Music History

Is Conservatism the New Punk Rock?

These days, Johnny Rotten is signing "God Save Donald Trump."
These days, Johnny Rotten is signing "God Save Donald Trump." Michael Loccisano/Getty
Is punk dead? It depends on who you ask. The Exploited said it wasn’t. Crass said it was. Dead Kennedys said it wasn’t, but that it deserved to be.

Perish the thought that you should take a stance on that, however, because it is the stupidest and most meritless musical debate that can possibly be had. After all, the least punk rock thing a person could possibly do is act as a genre’s self-appointed gatekeeper and devote any mental energy to pontificating its place in today’s world.

This question doesn’t deserve an iota of intellectual dignity, but if it did, the two questions that would naturally be raised are, “What is punk rock?” and “What are its signs of life?”

The first question (the only one that we should care to explore) has two answers, the first being the obvious one: “Punk rock is a musical genre.” The second answer is more subtle but is nonetheless a wildly popular talking point: “Punk rock is an attitude.”

The latter argument has enjoyed a considerable resurgence in recent years, especially as right-wing influencers like Paul Joseph Watson have made it a point to say things in the vein of, “Conservatism is the new punk rock.” Take, for example, the Sept. 28 tweet below, which shows a picture of former Sex Pistols vocalist John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) wearing a “Make America Great Again” T-shirt accompanied with the caption, “Punk is anti-establishment, the establishment hates Trump, therefore Trump is punk and fuck and Johnny Rotten is being true to his punk roots by going full MAGA.”
The picture was taken in 2018, but for some reason, it has recently catapulted to the forefront of social media attention, and it has caused Twitter users to engage in a lively debate on whether conservatism is compatible with the punk ethos. These exchanges have been rather predictable: People on the left are arguing that punk rock has had a famous left-wing slant since its beginnings, and those on the right are pointing out that, like Lydon, Johnny Ramone was also a staunch conservative.

The cows have long been home for this tired debate. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the punk community was divided over the issue of whether neo-Nazi punk bands like Skrewdriver and No Remorse had any right to be affiliated with the genre. This issue became so ubiquitous, in fact, that Dead Kennedys released a song called “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” in 1981.

Right-wing ideologies and racist tendencies in punk rock weren’t even always as blatant. In 1986, Agnostic Front dropped a track titled “Public Assistance,” which opens with the lyrical passage, “You spend your life on welfare lines / Or looking for handouts / Why don’t you go find a job / You birth more kids to up your checks / So you can buy more drugs.”

Even one of punk music’s most famous left-wing stalwarts, Minor Threat, is being viewed in a retrospectively critical eye over the song “Guilty of Being White.”

So if you want token punk musicians to give conservative principles the rebellious street cred that Ted Nugent and Kid Rock can’t provide, they’re available for the taking, but conservatism isn’t the new punk rock. Just as it’s not the new shoegaze, powerviolence, calypso, dancehall, blue-eyed soul, horrorcore or sludge metal.

Punk music is whatever you want it to be, and if you want it to be a medium of expression for counterhegemonic trailblazers who don’t care what others think, then perhaps you shouldn’t be trying your absolute damnedest to convince people that conservatism is the new punk rock.

It certainly does feel like we are being punked by the president, but, that's a totally other issue.
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Garrett Gravley was born and grew up in Dallas. He mostly writes about music, but veers into arts and culture, local news and politics. He is a graduate of the University of North Texas and has written for the Dallas Observer since October 2018.