WASHINGTON — Take the baby boomers. Please.
The idealists of the 1960s have come a long way from Woodstock. After a quarter-century of mismanaging the country, they have produced Donald Trump, who with his narcissistic and uncompromising style is a bright orange symbol of what went wrong with the massive generation. And polls show that boomers are the biggest source of support for Trump.
Among voters between age 50 and 64, Trump leads Hillary Clinton by three points in Washington Post-ABC News polling and by a point in NBC-Wall Street Journal polling, equal to the older, smaller Silent Generation’s support of the Republican nominee in the latter poll. The generational support for Trump’s burn-it-all-down campaign is the latest reminder of why the baby boomers are in the running to be remembered as the Worst Generation.
But, if I may claim a rare moment of generational pride, there is good news in the polling, too. Generation X — my much-maligned generation — has turned emphatically against Trump. The NBC poll shows Clinton leading by 22 points among those between 35 and 49 — a more lopsided rejection of Trump than even the millennials mustered.
This raises hope after the debacle of boomer governance. “It’s really the boomers that are driving the hyperpartisanship and polarization and gridlock,” says David Rosen, a consultant specializing in generational effects in politics. Beginning with the boomer-led 1994 Republican Revolution, “that’s where you see the origin of the insane politics that we have right now. Trump is in some ways taking that style to its most absurd and ridiculous extremes.”
But maybe this is the boomers’ last gasp. “Hopefully,” Rosen tells me, “when Gen X comes to power it will repudiate the boomers and the entire legacy of this style of politics and move us toward something that is more pragmatic.”
Before the emails start pouring in, let me make clear that this isn’t an indictment of individual boomers, nor of boomers’ contributions to art and science. But as a generation of leaders, they have been disastrous. Boomers seized the White House in 1992 and the House in 1994 and have generally dominated government since. Clinton, like Trump, is a boomer, which guarantees that the generation will control the White House through at least 2020.
And what does this generation have to show for its quarter-century of leadership?
Boomers inherited the sole superpower after the Greatest Generation won the Cold War — and squandered U.S. influence with two long and inconclusive wars.
They gave us the financial collapse of 2008, the worst economy since the Great Depression, a crushing federal debt and worse inequality. They devoured fossil fuels and did little about global warming while allowing infrastructure and research to deteriorate. They expanded entitlement programs and are now poised to bankrupt those programs. Their leadership has led to declining confidence in religion, the presidency, Congress, the Supreme Court, banks and big business, schools, the media and the police. They may leave their children (the millennials) worse off than they were.
Boomers, coddled in their youth, grew up selfish and unyielding. When they got power, they created polarization and gridlock from both sides. Though Vietnam War-protesting boomers got the attention, their peers on the right were just as ideological, creating the religious right. Boomers are twice as likely to identify as conservative than liberal, a figure that hasn’t changed much in two decades. And Trump captures his generation’s selfishness: his multiple draft deferrals, his claim that he’s “made a lot of sacrifices” by erecting buildings, his vow to have huge tax cuts and massive military investments.
Generational patterns repeat over time, as researchers William Strauss and Neil Howe showed. A “civic” generation is followed by an “adaptive” one, then “idealist” and “reactive” generations. The boomers are idealists — same as the generations that led the United States into the Civil War and the Great Depression. Gen Xers are reactive — cynical and pragmatic — and clean up idealists’ messes. Millennials, like the Greatest Generation, rebuild institutions.
Happily, Gen Xers, the cleanup crew, could become the plurality in Congress as soon as 2018. The question is whether my generation, working with the millennials, can break the boomers’ gridlock and deal with the many crises boomers left us.
Gen Xer that I am, I’m not convinced my cynical cohort has what it takes. But Rosen is hopeful. “When we see national emergencies arrive, Generation X will be able to get things done when it needs to,” he says.
And this much is for sure: After a quarter-century of boomer mismanagement and the monstrosity that is Trump, we can’t possibly do worse.
Dana Milbank ([email protected]) is a columnist for The Washington Post.