A bit of symbolic generational warfare has always suffused American politics, with various cliques of self-appointed “adults in the room” dismissing challengers to the status quo as immature, idealistic, or juvenile. But when it comes to figuring out what This Whole Trump Thing really means, actual juveniles are reading at several grade levels above the sophisticated adults. While editors send reporters to do anthropological fieldwork in the Rust Belt, and Democratic senators from red states fret over precisely how many unqualified ideologues they must confirm for lifetime seats on the judiciary in order to win re-election, teenagers have had the whole deal figured out from the beginning. They present their findings regularly, if you know where to look.
For example: when the boy’s basketball team from Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, traveled to small town Jordan, Minnesota, for a game in January, a group of young men on the home side of the gym bleachers unfurled a large “TRUMP 2020” banner across their knees. The Roosevelt coach later complained on Facebook, writing: “Please explain how and why this is appropriate at a high school basketball game?”
Presented with just that much information, you can probably fill in the demographic details of everyone involved. And all of them— the kids from the almost entirely white rural host school and the kids from the predominantly black and Latino urban visiting school—knew exactly what that banner meant. It meant: Fuck you. It meant, “we” took “our” country back.
Middle schoolers don’t develop political identities in a vacuum. They are reflections of their parents, peers, society, and professional video game streamers.
The only person who’d be confused, or who’d infer a more complicated message, is a sophisticated professional adult whose political worldview depends on a condescending belief in America’s essential racial innocence. A person, in other words, who sees the world as a small child does—as opposed to, say, a teenager. Indeed, much of the media discussion around the Jordan incident danced around any explanation of why a black high school basketball coach and his mostly black players would have a problem with that particular banner, while quoting an endless parade of aggrieved white adults pretending at ignorance. As one local parent told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: “I have no issues with a Trump flag at our game last night in regards to racism. It could be seen as ‘It’s actually pretty cool [young people] are paying attention to things going on in our country.’” Frankly, liberals, you should be thanking the president for finally getting teens—or at least one very specific subset of them—to care about politics!
“Our little town is the least racist,” the same parent told the paper. “I just don’t understand how this got turned into a race thing.” A Roosevelt High mother meanwhile, pointedly noted that the Roosevelt students had stayed in the locker room for the performance of the national anthem, implicitly associating them with the prominent black athletes known for protesting police brutality—a prime affront, sure to provoke the red-faced consternation of various white fans and sports franchise owners. This was still another obvious explanation of what their little demonstration “meant,” for an audience pretending not to hear it.
White Makes Might
While adults insist they simply can’t understand how all of this “got turned into a race thing,” the teens have been patiently explaining it from day one. In June 2017, BuzzFeed reviewed more than fifty incidents of racialized school bullying, dating from the 2016 election, involving white kids parroting Trump slogans or wearing Trump campaign apparel. Earlier this year, a pair of academics published a study, based on surveys taken in Virginia middle schools, finding “that a 10 percentage point increase in voters supporting the Republican candidate in 2016 was associated with a 5 percent jump in middle school teasing because of race or ethnicity and an 8 percent increase in middle school bullying.”
Why does everyone keep making this a race thing? I shout, as my proud teen sons unfurl a banner signifying their allegiance to a national identitarian movement of people who are taking “their country” back.
Middle school students don’t develop political identities in a vacuum. They are reflections of their parents, their peers, their society, and racist comments made by professional video game streamers. But while the adults in their lives mostly know to cloak their darker beliefs in polite (or at least ass-covering) euphemism—“patriotism” and “border security,” not white nationalism—teens, while quite good at figuring out ways to hurt people, are less skilled at plausible deniability. And so the ways certain white teenagers wield Trump banners or MAGA hats show their obvious meaning as symbols of militant white identity.
