From Coney Island apartment tower lord to Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump has come a long way. But nobody should assume the man has remade America: rather, his success is not in changing Americans but following the most profitable trends.
His real estate empire was built upon a New York City ready to renew itself at nearly any cost: his real estate deals capitalized on the frantic rebuilding of much of the city’s decayed infrastructure in the 1980s and 1990s. He set up casinos in New Jersey; he made himself into a reality TV star. He didn’t create such conditions but rather exploited them.
And this tendency explains virtually all his successes. Trump is not a man who invents trends: he exploits them. Now he is exploiting the Republican Party and the American electorate and Americans have no one but themselves to blame.
So, what’s happening here? The cliff notes
- The Trump campaign is the capstone of the culture wars that began in the 1960s and are now drawing to a close as baby boomers age. They are the last vanguard of the cultural and political conservatives who have strived for decades to return America to a version of its 1950s self.
- For decades, the Republican Party has exploited this American desire, most recently narrowly winning the 2004 election by churning out the conservative base of boomers.
- But unique geopolitical and economic challenges have shook Americans to their core and fragmented the political landscape of the United States, with few seeing politics as usual as the way forward.
- The time is ripe for a far-reaching and long-lasting political realignment of the United States: the question of who is president in 2016 could well decide which trajectory the country takes for a generation.
Let’s begin at a beginning: the America that raised the baby boomers
Understanding American generations is key to understanding the forces that have brought Trump to the fore. Very few millennials support Trump: this is key because millennials, generally born in the 1980s and raised in the 1990s, grew up in a very different America than baby boomers, who were mostly born in the 1950s and came of age in the 1960s.
The America of the 1950s was a time of unparalleled economic, social and geopolitical security. While the Soviet threat was very real, it was also distant: Soviet terrorism never reached US soil. Americans believed the American Dream was coming true as suburbs and highways brought home ownership to vast swathes of the country. Social roles were solid: men worked, women stayed home, races didn’t mix, gays stayed closeted and very few questioned any of that.
So it’s not surprising that many baby boomers would think of such days fondly, especially considering the coming tumult that brought race riots, decaying cities and rising crime. Generations born beyond the Leave It To Beaver era have no memory of a time when Americans didn’t think their country was on the wrong track.
When Trump, born in 1946, slaps “Make American Great Again” on his hat, he’s very much talking about returning the country to his mythic childhood memories. Never you mind that the 1950s were a time of deeply embedded racism, sexism and cultural conformity, and that the baby boomers who grew up in the 50s are also the same generation responsible for the collapsing social and cultural order in the 1960s and 70s.
And that’s important: the baby boomer generation is also the frontline of the culture war
The United States has a relatively weak national culture compared to other democracies. It’s early split from Britain created an identity crisis: Americans resorted to cheap tactics like writing “color” instead of “colour” to try to differentiate from their former masters. But vast waves of immigration, a huge population spread out over a vast continent and the unhealed cultural legacy of slavery and institutional racism have long conspired to keep Americans from establishing a common national identity.
If anything, Americans agree on one point: theirs is a work in progress, destined for something greater and better on a distant hill in the future. This means, periodically, American culture goes through wrenching culture shifts. The first was the Great Awakening in the 1750s and 1760s, when the country took a decidedly religious turn. The most recent was the 1960s and 70s.
The generations that fight those cyclical culture wars rarely stop fighting until they reach the final stage of life. American baby boomers are doing just that now, with the earliest edges of the generation beginning to retire. Still, tens of millions of boomers remain in the work force, fighting the same cultural battles as they have been since the 60s.
And one, relatively popular side of this culture war seeks to return society to its 1950s norms
Obviously, not everyone agreed the changes of the 60s were all that great: a considerable conservative faction arose in response. American cultural conservatism, up until about 1968, had mostly been guarded by the Democratic Party. Remember the great Democratic lion Franklin Delano Roosevelt built the Trump-adored Japanese internment camps, as many Southern Democrats feared that Japanese-Americans could somehow be a fifth column. Democrats also largely favored segregation and had few opinions on women’s rights, let alone gay rights.
But during the 1960s, the rapidly changing culture caused a vast political realignment. Democrats became forward-looking liberals: their FDR-built economic views merged with the New Left of the 60s, breaking their old alliance with Southern conservatives and segregationists as they rushed to embrace the emerging social mores of the era.
Quite reasonably, the Republican elite rushed to pick up the voters left behind by the Democrats.
And that shifted the trajectory to today.
For the cultural conservatives brought on by the Republican elite were to spend the next forty years being mostly lied to
The Republican elite understood well enough that the changes unleashed during the 1960s were there to stay; they could slow them, but never roll them back. So while Republicans were happy to bring segregationists into the party, they never changed their platform to bringing back Jim Crow. For older, former Souther Democrats, just being listened to and having a national platform was enough: they never sought to impose purity on the Republicans, knowing they’d lose nationally.
But the baby boomers of the era took a different view. As boomers aged, the culture wars they began in the 1960s grew sharper and more hostile over the decades. Conservative boomers saw fewer and fewer of their values preserved, though adept Republican leaders were able to make them forget that. Ronald Reagan, for example, did not change the cultural drift of the country away from 1950s values but appeared to slow it. That was enough to maintain power.
