January 28, 2021

The Greatest Generation

After the American Century

Today there are six generations alive in the United States, and they have had quite different historical experiences. The oldest were born before 1927 and in their later years they came to be called the Greatest Generation. My parents, aunts, uncles, and many teachers were part of this cohort, the dominant generation of the American Century. They were shaped by the contrasts between the Roaring Twenties when they were born, the Great Depression of their youth, and World War II, which engulfed them as young adults. The first president they were old enough to hear on the radio was Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945), and his New Deal continued to shape the politics of the US long after his passing. 

The attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941
an unforgettable moment for the Greatest Generation

This generation knew exactly where they were when they heard that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, and their lives were never the same afterwards. They helped in the immense war mobilization, fought in the Pacific and in Europe, and celebrated D-Day and the defeat of Hitler. They were stunned by the concentration camps of the Nazis and stunned again by the sudden surrender of Japan after the US dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

They feared that after the war the US might slide back into a 1930s-style economic depression. But prosperity followed victory. American industry had not been bombed, and it rapidly retooled to produce new cars, the new televisions, appliances, and a wide range of other consumer goods. Some returning soldiers found work building suburban houses and highways. Millions of other veterans went to university. By the 1950s this generation was enjoying a standard of living well above anything they knew in their childhood. It seemed that prosperity was possible for all, and that the United States was leading the Free World into a better life. By the 1960s, they were in their 40s, and most of them owned their own homes. While they knew the US had some problems, they believed the nation was on course to form a more perfect union.

The end of World War II also brought with it a new dominant role in world affairs. The Greatest Generation provided all the presidents of the Cold War, from 1946 until 1993: Harry Truman (1945–1953), Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961), John F. Kennedy (1961-1963), Lyndon B. Johnson (1963–1969), Richard Nixon (1969–1975), Gerald Ford (1975–1977), Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) and George Bush (1989-1993). These leaders had learned that the world was so interconnected that the isolationism the United States had embraced in the 1920s and 1930s was no longer possible. War had disciplined them to make sacrifices for the greater good, and the Greatest Generation supported the establishment of the United Nations, the expensive Marshall Plan that helped Europe recover from World War II, and the creation of a new military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). 

Indeed, it seemed that they had little choice but to play a major role in world affairs, because both the British and the French empires were in rapid decline, creating a power vacuum. They soon found themselves in a Cold War that took place on every continent, and took the form of foreign aid, military assistance, and exchange programs. In some places a shooting war also broke out, notably in Korea and Vietnam. In their experience, from the 1940s until they retired, the US was always at the center of an international struggle, and they believed they were defending democracy against its enemies on the right and on the left. Many had trouble understanding why younger Americans did not support the Vietnam War. 

In 2021 the Greatest Generation is over 90. They are frail and rapidly passing away, but all Americans have known some of them. Once they danced to Big Band Jazz and listened to Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Judy Garland and a young crooner named Frank Sinatra. They first heard Bing Crosby sing White Christmas in 1942. They enjoyed movie stars like Jimmy Stuart in It’s a Wonderful Life and Humphrey Boggart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep. They read new novels by Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, and Norman Mailer. In the theater, they saw Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and they enjoyed musicals like Annie Get Your Gun and Oklahoma. Most of the Greatest Generation had retired by the time the older Bush left the White House in 1993. By 2020 the world they were born into had all but disappeared. Yet, it was not forgotten, and many in the five younger generations who are alive today recall them and their times with nostalgia.

This column is adapted from the opening pages of The United (and Divided) States, now available from Akademisk Forlag.  The chapter continues by describing the quite different experiences of the Silent Generation, The Boomers, Generation X, The Millennials, and Generation Z.  These differences have long-term cultural and political consequences. 

And in case you want to know, Joe Biden is the first, and probably will be the only president born into the Silent Generation.