That easy recognition helps explain the national freak-out over the events at the Lincoln Memorial in January. Students from Covington Catholic High School had been bused from their well-off Cincinnati suburb into Washington, D.C., on an explicitly political mission—to participate in the anti-abortion “March for Life”—and were enjoying a day on the town, until they found themselves harangued by some Black Hebrew Israelites, a fringe group whose sidewalk tirades are familiar to many city dwellers but presumably baffling to kids from Park Hills, Kentucky. (One of the kid’s mothers said her son had been provoked by “black Muslims.”) The students ended up in an encounter with Native American activist Nathan Phillips, who claims he was trying to de-escalate the confrontation. A photo of the boys—white, in MAGA hats, seemingly surrounding and intimidating Phillips—went viral. A longer video was eventually posted and pored over for evidence of each party’s relative innocence or guilt, “the media” was castigated for jumping to conclusions, the kids mysteriously got high-priced PR representation and began appearing on TV, lawsuits were threatened, and then everyone eventually moved on.
If the encounter turned out to be more complex than it first appeared, once the adults turned it into fodder for cable news panels and Twitter threads, it was still, on the other side of the great discourse machine, sort of what it was like to begin with: a provocation and a response. In America’s numerous homogenous white enclaves, the MAGA hat is merely a symbol of fealty to the in-group, like a Cincinnati Bengals jersey. In a diverse city, it’s a statement of defiance or aggression—like a Bengals jersey in Cleveland, if the Bengals were, instead of merely a mediocre football team, somehow the spiritual inheritors of a powerful political tendency, dating back to before the founding of the republic, devoted to the ongoing oppression and exploitation of Clevelanders.
Hoods of State
Other videos taken that same day show white teens in MAGA hats (it’s impossible to confirm whether they’re the crew from that same school) walking around D.C. basically looking for trouble, shouting misogynist comments at women, and generally enjoying the classic teenage rush of being in a large crew of your peers and making other people uncomfortable. Anyone who was once a teenager—especially those who were once teenage boys—understands intuitively why you have to be wary of a pack of them, hats or no. (Apologies to teens, but it seems to be a matter of brain development: a few studies have suggested teenagers drive cars about as carefully as adults unless their friends are with them or observing them, which makes them more likely to engage in risky driving. More recent research emphasizes a developmental stage governed by “interest in exploration and novelty seeking”—that is, trying things out.) The hats just tell you the kids have targets they’re likely to train their shittiness on.
Ultimately, what was interesting about the entire affair was not the confrontation itself but the edifice of debate that was assembled around it. The speed with which the boys’ defense industry materialized and the ferocity of its response suggested something larger than the reputation of one formerly obscure Catholic academy was at stake.
Kevin D. Williamson, a right-wing culture warrior whose brief employment at The Atlantic was curtailed by an honest reckoning with his noxious beliefs, wrote a beautifully deranged column about the entire affair for the National Review, headlined “Crisis of Citizenship.” It begins: “Let me be direct about this: You people are a bunch of hysterical ninnies, and it is time for you to grow the hell up.” Growing up, in this hectoring, overwrought context, mostly means acknowledging that “much of the American media” was engaged not in fact-finding and commentary, but “what is sometimes known among political operatives as ‘black p.r.’—the sinister twin of ordinary public relations,” targeting young white men in Trump apparel.
The rest of it goes on in similar fashion. “Of course Alyssa Milano is an idiot for insisting that those stupid red hats are ‘the new white hood.’” What self-evident poppycock, to all sensible people! Of course, the Klan didn’t even wear white hoods in its first incarnation. They didn’t have a uniform at all until The Birth of a Nation became a hit, and a clever salesman started mass-producing and marketing the uniform, hood and all.
As Alison Kinney wrote in The New Republic in 2016: “While the hoods could assure their wearers’ personal anonymity, their force came from declaring membership in a safe, privileged identity that was anything but secret. The hoods made Klan membership cool; they helped rebrand the Klan as a popular, patriotic, money-making, white clubhouse movement.” Alyssa Milano, you idiot, how could that possibly seem in any way reminiscent of any modern political movement whose practically all-white adherents sport a particular piece of mass-produced apparel? Why does everyone keep making this a race thing? I shout, as my proud teen sons unfurl a banner signifying their allegiance to a national identitarian movement of people who are taking “their country” back.
Where the Boys Aren’t
Another salvo in the war to Protect Our Boys was released in February by the men’s magazine Esquire, which gave its cover to a seventeen-year-old “American Boy”—a white, Trump-supporting Republican boy, you were supposed to infer from that adjective—whose story was meant to tell us something about how polarized our country had become, and the psychic toll that it’s taking on boys like this one.
