people who have no voice at all. . . . I think that imbues you with a power way beyond anything that you might have an influence on, being in a pop band. It’s a certain moral authority that’s way beyond your own life and capabilities. The punch you throw is not your own. It has the force of a much bigger issues.

At the iHeart concert, the lead singer reminded us, “If you can’t by conscience vote for Donald Trump and you’re a Republican, then vote in your local elections. Vote for someone that holds sacred the idea that a man or a woman is not defined by his or her ethnicity or religion.”

Keep punching, Bono. And may your swings on behalf of the marginalized only get stronger with age.

4. This is an outsider’s perspective

It’s often said that U2 have no right to talk about American politics. Critics cry, “You’re Irish, so shut up and go home.” But those not willing to listen to an outside voice are doomed to myopic thinking. Not only do we need the perspective of others, we should seek it out and value it. As the US follows the lead of Britain and becomes increasingly isolationist, we must be careful to hear how the rest of the world views that shift. Gone are the days of the powerful nation-state. We now live in a global village that is much bigger than our own country.

U2 provide a perspective we in America need. Bono has repeatedly reminded us, “America is more than a country. America is an idea.” In San Francisco he continued his mock conversation with Trump: “Now Candidate, you understand it’s not just Mexican people who are gonna have a problem with that wall of yours. It’s everyone who loves the idea of America. The Irish, for example. Or the French or the Brazilians. Everyone who loves the idea of America.”

In America, we desperately need artists and prophets from the outside to help us find our way.

5. This is also a message about MLK

U2’s tirade against Trump didn’t end with Trump. When people watch these clips online, unfortunately, they don’t see what comes next. Both in Vegas and in San Francisco, U2 followed the take-down with a timely tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and his commitment to peace. “More than ever,” Bono reminded us at each show during “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “we need the spirit of Dr. King. More than ever, we need the spirit of nonviolence. Not just across America, but across the world.” Then, using original video footage, U2 featured King in his own words: “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” U2 confront Trump because they are afraid that so much of the progress made by MLK and other activists seeking global justice could be undone.

U2 often call out the worst in America, but not without suggesting a spirited way forward. Watch for this progression at a U2 concert. It’s brilliant—lament turns to celebration, discouragement transforms into hope, pain moves to promise. This liturgy is predictable, anticipated and welcomed. And in an American election cycle, it’s necessary. “Dream out loud!” Bono prompted the San Francisco audience. “Dream up the world you want to live in!”


Credit: Sherry Lawrence and atu2.com for “Bullet” transcription, Sherry’s commentary on the Dreamforce concert, photos are mine

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