So how the hell is Hillary Clinton barely beating him?
Certainly, a great deal of the blame for our terrifying circumstances lies with Clinton herself. She is an abominable candidate, a wooden speaker, a cynical triangulator, and—to put it kindly—ethically challenged.
But she also has something very important in her favor.
She’s running against Donald Trump.
I’m not going to rehearse the case against the Republican nominee in this space because I’ve done it so many times before. Needless to say, Trump is the most manifestly unfit presidential candidate ever to win the nomination of a major American political party. He is a racist. A proto-authoritarian. A menace to the free world.
Yet despite running against a candidate who combines the racial divisiveness of George Wallace with the pro-Russian sympathies of Henry Wallace, Hillary Clinton has barely been able to break 48 percent in any national poll. She does significantly better in head-to-head match-ups than in the actual four-way race, thanks to the not insignificant number of voters expressing support for Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party standard-bearer Jill Stein. Support for these minor candidates is most pronounced among a crucial demographic, my demographic: millennials. Twenty-six percent of voters aged 18-29 say they will vote for Johnson; 10 percent back Stein.
What explains the millennial willingness to risk a Trump presidency? A lot of it stems from cynicism toward, if not downright hatred of, Clinton and everything she represents. Seventy-seven percent of voters 18-34 find Clinton untrustworthy, compared to 65 percent of all likely voters. There’s also not a small degree of lingering bitterness from those who supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, only 52 percent of whom, according to an Economist/YouGov poll, plan to back the party’s nominee (Sanders won millennials overwhelmingly, and Saturday will be in Ohio to try to convince voters there to hold their noses with one hand and pull the lever for Clinton with the other).
As I’ve written here before, I suspect that Clinton’s inability to pick up Sanders backers stems in part from a left-wing anti-imperialism that considers her to be a “warmonger.”
But there’s something deeper, and darker, about millennial opposition to Clinton and the attendant blitheness toward the prospect of a Trump presidency. It’s best described as a mix of moral relativism, historical ignorance, and narcissism.
Millennials are the first post-war generation to have come of age after the Cold War. Baby boomers, by contrast, grew up listening to their parents’ tales of American heroism in World War II and read about the depredations of international communism every day. Throughout their formative years, the United States was locked in a Cold War struggle against an expansionist Soviet empire, and the world lived under threat of nuclear holocaust. The anti-Vietnam War movement may have bred skepticism about America’s global role, but the notion that American power was necessary to protect freedom in the world remained a majority one.
Millennials, by contrast, spent their early years blissfully unaware about the world and its dangers. That changed, of course, on 9/11. But unlike other age groups, over half of us believe U.S. actions might have provoked those attacks. “Older people think, ‘We’re a great people, we got attacked by these crazy people, and now we are dealing with it and we have to be careful,’” Trevor Thrall, co-author of a study on millennials and foreign policy, told Voice of America last year. “Millennials are the only generation the majority of which think the U.S. must have done something to provoke 9/11.” Thrall’s study concluded that millennials “perceive the world as significantly less threatening than their elders,” “are more supportive of international cooperation than previous generations,” and “are also far less supportive of the use of military force.” Millennials are also deeply skeptical—like Trump—of American exceptionalism. A 2011 Pew poll found that only 32 percent of millennials believe America is superior to other countries, compared to 64 percent of baby boomers.
But the main reason for millennial apathy toward the possibility of a Trump victory, I suspect, is a lack of historical understanding. Millennials, particularly American ones, are too young to have any memories of the Cold War, never mind World War II, when fascists ruled Europe and millions of people died as a result. Trump’s echoes of fascist movements past has no resonance with us.
One of the most disturbing poll results I have ever read is the recent World Values Survey finding that only 31 percent of Americans born in the 1980s say it is “essential” to “live in a country that is governed democratically.” That figure compares to about 44 percent in Europe, where the memory of totalitarianism is both physically and temporally closer. We American millennials take our freedom and prosperity for granted. My generation has so little experience of authoritarianism and illiberalism that over two-thirds of us basically say we wouldn’t mind living in a non-democratic society. Because we have no historical reference points, when we see Trump, we think only of a silly reality television show star, not a nascent dictator.
If Trump wins, we’ll get what we deserve.