As someone who’s written a little and thought a lot about how seductive modern far-right rhetoric can be to a subset of white American young men, I should have been the ideal audience for a big glossy feature exploring The Young American Boy today. And the story was intended for me, in a sense, but not in my capacity as a reader. I was more like its target: it was just another provocation, an editor’s attempt to rile me, representing not a curious audience but a puritanical mob of social justice warriors into getting mad at a magazine. The kid was a pawn. He’s not even a real MAGA teen. He just has the sort of barely informed Republican politics of the adults in his family and a bit of confused resentment about a hazy sense he’s picked up from some of the more toxic elements in our culture that other people are allowed to get away with things he isn’t.
The piece was accompanied with a note in which Esquire editor Jay Fielden more or less announced that he shared that feeling, only much more vigorously. He urged us all to remove ourselves from our ideological “safe spaces,” and bemoaned a world where “you might accidentally say what you really believe and get burned at the stake”—not for the sake of extremely comfortable glossy magazine editors who have made a career of substituting a sort of weightless contrarianism for any particular set of principles, but for the sake of our children.
One line from the story particularly appealed to him:
“I know what I can’t do,” [the American Boy] says, with some understandable frustration, at one point in the story. “I just don’t know what I can do.” I suspect that although quite a few adults would agree, not many would have the guts to say it out loud.
The context for that line, in the story, is not that the kid got Cancelled Online for Expressing The Wrong Opinion; rather, it’s that he got in some non-life-ruining trouble for getting into a physical altercation with a girl.
But that context matters less to Fielden than the utility of that quote, which allows a middle-aged editor who feels like he can’t get away with anything anymore to project that very specifically elite worry onto a kid who, in reality, has never known another world, and who would have faced no Twitter Mob for his beliefs if the editor of Esquire hadn’t put him on the cover. The editor tells us to get out of our filter bubbles, and commissions a piece borne out of his annoyance at having his own comfortable bubble pierced by people pointing out that politics is more consequential than his nostalgia for the days when people could argue any position at cocktail parties “mostly for the drunken hell of it.”
(The attempts to justify the editor’s all-consuming resentments about the internet fall laughably flat when the piece tries to project them onto a kid who barely uses social media. Get me a story about how Twitter scolds drove a nice white boy right to Trump, J. Jonah Jameson shouts to the newsroom, and Peter Parker returns with an exclusive on a kid who says girls from school sometimes yell at him in Instagram comments.)
In his note, Fielden tells us his own offspring were enjoying a magical childhood “growing up at the slight remove of outer Fairfield County, Connecticut,” until November 2016 happened and the dreaded specter of politics inserted itself into his son’s formerly idyllic life. Fairfield County is one of the most economically and racially segregated places in the entire country. One wonders how the poor kids in Bridgeport handled this unexpected and vulgar intrusion of “politics” into their lives.
In the end, the piece does actually tell us a bit about how Trumpism works: it shows us how powerful men who worry they can’t get away with certain things anymore retroactively impute those same fears to an imagined class of innocent kids who look very much like their own.
Rule by Tantrum
The ultimate aim of this Protecting Our Boys rhetoric became clear at Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school—he at the prestigious all-male Catholic school Georgetown Prep, she at a nearby all-female prep school—triggering a wide-ranging investigation of what turned out to be a remarkably debauched 1980s adolescence. We saw how Kavanaugh’s friends had bragged—in their high school yearbooks—using code words for Quaaludes and Bacardi 151 cocktails at “Beach Week,” a tradition of unsupervised teenage partying that surely seemed bizarre to people raised in America’s relatively puritanical middle class.
When the mask was torn off, the response of Kavanaugh and his defenders was not embarrassment or shame but instead a hysterical and rabid defense of Kavanaugh and the social settings that produced him.
If it is perfectly normal for American adolescents and young adults to experiment with drugs, alcohol, and casual sex, it’s also true that the boozing, groping—and worse—at these elite schools seems to have been institutional, tacitly condoned by any ostensible authority figures with the power to rein it in. Everything we learned about Kavanaugh’s high school days—the drinking, the apparently common date rape at packed house parties, the routine sexual humiliation of women—happened under the noses, but not under the direct supervision, of those authority figures. This arrangement was plainly designed in part to give the members of the adult world plausible deniability but also to preserve the fiction that the elite institutions they entrusted their children to were shaping future leaders of great moral character.
