Jeff Zentner’s debut novel, The Serpent King (Crown/Random House), releases in March 2016. Prior to becoming an author, he was a singer-songwriter and guitarist who recorded with Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, Thurston Moore, Mark Lanegan, Lydia Lunch and Debbie Harry, among others. In addition to writing and recording, Zentner works with young musicians at Tennessee Teen Rock Camp. He lives in Nashville. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Leading up to the 2016 United States presidential election, the Talkhouse has asked our contributors to weigh in on voting and what it means to them.
— Brenna Ehrlich, editor-in-chief of the Talkhouse Music
I’m afraid of a Donald Trump presidency for many reasons. Most of them are based on what he would do to other people. I have considerable privilege: I’m a white, cisgender, heterosexual, Christian man. Trump’s policies tend not to endanger me directly, except in one respect: as an artist.
One of the things that Donald Trump does masterfully — I hesitate to use the word “genius” anywhere in his orbit, but it may apply here — is create such a toxic and pervasive plume of offense that it’s difficult to know on what to zero in. It’s hard to tell, precisely, how he’s the biggest menace and to whom — and because of this, some of the ways that he’s a threat go unnoticed or undiscussed.
One of those largely unnoticed threats is this: in my estimation, Donald Trump poses an unprecedented peril to artists and creators of all sorts. This is paradoxical, of course, because at his essence, Trump is an entertainer — a showman. This is not a figure of speech; it is literally true. He has been a regular on television since the 1980s, when he first entered the American popular consciousness. But to see the danger Trump poses to artists and creators, one need only look to some of Trump’s other essential traits, expressed again and again through his actions.
First, there is his history of using the court system to punish his enemies. USA Today has reported that Trump and his businesses have been involved in at least 3,500 legal actions, a number that they characterize as “unprecedented for a presidential nominee.” He is fiercely protective of his brand and name and is willing to spend outsized amounts of money and legal resources to hammer small problems. Personal defamation lawsuits are part of his arsenal. He has sued for libel in the amount of $5 billion over the grievous insult of being called a “millionaire” instead of a “billionaire.” That lawsuit was dismissed, which might be why Trump has vowed to “open up” libel laws to make it easier to sue the media. True or not (it never seems to make much difference to him), he has boasted of never settling lawsuits.
What does this mean for artists? It means that satirists might have to tread lightly.
What does this mean for artists? It means that satirists might have to tread lightly. It means that creators of works that sharply criticize Trump could be on thin ice. It means that artists very well could be living under the cloud of potentially ruinous litigation, which could have a chilling effect on their creative endeavors. We have already seen evidence of this. Artist Illma Gore painted a nude portrait of Donald Trump that became something of a viral sensation for its…less-than-generous portrayal of Mr. Trump. It is clearly satirical. Just a couple of months after painting it, she reported that Trump’s legal team had threatened her with a lawsuit.
But what about the First Amendment? Doesn’t that protect artists? Possibly. One would hope. But no guarantee. More on that later. What about laws that prevent these sorts of lawsuits, which are sometimes known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), and are designed to chill speech and make creators afraid? Some states have anti-SLAPP laws, but many states don’t, and there is not yet a federal anti-SLAPP law.
Trump has displayed an extraordinarily thin skin.
But artists still having some legal recourse and protection is rather beside the point. Even assuming sued artists were able to get lawyers to step up and defend them for free, litigation is enormously taxing on time and emotional and mental resources. You know what else demands a lot of time and mental and emotional resources? The creation of art. It’s hard to get into a good writing or painting groove if, in a half hour, you have to sit for a deposition that will last three hours. There’s no fun way to be sued. There’s no way to be sued that isn’t an inconvenience. It’s always disruptive. So, some artists could simply take the path of least resistance and say, “Look, creating is hard enough. Why make more trouble for myself? I’ll criticize someone else.”
Second, Trump has displayed an extraordinarily thin skin. He takes to Twitter and the press and lashes out over every slight. For an example, look no further than his ongoing feud with Khizr Khan and Ghazala Khan, the parents of fallen American soldier Captain Humayun Khan. Ms. Khan did nothing more to Trump than stand on the DNC stage with her husband while her husband attacked Trump, and still she incurred Trump’s wrath, with his suggestion that her religion forbid her speaking.
