One of the essential uses of studying history is the way the past can sometimes shock you into a different awareness of the present, along with adding glimpses of possible futures. We certainly need more awareness when it comes to the Trump presidency.
The historical model I’d like to explore here is one of succeeding generations.
This is a longer post, so get comfortable.
In November, right after the American election, I read a terrific quote in Margaret MacMillan‘s grand First World War book The War That Ended Peace.* The passage was by Harry Kessler, a border-crossing (English and German) aristocrat, bon vivant, and prolific diarist. In it he characterized those epic changes in Europe as a grand succession struggle, a sequence of generations:
Something… was growing old and weak, dying out; and something new, young, energetic, and still unimaginable was in the offing. We felt it like a frost, like a spring in our limbs, the one with muffled pain, the other with a keen joy. (Kindle location 7428)
That quote about 1914 struck me as aimed straight at the United States of November 2016. Perhaps Americans are experiencing this kind of extraordinary generational succession struggle now – not through massive war, but along the lines of social transformation.
A few weeks later I read something similar in We Make the Road by Walking, where Paolo Freire describes massive changes in Brazilian society during the 1960s:
It is a time of confrontation, this transition, the time of transition of the old society to a new one that does not exist yet, but it’s being created with the confrontation of the ghosts. (218)
“confrontation of the ghosts” – what a great phrase. Again, there’s that sense of a moment caught between a dominant generation and a rising one, a time of struggle between two epochs.
This generational succession trope is not new. It’s as old as the classical idea of ages of gold and silver. My favorite modern example is a famous Antonio Gramsci quote about the 1930s, which seems to apply to our times nicely:
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. (one source)
That powerful, underappreciated, and very close observer of fascism went on:
this paragraph should be completed by some observations which I made on the so-called “problem of the younger generation” – a problem caused by the “crisis of authority” of the old generations in power, and by the mechanical impediment that has been imposed on those who could exercise hegemony, which prevents them from carrying out their mission.
A crisis of authority, a struggle between historical eras – again, this seems appropriate to 2016-2017.
One version of this generational succession idea has been occupying some American political thinkers and activists for, well, a generation. It comes from the Democratic party and goes like this: the old generation (think WWII plus most Baby Boomers) grew up and came into power based on certain forces shaping society: nationalism, manufacturing, racism, patriarchy, and carbon-based energy. Now, those structures and their people are about to give way to a new epoch shaped by contrasting and oppositional drivers: globalism, knowledge and service jobs, high technology, climate change mitigation, feminism, increased education, and pluralism. The old generation was based in factories, in suburbs, and in the countryside, while the new one inhabits ever-growing post-industrial cities. The old will give way to the new. That transition is deeply laid, indeed inevitable. We can count on it.
This is the argument of the very influential 2002 book The Emerging Democratic Majority, by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira. (Here’s a handy short summary by one of the authors) The Clinton campaign relied on it very closely.
But suddenly, in the 2016 election, the generational succession sequence backfired, as the older order, instead of fading away, instead hurled itself back into power for a last gasp of historical revenge, like the Roman emperor Justinian suddenly clawing back parts of the old western empire. What does this weird reversal mean?
Found on Facebook.
In response, proponents of the Judis and Teixeira theory can comfort themselves by understanding this Trumpist surprise as a spasm or blip, a temporary reverse on the otherwise durable arc. For them it was a glitch, possibly made possible by external or artificial forces, such as the FBI or Moscow. They can also extend the generational model by seeing the rising generation as somehow weaker at the present day, perhaps sapped by technology, or overcoddled into impotence – in other words, by indulging in the ever-popular, heinous sport of Millennial bashing. This is a temporary failure, and the younger folks should now be shocked into action.
As Teixeia himself argued shortly after the November election, “Those old legs will give out eventually, though we do not know exactly when.” Continue reading