And when the mask was torn off, the response of Kavanaugh and his defenders was not embarrassment or shame but instead a hysterical and rabid defense of Kavanaugh and the social settings that produced him.
Some old pre-Trump playbook might well have had Kavanaugh playing at contrition, saying he’d matured, and promising to make amends. But the new strategy, borrowed from the boss himself, was to not give an inch—not to let the bastards get away with trying to stop a good American boy from getting away with something. So Kavanaugh threw a snarling, angry, self-pitying tantrum and lied about obvious things, like the crude and demeaning sexual jokes in his yearbook, and his own youthful penchant for drinking to the point of blacking out. Repeating ridiculous lies in an increasingly aggrieved fashion, knowing you were lying, knowing everyone else in the room knew you were lying, and that it simply did not matter—all this was exactly the sort of show of dominance that America needed to get back on track.
The strange thing was that, while the Kavanaugh nomination really was almost derailed by that initial credible accusation of sexual assault, his confirmation only became more certain as more details and context were reported about the incident. This was decidedly not because any of these details were in any sense exculpatory but because they should have constituted a much broader indictment.
Much of the Republican Party now spends much of its time and political capital protecting America’s Top Boy, President Donald Trump.
A large part of the desperation that members of the conservative intellectual class mobilized in order to “get to yes” with Kavanaugh was because the case against him almost immediately morphed from one individual accusation of assault to a broad and very well-supported indictment of their entire class. What was revealed was not that Kavanaugh the man was individually monstrous but that he was a product of a monstrous milieu. The case against Kavanaugh was the case against the culture of Georgetown Prep, of fraternities at elite colleges, of the entire social world that produced the entire conservative elite. So the more we learned about its horrors, the more urgent it became to find Kavanaugh innocent and to join him in safeguarding the sacrosanct life chances and career achievements to which he was—and they were—entitled.
That’s why no one told Trump to ditch him and replace him with some ideologically identical Federalist Society goon who hadn’t been credibly accused of sexual assault. It’s also why Senator Lindsey Graham’s red-faced outburst at the confirmation hearing made sure to paint Kavanaugh as the victim of a historic injustice, goading him into further self-pity:
GRAHAM: Would you say you’ve been through hell? KAVANAUGH: I— I’ve been through hell and then some.
What made all this the stuff of Dantean hyperbole was the simple, self-evident truth that Kavanaugh was “a good kid.” Good Kids are determined to be good not according to their actions, which are frequently quite bad, but by their standing. On this status-driven reckoning of the natural order of things, the worst thing imaginable is for a good kid to be denied future opportunities to wield power.
Even Senator Ben Sasse, a professional critic of the president’s temperament with a side-hustle as an author of books about how to raise your children well, took to the Senate floor to make a grand show of feeling bad about how the president spoke about the Kavanaugh accusations, and then voted for Kavanaugh’s confirmation anyway.
We could have had exactly what Sasse and the rest of the Seriousness Brigade claim to want: an honest discussion of what moral lessons parents and institutions are teaching, or failing to teach, our children. Instead we had a prolonged national meltdown on behalf of all the American teens who, because of the excesses of #MeToo, may yet miss out on the pleasures of behaving like the protagonists of Porky’s.
Much of the Republican Party now spends much of its time and political capital protecting America’s Top Boy, President Donald Trump. While he is, in most respects, a perfectly apt representative of his class and generation, much of our president’s conduct could be fairly described as “adolescent”: the way he sulks and rages when he doesn’t get his way; the visceral pleasure he takes in mocking the vulnerable or disadvantaged; his solipsism and conviction that no one can teach him anything he doesn’t already know. Some of this just bears grim testimony to the stunted emotional capacity of any rich celebrity (neuroscientists and psychologists have identified numerous ways in which power and status warp the brain), and the rest is presumably the result of a degenerating mind replicating the limitations of a still-developing one.