So thin-skinned is Trump that Hillary Clinton has made that — and the accompanying risk to national security it presents — a central part of her attack strategy on him. True, there is not yet abundant evidence that Trump would lash out similarly at artists. Thus far, he seems to have targeted mainly political opponents and the press, even banning news outlets including Univision and the Washington Post from his campaign events in a fit of pique (a decision that seems to have gone poorly for him, if one peruses the case the Washington Post is building against him). But Trump has shown a troubling ability to evolve for the worse. The Apprentice-era Donald Trump had nothing to say about towering border walls and Islam. The fortunes of the media and artists rise and fall together, since both work under the umbrella of protection of the First Amendment.
Trump’s personal qualities signal that he places little or no value on art.
Third, Trump’s personal qualities signal that he places little or no value on art — never mind the book with his name on it titled The Art of the Deal (1987). Say what you will about Chris Christie — he loves him some Springsteen. Say what you will about W. — he loves to paint. Say what you will about Mike Huckabee — he has a great time playing his bass.
Trump? What art does Trump love? Yes, he was on reality television for years. But even generously assuming that The Apprentice could be considered art, there’s every reason to believe that it was not art for art’s sake but was much more about maintaining the luster of his brand. The same with his “writing.” In a recent New Yorker profile of Tony Schwartz, ghostwriter of The Art of the Deal, a troubling detail emerged: in eighteen months, Mr. Schwartz (who Trump is now threatening with legal action over the statements made in that profile, by the way) did not see a single book on Trump’s desk, in his office or in his apartment. In my opinion, that is symptomatic of an indifference to art that borders on outright hostility. Art is an empathetic endeavor at its core. It requires empathy to create it and empathy to consume it. Donald Trump’s lack of empathy also points toward a lack of connection with the arts. A president who does not value the arts will not protect the arts. In 1999, Trump said exactly this, calling publicly for censorship and promising that if president, he would cut arts funding. M.H. Miller wrote about those statements and Trump’s history of indifference toward the arts in Art News.
What could a President Trump do to harm the arts? Here’s where we talk about the First Amendment. The First Amendment is only as protective as the way in which the U.S. Supreme Court interprets it. From the artist’s perspective, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, whom a President Trump would be immediately replacing, left much to be desired in many areas. But he was a defender of the First Amendment and free speech. In free speech cases, he often sided with the High Court’s progressive wing in opposition to his conservative brethren. For example, in a 2011 decision, Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, Scalia joined Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — all four of whom would later vote to strike down bans on gay marriage — to strike down a law banning the sale of violent video games to minors. In 1989, he voted in favor of free speech protection for flag burning. Trump could appoint a Supreme Court justice who had a narrower view of the protections offered by the First Amendment and who would, in fact, allow the “open[ing] up” of libel laws, according to the Washingon Post’s Callum Borchers.
And Trump might get to replace other First Amendment stalwarts. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is eighty-three years old and a two-time cancer survivor. She only seems immortal. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who voted to uphold First Amendment protection of flag burning, is eighty. If Trump got to pick three Supreme Court justices, he could profoundly alter the balance of First Amendment protection. He has released a list of eleven judges he would consider for a spot on the Supreme Court; all are deeply conservative. Based on his stated desire to reduce First Amendment protection surrounding defamation, it is reasonable to assume that his Supreme Court picks would be likely to make this happen.
A troubling number of people, including far too many artists, have suggested that there is no or negligible difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
But that’s not all. President Trump would be able to influence the enforcement and prosecution priorities of the Department of Justice with his attorney general picks. We could see aggressive obscenity prosecutions. He’ll be able to appoint the heads of federal agencies such as the FCC, which could take a more aggressive stance on indecency regulation enforcement. He’d be in a position to push for cuts to federal funding of the arts. He’d be in a position to push for education reforms that could harm arts programs. He has said explicitly that if President, he would ensure that the National Endowment for the Arts would not fund artwork he deemed objectionable.
He’d even be able to harm artists in indirect ways. Think of the number of self-employed artists who depend on Obamacare for health insurance. Trump has promised to repeal Obamacare, something he will have no trouble convincing the Republican Congress to do, and replace it with a plan that would leave eighteen million uninsured, according to a study from the Center for Health and Economy. One would hope that any reform of the healthcare system by Trump would at least be a bigger success than Trump Steaks, but with Trump there is certainly no guarantee.
During this election season, a troubling number of people, including far too many artists, have suggested that there is no or negligible difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. That simply could not be farther from the truth. This is only one more example.
All elections are important. But this is the one for which we’ll be accountable to history.
(Photo credit: Gage Skidmore)