Flatiron Hot! Pundit: Examining Millennials’ Complicity in Trump’s Election
- Eric Shapiro
- On November 16, 2016
The biggest story of the 2016 election, perhaps even bigger than the humbling of the Clinton dynasty and Trump’s meteoric rise to power, was the failure of the Obama coalition to mobilize and defeat the candidate who stands in opposition to virtually all of their professed values and interests. As a millennial, I cannot help but feel a tremendous sense of guilt and frustration for the role my generation played in enabling the election of Donald Trump. While I personally voted for Hillary Clinton, I know many good, smart, patriotic Americans my age who decided after the Democratic primary not to support Hillary Clinton. Try as I might in writing and in person, I could not change their minds. It was like telling them to renounce their identities, which were inexorably bound up with Bernie Sanders and his “political revolution. It is almost as if they defined their own emerging political definitions in opposition to some caricature of Hillary Clinton that no amount of facts could debunk.
Based on a combination of anecdotal evidence gleaned from conversations with fellow millennials and disturbing reports from pre-election polls, I feared that young people would not turn out for Hillary Clinton even though she was clearly the general election candidate more in line with our views. As the media and the campaigns focused largely on other demographics – white suburban women, white working class voters, African Americans, Hispanics – I worried that Hillary Clinton was overlooking millennials, a demographic deeply disenchanted with her candidacy and essential to her success. I was devastated when my fears of low millennial turnout proved justified on election day, with predictable results.
One of the many tragedies of 2016 is that prior to the election, millennials supported Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by so large a margin, that had we turned out on election day, our preferred candidate would have won. Instead, too many millennials cast protest votes or refused to show up at all, giving Donald Trump a path to victory. The inconvenient truth of our complicity in Trump’s election and whatever disasters ensue as a result of it will leer at us from the pages of our children’s history books, from the reports of dangerously rising greenhouse gas emissions that Trump and the Republican Party will dismiss as a hoax even as the planet itself attests otherwise. We failed to act to secure our futures when it was most important and our inaction will haunt us for a generation.
Fortunately, Trump’s election seems to have awakened the dragon of millennial outrage. I have been heartened by the protests raging across the nation in the wake of Trump’s election and was happy to participate in the march from NYC’s Union Square to Trump Tower on Saturday. However, I was disappointed to learn that the event’s organizers did not vote.
Which brings me to my first criticism of my generation: we are much better at booing than voting. Protesting and civil disobedience are essential tactics, used throughout American history to call attention to all manner of abuses, persecutions and injustices. But protesting is and always has been a means, not an end, and it is too late to achieve the all-important end of keeping an unrepentant bigot with authoritarian impulses and poor impulse control (a bad combination) from taking power.
How could we let this happen? It seems likely that Donald Trump and the Republican Party, now on the verge of controlling all three branches of the federal government and the majority of the nation’s governorships and statehouses, will proceed to undo all the progress of the past eight years and then some. We have helped ensure that President Obama, the first black man to hold the office and “the one” who inspired so many of us to vote for the first time, would be forced to watch Trump take a hammer to the greater part of his legacy. Donald Trump, meanwhile, gets to enjoy the ultimate ego trip on the backs of the millions of our fellow citizens whose lives he will ruin. In part, because we didn’t vote or voted wrong.
Millennials had the numbers to save President Obama’s legacy and avert Trumpian disaster, but that required not only opposing Trump, but supporting Hillary Clinton. Although many of us did so, enough did not to give Trump a substantial Electoral College victory. Why? That’s a complicated question that I can answer only through conjecture. In a sense, Bernie Sanders is responsible. Not Bernie Sanders, the person, who loyally supported and campaigned for his primary opponent in the general election. Rather, the idea of Bernie Sanders and a misunderstanding of his message kept many a millennial from turning out for Hillary even when she adopted what Sanders himself called the most progressive Democratic Party platform in history.
