How Baby Boomer psychodrama infected the 2016 election
Barack Obama's election to the presidency in 2008 seemed to promise the end of the Baby Boomer reign over American life. Even Obama seemed to know his rise was their downfall. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama commented that so much of our national politics felt like "the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation — a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago — played out on the national stage."
Well, the Boomers are ready to take the country back, putting their arthritic — excuse me, "overworked" — fingers around the levers of national power again. Donald Trump was born in 1946. Hillary Clinton was born just a year later. Trump was discipled by Roy Cohn, a veteran of the McCarthy investigations. Clinton was a young Goldwater girl turned Wellesley radical. The 2016 campaign is like the final chapter in the Boomer generation's tragic story.
The Clintonite half of the race represents the Baby Boomer generation's brittle, screechy self-righteousness, born out of exaggerated struggles, and soothed by corrupt money-grabs. Then there's the Trumpian half: born rich, yet afflicted with grandiose self-importance and paranoia, and possessed of a consciously exercised offensiveness that is normally pardoned as senility.
Shock and surprise, each candidate is the most wildly unpopular nominee their party has picked in many decades.
The Boomers were cursed with the immense self-confidence that comes from being the first generation given their cultural formation primarily by mass media. They were the first to be taught by radio and television what was fashionable, how to fit in, and how to conform with each other. They then divided in the 1960s, and spent the next half century re-enacting and re-litigating those same divisions. John Podhoretz nicely captured the early '60s/late '60s divide between Trump and Clinton. Trump belongs to the swaggering, entitled rat-pack era, she to the socially conscious, entitled campus culture.
The Boomers were born into prosperity. And they have viewed it as their right ever since. Much of this prosperity is an illusion created by dishonest accounting. They'll let the lawyers discharge their credit card debt when they die, and meanwhile pull all the equity out of their overinflated home prices, and bankrupt the public treasury with the inflated medical spending that they deserve.
Clinton represents Boomer progress on civil rights and social attitudes, which she did not create, and for which she sacrificed nothing in the vicinity of her ambitions. She is the candidate of putting faith in "the system" over the long term. It enriched her friends, who, in turn, enriched her. Trump is the candidate for a Boomer coalition that thinks the system is rigged against them, and who have a nostalgia for an era in which they could confidently bully others, whether about their race, or disco, or the bond market.
One common Boomer belief that connects their candidacies is that tragedy is not a feature of any life, but a personal insult to them for which someone owes them compensation, with punitive damages awarded in this life. Success doesn't just retreat, we are cheated of it by betrayers. Time and chance do not act on us in strange, unsettling ways. Instead, there is a conspiracy against our type of person.
Trump is a Boomer having fun in his old age, maybe the time of his life. Whatever damage he is doing to the country, to his party, or to his family name in history is beside the point. The Trump electoral phenomenon is merely the latest venture for the Trump brand. That many Trump ventures end in disaster or lawsuits doesn't distract him. Trump seems to admire his children merely for having the good smarts to be born to him. His love of country also seems to spring, like all things, out of self-regard.
Clinton is a Boomer not having fun, and instead seeking the last honor that is owed to her. And it is owed to her more now for having been once denied. Her campaign feels like the Iditarod, a long, cold slog that someone you can't imagine yourself being dutifully and wearily crosses off their personal bucket list. At the end of it she'll be red-faced and well-congratulated. But it is the dogs working for her that risk injury and excite your pity.
The actuarial tables tell us that millions and millions of Boomers will die in the next eight years. Maybe that comforts you. If you have, like me, despaired in the fact that your nation is now meant to become a stage for the Boomers' final act of self-congratulation and self-pity, spare a thought or a prayer for the millions of Gen Xers and millenials taking care of a Donald or a Hillary closer to home.