You may have felt the way I did after Barack Obama won the presidency.
Finally, I said to myself, the 1960s have ended.
Recall life four years prior. In the contest between George W. Bush and John Kerry, a political context of permanent war in Iraq and Afghanistan, time and space folded. Baby boomers (Americans born between 1946-1964) relived that turbulent era, while the rest of us, especially Gen Xers, stood by powerless. We wanted to argue about today’s controversies. They wanted to argue about old controversies related to the Vietnam War and social justice that were five decades old.
The contender representing the noblest spirit of the ’60s lost, and the one representing that era’s cancerous backlash won. It was all so maddening. It was like people my age were erased. Then Obama won, and a generational nightmare seemed over.
The country’s first black president accelerated trends already underway. Conservative Republicans had been abandoning commitments to postwar liberal democracy for decades. It was fairly ad hoc, but after a black man won, a stream became a river.
By the end of Obama’s tenure, an alternate reality, fueled and amplified by Fox News and other right-wing media, emerged. So-called “constitutional conservatives” would not stop at manipulating the meaning of the founding document—if that’s what it took. As historian George Hawley wrote in a 2017 book about the “alt right”: “If the Constitution dictates a policy that is inimical to white interests, then the Constitution is the problem.”
The result of that movement is the ascendance of President Donald Trump. A candidate’s entanglements with foreign oligarchs would have been enough in the past to sink him. Not this time. During a black man’s presidency, the movement from which Trump rose created an “alt-constitution,” writes Wesleyan’s John E. Finn in Fracturing the Founding.
Unlike the real Constitution, Finn explains, this “alt-constitution,” as it’s articulated by the likes of Richard Spencer, offers “a vision of political life that emphasizes absolute rights and unassailable liberties (especially speech and guns); state’s rights and a corresponding suspicion of the federal government; racial classifications recognized and legitimated by law; and [legal] privilege for white Christians.”
In this context, it should not be surprising that the same people who swift-boated John Kerry’s war record—that is, turned his greatest asset into his greatest liability—now embrace a Vietnam draft dodger in the person of Donald Trump.
It’s not so much that Trump’s supporters have abandoned their previous sense of patriotism. It’s that they have created an “alt-patriotism” much in the way they created an “alt-constitution.” Both are tools used for advancing nefarious interests.
The real Constitution and real patriotism might not matter to the president’s supporters, including the whole of the Republican Party, but they matter greatly to pretty much anyone who is not in thrall to the impervious world of Fox News.
For this reason, I wonder if the successful presidential challenger will find a way to talk about these conflicting worldviews to offer voters a choice: do you favor patriotism that centers on white identity, or a patriotism that’s equitable, just, and inclusive?
This is why Pete Buttigieg speaks so powerfully. Among his many attributes is service in the Naval Reserve for nearly a decade. The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, spent seven months in Afghanistan. When he says, as he did last week, that the president exploited his father’s vast fortune to get out of Vietnam, it’s a bolt of lightning.
Trump is someone, Buttigieg said, who pretended “to be disabled so that somebody could go to war in his place. … I’m old enough to remember when conservatives talked about character as something that mattered in the presidency.”
I was wrong to think the politics of the 1960s ended in 2008. Boomers will fight over that complicated era until they die. Democrats may as well embrace it, face it, and jam Trump on his draft dodging the way Bush and the Republicans jammed John Kerry.
Gen Xers might be erased, but Millennials won’t be.