Ted Nugent – the Detroit-bred garage rocker turned conservative mouthpiece – is a surreal character.
His fusion of virtuosic guitar work, a piercing stage presence and unfiltered political diatribes have apparently made him a hot commodity as a culture warrior.
There are few ways in which Nugent neatly fits in with his primary audience – like the one at the recent fundraiser for conservative Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams’ re-election effort where I saw him.
But they love him nonetheless.
The Motor City Madman
“He was as good as rock and roll gets,” Henry Rollins, the front man of hardcore punk group Black Flag, said of Nugent on the Joe Rogan Show last year.
“It was like two-and-a-half hours of just getting beat up by music,” he said of the time he saw the Motor City Madman rock a Maryland arena in the late seventies. “It was fantastic.”
Rollins called Nugent, who he said is generally funny and intelligent, “an interesting bunch of guys.”
“He can finish a sentence,” Rollins said. “He’s not stupid.”
Despite my deep distaste for his politics, I came to like Nugent on some level while covering the Reams fundraiser.
He’s not necessarily more bigoted than some of the elders I grew up around. He was also very nice to me on a personal level.
He made a point of both having a conversation with me and taking time to answer my question on behalf of the Colorado Times Recorder – an outlet he immediately identified as generally unfavorable to his positions.
In the late seventies and early eighties, Nugent found fame as one of the most noteworthy of an exceedingly reckless generation of American rockers.
He has been a front man since before he was old enough to drink, and he’s really mastered his craft. He’s deftly transferred those skills from the clubs and basements of old Detroit to the soap boxes and TV studios that mesmerize many an older, conservative white American.
His sometimes-pedophilic sexual antics have become the stuff of legend and disgust. He’s fathered six children with several different women. Only half of his offspring are by women he’s been married to.
Nugent is not a Christian. He claims to have no personal interest in organized religion.
He also admitted to defecating himself in front of draft inspectors to avoid a stint in Vietnam – an assertion he has since retracted.
Still, Nugent has managed to endear himself to an audience defined in large part by its conservative Christian values and unrelenting patriotism.
This is due in part to his complete abstention from drugs and alcohol and his fervent support for the National Rifle Association (NRA) and gun rights in general.
But it’s his unrelenting, sometimes rhetorically violent fealty to a traditional, conservative and decidedly white conception of America that’s won him the most supporters.
Much of what Nugent says publicly, including utterances like, “Obama’s a subhuman mongrel,” is dangerous according to Rollins.
“You don’t need to talk like that,” he said, “because there’s people you’ll inspire to punch some black guy in the parking lot for no reason.”
It’s not just people from the left that take issue with Nugent’s rhetoric. Even the openly conservative Greeley Tribune moved to condemn Reams’ choice of entertainment.
“We’re glad Reams has backers, but the nature of Nugent’s politics doesn’t seem to align with the values we’d like to see here in Weld County,” the Tribune’s editorial board wrote. “Those values are conservative but also neighborly and congenial.”
The board said “the region has changed dramatically and people from all over the country and world have chosen to move to northern Colorado.
“Increasingly, they are people of color and Nugent’s repeated defense of the use of the n-word or slurs against Latinos,” the board said, “makes us question the judgment of having him visit.”
Proving the board’s point, at the Reams rally Nugent went on a racist rant about the current condition of his hometown.
“It’s June 21, 2019 and I took some of my kids down to Detroit,” he said. “It’s hell. It’s a ghetto. It’s a wreck.”
There was “this beautiful architecture that they burnt down,” Nugent said, “because they were angry at somebody, so they burnt their own neighborhood down.
“It’s been all boarded up since ’67,” he said – an allusion to the race riots that swept through Detroit that summer.
“This is what happens when you lose the incentive to be the best you can be,” he said, implying that the city’s work ethic left with most of its white population in the sixties and seventies.
Nugent’s popularity illuminates what makes white American populism tick.
Populism is a complex term, but it’s essentially a label for a rhetorical approach that frames one’s supporters as ordinary, real citizens fighting an entrenched elite that disregards their interests.
Twenty-first century white American populism – as espoused most famously by Donald Trump – pits rural, and to some degree suburban white America against purported liberal coastal elites who supposedly work for and are supported by groups with interests in opposition to those of traditional white America.
Inner city black people, first-generation immigrants and LGBTQ people are all common targets.
The similarities between Nugent and Trump are obvious, but the underlying roots of their respective successes are even more intertwined than the figures themselves.
The reality is that the current class of influential conservatives care more about getting the outcomes they want than sharing a moral agenda with those they support.
If Sheriff Reams, Colorado Rep. Lori Saine (R-Firestone) and Colorado Sen. Vicki Marble (R-Firestone) were really prioritizing their traditional, Judeo-Christian American morality, they would find a different pundit to entertain their supporters.