When Barack Obama took office in 2009, the positive energy and sense of purpose he brought to the nation was largely about racial equity and racial healing. Less clearly articulated, but perhaps equally important, was the sense that political leadership, going forward, would also more accurately represent the emerging profile of America’s youth.
Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were both born in 1946, each early-stage Baby Boom progeny of the “Greatest Generation,” the mostly white Americans who had carried the nation through economic depression and world war. Barack Obama was born in 1961, at the tail end of Baby Boom. His election heralded the ascent of a new and more “diverse” conception of American identity, reflecting the rapidly changing demographics of American society.
Let’s probe the dynamics underlying this emerging focus on population diversity. But first, a note on the conventions of racial nomenclature, which have never served us well as a nation, but which have activated and anchored our worst impulses in the digital era.
Racial and Geographic Identity – The One Thing White Nationalists Get Right
Visual racial markers are the acid dissolving our national identity. The random, inconsistent, and emotionally loaded use of color-coded racial categories – black and white, in particular – become a linguistic foundation of our most abject, degrading, and divisive individual habits and institutional practices. We are long past the point when there can be any justification for the use of colors as racial labels. White nationalists, who have tried to package their more rancid opinions as a “reasonable defense” of “European civilization”, unwittingly give us a linguistic basis for undermining the emotional power of these color-coded appeals to deracinated whites.
I have written elsewhere about the destructive impact of visual heuristics, and it remains for me a fascinating irony that college campus progressives have achieved so much by scrapping the “gender binary” and by affirming and celebrating a fluid profusion of sexual/gender identities, while at the same time their focus on “white privilege” has mostly served to rigidify and fossilize our most hidebound binary racial instincts.
Race, of course, perhaps more than gender or sexual identity, is a social category. Genetically speaking, there is no white, no black, no red, no brown, no yellow. As a species, our interactions have produced a racial fluidity that no crude labels based on skin color can capture. But geographic markers do possess some salience, and more accurately (and with far less emotional triggering) absorb meanings that accurately (and reasonably) reflect identity organized around cultural origins. For this reason, whenever possible, I am going to use terms generally favored by the U.S. Census – European-American, African-American, Latin-American, Asian-American, and Native-American – to characterize the broadest national racial and ethnic demographic groups.
The Darkening and Non-Europeaning of America
Some demographic realities.
- Census data (from 2015) indicates that European (or white) Americans constitute nearly 75 percent of the Baby Boom population (and beyond, through age 81, the oldest age of any Trump appointee). Non-European Americans in that Baby Boom Plus cohort total less than 25 percent of the population.
- Among younger adults (ages 25-52), these percentages shift significantly. European-Americans represent 61 percent of the population. Non-European Americans comprise the other 39 percent.
- Among children and youth (ages 0-24), we witness an approaching parity between these two population groups, with European Americans still barely in the majority, at 53 percent of the total, while non-European Americans in this age group grow to 47 percent of the total.
The De-maleing and Fe-maleing of America
U.S. census data also expose an emerging tension in gender population dynamics. Even as the future promises a less crystalline European identity for the nation, racial and ethnic profluence will also tilt female. Barring any technology fix, females will continue to die with less frequency at nearly every age than their male counterparts. Which means that not only are males, relatively speaking, losing ground to females, but that white males, in particular, as a demographic class, will only experience an acceleration of their current demographic decline.
In 50 years, older European-American male adults, currently 10 percent of the national population, may constitute closer to 5 percent of the population, a descent that inevitably will dissolve their (formerly unchallenged) leadership and wealth precedents. From this perspective, one can appreciate the support for Donald Trump’s full-throated call to arms on behalf of America’s most endangered human species – the aging white male.
