Boomers came of age in a time of unrivaled wealth and devastating political crisis. Consumerism was matched by an explosion in mass media as television grew from a novelty into an overwhelming cultural force. The Vietnam War and Watergate combined with the trauma of assassinations and riots corroded public trust in authorities and institutions. The result was a rejection of social norms and an intense focus on the self. This is the generation that indulged in New Age navel-gazing, declared that "greed is good" and more than doubled
the divorce rate.
The cliché view of the '60s and '70s is filled with images of idealistic flower children and anti-war protests. But the lasting effect of all the upheaval was not liberal idealism. Instead, the boomers turned out to be remarkably self-absorbed, cynical and materialistic.Tom Wolfe called them
the "me generation," and Christopher Lasch warned
that they were creating a culture of narcissism where success "has to be ratified by publicity."
When Lasch noted this drive, in the 1970s, the media was offering new ways for people to seek and exploit fame. Magazines such as People and Us and TV programs like "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" proliferated and encouraged the pursuit of fame for fame's sake.
Track Trump's life story and you can see he has made every effort, at every stage of his life, to have his success ratified by not just publicity, but enormous acclaim. Adept at manipulating the press, he first pushed his way
into the newspapers. Next,Trump mastered television, magazines and finally the web.
The image he presented was always bigger and richer than his reality, and he could be shocking in his attention-seeking. Only a man obsessed with his own celebrity would use a fake persona to brag to the press about how beautiful women stalk him. Who but a narcissist would pay for full-page newspaper ads to express his opinions about the events of the day?
Perhaps only Trump would begin a sentence
with the phrase "Part of the beauty of me" or declare
, after describing America's problems, "I alone can fix it." However, narcissism is only one of several baby boomer hallmarks that Trump will bring with him to office. Another is the cynicism that is evident in his lifelong effort to defy the norms that govern everyone else.
Trump accepts no authorities
"Question Authority" was an oft-used slogan of the '60s, and at the time it inspired group actions like sit-ins and protest marches. Rep. John Lewis practiced this type of defiance
in 1965 when he confronted the authorities who enforced racism in Selma, Alabama, and suffered a fractured skull. He did so, of course, in the service of a greater good; his practice of civil disobedience was a strategy to achieve a moral end.
Other baby boomer activists engaged in community organizing of the sort a young Barack Obama did for $10,000 a year
on Chicago's South Side. However, most boomers did not sacrifice much or take action to improve the quality of life for their fellow Americans.
Although many today feel they participated in the campaigns for equality, in fact it was a tiny fraction of the boomer cohort that took action against the "system." Trump, who told me he thought the Vietnam War was "stupid" but did nothing to protest it, was more typical of the middle class and wealthy men of his generation who found ways to stay out of the military.
Trump's family paid for him to attend private college, which made him eligible for draft deferment. After school, he claimed some tiny defects on his heels (bone spurs), which qualified him for deferment. The authorities gave him a pass.
Of course, Trump was just one of many who avoided serving. For men like Trump, escaping service when 50,000 of their peers died fighting had little effect on their pursuit of success.
And the product of one of the richest and most powerful families in New York, the system usually worked quite well for Trump. When it didn't, he was happy to challenge it or subvert it.
In the early 1970s, when federal officials demanded his family firm comply with fair housing rules that protected minority applicants for rentals, Trump responded with accusations of "reverse racism" that turned the concept of fair housing rules upside down. (The tactic failed, but Trump made his point.)
A few years after his battle with the feds, Trump manipulated authorities in New York to push competitors out of the way to gain control of a redevelopment site near Grand Central Terminal. When asked to submit contracts proving he had exclusive rights to the property, Trump handed over an unsigned document. He defied the officials to catch him in the act and got away with it
Reject norms, elevate self
The cultural revolution of the 1960s was a grab bag of rule-breaking ideas that ranged from the profound concepts of equality for women to the rejection of traditional religion. Some people went so far as to join utopian communes. No one embraced every aspect of this generational construct.
Trump welcomed the sexual revolution, which liberated young people from traditional morality and cultivated the playboy image. His sex scandal of the late 1980s, three marriages and sexually-predatory talk further proved his libertine credentials.
Trump also developed a cynical view of how the world works, and he joined it with his own version of the radical -- "by any means necessary" -- action advocated by Malcolm X.
But while Malcom X and others violated social norms on behalf of a cause, Trump did it out of self-interest. The traditional norms that Trump violated were the ones that encouraged people to live with a certain humility, grace and dignity. As his generation embraced the "greed is good" mentality made famous in the movie "Wall Street," Trump continuously bragged about his wealth and devoted himself to using his wealth as a way to demonstrate his superiority.
Trump led the way when it came to bankruptcy, famously plunging his businesses into the red and then using the courts to escape much of the debt the firms owed to lenders and other creditors. Though Trump noted that bankruptcy was a fair legal remedy, previous generations attached more stigma to using the courts to evade debts.
Now, thanks to Trump, it's regarded as a smart business strategy. He has proudly spoken
of his ability to use bankruptcy as a business tool, while avoiding the subject of all those parties, from workers to lenders to contractors, who were hurt by his business failures.
During his campaign for president, Trump won by breaking many of the rules that permit a vigorous competition but allow for the country to unite when it is over. Trump used mockery, threats of prosecution and personal insults against his opponent while he encouraged his supporters to rough up those who protested. Trump tweeted
false data blaming black Americans for crimes against whites and, in one of his more bizarre moments, even invited agents
of a foreign government, Russia, to steal emails from his opponent.
Crisis of legitimacy
Trump's response to the Russian hacking campaign, which American intelligence officials report was intended to aid him in the election, demonstrates that he is the ultimate example of an anti-establishment, narcissistic boomer who defines right and wrong according to self-interest. Russia's attack on the US election cast doubt on the legitimacy of the campaign and thus on the legitimacy of a president whose claim to a mandate had already been weakened by the fact that he gained office despite his opponent's decisive victory
in the popular vote count.
As he demeaned intelligence officials who are united in their assessment of the Russian hack, Trump cast doubt
on the legitimacy of their work. With his criticism of the intelligence community, Trump has willfully undermined trust in a key American institution, one vital to national defense. This effort echoes his effort to delegitimize the election process during the campaign -- he called it "rigged" -- and a lifelong inclination to question the legitimacy of those who oppose him.
The big problem for Trump is that a leader who plays the game of casting doubt on the motives, methods and standing of others runs the risk of having the tables turned. Generally, public support and goodwill confer the protection of legitimacy on elected officials. However, according to polls, Trump is the least-supported incoming president in decades with just 40%
supporting him in a recent poll. Barack Obama's approval numbers at the same point in his transition was 83%.
As he assumes office, Trump will likely be the last "me generation" man or woman to serve as president. The man who spent a lifetime fighting for greater personal wealth, power and acclaim by any means necessary has yet to show any signs that he can also summon the idealism and self-sacrificing impulses shown by likes of John Lewis. Instead, Trump shows every sign of being the kind of disrespectful, self-indulgent, anarchistic and hedonistic boomer that made an entire generation look bad.
Those who hope for better leadership in today's Washington would do well to look to others, like Lewis or war hero Sen. John McCain, who actually served and sacrificed in Vietnam. Neither of these men represents the attitudes of the "me generation," perhaps because they were born before the baby boom began.