As conservative boomers grew more sophisticated with age, they began to understand that most Republican elite had no intention of waging the culture war they wanted. They turned on George H.W. Bush in 1992, refusing to surge the polls for him, partially because he raised taxes, but also partially because he failed critical conservative cultural litmus tests.
Which hearkened the phase that is now culminating in Trump
The 1990s were a hostile decade of partisan warfare: boomer conservatives sought to impose cultural and social purity on Republicans. For decades, Republicans had been saying all the rights things, then, once elected, failing to follow through. Even Reagan, after all, raised taxes.
But as society invariably moved further and further away culturally from the 1950s — as sex became less dangerous, as technology removed the necessity for masculine strength in most jobs, as mass media transformed acceptable values, conservative boomers grew angry that the Republicans they elected did very little to preserve the values they held so dear. Boomer groups had a new name for such politicians: Republican in Name Only, or RINO.
The election of George W. Bush was meant to arrest this social shift. In truth, nothing could: the relentless advance of technology would continue to upend traditional gender roles and family structures while the geopolitical needs of the superpower United States would seek efficiency over tradition. Conservative values were doomed, but to the baby boomers whose formative years had come about steeped in principle they would not go down without a fight.
Republican elites understood the shift was both inevitable and essential: to compete in the globalized world, the United States needed to pull out all the stops and if that meant sacrificing traditional family models to get women to work or tolerating abortion to cut down on unwanted and thereby socially expensive pregnancies, so be it.
In 2004, Republican elites and boomer conservatives allied together successfully for the last time. George W. Bush won a narrow victory, promising to block gay marriage. He kept that promise but failed to ensure the next president would do the same.
When Obama was elected in 2008, all hell broke loose.
For 2008 was a culmination of social, political and economic change that created the Mother of All Cultural Battles
By 2008, America, despite all its power, could subdue neither Iraq nor Afghanistan; its mighty economic foundations were rattled to their core by the mortgage crisis; Vladimir Putin’s Russia went to war in Georgia and won; and liberal America decisively won the 2008 election.
None of that sat well with conservative America, which felt like it might be subdued by the liberal onslaught. Ordinary conservatives blamed the Republican elite; their refusal to commit had, in their minds, paved the way for the rise of Obama.
But Obama’s presidency was hardly all sunshine. Outraged conservatives self-organized beyond the Republican Party: this became the Tea Party, which, nearly on its own, captured the House of Representatives in 2010. Republican elites welcomed the victory, not fully realizing what it meant.
While the elites were focused on winning elections and enjoying power, the baby boomer conservatives were focused on saving American conservatism
They gave the elites just one more shot in 2012. Mitt Romney was party-approved but failed anyway; his defeat was a combination of him as a personality and wider trends in America that mean boomer-style conservatism continues to shrink.
This defeat outraged the boomer conservatives; the party’s leaders, it seemed, were not just liars but also incompetent. And they set about grabbing control of the Republican Party’s primaries.
Which leads us to just about today
Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and all their anti-Muslim, anti-refugee, anti-everything-but-the-1950s mumbling is the culmination of this process. The older conservative baby boomers have grown, the less they want compromise: they have seen too much of their values, instilled in their childhoods, slip away. They are throwing down the gauntlet in this election and putting forth a final great effort to stop the cultural and social changes that began in the 1960s.
Their values are outdated for the needs of the superpower: the twenty-first century needs a population as unhindered by tradition as possible. As neither gay rights nor the weakening of the nuclear family fundamentally threaten the power of the United States, they are tolerated, even encouraged, if it means citizens are generally more productive. They are desperate to change that calculation, but nothing beyond the United States losing its superpower role will do that.
This is also a key reason why the Democrats have not suffered the same process: they have positioned themselves as the party of change, willing to adapt to the times. While Republican elites have always behaved the same way, they have relied for too long on people committed to doing precisely the opposite. Those once loyal supporters are now in full revolt.
It is possible, though unlikely, that Trump or someone like him will win. That will not, in the long term, matter
All Trump could do is slow the process. Trump has capitalized on irrational anger so well that facts don’t seem to apply to him. He could readily run a presidency that carries on the fundamental lip service of the Republican Party: saying the right platitudes while refusing to commit to a real reversal of values. (Gay rights, for example, would doubtless be here to stay.)
Since presidents have limited power over the domestic sphere, all Trump could do is annoy liberals, and eventually the rest of America, for four to eight years. Unless Trump committed himself to dismantling the infrastructure that makes America a superpower — by withdrawing troops worldwide, abandoning alliances, even ceding territory — the twenty-first century would continue to hammer away at the values of those who now see him as their white knight.
More likely, this is the final battle of the culture wars where defeat may well break baby boomer-style conservatism permanently
To lose 2016 may be just enough to break the back of boomer conservatism, forcing its demoralized survivors to compromise or give up. Traditional Republican elites could then reassert power; they would have to change much of their party platform, but such change is long overdue anyway.
Regardless, Trump and those like him are the beginning of the end of the culture wars. What comes on the other side of them already has a rough shape: it will be a blend of hippie values and conservative ones, with recreational drugs awaiting the soldiers who will continue to go off to maintain America’s superpower status.
If Trump’s extremism provokes such stability sooner rather than later, the process will have been worth. But if Trump wins, then America will have to suffer through sins of its own making for at least another term.
This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, December 16, 2015.