This good faith gesture was not good enough. The “me generation” invested its non-fungible support in the person of one Bernie Sanders, not Hillary Clinton. And it turned out that millennial support for Bernie, the grassroots energy unleashed by the socialist septuagenarian’s “political revolution,” was not transferable to Hillary. When Sanders finally admitted defeat (although many millennials, taking a page from Breitbart’s conspiracy mongering, insisted he was robbed) many of his supporters proceeded to throw an epic tantrum heard all ’round the internet. The target of this tantrum, unfortunately, was those tasked with defeating Trump. Many young millennials justified their tantrums with criticisms of neo-liberalism (which apparently didn’t apply when they voted for Obama), and jabbed their fingers at a generically unscrupulous DNC as if it embodied all the evils of a broken political system. They whined and sulked all the way through Election Day.
Some millennials sulked by withdrawing from politics; others chose to sulk more actively by backing third-party candidates that we knew full well had no chance of victory. They sulked and they whined, but when the time came, they didn’t vote. Many millennials are still sulking and whining to this day, although at least now they are directing their anger at a more appropriate target: Donald Trump.
It remains to be seen if his election taught them a lesson or just provided them with another pretext to protest now and refuse to participate in the democratic process in 2018 and 2020. Although it is probably impossible to prevent Donald Trump and the GOP from inflicting massive damage on the country, millennials’ choice of whether and who to vote for in the coming years may well determine the fate of American democracy.
But in the meantime, as we prepare for Trump’s inauguration, we must reflect on the consequences of our political actions. In the crucial months leading up to the election, we strengthened Trump’s hand by turning Hillary Clinton into the bad guy. We allowed ourselves to be played by Vladimir Putin, Julian Assange and Trump himself, lapping up leaked documents that showed Hillary Clinton to be *gasp* a typical career politician (and a remarkably clean one, at that, for those not looking for excuses to condemn her). Yet, since we lacked the perspective that comes from living through many elections and observing all manner of political malfeasance, every mundane revelation, every minor mistake, every catty remark by a Clinton or DNC staffer, became evidence of a vast conspiracy engineered by the party establishment. Said establishment indeed attempted, in the hamfisted manner of all party establishments, to win a high-stakes election by backing what it saw as the most electable candidate. In the process, it occasionally stepped over lines of propriety that beg to be crossed in politics.
But millennials must get over the misguided notion that anyone was out to get Bernie Sanders or, by extension, out to thwart us. The fact is, Sanders’ insurgent campaign faced an uphill climb from the beginning in terms of resources and name recognition. In the limited time Sanders had to build a campaign on the fly, Hillary Clinton simply appealed to a wider range of demographics, enabling her to capitalize on her built-in, institutional advantage and emerge with the nomination. This may have been disappointing and perhaps, in some ways, unfair, but it wasn’t sinister and it certainly wasn’t Hillary’s fault; her only crime was playing by the same primary rules as every other Democratic nominee since George McGovern. Bernie Sanders taught us that we should aspire toward a better, more inclusive politics less dominated by big money and super-delegates. He did not, however, suggest that we enable Donald Trump to make a statement.
And yet, against Sanders’ advice, too many young leftists (as well as some older ones who have always lamented the Democratic Party’s Clinton-initiated neoliberal turn more than they hated losing elections to Republicans) caught Clinton derangement syndrome. Every problem in politics was Hillary’s fault. Some, still burned by the formative trauma of the Iraq War, clung tightly to that grievance, which at least had the benefit of being reality-based. Others made up absurd conspiracies that I won’t dignify by repeating them here. Even accurate criticism of Clinton was blown way out of proportion; one would be hard-pressed to find any politician in American history who could meet the suspiciously high standards the left applied to Hillary Clinton.
It did not matter to the haters that, according to most of their ideological and ethical criteria, Trump was far worse than Clinton. They did not want to vote for the “lesser evil,” they said, as if voting for an establishment politician (one, tellingly, without Obama’s charisma or Y chromosome) over Trump would sully their honor for life. Instead, our honor will be sullied by allowing an unqualified, thuggish bigot who defies all of our values to impose his warped vision on the country. When we survey the wreckage of Trump’s reign (hopefully in four years), we will not be able to avoid the inconvenient truth: we may not have build that, but we stood by and watched it be built. No amount of protesting can cancel out the fact that too many of us stayed home when our country and its most vulnerable citizens depended on us to vote. Great job, brothers and sisters; the millennium that gives us our name will be a little darker because of our bad collective decision.
Reprinted by Special Arrangement and with the permission of Just Off Kilter Blog.
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