January 27, 2021

Three possible results of the Trump Impeachment Process

After the American Century

"Intolerance," by Maurice Sterne, 1941 
US Department of Justice, Main Library, Washington
Photo: Carol Highsmith

The Law: The Constitution dictates that only if two-thirds of the Senate find a person guilty can they be convicted of an impeachable offense. The Senate cannot fine or imprison a guilty party. The only penalty it can impose is a ban from holding public office. Other punishment is left to the courts.

Scenario 1: All the Democrats and at least 17 Republicans vote against Trump, making him the first president ever to be found guilty by the Senate. Richard Nixon resigned rather than face such a vote. Andrew Johnson was almost impeached and convicted by a Republican dominated Senate in 1868. There were 35 votes against Johnson (guilty) and 19 for him (not guilty). The Republicans needed just one more vote, but did not get it. Historically speaking, a president has never been convicted. The founding fathers intentionally made it difficult, requiring not a mere majority but a very large majority, in order to avoid impeachment becoming a matter of mere partisanship. 
    For Trump to be convicted, additional evidence will need to be presented during the trial, evidence so damning that it would force Republicans to repudiate him. Given the several week delay in starting the proceedings, it seems possible that Democrats might find such a smoking gun. For example, there might be a phone call or an email that links Trump directly to those who invaded the Houses of Congress. Conviction would divide the Republican Party into two irreconcilable camps, in the short term, but as happened after they repudiation of Nixon, the GOP would be in a position to revive and move on. This is a bitter pill for Republicans, but it the best option for them in the long run, and also for the nation.

Scenario 2: A majority of the Senate votes to convict Trump, but that majority falls short of 67 votes.  Instead, he could be taken to court on related charges and found guilty. For example, he might be charged with incitement to riot and being an accessory to the murder of one or more of the people who died in the attack on Congress. In addition, there are other court cases awaiting Trump, notably in New York State. A court conviction of any kind would weaken Trump and keep Republicans in turmoil, and might lengthen the struggle for control of their party until the 2024 elections. Normally, the party in power loses some seats to years after winning the presidency, but if the Republicans are internally at war, the Democrats would have a chance to win additional power the 2022 Congressional elections. 

Scenario 3: Trump is neither convicted by the Senate nor convicted of any crime in court. He could present himself as a victim of left-wing conspiracy. His supporters would feel righteously justified, and his control of a majority of the Republican Party would continue. The result, Trump will re-energize his base, while the country remains deeply split.

Which possibility is most likely? 
Scenario 1 is not very plausible, but it is Plan A for both Democrats and few Republicans who want to escape Trumpism. However, there are not 17 Republican Senators who look likely to convict Trump. Unless dramatic new evidence is presented to the Senate.

Scenario 2 is the most likely. In that case, Trump will only lose some support because of the impeachment trial and lose a bit more after being convicted of economic crimes, such as fraud, tax fraud, or money laundering. (There are apparently many other possibilities, too.) This would keep Republicans split and be good for the Democrats in 2022.  
Note added 15 Feb: This is indeed what happened.

Scenario 3 is possible, but not likely. Democratic Party leaders have a good idea of what court cases Trump will face after his trial in the Senate.  It seems exceedingly likely that he will face prosecution, and for that reason, the Democrats can take the high ground and demand an impeachment trial before the Senate, knowing Trump will soon be tied up in more litigation afterwards.

Whatever happens, the punishment of Donald Trump has, in all likelihood, only just begun,

January 26, 2021

Impeachment and the Republican Party

After the American Century

It is not only Donald Trump who is on trial. The Republican Party spent four years overlooking his many illegal actions and bullying tactics. They will also be tested, and unfortunately they will probably disgrace themsleves. For they surrendered to Trumpism, with only a few exceptions. They wanted power more than they wanted truth. Now the 50 Republican Senators will have to decide if they care about how they will be remembered. Historians will not be kind to those who continue to support Trump,, who say that the election was rigged, who claim Trump really won, who pretend against all common sense and a great deal of evidence that the attack on the halls of Congress had so little to do with Trump that he is not responsible for it.  