The Earth Belongs in Usufruct to the Living
The coalition of Americans who twice elected Obama constituted an unprecedented mobilization of diverse racial, ethnic, and sexual/gender groupings that reflected the nation’s emerging and future population mix. This diversity was, in itself, a cause for celebration (until it wasn’t). But we shouldn’t underestimate the degree to which Americans, in electing Obama, were also endorsing a fundamental proposition in American politics (dating back to Thomas Jefferson’s statement, in a 1789 letter to James Madison, that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living), that the major purpose (and perhaps the sole purpose) of politics is to hold in trust and preserve the nation’s wealth and heritage for future generations. Jefferson went on to write that the dead have neither rights nor powers over this wealth and heritage.
The Obama elections, and the Obama Administration, represented a commitment to the demographically diverse youth of America, which surfaced a tension between competing visions of American society, between the near-dead and the newly alive, rooted in the non-contestable claims of America’s identity and America’s bounty. The candidacy of Donald Trump fully exposed this tension, and what we now witness in the current Administration is a claim to power (with its savagely authoritarian and punitive claim upon the future) of the near-dead most Americans thought we had buried in 2008 (and again in 2012).
How Can We Reasonably Claim President Trump Is “Illegitimate” and “Not My President”?
Watching Richard Spencer spew shit at the Trump inaugural festivities reminds us (if we needed reminding) of the obviously central white nationalist (or militant European-American) component to the election of Donald Trump, the political base he’s agitated and embraced to the exclusion of pretty much the remaining entirety of the nation. However, we also cannot ignore other, related, dimensions of this new regime – that it is not merely exceedingly European-American, but also exceedingly male and exceedingly old.
Here is a visual that communicates eloquently the extent to which President Trump has stacked his new Administration with formaldehyde-infused, Viagra-popping relics of the Don Draper era (Mad Men indeed). The key takeaway of this chart is, of course, that these Trump personnel outcomes are standard deviations away from what one might reasonably call an expected value for a demographically reasonable Cabinet and White House team (even when holding steady those powerful demographic trends we’ve already identified).
This visual tells us a lot about how so many Americans can say that Trump’s regime is illegitimate and that he is not their president. Trump is the first sui generis president, representing only himself. Those within the executive branch, with whom he has surrounded himself to execute his will, are similarly self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing players. They are (mostly) old men used to serving only themselves, and about as far as one can imagine from embodying any conception of servant leadership on behalf of anyone who does not look like them.
And so, if political legitimacy requires active acceptance of the proposition that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living (and particularly to the most living, to the youngest among us), we have never experienced a more illegitimate elected regime. Trump’s personal style, values, rhetoric, political tactics, and policy commitments each represent an assault on America’s youngest and most vulnerable populations. For evidence, we can start with the likely evisceration of health insurance coverage for children with the dismantling of Obamacare, and with the likely assault on DACA (Obama’s deportation relief program for undocumented immigrants arriving in the U.S. as children).
VORP (Value Over Replacement Politicians)
There is another way to look at the demographic distribution data for the Trump Administration, however, one inspired by sabermetrics and, specifically, by the concept of VORP (the value of a baseball player over a generic replacement). Without diving into the sabermetric weeds, it is sufficient for now to emphasize that VORP distills player performance, on the margin, toward the success of a team competing within a zero-sum environment. How perfect for appreciating the political skills of those who have both lifted, and then benefited from (what has now euphemistically become known as) Donald Trump’s remarkable run to the presidency.
The zero-sum part matters. Trump is the visible godhead of a 60-year old reactionary/revolutionary political movement, funded by conservative businessmen such as Charles Koch, and animated by the unsentimental Leninist belief that politics is entirely a zero-sum, territorial game. Indeed, one of the precepts of Koch Conservatism (as Steve Bannon also believes and has stated) is that politics is war.
By this measure, we can understand the demographic stacking of the Trump Administration with old, male, European-Americans as evidence of the political talents harnessed, prepped, and unleashed by this political movement. The distribution bias in the Trump Administration can serve, in many ways, as a political version of VORP. Let’s call it Value Over Replacement Politicians. And what we can assume, right now, is that those within the demographic groups left behind (those presumably, with a negative VORP) will not, ever, be able to successfully engage the “Trumpist” movement until they expose, analyze, adopt, and adapt the political strategies and tactics perfected by Koch Conservatism.