Pop culture has always struggled with the sort of raw populism that leads to a figure like Donald Trump.
Sure, there are films like the cynical classic A Face in the Crowd (in which Andy Griffith plays a rural radio host who becomes a political player) or the Oscar-winning All the King's Men (about a Southern politician who profits from "us versus them" strategizing), which embrace the side of American politics that's driven more by anger than anything else. And, of course, The Simpsons frequently turns the town of Springfield into an unruly mob.
But for the most part, fictional American political figures tend to be either aspirational, like the characters on The West Wing, or behind-the-scenes Machiavellis, like the Underwoods on House of Cards. And that's because the people who write American fiction in all its forms are usually members of the upper class, who have trouble understanding the kinds of emotions that drive Trump-like figures.
The exception: a musical that ran for just 120 performances on Broadway in 2010 and 2011 (where hit shows usually run several years and for more than 1,000 performances). It captures not just the rise of Trump, but the rise of another divisive figure in American politics, with parallels that prove downright eerie.
It was called Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and if it had opened now instead of then, it might have found its window, instead of closing quickly.
Populism, Yea, Yea
The musical's opening number, "Populism, Yea, Yea," neatly encapsulates the forces that drive populism in all its forms.
In a punk rock sneer, the singer asks, "Why wouldn't you ever go out with me in school? You always went out with those guys. You thought they were so cool. And I was just nobody to you." Initially, it seems like your typical rock song — about a girl who doesn't like the guy who's perfect for her, something she'd realize if she would just open her eyes.
However, it quickly pivots to set itself in the world of former President Andrew Jackson — "But it's the early 19th century, and we're gonna take this country back."
You can probably see where I'm going with this.
As written by Michael Friedman (music and lyrics) and Alex Timbers (book), Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson takes one central idea to ridiculous extremes: Many of us don't really vote in terms of whose policies we like best. Instead, as many studies have suggested, we vote based on how we feel things are going at the time of the election, whether on a macro level (with the entire national economy) or micro (in our own lives). If they're going well, we support the incumbent. And if they're not, we tend to support those who promise to blow up the status quo.
But you can also stretch that idea until it snaps. Whether we're unhappy because the person we have a crush on won't date us, or because our job has been shipped abroad, or because our town is filling with some nebulous "other," it's easy to turn to the highest office in the land and assume the person occupying it is to blame, however subconsciously, for our problems. That makes it similarly easy to assume that backing someone else might right those wrongs, no matter how ridiculous that might seem. (Hence, also, the joke, "Thanks, Obama.")
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson reignites these ideas via a 19th-century president whom no one alive today voted into office but whose visage will continue to adorn our $20 bills through 2030, despite the horrible things he was responsible for (mostly having to do with the extermination of American Indians). Through that context, we can examine how often our votes are manipulated by raw, unchecked emotion of the kind that drives the musical's pulsing rock score.
The show's failure may have been a matter of timing
As mentioned, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson hit Broadway in President Obama's first term. (The original production was mounted in Los Angeles during his first presidential campaign.) And while contemporaneous reviews attempted to tie the show to Obama's brand of left-leaning populism, it was never an easy fit. Seemingly, the show had missed its moment in history.
Yet if you compare it with the current presidential campaign, the parallels are uncanny. Throughout, Jackson (played in the original production by a magnetic Benjamin Walker) rides a wave of voters who are more interested in what he seems to stand for than anything else. And whenever he can find a convenient scapegoat — most often American Indians — Jackson will point toward it, something that ends in tragic consequences for an entire race of people.
The similarities don't end there. At first, Jackson is not taken seriously by a political elite that assumes ignoring him will make him go away. Then his political ambitions are quashed by an election where he wins the popular vote but sees the office handed to a member of said elite (in this case, John Quincy Adams). And when the show's historian narrator — who represents everything from academia to the media — makes statements that Jackson doesn't like, he simply shoots her.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson isn't as assured a work as, say, Broadway's current smash hit Hamilton, but its punk rock ethos means it sort of doesn't have to be. The rough edges are where it excels, in fact, as it captures the bile-filled emotions that drive the kind of angry populism it depicts.
Indeed, its particular appeal rests in the scene where the narrator dies. It's at once a big metatextual gag and the moment when the bottom drops out of the show, when Jackson no longer has any checks on his power — except for the coming judgment that history will make upon him, when some dub him an "American Hitler."
And yet even that's not really true. We're only just now, nearly 200 years later, finding a way to talk about the very worst things Jackson did, and he's still on our currency, after all.
And even if Americans can intellectually understand that the country was built atop land taken from other people and with slave labor, we're not really prepared to deal with the effects of that unfolding all around us, as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson eventually makes clear with a closing number about how literally everything we have was paid for in horrific injustice.
But the show, which seems to end with that song, has one last curtain call: Jackson's raw, rousing campaign song "The Hunters of Kentucky." There's a clear meaning in the juxtaposition of these two songs: No matter how exciting populism can feel in the moment, it's all too easy for it to go very, very wrong somewhere further down the line.
Donald Trump's campaign has spawned many worried think pieces wondering how accurate it is to compare the candidate to the rise of fascism abroad. But Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson argues that we don't have to look overseas to find the face of angry American populism writ large. He's right there, sitting in most of our wallets.