Commentary: Donald Trump and the New Culture War

Who might be chosen to receive a Kennedy Center Honor from President Trump who wouldn’t refuse it?


By Jason M. Rubin

I had a discussion with a colleague who had recently watched the Kennedy Center Honors on television. These events honor performing artists for their lifetime of contributions to American culture (such as it is). The attendant medals are given out by the President of the United States in a special ceremony preceding the gala performance, which is held at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. Recent highlights have included Heart’s performance of “Stairway to Heaven” in honor of Led Zeppelin in 2012 and Aretha Franklin’s breathtaking rendition of “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” for Carole King in 2015.

Obviously, both of these highlights occurred under the watch of President Barack Obama. My colleague and I wondered how this event might go under President Donald Trump. After all, artists are scrambling over themselves to share in the “honor” of publicly refusing to perform at Trump’s inauguration. During the campaign, almost anytime a piece of popular music was played at a Trump rally the originator of that music would come out and ask the campaign to cease and desist.

Who might be chosen to receive a Kennedy Center Honor from President Trump who wouldn’t refuse it? Or use it to make a political statement against his rhetoric and policies? The ‘celebrities’ who have sided with Trump don’t really belong in the revered company of past recipients; I don’t think Scott Baio should be admitted to any club that would induct Al Pacino, and Ted Nugent is no Herbie Hancock. I half-joked that maybe the title would be changed to the Lincoln Center Honors so Trump wouldn’t have to venture far from his New York City compound.

Even artists slated to perform at the upcoming inauguration are, in many instances, doing so under protest. The marching band for the historically black Talladega College has faced considerable criticism from students and alumni. Talladega President Billy C. Hawkins responded “lessons students can learn from this experience cannot be taught in a classroom.” The Rockettes will be there, but minus several members who are refusing to perform. Even a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir will not join her fellow singers explaining: “I only know I could never ‘throw roses to Hitler.’ And I certainly could never sing for him.” America’s Got Talent contestant, 16-year-old Jackie Evancho is apparently appearing without reservation, but she is hardly A-list talent.

When it was rumored that opera singer Andrea Bocelli was going to perform, his fans immediately threatened a boycott, prompting him to formally announce he would not. Most recently, Jennifer Holliday backed out of a pre-inaugural concert after facing strong backlash from her fans, especially those from the black and LGBT communities. “I sincerely apologize for my lack of judgement (sic),” she said in a statement. Compare this with the Obama and Clinton presidencies, which throughout their combined 16 years in office hosted artists of all kinds who were more than happy to perform in their company.

Resistance in Boston

This new culture war is playing out here in Boston as well. Among the many organized protests leading up to and occurring on Inauguration Day are two in which artists are standing up for human rights. On Sunday, January 15, the Boston Public Library was the site of a protest called Writers Resist, one of 90 such events across the country organized by PEN America, a champion of free expression for writers. The event website noted that, “Our democracy is at risk. Growing public cynicism and an alarming disdain for truthfulness is eroding our most dearly held democratic ideals. As writers we have tremendous power to bypass empty political discourse and focus public attention on the ideals of a free, just, and compassionate society.” Speeches and readings from diverse local writers focused on protecting and preserving First Amendment rights.

The second artist-tinged protest will be held this Thursday, January 19, from 7-10:30 p.m. at Boston’s historic Strand Theatre in Dorchester. Together We Rise: A Counter-Inaugural Celebration of Resistance will feature poets, musicians, comedians, and authors in a “call-to-action concert while rallying community members to stand up for a more just, peaceful, and creative future.” The event is in four parts: a musical processional to the theater, a social justice art show that features the work of local artists, a mobilization fair where attendees will be invited to learn about local activist and community organizations dedicated to social and environmental change, and the concert. The event is open to all ages; a $10 donation is suggested and may be made at the door or in advance here.

What might the next four years bring?

I recently interviewed David Crosby – an artist known for championing social protest – for the Arts Fuse and we discussed the impact of oppressive political power on art and artists. The Nixon/Vietnam War years produced an enormous amount of incisive music, literature, and film, art that still resonates two generations later. It is part of a long and venerable tradition: rebellious writers — ranging from Voltaire to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, James Baldwin to Salman Rushdie —  have often run afoul of the governments of their day, leading to exile (or self-exile). Trump threatens to be the most vindictive American President since Nixon and his Enemies List; it is frightening to think what may befall those who speak truth to power in the next four years.

In Trump’s world of Twitter Diplomacy, criticism mainly takes the form of personal attacks. Meryl Streep is “overrated” and Rosie O’Donnell is “crude, rude, obnoxious and dumb” – all within the confines of 140 characters. Artists have more to say — and more varied and incisive ways to say it. With fears that federal arts funding will be drying up (there’s more panic than usual), artists will need the support of patrons and private donors more than ever before. The battle lines are being drawn, and I wish artists of all stripes the stamina and sustenance they need to help us make sense of what are surely going to be confusing and distressing times.

Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for 31 years, the last 16 of which has been as senior writer at Libretto, a Boston-based strategic communications agency. An award-winning copywriter, he holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, maintains a blog called Dove Nested Towers, and for four years served as communications director and board member of AIGA Boston, the local chapter of the national association for graphic arts. His first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012.


  1. Ian Thal on January 17, 2017 at 11:40 am

    It is part of a long and venerable tradition: rebellious writers — ranging from Voltaire to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, James Baldwin to Salman Rushdie — have often run afoul of the governments of their day, leading to exile (or self-exile).

    Salman Rushdie is still afoul of the government of Iran — whose state-run media organizations as recently as last year reportedly raised $600,000 dollars to help pursue the fatwa calling for his execution.

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