Tramp the Dirt Down

by Neil H. Buchanan

As the world tries to understand why Republicans have not abandoned Donald Trump, despite his violation of so many of their supposed principles -- Hint: It cannot be that he "does what conservatives want him to do" (and certainly not only that), because any Republican president would be substantively identical to Trump on taxes, the environment, labor law, and so on -- it is worth remembering once again that many of those principles themselves are indefensible.

And understanding what makes the modern conservative movement indefensible in turn calls for us to remember that the same symbiosis that currently exists between the US and UK in their political malfunctions (Brexit simply being Trumpism carried out by a number of mini-Trumps rather than one mega-corrupt Trump) existed at the onset of what American Republicans think of as the dawn of a new day under Ronald Reagan when he took office in 1981.

I am referring, of course, to Margaret Thatcher, whose rise to become Britain's Prime Minister predated Reagan's inauguration by more than a year and a half.  Although Thatcher mouthed various platitudes -- including quoting St. Francis of Assisi: "Where there is hatred, let me sow love" -- she was extremely hard-edged (and not a veteran of B-movies) and thus was never able to summon Reagan's what-me-worry optimism.  Despite their stylistic differences, the two of them began the long slog that led to our current historically gaping levels of inequality, environmental catastrophe, and attempts to block or roll back civil rights gains.

Why should we care about Thatcher now, and what can we learn from thinking about her?  The short answer is that she was the leading figure in the deformation of the modern world.  While a young grifter named Donald Trump was busy discriminating against African Americans in New York City rental housing while making up stories to feed the press about his nonexistent greatness, Thatcher and her followers carried out a political agenda that made something like Trumpism both possible and inevitable.

Last week, I wrote a column in which I celebrated popular American and British music from roughly the early Sixties through maybe the mid-Eighties.  One of the artists I mentioned was Elvis Costello, who continues to perform to this day but whose initial and strongest impact lasted for the last quarter of the 20th Century.  His 1986 album "King of America" was fondly tweaked as "King of Academia" in The Harvard Crimson, for example, because Costello's popularity on campuses in the US was so strong at that time.

Three years later, Costello released what is arguably -- and I know that this would be a vigorous argument, because there are so many contenders -- his best album: "Spike."  Although his most well known song from early in his career is probably "Alison (My Aim Is True)" (which despite its mainstream acceptance as a romantic song is actually about a stalker), Costello also had a track record of writing powerful political protest songs, from "Oliver's Army" to "Pills and Soap" to "Shipbuilding."  On "Spike," he took it to another level.

"Tramp the Dirt Down" is in some ways fiendishly misleading, because it almost sounds like a madrigal -- a single flute, guitar (or perhaps mandolin), and Costello's vocal -- but with intensifying instrumentation where appropriate (as his anger intensifies).  It is in no way subtle, with lyrics like this: "When England was the whore of the world, Margaret was her madam; and the future looked as bright and as clear as the black tarmacadam."

The meaning of the title is also simple, as Costello sings quite straightforwardly that he wants to live long enough to see Thatcher die:
Because there's one thing I know, I'd like to live long enough to savour; that's when they finally put you in the ground. I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.
Interestingly, after Thatcher did die in 2013, Costello decided to perform "Tramp the Dirt Down" in his live performances.  Predictably, this led to complaints from Thatcherites that Costello was being insensitive.  Costello, however, was unmoved, although he did say that he certainly was not happy that she had suffered dementia in her later years (which his own father had suffered as well): "I genuinely don’t wish that on my worst enemy and that’s what I said every night when I introduced the song."

And it might well be that Thatcher truly was Costello's worst enemy.  In "Tramp the Dirt Down," he gives voice to the unmitigated disgust that he felt upon seeing a campaign photo of Thatcher kissing a crying child.  All politicians are accused of pandering, and kissing babies is one of the oldest tropes in the campaigning playbook, but that is essentially Costello's point.  The woman who did so much to immiserate the lives of millions of families (including their children) dared to hold up an unhappy child as a political prop!  Disgusting indeed.

