As we close out 2017 and prepare resolutions for next year, here’s a suggestion: Let’s try to understand Trump’s America with more pieces like this essay from Conor Williams, which reverses a flawed and tired formula by asking young, diverse Americans what they make of the President and his loyal #MAGA supporters. Williams, who started teaching first grade in Crown Heights around the time George W. Bush was beginning his second term, recently caught up with a former student and a few of his current classmates, some of them seniors heading to college this fall. Reminding pundits that “white men’s fears are not the only fears,” Williams asks these students—immigrants and children of immigrants from a wide range of countries—what they make of the America they are inheriting. Their answers reflect alienation—from popular narratives of U.S. history, from Trump supporters they meet who are frustratingly immune to persuasion, from a right-wing populism whose anger baffles them. Williams notes that the “older white people” who nostalgically voted to restore a mythical past have injected “long-term political poison” into the body politic, making these students skeptical that they have a place in a free and equal American future. As one of them bluntly asks: “when does my day come?”
Williams is right, I think, to highlight the theme of futurity. The surge of right-wing populism over the last few years has often felt like an angry rebellion against a future waged largely by people who will not have to experience quite as much of it. This is not solely an American story: Three quarters of British youth opposed Brexit, while voters over 65 overwhelmingly supported it. Support for Trump also varied by age, though not as drastically: Only 36 percent of 18-29 year old voters supported him, while 52 percent of voters over 65 did. In recent months, Trump’s approval has fallen as low as 20 percent among younger voters, prompting Ed Kilgore to remark that his “popularity is directly proportional to the number of years poll respondents have been walking the earth.”
Republican politicians can read polling and demographic data as well as anybody else, and it wasn’t long ago that many pundits believed the GOP would have to change in order to maintain electoral viability. Trump’s ascent indicates that such an evolution is, to put it lightly, not the preferred path among the party’s base voters. That means political power and electoral viability have to be maintained through other means: voter ID laws, gerrymandering, and perhaps a hackish partisan takeover of the Census process. The disquieting result of these efforts will be to further justify the skeptical attitude that Williams’s former students already have about American democracy—offering concrete support for their sense that the system has been rigged precisely to deny them equal voice.
This is one reason that time alone won’t solve the problems being created today. And besides, Williams points out, further changes in America’s racial and ethnic makeup could easily exacerbate Trumpist reaction instead of rendering it politically inconsequential. For all these reasons, “demographic trends are no solution to what is ultimately a political problem. Increased American diversity may shuffle the political calculus for would-be heirs to the surviving members of Trump’s coalition, it but won’t single-handedly cure the country of the radicalized populism he has normalized.”
Given the likelihood that this prediction is correct, what will become of efforts to warp our political institutions in the service of preserving the outsized political clout of white conservatives? The project of realizing American democracy, currently endangered by an aggrieved group frightened of losing its dominance, may be left up to a new generation scarred by cultural alienation and facing obstacles to power erected intentionally by its predecessors. This introduces new tensions into the already-difficult work of democratic politics, tensions expressed eloquently by a young student whose father was recently deported. Even while expressing to Williams her doubt that a worthwhile American dream does (or even could) exist, she adds a complicating reflection that could serve as a fitting epitaph for this exhausting year: “I need the country to be redeemable.”