Trump’s America: The Nature of the Coming Conflict

Source: Andrew O’Hehir, “Will Donald Trump’s divided America evoke the social turmoil of the ’60s? It might — and the 1860s too,” Salon, January 21

…We are now moving into a more open and overt phase of that conflict. It is a conflict we have seen before, that never quite went away. It’s a conflict between the nearly meaningless code words “liberal” and “conservative,” between warring generations, between competing versions of the American past and the American future, between the diverse and cosmopolitan culture of America’s major cities and the self-defined tradition of the so-called heartland.

My boss suggested to me this week that we are on the verge of a period of sustained social turmoil along those lines, something like the unresolved cultural revolution of the 1960s. Even though it’s a cliché of political discourse to describe any moment of open conflict or adversarial activism as “like the ’60s,” he’s probably right. We can only hope it does not reach the scale of the 1860s, when an earlier phase of this same conflict reached its bloody climax.

One of the curious aspects of this new phase of conflict is that both sides see themselves as persecuted and downtrodden, fighting against the power structure. That is clearly different from the dynamic of the 1960s, when the divisions between the Establishment and the counterculture were obvious to all. But who is the Establishment now, and where is it? Everyone says they’re against it, including a newly elected president who has appointed a roster of billionaire bankers and CEOs to his cabinet.

At every Donald Trump campaign rally, the crowd was warmed up in advance with repeat playings of the early Rolling Stones greatest-hits collection, “High Tide and Green Grass.” Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were not pleased but, OK, why not? Trump’s voters are overwhelmingly aging white boomers; the odds that they grew up listening to classic rock approach 100 percent. But whatever the Stones represent in the culture now, there is no doubt what they represented in the ’60s: danger, rebellion, violence, drugs and sex.

Trump and his followers have a deeply confused relationship to the conflict of the ’60s, which is now deep enough in the past that relatively few of them participated in it first-hand. Essentially they want to be on both sides at once: of course they don’t identify with the hippies and the gays and the bra-burning feminists and the bomb-throwing radicals and the Black Panthers. But they don’t want to be the uncool people either. Their version of jingoistic, unthinking hypernationalism is, somehow, not their grandparents’ version. They are the true heirs to the rebel spirit of the ’60s and the soul of rock ‘n’ roll: Street Fighting Man and Sympathy for the Devil are hymns to Donald Trump.

Look, we can all find reasons to feel ashamed about what happened and how it happened. I am mortified that the diverse and perplexing nation where I and my children were born and raised, a nation that simultaneously represents the best and worst of human history, has taken such a nihilistic turn. But the rise of President Donald Trump has been a long time coming. It’s like something written in the stars, an appointment with destiny that our nation could not avoid forever.

I tried to stop it, after my own fashion. Many other people did much more. Like most of you I believed we probably would. (Listening to Trump’s nomination speech from behind the stage in Cleveland, I had a premonition I tried to ignore.) None of it was enough. Those of us in the media have been consumed by second-guessing and self-criticism in the wake of Trump’s election, and much of that is warranted. But what happened was not Salon’s fault or CNN’s fault or The New York Times’ fault.

It is both true and not true that President Donald Trump is a historical fluke. The peculiar circumstances of his victory were shaped by various marginal and unpredictable factors – the Electoral College, the purported Russian hack, James Comey’s infamous letter to Congress, the problematic public image of Hillary Clinton and her inept campaign – that came together to produce an unlikely outcome. In the thought experiment where you change any one of those factors, the result could well be different.

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