Thatcher, after all, had begun the long drive to undo progressive taxation while taking away the services and benefits that those taxes had made possible.  This reached its most infamous moment in 1990, after she had proposed a "poll tax" -- not a tax on voting, which is how that term is used in the US -- which is even worse than a so-called Flat Tax.  Whereas American flat-tax proposals are sold on the idea of a single tax rate -- with a person with $20,000 in taxable income paying $4000 if the rate is 20% while a person with $200,000 in taxable income would pay $40,000 -- Thatcher's poll tax imposed the same tax on everyone.

Again, that is not a matter of levying the same tax rate, but the same tax (in pounds) on everyone.  If the poll tax is set at £5000, then everyone -- including a man and his butler (in the very English way of saying it) -- paid £5000 each, no more and no less.  Unsurprisingly, Thatcher's proposal led to massive peaceful protests (and then, unfortunately, to some rioting in the streets) and was soon withdrawn.

The standard conservative justification for tolerating high unemployment among the less fortunate is, of course, that the magic of the free market will in the long run lead to economic efficiency and full employment.  John Maynard Keynes had famously retorted decades before Thatcher arrived on the scene that "in the long run, we are all dead."  Costello sang:
And now the cynical ones say that it all ends the same in the long run; try telling that to the desperate father who just squeezed the life from his only son.... Try telling him the subtle difference between justice and contempt.
The point is that Thatcher was at the forefront of the anti-tax, anti-spending, anti-government conservative movement that simultaneously took root (and rot) in the United States.

But Costello's most searing indictment involved Thatcher's willingness to wage the Falklands War in order to prop up her political fortunes (something similar to which, as I noted in last week's column, is very much a possibility today as Trump flails about, looking for a big enough distraction from his many impeachment offenses):
Just like a schoolboy, whose head's like a tin-can, filled up with dreams then poured down the drain. Try telling that to the boys on both sides, being blown to bits or beaten and maimed. Who takes all the glory and none of the shame?
That rhetorical question, of course, nails down Costello's case against Thatcher.  She needed a political distraction, young men died, but she went on to be named to a life peerage as Baroness.

And now?   When Costello explained his decision to sing "Tramp the Dirt Down" in 2013, he angrily noted: "The Thatcherite revolution is looked at historically as a great cleansing moment but it was not. A lot of things that belonged to us all communally were sold out from under us.  They weren’t sold to private interests in England that enriched the country, they were sold to people in other countries. And it’s still the same bunch of slimes sitting there running it all."

The chief slime at the moment that Costello was being interviewed was PM David Cameron, who soon had the brilliant idea to pander to the more blatant racists in his party by scheduling a designed-to-fail referendum called Brexit.  Now in 2019, Cameron is in comfortable political retirement, the Tories are in shambles but still holding onto power, and the Prime Minister is Donald Trump's mini-me, Boris Johnson.

The larger point, again, is that the Trump/Johnson moment is not a divergence from the historical trend but the inevitable metastasis of what Thatcher and Reagan set in motion.  After all, the people who are now enabling Trump in the US are not lifelong Trumpists.  They obviously could not be.  They are movement conservatives who learned from the Reagan team that anything goes (notably including violating the law in the Iran/Contra affair).

Mitch McConnell, Neil Gorsuch, Kevin McCarthy, and even the supposedly moderately Republicans like Susan Collins were thrilled by Thatcherism and Reagan’s dimwitted copy thereof.  They now run the US government and do their worst while Trump brings us dangerously close to full-on autocracy.

Toward the end of "Tramp the Dirt Down," Costello sings: "I never thought for a moment that human life could be so cheap."  But it has been in the US and the UK, for more than a generation.  We now stand on the precipice of finding out whether people will ever again have the chance to get their governments to treat human lives as dear, but we should remember that at most Trump is the final symptom of a disease that began to infect the body politic decades ago.