George Bush's band of punks

What was once the most anti-establishment of music genres is being used in support of the US Republican part

What was once the most anti-establishment of music genres is being used in support of the US Republican part. One would have thought punk's capacity to shock was exhausted when, in the 1980s, G.G. Allin defecated on stage and either ate the result or flung it at the audience, reports Dorian Lynskey

Today, punk has come to mean safe, multi- platinum groups such as Blink-182 and Green Day, and Ashton Kutcher playing pranks on celebrities on MTV. But there is one tattooed, mohawked New Yorker who knows how to outrage the punk scene: Nick Rizzuto - and he votes Republican.

"Conservative punk is not generally what people think of when they hear of a punk," says Rizzuto. A smart, articulate 22-year-old, he founded the Conservative Punk website six months ago, and has since received hate mail from disgusted punks, excited phone calls from the Republican Party and intrigued coverage from the US media. To his critics he's a crank bringing punk's good name into disrepute; to his supporters he's the fearless voice of a formerly silent minority.

Raised on the Clash and the Dead Kennedys, the vast majority of today's punk bands lean towards the left, and Bush and Iraq have radicalised the scene once again. Horrified by the closeness of the 2000 election result, "Fat Mike" Burkett of Californian band NOFX founded Punkvoter, the left-wing voter registration organisation, and convinced 200 bands to lend their endorsement.

"The last time I saw anything like this was during the Vietnam era with Nixon," says Al Jourgensen of Punkvoter supporters Ministry, whose latest album boils with anti-Bush sentiment.

Yet the politics of punk have never been clear-cut. In late-1970s Britain, as the Clash were fronting Rock Against Racism gigs, Oi! bands such as Skrewdriver were backing Britain's far-right National Front party. In the US, early punks spat in the face of liberalism, establishing a precedent for extreme views. Today, the militantly abstinent, purity-obsessed hardcore punks known as straight-edgers oppose drug use with a zeal that would make an evangelical Christian applaud.

The fact is, the meaning of the word punk is no longer clear. Andy Greenwald, author of Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers and Emo, argues that while punk once meant something specific, that's no longer the case.

"People now feel like you can be a punk anything," he says. "If everyone else is saying don't make money, it's pretty punk to say, well, I'm going to make money. If everyone on the punk scene is liberal, why not be a punk Republican?"

It's this frustration with the punk scene's liberal orthodoxy that fires the conservative punks.

"You could say we're anti-anti- establishment," says Michale Graves, Conservative Punk columnist and frontman of Gotham Road. "I think in American mainstream culture the cool thing to do now is to hate the government and speak out against the war."

It's easy to see how a Republican musician might feel like a scorned minority. Johnny Ramone, punk's sole big-name Republican, became the right-wing's answer to Michael Moore or the Dixie Chicks when the Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame two years ago, and he announced from the podium: "God bless President Bush, and God bless America."

The right-wing website, Free Republic, recently attempted to out "conservative" celebrities; its brief list of confirmed Republican musicians outside the country music scene comprises Ramone, anti-drugs/ pro-National Rifle Association rock veteran Ted Nugent, and actor/songwriter Vincent Gallo. Rizzuto insists there are many more who are reluctant to make their opinions public.

"I'm very wary of mentioning these guys on the record, especially in a European newspaper. They have to worry about being blacklisted from playing certain clubs and from playing Europe altogether," he says.

This may sound paranoid, but Graves says his European tour was cancelled after the promoter read a New York Times article about his politics.

Rizzuto has always felt like an outsider. He turned conservative after 9/11, while he was studying at the famously liberal State University of New York.

From a certain angle, punk's individualistic creed and me-against-the-world rhetoric overlap with conservative values.

"On some level punk is inherently libertarian," says Greenwald. "You don't tell me what to do, I won't tell you what to do - I'm just going to worry about myself."

Follow that logic and Bush's bullish approach to foreign policy - basically, screw what anyone else says, I'll do what I like - seems quintessentially punk. Such thinking is anathema to most punks, however. While Punkvoter's Rock Against Bush CD can boast the likes of Offspring and Sum 41, Rizzuto concedes that the few bands that support Conservative Punk - including Drawback, Style Over Substance and Nation of Suspects - aren't exactly household names. But this demographic, however small, is promising territory for Republicans. Right-wing commentators have coined phrases such as "gonzo conservative" and "South Park Republican" to describe young voters who like tattoos, swearing and Donald Rumsfeld. Conservative Punk has already inspired sympathetic sites such as GOPunk and Anti-Anti-Flag, and Rizzuto hopes to compile a benefit CD in aid of Students for a Free Iran.

Conservative Punk and Punkvoter regard each other with what might be described as polite hostility.

"We're all for people expressing their opinions, but it just sits a little weird to see anybody in the punk world be pro a guy who's done a job on tearing away civil liberties," says Punkvoter's political director, Scott Goodstein. "It's not a new thing for punk to be reacting against what folks don't like in the government, but punks in favour of the government is weird."

Rizzuto counters that by saying he opposes Bush on abortion and has turned down work with Republican activists.

"We don't even go as far as to say 'vote for Bush'," he adds. "Our independence is what sets us apart. We have posted pieces that are critical of Bush. My preference in this election just happens to be Bush over Kerry."

His response to critics: "As punks, we should be most accepting of different beliefs. We should be a diverse crowd."

If you didn't know better, you'd call that liberal.