A few days after Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012, I talked with Henry Rollins for a politically-charged interview. While the country was still in the midst of birther arguments and Republican protests, the author/spoken-word performer/hardcore frontman/actor spoke articulately and passionately about the ugliness of that election cycle (which, with hindsight, is a little ironic) and the future of America in a post-Obama landscape. It’s an interview I’ve thought about a great deal during the last 18 months, because of the incredible optimism Rollins expressed at the time about the changing cultural landscape of the United States.
Here’s a sample of what he said in 2012:
Here’s something you might not have considered… Next time you see some young people on the street — you know, those 14-year-old, super-loud-at-bus-stops, kids — realize that in 2016, they’re going to be voting. That’s trippy.
I mean these kids are in ninth and tenth grade right now. If you think you’re going to be able to sell to a 14-year-old girl who is waking up to being a young adult and all that comes with that, and a 14-year-old-kid who’s going to be raised on music and video games… If you think you’re going to be able to sell him on hating women and hating gays when half his friends are gay and punk rock and loud… The 14-year-old kids are living in a world where they’ve never not had the internet. It’s a whole new world.
By 2016, the move on factor — the distance we will have moved from now ’til then — won’t only be technically more advanced, it will be culturally more advanced. If you think Americans are getting over homophobia now, you just wait ’til 2016. I’m just looking at the sheer numbers of young people… Now, more and more, as soon as they hit 18, they’re voting. So, I’m more than just optimistic… The world is changing rapidly and Obama really broke it open and now the change is super change-y.
In a way, what he was describing sounds a lot like the youth movement that swelled around Bernie Sanders — even though he missed the (admittedly hard-to-predict) bigger picture. What’s just as remarkable about that four-year-old interview is Rollins’ then-perception of the American right wing. His words sound ominously familiar, ringing of the “post-truth” make-America-great-again contingent that emerged in this most extreme of election cycles:
They seem to be immune to information. They seem to be mostly emotional. They can’t all be racist, but I think there’s an aspect of that. But what I think it might just be is that America is changing. The world is changing. Some people just can’t deal with that. And you hear some people saying ‘We want our country back!’ Okay. From whom? No one’s trying to take anything. ‘We want it back like the old days!’ Okay. From when? Can you pinpoint a year? And they never do that. And so, I try and help them and say, ‘Okay, you want 1861. You want pre-Civil War. And you want your no 13th Amendment, no 14th Amendment. You want your women in the kitchen, you want your black men out in the field. You want people to shut up and know their place. It’s the damnedest thing.
Four years and one week after that interview, which was both eerily prophetic and wildly incorrect in its predictions, I attended the second date of Rollins’ latest spoken word tour at the Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas. On my way in, I was deeply curious about what Rollins would have to say about the 2016 election cycle; how his view of the country may have changed in the last four years; how he had essentially seen a youth movement that didn’t accomplish what he’d assumed it would.
As soon as he hit the stage, Rollins got straight into it.
“This is the most interesting time to be alive in America!” Rollins declared with a smile. “The lights are on. We can see who is who now — it’s not in camo anymore. You are really, really, really on your own and I could not be more happy about this. Now all the lights are on, we can get to work.”
Rollins went on to describe a show he performed in Washington, D.C., the night of the election. He talked of his very liberal audience gradually “deflating” in their chairs as they checked the incoming election results on their cell phones, mid-show. He described America’s most recent election cycle as “foul,” “knuckle-dragging,” and “depressing.”
Rollins, unsurprisingly, did not mince words when it came to President-Elect Trump either, describing him as “unraveling” under the pressure of his new position, as a “billboard for ‘Not A Clue,'” as a “neophyte,” and as a man deeply out of his depth. “White power is not an energy policy,” Rollins quipped at one point.
But despite all this, as well as expressing deep disappointment that “only 55% of eligible voters voted” and that “knowledge is an elective in this country — you can know nothing and still have a great time,” Rollins ultimately located the one (rather brave) Trump supporter in the audience and congratulated him warmly. “I want [Trump’s] terms to be successful,” Rollins said earnestly. “I want to be pleasantly surprised, even if it means some guy in Arkansas gets to yell ‘Told ya! Told ya! Told ya!’ at me. I don’t care.”
Before moving onto distinctly happier, more personal anecdotes, Rollins summed up his thoughts on our next president by addressing the younger members of the audience: “You need to get your hand around the wheel and start steering. Get up off the couch and get moving. My job is to clear the lane for you to score, but if you don’t make the move, we’re all screwed. The change will not come from a president, the change needs to come from you and I. Can we? I think we will.”
In the end, Rollins is the most patriotic of Americans: despite what must have been crushing disappointment that 2016 didn’t turn out the way he thought it would, he still respects the system enough to keep encouraging his predominantly punk rock audience to participate in it. His key prediction four years ago may not have come to pass, but Rollins remains an astute and energized observer. It would almost certainly serve the currently depressed portions of the American electorate to follow his lead.
Find out when Henry Rollins is coming to your town.