Liquidation Sale, Trump Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City

Now I write this as someone who grew up in a Republican family, and whose father and mother were both elected as Republicans. My father was elected to the town school board and my mother was elected a Justice of the Peace. That was back in the 1960s, when many Republicans, including my parents, supported Civil Rights, full equality for women, and scientific research. My mother taught biology and my father taught engineering. They would be horrified to see what the Republican Party has become.

When Trump goes on trial, the big question is not whether or not he is guilty. He has committed so many crimes that whole books will be published analyzing them. The real question is whether the Republican Party can separate itself from his brutal tactics and his inability to tell the truth. 

Does that sound like an exaggeration? The Washington Post has made a list of the lies that Trump has told. They found that the number of  lies increased with each year.  Trump averaged six false statements a day during 2017, 16 a day in 2018, 22 a day in 2019, and 27 a day in 2020. By election day he had made about 25,000 false statements during his time in office, creating an alternative reality for this followers.

Many of these lies were exaggerations. The most common one was that the American economy was “the best in history.” By 2020 this escalated to the repeated claim that it was “the best economy in the history of the world.” The second most common lie – 262 times – was that the border wall with Mexico was being built. In fact, only a few miles of new wall had been built by May 2020. Fragments of existing barriers were rebuilt, but they were hardly impregnable. In 2020, Trump repeated 38 times that the wall was almost completed. The third most common lie was that his tax cut was the largest in American history, but economists calculated that it was the eighth largest, and not even one third as large as Ronald Reagan’s tax legislation in 1981. Trump did not explain to his crowds that the lion’s share of his tax cuts were for the wealthiest 2 percent of the population. (For more on Trump's presidency, see The United (and Divided) States,  especially the final three chapters.)

Lying became the basis of Trump's campaign and his most common form of attack on other people. Of course, the biggest lie was that he had won the election, but it had been stolen from him. It appears that after the election he was unable to separate that lie from the truth, a sad development for him, and a catastrophe for his followers and the Republican Party, which in the fall of 2020 was fast becoming more a cult than a political organization. 

When the impeachment process begins in two weeks, the central question will be whether the Republicans will continue to live a lie, or whether they can begin the harder process of acting like a political party again, a party that respects education and science, a party that argues from facts rather than invent convenient "alternative facts," a party that does not embrace extreme right-wing zealots who think it is patriotic to attack the Congress, or, in short, a party that people like my parents would recognize and want to be part of.  As for me, I gave up on the Republicans in the Richard Nixon years, though there were some honorable men and women among them. That was decades ago. It has now become a threat to democracy. May it find a way to reform itself. 

But don't hold your breath. The Trump brand is as bankrupt as his casino hotel in Atlantic City, but more than 60 million Republican voters could not see it.

January 22, 2021

The United (and Divided) States

After the American Century

This week my new book appears - The United (and Divided) States. It examines the reasons for the sharp divisions in American society. The first chapter looks at the differences between six generations in the first chapter, starting with the "Greatest Generation" that was born before 1927 and is now rapidly disappearing from the scene, and ending with  emerging Generation Z that voted for the first time in the 2020 elections. The generational divides are consequential, but there are even greater differences between classes, regions, and racial groups, all of which are explored in subsequent chapters. The middle section of the book then turns to look at the institutions and practices that used to hold Americans together, notably churches, civil religion, journalism, and business, all of which have been challenged in recent decades. The final three chapters then look closely at the American political system, the election of 2020, and the state of the (dis)union in 2021.  

For those readers who know my Contemporary American Society, which has appeared in 9 editions since 1989, this is neither a revision (nor a replacement for) that work.  Rather, it focuses on the crisis of the present.

Gary Carlberg, Re-enactor of the
1863 Battle of Gettysburg

The book has color illustrations, including the one above taken of a re-enactor for the Battle of Gettysburg, a decisive battle in the Civil War in 1863. It is restaged every year in early July, and each re-enactor plays the part of a particular historical person. Gary Carlberg has taken the part of Col. William Colvill of the Union Army's First Minnesota Infantry.

To read more about American civil religion, see