MacLean Gander is a longtime professor of English and journalism at Landmark College in Putney, but the views expressed are entirely his own. He frequently contributes to these pages.
Originally published in The Commons issue #395 (Wednesday, February 15, 2017). This story appeared on page D3.
To battle the evil tide sweeping over our politics, I think we have to figure out an overarching concept of what we are dealing with.
For me, it boils down to this: We are in a generational war. We have not fully recognized it yet. But the evidence is substantial.
The entire United States would have been blue on Election Day had only people under 25 voted. Every initiative that Donald Trump has put forth hurts the rising generation the most. Climate-change denial doesn’t pose an existential crisis for me — I already have one, in terms of my age — but it does for my daughters.
The impact of various executive orders and planned legislative acts will hurt all people from marginalized groups — women, poor whites, black Americans, Latinos, immigrants, people of different sexual orientation — but young people are the most vulnerable and will be the most affected if these positions are allowed to stand:
• Economic arrangements following the meltdown in 2008 still leave most young people without the opportunity to do as well as their parents did, let alone surpass them, as once was the case. The economic steps Trump is taking now give the lie to his campaign promises and are sure to make things even worse for the generation now struggling to find a financial foothold.
• Plans to turn back the dial on a growing acknowledgement that our criminal justice system is a new form of slavery for Blacks, Latinos, and poor whites.
• A heroin epidemic runs rampant through the nation. Efforts to turn away from the growing acknowledgement that heroin addiction is a disease, not a crime, will attack young people in direct ways.
But the chaos of Trump’s national security initiatives might be the gravest threat to our youth, and to all of us.
The most worrisome element in the manic activity of Trump’s administration is the very strong potential to provoke a national security crisis, whether in the Ukraine, the South China Sea, or the Middle East.
• Already there are signs that we might return to a war footing in Afghanistan.
• The administration’s rhetoric has created the possibility of a shooting war with China in the seas off that nation’s coast.
• The cozy relations between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin provide impetus to Russian policy of retaliation in the Ukraine and the Baltic states, with who knows what result.
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It is unclear what role Trump directly plays. It is obvious that he is motivated primarily by greed for his brand and a depthless narcissism that leaves his ego so inflated and so fragile that he lashes out childishly at any perceived slight.
It also is clear that he is a useful tool — prey to whatever he has heard from the last person to talk to him.
A lot can be said about how the Republican establishment is trying to use Trump to push forward their regressive agenda. But right now, the main engine in the Trump machine is Stephen Bannon, and that is a very dangerous thing.
Bannon might seem like a shaggy right-wing thug, but he actually has an agenda, based mainly on the theory by amateur historians Neil Howe and William Strauss of a four-part cycle of “generational transitions” that has operated throughout history.
In their theory, we are entering into the “fourth turn” in American history — the Civil War and World War II were previous ones — in which national crisis descends on the rising generation.
This theory has no research basis or standing among professional historians but, like a lot of specious theories, it appeals to a sort of romantic subjectivity, in which something that sounds sort of true becomes part of our discourse and begins to propel a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Bannon embraced this theory in his 2010 movie Generation Zero. The movie, and many statements Bannon made in the years after it was produced, make clear what he believes.
A recent article in The Nation said it most succinctly with the headline “Steve Bannon Wants To Start World War III: His 2009 film, Generation Zero, shows a hellishly bleak vision of our past, present, and future, driven by a magical belief in historical determinism.”
This would seem just nuts, if Bannon were not Trump’s closest and most powerful advisor.
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The Trump administration might be in frenzied disarray in general, with constant leaks and massive infighting on the back stairs of the White House. But Bannon’s own purpose seems clear: he wants to provoke a crisis of apocalyptic dimension, and it is directed at the rising generation.
Things are so crazy right now that the attempt to provide a sober analysis makes one start to feel crazy, too.
Is this all really happening? I think it is, and I also think that the blizzard of executive orders, tweets, and legislative actions and plans conceals a core strategy and is designed to accomplish a specific end while also making it obscure.
And I am worried that the opposition to Trump is fragmented across issues. In fact, I am sure that is part of the Trump-Bannon strategy.
Climate denial and dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency. Dismantling public education and rights for students with disabilities. Active prejudice and hatred toward Islam. War on Planned Parenthood and Roe v. Wade. Executive orders designed to increase economic inequality. Rolling back the nascent movement to see incarceration as a renewed form of slavery.
Where does one choose one’s battle when there are so many fronts on which to fight?
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The progressive movement needs to find an underlying theme. It is generational war.
I don’t mean to overstate my case. The actions of the Trump administration will hurt all of us in the end.
A friend and fellow veteran of protests during the Vietnam era suggested that there never has been a more naked generational battle than the one during that period. Think of Kent State and Jackson State, the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and seasons of ghetto riots between 1964 and 1968.
She pointed out that opposition to Trump is multi-generational, unlike the protests of the Vietnam era. Yet there is a way in which the current generational war is more insidious because it has been made invisible by the Trump team’s blizzard.
I wonder whether this assault could be a unifying principle for the left. Perhaps it is time to see what is happening now as a war between young people and that part of the baby boom that dodged the Vietnam War instead of opposing it, and who managed to basically seize power after the Reagan era.
We should do so — especially those of who are older and were on the other side in those ancient battles.
Maybe if we did, we would see how all of these various issues connect. We would begin to form alliances across the various issues that sometimes divide our efforts.
Perhaps it is time to ignore the snake’s thrashing and attack it at its head.
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