Much has been made of Donald Trump’s crassness, bigotry and astounding mendacity. In addition his willful ignorance and eagerness to pursue the smallest real or imagined slight with threats, insults and a whipped cream topping of vulgarity are well-documented and essentially offered up daily and weekly.
Yes, well no need to run through all of that right here – you can get that anywhere (including the great man’s twitter account of course). What is more interesting to me at this precise point in time (which will ideally last for at least the duration of spewing out this essay), is the idea of the Trump administration as both a symptom and a tortured death rattle of 80’s Man-in-Charge. And like it or not, that is where the current version of the Republican party finds itself: firmly looking backwards, and deeply distrustful of a future where widespread gun ownership, casual bigotry and white male dominance might be considered faded symbols of a vanished time.
As a brief digression, there clearly is no real Trump administration. It is quickly morphing into a constellation of sycophants and talking heads (now mostly culled from Fox News’ stable of right-wing commentators and ‘experts’) revolving around Trump as executive policy (subject to change without notice) careens down whatever path looks ripest when the day begins. Soon the last ‘adults’ will be purged (they have been marginalized already) and it will just be the mad king and his court, desperate and eager to anticipate and proactively react to future whims.
So that sort of nonsense is fairly unique* to our grand experiment in Reality Show government. But there is a bit more to the story.
Let’s back up again, to those seemingly long ago days of the Obama presidency. Obama was not a democratic president, of course. He was a black president. In the world populated by 1980s white man, blacks do not run things, most notably the country. Sports and Entertainment? OK. A congressman or CEO here and there? Hey, ‘they’re’ making progress. What a country! And so on. Thus we simultaneously had a Birther movement and the rise of the Tea Party faction, a twin challenge to this Brave New World, a world which shocked the traditional order down to its toes.
Harping on the Birther movement, where Trump got much of his original political notoriety (and popularity among white supremacists) hinged on a central belief: if there’s a black president, it’s due to a con, a crime, a pack of lies and so forth. The Tea Party is a bit more broadly focused but also originated as an arch-conservative reaction to the Obama presidency; at last glance the percentage of minorities in the Tea Party and Birther movements are in the low single digits, to the point where any African-Americans in these groups are newsworthy.**
My generation, the one I very generally refer to as 80’s White Man (and, ahem, woman I guess) was quite possibly the first one that overtly frowned upon racist attitudes. It is very important to note some aspects of (again speaking very broadly) my ‘generation’ (aaargh, just kill me now). One very noteworthy aspect of a difference I have observed repeatedly in casual conversation between the geezers and Millennials is that ethnicity (and in some cases, Jewish identity, real or imagined***) is always noted. In other words, if someone new was hired at work, if there was a new postman, teacher, bus driver, whatever, there was blackness was noted. The whiteness was implied; otherwise the footnote (a black guy, woman, etc.) was expected. In the absence of this qualifier it was assumed to be a white person. Similarly a mixed race couple was very noteworthy and in fact cause for whispers and gossip, even in the so called liberal circles I ran in. Naturally, when no one is referenced without their ethnicity being noted , certain generalizations and perhaps prejudices are noted and/or reinforced****.
I have found that today’s narrative (at least much of it) does not focus on racial***** and ethnic identity. ‘Black’ or “mixed Race Couple’ are not adjectives heard in polite society (mostly …) and my general impression of Millennial and younger attitudes is that there is a comfort level with ethnic diversity that did not really exist in generations prior. I can offer considerable evidence of my boomer peers who honestly did not foster what I would normally call racist attitudes but were generally unable to relate to other ethnicities (mostly African-Americans of course), and in some cases were fearful in doing so and harbored fears (some subliminal in some cases) of the ‘other’, especially if the other were represented by young men, especially young men in groups. In fact a successful encounter with the other side was, instead of being routine, cause for celebration and a path to some greater degree of enlightenment that was desirable in a certain broad sense.******
The whites of Trump’s generation are acutely aware of these changes. Trump himself is someone who came, more or less, of age in the 1980’s, where your ethnicity mattered a great deal, and when the notion of an African-American man as president was absurd, where ethnicity was always noted. Trump is a man who does not read, is obsessed with watching Television and does not even use email, which 80 year old grandmothers use with ease nowadays. His comments and values give him away as a near-relic of a fading era, such as when he mocked the Academy for its low ratings (traditional television is dying and ‘ratings’ concerns have been superseded by content streaming strategies), his obsession with 20th century icons like the steel and coal industries and of course his appalling misogyny and casual, relentless bigotry. Naturally denial of climate science and obeisance to Evangelical religious movements are part of that package (the Evangelical movement has decided that Trump is a perfect exemplar of their ‘moral issues’) *******
All of these areas strike a chord with white people of a certain age, who are afraid that what they believe is slowly being replaced by the ‘other’. And well they should be: It is hard to imagine in America of the 2050’s still in thrall to Evangelical Christianity, still denying even the most obvious and measurable examples of climate changes, still clinging to cretinous energy policies that favor petroleum and coal (!!) over solar. And of course still restricting any positions of power to, essentially, white boomer males (they’ll be long gone of course). Will it be too late by then?
After Obama’s reelection in 2012, the now notorious Growth and Opportunity Project ******** (aka the RNC Autopsy Report) was very clear on the GOP’s need to engage younger people, minorities and women, with the only alternative being increased marginalization. And yet the Republicans gained more than 1000 state and federal seats during the Obama presidency. And suddenly the GOP, with notable but sparse exceptions, has become cheerleaders for Trump’s particularly noxious brand of populism*********. Naturally this is mostly political expediency as privately Trump is mostly an embarrassing presence to even the most ‘down home’ GOP hack, but to a large extent Trump is a culmination of GOP obstinacy over race relations, climate change and common sense environmental regulation over the years. They will cast their lot with the fading, frightened Boomer generation for now.
*Of course we can look back to equally unqualified presidents and administrations such as US Grant, the entire Harding experience or even a drunk Nixon threatening to atom bomb Vietnam, but somehow the stakes seem much higher now, and the consequences of foolish action more dire. Perhaps it’s just me.
***Disclosure – your humble narrator is Jewish and I recently discovered an active undercurrent of (admittedly mild) anti-Semitic sentiment in a company where I was a software developer, circa 2011-2013.
****This of course continues to go both ways. If a white athlete in a predominantly black sport (basketball being the obvious example) performs remarkably, their whiteness tends to follow them around as an ongoing adjective in the narrative. Sadly, white basketball players were at one time considered to be ‘smarter’ and more ‘savvy’ than their black counterparts, who achieved their superior results strictly through ‘natural’ athletic ability. There is a good essay on these attitudes here: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/af8c/7601909d40abb63221729fa45d9c31a60b6d.pdf
*****I recognize that ‘race’ is an invented notion used to promulgate segregationist policies but I’m using it anyway to get from A to B more quickly. Sorry.
******To myself a classic, and somewhat sad example of this, is illustrated in this essay by Chris Offut, one of my favorite writers, but clearly a man not that comfortable around the ‘others’: https://www.oxfordamerican.org/magazine/item/550-trash-food Ironically Offut is using himself (who is knowledgeable about ‘trash food’) as someone equally reviled by Southern white men as African Americans are, but it is clear at the end of the essay that actually relating to an African American man is not a routine event for him, and cause for (misplaced, I think) elation.
********* It should be pointed out that Congress is increasingly ignoring much of what Trump is asking for. The hopelessly vague demands for ‘Infrastructure’ or ’Immigration Reform’ have gone nowhere
********** Sorry for all the asterisky footnotes