Written by James Viator, A freelance writer
Back in September of 2016, it looked like U2 was going to announce itself as a powerful voice of opposition to then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. Granted, this would be a fair expectation for anyone who knows the inclusive and generally liberal views of Bono and the band. But at the iHeart Radio Festival, U2 made a bold statement, blasting Trump with the simple question, "what do you have to lose?" accompanied by some video content. Clearly referring to the possibility of a Trump win, Bono declared the answer to that question to be "everything."
It's worth putting this performance in context. The concert was on the eve of the first presidential debate, when Hillary Clinton had a lead and many expected it to widen as she got the opportunity to expose Trump's policy ignorance face-to-face. For the most part, over the course of the next month and three debates, Clinton would do just that - and her lead in the polling did indeed increase. By late October, about a month after U2's performance, many were predicting a landslide, and even notoriously cautious bookmakers declared it a done deal that Clinton would win the White House. This is why, when Trump won in early November, there was genuine shock throughout the United States and the world.
Now, this is not at all to suggest that U2 contributed to that widening gap in the polls, but merely to suggest the band was riding a wave. September of 2016 was not a time for anti-Trump people to make desperate arguments or chew their fingernails nervously. It was a time to drive home the last surge of enthusiasm in a contentious campaign that looked as if it was finally going to turn out okay. It felt the same as watching Clinton dominate the third debate, or seeing her appear alongside LeBron James in Ohio.
Once Trump won, these optimistic feelings naturally subsided, and Bono himself appeared to pull back his critiques at least marginally. Salon wrote up a remarkable article about U2's politics in Trump's America and noted some humbled comments from Bono in the aftermath of the election. While he reiterated that he had opposed Trump's candidacy, he also acknowledged that he can see some of his younger self in the people who supported Trump. There was a note of understanding, which some ardent Clinton supporters and anti-Trumpers might have viewed as a mild betrayal, but which is actually, in all likelihood, a more constructive form of opposition. Many of Trump's supporters appear to feel as if they've been forgotten, dismissed, or ridiculed by other Americans and by "establishment" politicians. So, while Bono's mild assessment after the election differed sharply from his bold stance during it, he may be making a play for understanding that we'd do well to heed.
But if Bono's initial post-election comments seemed mild, the Joshua Tree tour that has been running throughout 2016 has been far from subtle. When this album first came out, it was U2's first major foray into politics. While there was no unifying message on the album (other than perhaps the juxtaposition of America's positive and negative impact on the world), there were numerous smaller political statements, and Bono has credited a few trips abroad with widening his perspective ahead of writing most of the lyrics. In this sense, the mere idea that this is a Joshua Tree tour undoubtedly invokes feelings of political activism in many U2 fans.
The Salon article quoted Bono as calling the present tour "a high-voltage meditation on what's happening now," as well as "a tour for red and blue," possibly as a reference to Republicans and Democrats. However, the article also stated that the band's current message out on the road is "even more damning than" the pre-election outing at iHeart Radio. The biggest headline was probably in the opening show in Vancouver, when Bono basically told a largely Canadian audience that they had opened their borders when others had closed theirs.
In an overarching sense, the songs of The Joshua Tree are not necessarily relevant to the Trump administration specifically. But some of the underlying themes and inspirations, about America causing problems for areas that are not under the spotlight, for instance, certainly ring true today. And more importantly, the general political tone of aspects of the album makes it easy for Bono and Co. to slip political statements into their shows, as they've been doing.
The statement now appears to be one for an open, welcoming, equal, and progressive America, rather than one explicitly against Trump. Bono has gone out of his way to welcome Trump's supporters, effectively living his own message by being inclusive. But the prevailing message of this tour is one in favor of an American dream that Trump himself seems not to understand, and one that the band hopes will emerge again in the near future.