The 2016 election can manifest itself in a variety of narratives: backlash against eight years of President Obama; a deepening divide between rural and urban areas (and, increasingly, the coasts and the middle of the country); a refutation on the Clintons and globalization… But one piece of data stands out starkly to me for its universality and simplicity: Voters over 40 voted for Donald Trump and voters under 40 did not.
The great rallying cry for President Trump’s campaign “Make America Great Again,” ditched a word from Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential slogan, “Let’s make America great again.”
Of course, for people like myself, born in the 1980s, and in Reagan’s second term at that, we wouldn’t have the big hair, spandex fueled nostalgia that the cowboy from California provided. Instead, we grew up on reality TV, and Trump always seemed to me to be 30 seconds away from joining VH1’s celebrity rehab. He was amazing only for his lack of self-awareness and sincerity, a celebrity by brute force — a byproduct of another age, one where putting your name on everything like an EVICTION stamp was something to revere, instead of scoff at.
Before I go too far, let me say that I’m really uninterested in Trump and critiquing him. He’s got his faults and, presumably, qualities. I won’t vote for him, but in an effort to be fair in praise, I will say that his daughter, Ivanka, was featured in a documentary about extremely wealthy cultures, called “Born Rich,” and she came across as fairly well adjusted. I mean, considering the sample, she had drive and ambition and could have turned out way worse. Sorry. I’m not here to critique the president, and I’m not here to praise him either.
But, the president’s crowning achievement in 2016 was his rallying cry that asked the older generation to replay the hits of previous Republicans. He wanted Boomers and Gen X to Make America Great Again. Signs said “The silent majority stands with Trump,” paraphrasing Nixon when that president sought to rally the country to support his effort in Vietnam, “And so tonight — to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans — I ask for your support."
The promise of the past, of reviving a less complex and demanding time, convinced Baby Boomers and Gen X that by electing Trump they would revive an America of their own childhood. Reagan sought to return Americans to the 1950s, Nixon sought to continue the 1950s, and Donald Trump is largely a continuation on conservative rhetoric, a promise of a better time, that has existed over the past several decades.
Imagine the 1950s! Fake doctors encouraged smoking on tiny television sets, where the entire family gathered while dad had four or five cocktails and feigned ignorance when a young girl called and mom answered. Entire swaths of the population didn’t have rights in any real way — lynching, mob violence, homophobia, and so much more were accepted and, in some cases endorsed, by the government.
That’s not to say that these things don’t exist today, in fact, it was only last year that the Senate finally passed an anti-lynching bill (100 years after it was written). But it’s precisely because of the perception that things are bad, and getting worse, that inspires this form of nostalgia tripping. Consider the line of thought, “Sure, in the 1950s, smoking was everywhere, but you never really heard about anybody getting cancer from it. Now, everybody gets cancer from everything, and I can’t even use a straw because it hurts turtles. Well, I could use straws in the 1960s, before China used straws. Now China uses straws and ruins it for everybody.”
OK, that’s kind of farcical, but there are real ramifications for this desire to return to the past, to sweep away the decades of social justice perpetuated, primarily, by the Baby Boomer generation.
Baby Boomers fought cultural wars to shift the definition of marriage, to broaden the tent of what it is to be an American and to generally provide a much more accepting society. With it, they also never stopped fighting each other. And, if my own parents are any indication, they have such resignation about the change they’ve made, they’ve made all-in bets so many times, that they refuse to acknowledge the progress we’ve had. Instead, listening to the slogans like “Make America Great Again,” they offer a world that destroys what they have given it — one of greater tolerance and understanding.
While I’ve picked on Trump quite a bit here, it’s worth noting that most of the Baby Boomer politicians on the opposite side present policies that are decades old. In fact, in the cases of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, they’re the same policies of a vaster enlarged government that Reagan defeated in 1980. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party just suffered an immense defeat by running on a similar platform.
In each case, these are conservative policies and reflect conservative thinking. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but what I’m arguing for is true progressivism — one understands the imperfection of any proposed solution and the need for continual renewal, for continuous problem-solving.
As David Deutsch said, problems are inevitable, but problems are solvable. We can and have done amazing things in the past, spurred on in no small part by a president and a rallying cry that brought the country together — that gave context around what it meant to be an American. Traditionally, being American meant to be against something. FDR, then Truman asked us to fight against the Nazis and the Japanese Empire; Eisenhower through Reagan the Communists; and Trump asks us to define ourselves at war with each other and the rest of the world.
My personal hope is that we rally around the cause of climate change, to fight it and to get off fossil fuels forever. But whatever the next rallying cry is, I hope it brings us together and turns our eyes toward our future and away from our past.