This year’s Super Bowl perfectly encapsulates the contradictions of Trump’s America

The big game has the potential to be a defining cultural moment.
The big game has the potential to be a defining cultural moment.
Image: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
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Budweiser’s Super Bowl commercial opens with the words, “You don’t look like you’re from around here.”

The 60-second spot, which is currently slated to air during the second quarter of the game—featuring the New England Patriots taking on the Atlanta Falcons in Houston, Texas on Feb. 5–tells the story of the beer brand’s founder Adolphus Busch, who emigrated from Germany to the US in the mid-1800s.

“You’re not wanted here,” Busch is told in flashbacks in the ad. “Go home.” But, at the end of the commercial, Busch is welcomed into the city of St. Louis, Missouri, where the beer brand was born, and the man who initially pointed out that he wasn’t a local—his soon to be father-in-law and business partner Eberhard Anheuser—buys him a drink.

The ad is a far cry from the adorable puppies and hardworking horses the brewer put in the game in years past. And sobering, period pieces like this don’t usually play well in the big game. They’re too heavy, too out of place in a light, raucous affair like the Super Bowl. But this year, amid a backdrop of anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies and the pro-immigrant protests they’ve inspired, Budweiser’s harrowing tale of triumph and the American dream could strike a chord with viewers.

The commercial is emblematic of the Super Bowl as whole this year. Football has long been America’s favorite sport. And the Super Bowl—the nation’s biggest advertising stage—reaches hundreds of millions of viewers of all ages, races, genders, and creeds. It is a quintessentially American moment with the potential to unite the populace, if only for an evening.

But this year, as the nation stands divided under its new president, the game—taking place in a blue city in Texas that’s surrounded by red with a half-time act who’s an advocate for gay and women’s rights—also has the potential to be a defining cultural moment.

The city

The Super Bowl’s location, which was decided back in 2013, is politically charged. The state of Texas went to Trump in the election, but Harris County—where Houston resides–was one a handful of counties in the state that voted for Hillary Clinton (paywall). Houston itself—where Hispanics and Latinos are 36% of the population (pdf) and 28% of people are foreign-born—is just a few hundred miles away from where Trump plans to build a wall to keep out illegal immigrants.

That might be further reinforced by the fanbases of the teams attending. The county of Fulton in Georgia, which contains the city of Atlanta, went for Clinton by more than 2-to-1 (paywall). The rest of the state went for Trump. And the six states that make up New England are solidly blue.

The entertainment

All eyes will be on Lady Gaga for the 12 minutes during half-time when the New York-born pop star, who recently released a rock- and country-inspired album, will take the stage at the game. The performer, who is known for wearing unabashedly gender-bending get ups, is a vocal supporter of women’s empowerment and LGBTQ rights, which some US citizens fear will be threatened by the Trump administration.

She’s not known for keeping her mouth shut—especially when she’ll have one of the biggest platforms in the world with which to express herself. Coming off the massive women’s marches worldwide, the outspoken Gaga could use the spotlight to send a message about equality to viewers.

“For me, it’s all about giving to the fans and bringing people together that wouldn’t normally come together,” Gaga, who supported Hillary Clinton in the election, told the Washington Post last year.

However, the NFL will likely be leery about Gaga—or anyone—making a political statement at the Super Bowl this year, after Beyoncé’s homage to the Black Panthers in 2016 was criticized for being anti-police and fans spurned quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s national-anthem protests during the regular season this year.

“We are not going to be distracted by people trying to stir up controversy where there is none,” said Natalie Ravitz, a spokesperson for the NFL. “Lady Gaga is focused on putting together an amazing show for fans. We love working with her on it. She did an outstanding job when she performed the national anthem before and we are confident that she will deliver an incredible performance yet again,” Ravitz said, referring to Gaga’s appearance at the game last year.

The football

Then, there’s the symbolism of the match-up itself.

The New England Patriots are favored to beat the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, which means the NFL could be about to hand yet another Super Bowl ring to a player it previously damned. Fans may recall that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was embroiled in a scandal after the 2015 Super Bowl, when he was accused of tampering with the balls used during the championship game. His involvement was never proven, but the league determined that he was probably aware of the violation and suspended him for four games. The penalty was later overturned.

Depending on how you look at it, the incident is either an example of another millionaire cheater getting off with a slap on the wrist, or the establishment trying to tear down an American icon with little basis of fact. It runs parallel to Trump’s own story, depending on whose side you’re on: a successful man who’s done nothing wrong being targeted by the elites, or a canny businessman who conned his way into power to shape policy for him and his bigwig friends.

Ironically, “Deflategate,” as the controversy became known, came to a close the day before Donald Trump officially announced his candidacy for president. (Adding fuel to the fire: Brady is a good friend of Trump’s and sported a red “Make America Great Again” hat in his locker from the beginning of the billionaire’s presidential run.)

The ads

As for Budweiser, whose ad featuring its founder kicks off its 2017 marketing campaign, the commercial has likely been planned for months—as is true for most Super Bowl ads. But the timing of the release, about a week after Trump signed his controversial executive order on immigration, could work in Budweiser’s favor.

“If they’re lucky, this will be caught up in the conversation about refugees and immigration,” Mark DiMassimo, CEO of advertising agency DiMassimo Goldstein, told Quartz. “Then it’ll have some more salience and could be seen as a brave move.”

It could also backfire. The advertiser, which is the largest in the Super Bowl, could be slammed as something of a carpet bagger, if the message hits the wrong nerve or comes across as too political. Another advertiser, building-materials supplier 84 Lumber, had to revise its 2017 Super Bowl spot because it featured a wall and was deemed too controversial by broadcaster Fox. (Advertisers sometimes submit ads for the Super Bowl that they know will be rejected to build buzz. It’s unclear whether this was the case with 84 Lumber.)

The brewer could also catch some flak for the irony that the brand, which is brewed in the US and bills itself as America’s beer—it even renamed itself “America” last year—is owned by a Belgium-based parent company, Anheuser-Busch InBev.

And so, we head into Super Bowl 51.