Like a butterfly breaking free from a cocoon, America has often been reborn as something new. These renewals took place in the colonial era, in the Antebellum awakenings and reforms, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights era. America’s plasticity is its great gift, a national talent for redemption. Another iteration of this recurring trend has been under way for 20 years, and the nation could be on the threshold of an even greater leap toward compassion and justice.
The America of 2004 was not exactly a bigoted hellscape. De jure desegregation had held for 50 years and the last anti-homosexuality laws had been stricken from the books. But for most marginalized groups the Bush era was still a deeply trying time. Over 60% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, many of them staunchly, and an anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendment was the central promise that George W. Bush made to the voters. Stigma against mental illness was suffocating and ubiquitous. An aggressive evangelical movement sought to smother any claims by religious minorities to cultural validation. The broad climate was one of traditionalist hegemony and white heternormativity.
At the same time that Bush’s America stood firmly in the traditionalist mold, however, a cohort of very different Americans was on the rise. These dissenters were Millennials. Astute social critics had observed as early as the 1990s that this generation held very different values than almost any generation in American history. They far outstripped even the Sixties generation in their predilection for equality and their liberationist commitments. 2004 was the first election in which these people voted in large numbers and created the trend of strong Democratic voting among young people.
Over the next 20 years, Millennials would influence America in a dramatic way, though due to ongoing Boomer hegemony, they exercised less clout than their numbers should have indicated. As Millennials emerged, they shifted America away from a suite of inequitable tendencies and began to reify the Rights Revolutions. First among these equalizing trends was the rising visibility of LGBTQ people. Closeted for centuries, gay and lesbian Americans enjoyed tremendous strides in social acceptance and eventually the right to marry. An even more marginalized group, the trans community, followed in only a matter of years. Women became more empowered and toxic masculinity slowly became stigmatized.
So far, so good. But the growing Millennial Revolution triggered a vicious backlash among older white men. Often provincial and working-class, these white males seethed in grievance at changes that challenged their long-held privileges. They became more misogynistic as women did well; they clung more tenaciously to the gun culture as violence became stigmatized; and above all their racism skyrocketed to virulent levels when an African American won the presidency. The bitterness of the American Grievance Community reached its zenith with the candidacy of Donald Trump.
Trump’s coalition is more of a social movement than a political party. These are white males with waning privileges trusting a cult-leader to restore their social status. But for all their belligerence the success of these MAGA warriors has been partial at best. After all, Donald Trump served only one term, during which American social attitudes liberalized dramatically. It was on Donald Trump’s watch that trans people became more visible, and the Black Lives Matter movement accomplished its goal of reducing police violence. Trump in fact triggered a reverse backlash that made most Americans more liberal.
And in his viciousness and criminality, Trump has primed America to become yet more progressive. The 2024 presidential election could be the final hurrah for white-male vengeance politics. As Trump has rendered himself a despised pariah, the few Americans who refuse to budge from his embrace have found themselves a shunned and rejected subculture. Polling, for example, finds that the Republican-Party positions on the issues of culture today command only 35% support across the board. The rejection of Trump next year is likely to be deafening.
Trump’s likely crushing repudiation will deliver a message to the world about what American has come to believe. This will not be merely the defeat of a candidate. Trump, as I said, is the leader of a social movement that stands for inequality and brute privilege. When Americans reject him, they will have rejected his movement too, and with that movement’s marginalization will come a transformation of values. The precepts of racial aggression will be discredited, though they will never go away fully. In the meantime we’ll see the Millennial Revolution reach its culminating success.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.