Music

Here’s Why The Rage Against The Machine Reunion Matters In 2020

Rage Against The Machine have been fighting Donald Trump since 1999. Now, they'll take him on in 2020.

Rage Against The Machine photo

A man stands on Wall Street holding a placard that reads ‘Donald J. Trump For President’, with a photo of that orange bulb of a face plastered over the American flag. This is nothing new. Variations of this same scene were plastered across television sets for most of 2016.

However, in this instance, the year is 1999 and the visual is from a Rage Against The Machine video clip. This was pre-bankruptcy, pre-reality TV, and well before the cold reality of Donald J. Trump actually being the American president had set in. What a prescient horrorshow.

Like The Simpsons, who seemingly predicted a Trump presidency back in 2000 (as well as the proliferation of soy-based everything), it would appear that the video for the visceral ‘Sleep Now In The Fire’ was a dire prediction of what was to come.

The truth is that Trump actually launched a presidential campaign in October 1999 and was planning to run for office. He announced it on the talk show Larry King Live, and even launched DonaldJTrump2000.com, which sadly no longer exists. As with his 2016 campaign, it was not taken seriously by the masses, with many speculating it was a ploy to sell copies of his new manifesto The America We Deserve.

It probably was, as he released the book in January 2000, and pulled out of the race the following month. Trump-as-President became a dystopic symbol in the Mike Moore-directed RATM video, and a punchline on an episode of The Simpsons. In both cases, it was meant to be farcical.

Rage Against The Machine Trump photo

A still from ‘Sleep Now In The Fire’ video clip.

The Joke Is Well And Truly Over

Now it’s 2019, and nobody is laughing. The situation is serious, although CNN seems more like a reality TV show than The Apprentice ever did. And it is looking more and more as if Trump will be reelected in 2020.

What we need is action. What we need is an angry mouthpiece with deeply held political views, an anti-authoritative bent, and a fanbase of tens of millions of Americans. Chuck in a guitarist who packs a mean whammy bar, a back catalogue of rebel-rousing songs about injustice, political corruption and financial disparity, and we have the makings of a real revolution. What better place than here? What better time than now?

I’m talking, of course, about the recent news that Rage Against The Machine are reuniting for a run of 2020 dates, including a headlining slot at Coachella.

On The Campaign Trail

Rage Against The Machine are one of those rare cases of those with far-left political stances appealing to a base made up of millions of people who consider themselves to be right-wing Trump supporters. They are extremely politically outspoken, and I can’t imagine that, considering the current climate, they will be silent when touring the red states.

Prophets Of Rage, the band made up of the three non-Zack de la Rocha members during Rage’s retirement, recently played in front of a marquee that read ‘Make America Rage Again’ – so they know the mission statement. And now they have reformed and will be touring throughout 2020, the year that Trump looks likely to be reelected. The timing cannot be a coincidence.

Rage Against The Machine are going out to see the people. They are on the campaign trail.

Rage Against The Machine are going out to see the people. The shows they have announced so far include New Mexico and Coachella in California, plus two dates in Texas and Arizona — which are both red states. This isn’t an accident: Rage Against The Machine are on the campaign trail. As Rage guitarist Tom Morello said in the late ‘90s, when addressing the hypocrisy of the band disseminating their message via a major corporation: “We’re not interested in preaching to just the converted.”

In 2016, after Trump was elected, Rage bassist Tim Commerford penned the subtly-titled opinion piece Donald Trump is Adolf Hitler. Consider this appeared in niche rock magazine Metal Hammer, and came after the election, it wasn’t really going to have the intended impact. But it shows intent. Especially the final section, which offers up hope. “Music is the platform I’ve always used for activism, so this lights a fire underneath me to make more music, and try to politicise people with that music.”

Guitarist Tom Morello spoke to NME last year and expressed a more nuanced view, explaining how Trump was a product of a broken system, the end result of a slowly spiralling country.

“While Trump is an abomination, I think it’s important not to look at him independent of the system that produced him,” Morello said. “It was years of these neoliberal policies that were supported by Clinton and Bush and Obama and the other Bush that caused the working class to really suffer, and they sent their kids overseas to fight in ridiculous, immoral wars.”

Morello comes from what he refers to as ‘Trump country’, a small town in Illinois. “Democrats don’t even run, and the options available to people are you join the Army, you work at Walmart, you sell meth,” he explained of his hometown. “They looked at a broken system, and Trump provided some of the easiest answers…There’s the standard operating procedure of the parties, of the newspapers, of the talking heads in the media, and then there’s this wildcard Trump who is raging against the machine in a way that is attractive simply because it stands in stark contrast to this spoonfed version of history and society that you get.”

While Rage fans will be hoping for a new album filled with anti-Trump tirades, the truth is they have already written them.

Now, in case you missed it, Morello referred to Trump as “raging against the machine.” Which he was. But now he controls the machine, and so someone else needs to rage. And while Rage fans will be hoping for a new album filled with anti-Trump tirades, the truth is they have already written them. They aren’t specifically about Trump, sure, but they suit the current climate and speak truth to the deniers.

Take for example their 1996 single ‘Bulls On Parade’, which is about covert US Government operations overseas, and the funding of unnecessary wars at the expense of more vital home services like healthcare and food. 1999’s ‘Guerilla Radio’ and 1992’s ‘Take The Power Back’ both refer to rigged presidential elections and the fallacies of the two-party system.

Police violence, among other systematic evils, is tackled in ‘Know Your Enemy’, where Zack de la Rocha spits that “something must be done about vengeance, a badge and a gun”. Televised news media controlling political outcomes is the subject of both ‘Bullet In The Head’ and ‘No Shelter’, while ‘Vietnow’ is more specifically about right-wing radio shows spewing hate. ‘No Shelter’ also speaks of “Fourth Reich culture, Americana” while insisting “the frontline is everywhere.”

The rise of white supremacists in positions of power is tackled in their debut single ‘Killing In The Name Of’, while ‘Without A Face’ is about the U.S. building a wall across the Mexican border. As de la Rocha explained at the time: “It seems as soon as the wall of Germany fell, the US government was busy building one between the border between the US and Mexico.”

All of these songs are over twenty years old, yet still ring as relevant as ever. As Mark Twain said, history doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme.


Nathan Jolly is a freelance writer based in Sydney, and was formerly the Editor of The Music Network. He tweets from @NathanJolly