Today’s babies are likely to live until the 22nd century. When they do, how will they think of the first fifth of the 21st century?
I don’t mean the history buffs; I mean the average, non-historically-thinking citizens, assuming that there are average citizens in the year 2100. What will they think of the first 20 years of the century that just finished?
I believe the TL;DR version can be summarized with two slashified numbers and three “I”s: 9/11, internet, inequality, identity, and 11/9. Or, in slightly larger terms: 1) the attacks of September 11, 2) the internet, the tech economy, and social media, 3) income inequality and endemic injustice caused by, and present in, Western societies; 4) “the feels,” “political correctness,” increasing inclusivity; 5) the election of Donald Trump and resulting policy.
This weekend, Andrew O’Hehir, the executive editor of Salon, wrote “From 9/11 to Donald Trump: A Short History of World War IV.” Although O’Hehir has been known to wax esoteric, and tilt at some rather obscure windmills, he’s on firm ground here as he appropriates Jean Baudrillard’s insights on 9/11 to the Trump phenomenon. (Baudrillard died in 2007, so somebody other than him has to do it.) Baudrillard said that 9/11 should not be understood as a one-off or foreign invasion, akin to a meteor strike, but instead as representing, partly, the West’s demented wish fulfillment: “The West…has become suicidal, and declared war on itself.” For O’Hehir, the trauma of 11/9 (November 9th, 2016, when Clinton conceded the election to Trump) is something of an extension and twisted mirror of this same kind of death wish: on some level, we want to destroy ourselves, and Donald Trump is merely the vassal. Before you object, read all of Baudrillard’s piece, because he makes the notion of wish fulfillment make sense. Begin by thinking of all the movies where you enjoyed cities being destroyed.
O’Hehir’s thesis isn’t wrong, but it needs a little more support. In particular, O’Hehir’s “Short History” connecting 9/11 to President Trump is too short; what took place during the 15 long years between those two traumas, and how did those events connect one to the other? As I already said, the short version is internet, inequality, and identity. But to elaborate further, let’s pretend that it’s the year 2100, and today’s babies’ grandchildren are prepping for their AP History exam. The over-reductive paragraphs of their American History Book will go a little something like this:
September 11, 2001. Almost 3000 people died when terrorist group Al-Qaeda hijacked four U.S. commercial airliners and turned them into weapons, leveling Manhattan’s World Trade Center and damaging the Pentagon. 9/11 was history’s deadliest day for American firefighters, police officers, and on American soil more generally. In response, President George W. Bush launched the War on Terror, which would eventually lead to the death of al-Qaeda’s leader Osama Bin Laden as well as the deaths of at least 7,000 American soldiers, 30,000 Afghanis, and 120,000 Iraqis. 9/11 transformed President Bush’s isolationism to a more “neo-conservative” aggression that involved proactive globalization, world-policing, nation-building, use of torture, and some idealism regarding the spread of democracy. 9/11 also made Americans more fearful and repressed in many ways.
The Internet and Wired Culture. Although the internet’s origins go back to the 1960s, the world wide web only became widely available in the 1990s, and it was only in the 2000s that the internet became ubiquitous in daily life. Economically, Silicon Valley became the recognized engine of worldwide growth, innovation, and America-centered globalization. In the 20th century, the internet was a supplement to knowledge and character; in the 2000s, via new websites like Google, Wikipedia, and eventually Facebook, the internet became the way to, and repository of, knowledge and character. The introduction of the iPhone in 2007 accelerated this process; with the proliferation of smartphones and social media during the Obama administration, Americans found themselves always connected, empowered to text and to take pictures or video and immediately distribute the images to their friends or the wider world. Digital culture, to a large degree, defined and altered every other culture, for example by making institutions more disposable, crowdsourced, data-driven, populist, and troll-attenuated.
Income Inequality. Reaganomics continued its powerful hold over official United States policy. For a brief period in the 1990s, economic gains became more evenly distributed amongst all classes, but this changed with the start of the recession in 2000 and accelerated with Republican-passed upper-income tax cuts in 2001 and 2002. The more dramatic economic collapse in 2008 paradoxically led to both a Democratic Party President and an increased exacerbation of the wealth gap; by 2014, more than 95% of the post-collapse gains had gone to the rich. Transfering jobs offshore, or to robots, became standard corporate practice. Occupy Wall Street protested the income gap and ultimately proved inadequate to activism, but it did succeed in mainstreaming the notion of the “one percent” versus the “99 percent.” Elites failed conspicuously in the 2000s, from the Iraq War to the Euro to fairness of wealth distribution, and resentment of the “Davos class” heavily influenced the 2010s.
Identity. At the end of the 1990s, America’s elite universities were committed to integration of their living facilities; 20 years later, the same universities proudly boasted of opt-in sections restricted to African-Americans, Latinos, and other groups. This evolution reflected the drift of universities toward a long-overdue celebrating of marginalized groups and women. Thanks to the internet, ostensibly “politically correct” aspects of university culture metastasized into American culture more generally, aided and abetted by blogs, social media, and an Oprah Winfrey-led emphasis on “feelings” (which became at least as important as facts). During the time of President Obama, most Americans became aware of cultural appropriation, safe spaces, uninvited speakers, rape culture, and trigger warnings; many felt Obama himself had pushed the culture toward broader representation through his own example and by supporting same-sex marriage in 2012. “Political correctness” became an unfortunate (and often misused) shorthand for diversity, politeness, being “woke,” and/or the abatement of free speech.
The election of Donald Trump. In many ways a synthesis of the previous four paragraphs, reality-show star Trump was like many things that succeed on the internet: brash, flashy, extreme, often-trolling, and pithy to a fault. Despite his silver-spoon upbringing and considerable fortune, he managed to harness anti-establishment energy against elites, including members of the Republican Party who were as surprised at his success as other power-brokers and journalists. While Trump had personal faults, he successfully recast these as rejection of political correctness and the authenticity of a non-politician. Trump promoted a distinctly Louis XIV-esque “L’etat, c’est moi” approach both in America and in the foreign dictatorships he praised. Trump ran both with and against the Republican Party, and his Presidency often spoke to this duality, “draining the swamp” while also preserving many problematic aspects of the extant system. Ultimately, Trump revealed underestimated weaknesses and strengths of America’s laws, press, and both of its major parties.
Just a guess.