This presidential election is a contest between the oldest of the baby boomers. Yet Donald Trump, 70, and Hillary Clinton, 68, represent two very different decades in the formation of that generation. Donald Trump became famous as a classic 1980s type, while Hillary Clinton first attained public notice as a classic 1960s type.
It’s interesting, and sad, to see how the promise of those two decades has aged.
Trump opened Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in November 1983. Go-go capitalism had a lot of élan back then. Capitalism had washed away the stagnation of the 1970s. It was defeating the Soviet Union. During the Reagan years, writers celebrated capitalism not only as a wealth-generating engine but also as a moral system, a way to arouse hard work, creativity and trust.
Of course, Trump was always a scuzzy version of the capitalist type. Somehow I got on the guest list of a few of the ‘80s-era parties he hosted in the lobby of his skyscraper and would go for sociological entertainment.
They were filled with the sort of B-grade celebrities and corrupt city officials who were desperate for any mention on the front and sixth pages of The New York Post. A friend of mine came up to me at one of those parties and summarized the atmosphere: “Not indicted, not invited.”
As we saw Monday night, Trump now represents capitalism degraded to pure selfishness. He treats other people like objects and lies with abandon. Proud to be paying no taxes while others foot the bill, proud to have profited off the housing bust that caused so much suffering, he lacks even the barest conception of civic life and his responsibilities to it.
His ethos is: Get what I can for myself, and everyone else can take care of themselves. As Alexi Sargeant pointed out in First Things, “Trump’s policies, such as they are, usually come down to America breaking its promises.” Trump would have America break its promises to its NATO allies, Japan, its creditors, its trading partners and its own Constitution.
Trump reminds us – even those of us who champion capitalism – how corrosive capitalism can be when unaccompanied by a counterbalancing ethos of moral restraint.
Rod Dreher of The American Conservative points out that when a leader consistently breaks promises, communal life is impossible. “If you cannot count on people to honor their vows, you never know what is real,” Dreher writes. Trump is the low, dishonest detritus of a once bright decade.
Clinton gave her Wellesley commencement speech in the spring of 1969. It was filled with that ‘60s style of lofty, inspiring and self-important idealism.
“The challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible,” she said. “We’re not interested in social reconstruction; it’s human reconstruction,” she continued. “We’re searching for more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating modes of living.”
She dreamed of a society in which trust would be restored. “Where you don’t manipulate people. Where you’re not interested in social engineering for people.” The words were grandiose, but at least there was a spiritual ambition to them.
That poetic, aspirational quality is entirely absent from what has become the Clinton campaign. Clinton can be a devastatingly good counterpuncher, but she lacks the human touch when talking about the nation’s problems, and fails to make an emotional connection.
When asked why she wants to be president or for any positive vision, she devolves into a list of programs. And it is never enough just to list three programs in an answer; she has to pile in an arid hodgepodge of eight or nine. This is pure interest-group liberalism – buying votes with federal money – not an inspiring image of the common good.
The twin revolutions of the 1960s and the 1980s liberated the individual – first socially and then economically – and weakened the community. More surprising, this boomer-versus-boomer campaign has decimated idealism.
There is no uplift in this race. There is an entire absence, in both campaigns, of any effort to appeal to the higher angels of our nature. There is an assumption, in both campaigns, that we are self-seeking creatures, rather than also loving, serving, hoping, dreaming, cooperating creatures. There is a presumption in both candidates that the lowest motivations are the most real.
Ironically, one of the tasks for those who succeed the baby boomers is to restore idealism. The great challenge of our moment is the crisis of isolation and fragmentation, the need to rebind the fabric of a society that has been torn by selfishness, cynicism, distrust and autonomy.
At some point there will have to be a new vocabulary and a restored anthropology, emphasizing love, friendship, faithfulness, solidarity and neighborliness that pushes people toward connection rather than distrust. Millennials, I think, want to be active in this rebinding. But inspiration certainly isn’t coming from the aging boomers now onstage.