Whatever the reasons, Trump seems to have a teenager’s disregard for the consequences of his actions. (The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry says teens, with their not yet fully connected frontal lobes, are more likely than adults to “act on impulse,” and less likely to “pause to consider the consequences of their actions.”) For most of his adult life, Trump’s done whatever he likes, believing things would mostly turn out fine. “But in the end, it will work out,” he said about North Korean nuclear negotiations last year. “Can’t tell you exactly how or why, but it always does. It’s going to work out.”
Trump’s fuckups, in business in particular, have been so large but come with so few negative consequences that they have only served to ratchet up his already titanic sense of invincibility. In much the same way that you can’t get a teenager to internalize the idea that risky behavior today could cause problems down the line, it has been seemingly impossible to get Trump to act as though anything he does will ever catch up with him. And his children, who’ve been in the Trump family business their entire adult lives, have behaved similarly, expecting that no one would ever seriously look into the finances of the family charity, or investigate all the money-laundering at the Trump Ocean Club Panama project.
Naturally, House Democrats, newly emboldened with the power to investigate and subpoena Trump’s administration, have privately signaled to Politico that they are wary of using that power to investigate Trump’s adult children, for fear of creating a backlash of sympathy for the president. The American Boy protection industry is particularly influential in our nation’s capital. The number of people who feel a genuine spark of dread at the question, “how would you feel if someone investigated your son for lying to Congress?” is quite small, but you can guess where most of them live.
Kids These Days
Modern conservatism, its Trumpist strain included, is in part built on plutocrats pitting the old against the young. A few days of Fox News will show you just how much energy is devoted to making retirees resent their grandchildren. Some of the richest people a society has ever produced have convinced a generation that, as a whole, did better than any prior generation in American history to let the world burn and the seas rise, and if today’s campus snowflakes drown in either student debt or actual ocean water, it will be their own fault for lacking the work ethic and moral certitude of their elders.
You can see why this has created a “youth problem” for the Republican Party. Their donors have mostly addressed this by funneling millions of dollars to witless grifters like Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk, whose strategy is to have each college’s most unpleasant students attempt to troll their peers into joining the right.
But Trumpism took the racial resentment that was always the only successful recruiting strategy of the College Republicans and fused it with the only lesson he ever internalized in his elite education: complete irresponsibility is gloriously liberating. What unites Trump’s older base and his small core of young white devotees is the delight they take in watching him get away with it.
Trumpism’s pitch to young white men is thus a stirringly amoral sort of syllogism: we can’t give you anything material, because we stole it all and are hoarding it, but we can create a world in which you can regularly act on your worst impulses and get away with it. Some city kids are coming to town; here’s a way to racially mock them that won’t get us in trouble.
Much of the president’s conduct could be fairly described as “adolescent”: he sulks and rages when he doesn’t get his way; he takes pleasure in mocking the vulnerable or disadvantaged; he feels no one can teach him anything he doesn’t already know.
To one end of the MAGA teen spectrum, Trump offers some mild transgressive delights, like a particularly un-p.c. episode of South Park. (“Sometimes I think it’s funny,” Esquire’s American Boy says, when asked about Trump’s insults, “but I guess it’s really not that funny in the end.”) On the other end, he offers nihilistic escapism for the truly alienated; he’s what inspired you to march on Charlottesville or join a gang of street thugs to beat up on hippies and antifa demonstrators.
Legitimizing complete irresponsibility is also exactly why the mainstream, respectable GOP eventually embraced Trumpism. It’s a force that protects the monstrously unfair world they’ve built. They want to ensure that righteous mobs don’t dismantle the institutions that crank out Jared Kushners and Brett Kavanaughs, so they go along with the big lie, aimed at their lessers, that the people who want to destroy those elite institutions are also determined to punish “your son.” A movement that is designed to preserve the privilege of teens like Brett Kavanaugh to behave poorly and still run the country is telling less-privileged white teens that it’s actually fighting for their much more meager privilege to be racist and piggish and not face consequences.
But when Trump said “this is the day we take our country back,” his “we” referred to a group too exclusive to include anyone from Jordan, Minnesota. And that serves, in another sort of brute syllogism of power, as their own license to unleash their own exclusionary rites of race-driven resentments on their own social inferiors without consequences. Boys will be boys, preying on other boys and girls.