A white guy climbs onstage and screams, “Draw the bridges! Dig the ditches deep! We’re gonna need a new border!” to an adoring crowd. The line could be from one of Donald Trump’s ad-libbed stump rants. But it was first shouted from a riser in 2006, by Hutch Harris, the lead singer and guitarist of Portland trio the Thermals, on a song off their record The Body, the Blood, the Machine. In the ten years and four albums since, it’s still the band’s best — and it’s become terrifyingly prophetic.
The Body imagines a future where a cult of ultra-conservative Christian extremists have turned our country into a dangerous war zone. When Harris wrote it, George W. Bush had just been inaugurated for a second term, and the two wars launched during his first were still raging. Harris and his bandmates were terrified of the trajectory our country seemed to be taking and felt powerless to change it. But Harris was wary of addressing it too directly, so he turned to a coded critique. “A lot of political records, to me, have a short shelf life,” he explained to the Voice on a phone call. “[I decided] the album was not going to be about politics. It was going to be about how religion, and especially the Christian right, props up political leaders with money and influence.”
In 2016, an apocalyptic American future controlled by ruthless, neo-fascist quasi-Christian despots seems less remote by the day. Trump’s xenophobia and racism continue to dominate the Republican race. Perhaps embarrassed by the peek behind the ideological veil, his own party is now deciding whether to force Trump out of the running — even though excommunicating him would just make him more popular among his followers. Things don’t look much better elsewhere: Troops, now backed up by unmanned drones, are still stationed in both Iraq and Afghanistan; Guantanamo Bay remains in operation, Christian activists have run Planned Parenthood out of the communities where it’s needed most, and anti-transgender laws like North Carolina’s notorious HB2 are exposing veins of hate coursing just below the nation’s surface. Rather than heeding The Body’s predictions, we seem to be hurtling toward them.
Harris has noticed this, too, and he doesn’t like it. Rehearsals for the band’s current tour have included all the songs on The Body (in recognition of both the anniversary and a new guitarist, Jessica Boudreaux), and revisiting the lyrics has led to some frightening realizations. “[We were practicing] ‘An Ear for Baby’ ” — the song that brings up those ditches and borders — “which we hadn’t played for a long time. I was like, ‘This sounds like it’s about the Trump campaign!’ ” Harris says. “It put a bad taste in my mouth. I don’t want this song to be about now. I want it to be about ten years ago!”
Despite Harris disliking his band being seen as a political one, the Thermals have chosen to engage with contemporary politics. They opened for Bernie Sanders at a Portland rally in March, and their new album, We Disappear, addresses the ambiguities of our relationship with technology and mortality: Does uploading our entire selves onto the web liberate us, or are we simply handing over control to the corporations who run the software? Do we entrust our entire selves? Issues like net neutrality, access, and big businesses encroaching on personal sovereignty will probably determine just as much about our future as who we elect as our next president. We can only hope that We Disappear won’t seem as prescient as The Body in ten years’ time.
As we barrel onward in this election, Trump’s crushing victory on Tuesday made it clear we won’t be rid of him or his demagoguery anytime soon. And with Hillary Clinton — increasingly likely to be the Democratic nominee —unlikely to present much of an alternative, listening the nihilist fantasy of The Body is bitterly cold comfort. But, sadly, that fits with the album, too. “It’s not a record about revolution at all,” Harris says. “It’s about fleeing, because things have gotten too bad too quickly, and the only option at that point is escape.” While those of us who would want to escape a President Trump consider doing just that, he and his supporters might look to the penultimate track from The Body, the dark environmentalist parable “Power Doesn’t Run on Nothing.”
The song, written from the perspective of what seems to be a personified version of America’s worst imperialist impulses, offers particularly condemning lyrics, conjuring a violent empire whose greed knows no limits. It could also be a foreign policy speech, if it were delivered from the mouth of a beady-eyed, orange-mopped despot: “Give us what we’re asking for, ’cause either way we’re gonna take it,” Harris sings. “Our power doesn’t run on nothing, it runs on blood, and blood is easy to obtain, if you have no shame.” The song ends with a triumphant scream: “We have no shame!”
The Thermals play Market Hotel on April 28. Click here for tickets and more information.