Instead of government, we had a stage.Instead of ideas, the prima donnas raged.Instead of help, we were given a crowd.She didn’t say much, but she said it loud.—Tim Rice, Evita (1978)
On September 16, 2016, Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump strolled onto a Miami stage accompanied by “Do You Hear the People Sing” from Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s 1987 musical Les Misérables (colloquially known as Les Mis). Projected behind the candidate was an image from the 2012 film of the musical, with American flags and Trump logos replacing the original French banners. The meme first appeared on the social news and discussion website Reddit under the title “Les Deplorables,” a reference to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s remark that half of Trump supporters belonged in the “basket of deplorables.”1 From that moment, “deplorable” became a badge of honor for Trump supporters; independent merchandisers sold T-shirts, mugs, bumper stickers, and other products that proudly proclaimed the owner “deplorable,” including many that featured the iconic lithograph of the character Cosette from the musical. [End Page 435]
This Les Mis–inspired moment captures a key aspect of Trump’s successful campaign: the combination of grandiose images and epic music. His events were rife with the visual and musical language of action films, opera, and “megamusicals” (i.e., large-scale shows that dominated Broadway in the 1980s). The candidate often arrived at his rallies in his private plane or helicopter as Jerry Goldsmith’s “The Parachutes” from the film Air Force One (1997) played on the tarmac. His pre-rally play-lists also frequently featured “Memory” from Cats (1983), “The Music of the Night” from The Phantom of the Opera (1988), “On My Own” from Les Mis, and Luciano Pavarotti’s recording of “Nessun dorma” from Turandot alongside classic rock selections.2
This music served a number of different purposes. By drawing on the musical language of “epic” music and theater—shows or films with world-historical or fantasy plots told using extravagant stagecraft or special effects—Trump reinforced his persona as a heroic savior come to rescue a people oppressed by the political class of “elites.” Both epic films and megamusicals share an ancestor in nineteenth-century opera, often evoking Puccini or Wagner in their scores.3 In creating this “epic” narrative and “savior” persona, the Trump campaign drew on some, though not all, of the tactics deployed by charismatic interwar Fascist politicians, many of whom used operatic techniques for similar purposes.4 These epic musical styles and signifiers encouraged followers to participate in his movement by providing a range of aural-visual signifiers that were easily repackaged for online dissemination. In an era where the combination of image and sound in YouTube videos has replaced traditional campaign posters (image only) and campaign songs (sound only), Trump’s soundtracks made for simple but dynamic cinema that almost anyone could make and distribute.
Furthermore, this music helped to delineate Trump’s performance of class. Megamusicals, opera, and film constitute different aspects of commercial “classical” music. While the scholarly definition of “classical” generally refers to Western “art” music, the commercial genre “classical” is a catch-all category for artists who combine orchestral or operatic sounds with pop sensibilities. Albums that appear on Billboard magazine’s “classical” chart include selections from Broadway, film music, and popular operatic or symphonic excerpts, including artists such as Jackie Evancho, who sang at Trump’s inauguration, and the Three Tenors, which included Pavarotti.5 For the purposes of this essay, I will refer to this style of classical music as “classical crossover.” Classical crossover music is often disdained by consumers of Western art music, but it still retains some cultural capital.6 Trump used classical crossover styles to convey wealth without the accompanying snobbery, putting an eminently American spin on the politics of the charismatic leader. He portrayed himself as a self-made businessman-superhero who still had the best interests of the working class at heart. [End Page 436]
Donald Trump Superstar
As Murray Edelmann observes, the proliferation of cable television and twenty-four-hour news cycles creates a “hyperreal” quality in political discourse...