This is a trailer for an essay that's now 24,000 words long. Spoiler alert: no flaming swords.
Donald Trump’s calls to build a wall at the Southern border of the United States didn’t begin in 2016, when he snatched the presidency from Hillary Clinton’s expectant hands. His revival of white identity politics - white nationalism, if you prefer - didn’t begin in 2011, when he made himself the mouthpiece of the grotesque “birther” theory that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and constitutionally disqualified to be President. To understand his inward, backward-looking, conspiracy-minded version of America, you have to go back a moment when it seemed - to many people, anyway - that the future was the very opposite: nothing but transparency and openness, to the world and to the future, in a time when it seemed that the suffering of history had ended and living could begin.
Bernie Sanders’s calls for all-American “democratic socialism” came astonishingly close to winning the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, but they didn’t begin then. They didn’t begin, either, in 2013, when economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century confirmed that wealth and income were flowing to the very richest, or in 2011, when Occupy Wall Street raised the long-exiled banner of class warfare on behalf of “the 99%.” In a 2011 Pew poll, more Americans between 18 and 29 said they had a positive view of socialism than of capitalism; but the movement that gathered around the Sanders campaign has its roots when some of those young people were not yet born, and almost none had any awareness of politics, when it seemed - to many people, anyway - that anything called “socialism” had been interred forever, and the future was markets and more markets, to the ends of the earth and of time.
When the Berlin Wall came down in November of 1989, Trump had published The Art of the Deal two years earlier and was busily recasting his real-estate enterprise into narcissistic branding strategy, a business model of pure self-promotion. He first appeared on the cover of Time - a hard-to-imagine big deal in that pre-Internet world - earlier in 1989. Sanders, recently the two-term mayor of Burlington, a progressive enclave within the larger progressive enclave of Vermont, was preparing his first run as an Independent Congressman, which he won in 1990. Hillary Clinton lived in the Arkansas governor’s mansion, where her husband was serving his fifth term in the office, and she sat on the boards of the Children’s Defense Fund and Wal-Mart. In Cambridge, twenty-eight-year-old Barack Obama was considering a run for the presidency of the Harvard Law Review. He became the first Black president to preside in Harvard’s Gannett House nineteen years before he entered the White House with the same distinction.
The fall of the Wall ushered in the short epoch in which they all made the careers they will be remembered by, the time that congratulated itself only half-ironically on being the End of History: the Long 1990s. It was a time when elites and would-be elites congratulated themselves on being post-ideological, and tacked toward becoming post-political altogether. The market economy, whose enthusiasts announced that it has bested all its rivals in a grand historical tournament, rapidly became a market society, in which everything from government to intimate relationships was marked by a new “common sense” of incentives, opportunity costs, return on investment, and brand-building. A certain kind of world came to seem natural and inevitable - at least to many people, most of all the gatekeepers of respectable opinion, elite education, and policy-making. It would take decades for many to see that this world and this vision were partial, happenstance, and incomplete. The American society that congratulated itself on being the template for a universal nation, the natural and unmodified condition of enlightened humanity, turned out to be the creation of the same Cold War forces that relaxed, then disappeared, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire, and the end of the ideological and geopolitical contest between capitalism and communism. Because the forces that had made it and held it together were leaving the field in giddy victory by the early 1990s, this world was set to spin apart at very moment when it was declared universal and eternal.
The return of the conflicts that world had suppressed - the return of history, for better and worse - is what we are struggling through now. The return of those conflicts has been the long and tortuous political education of generations and half-generations that were welcome to the world with the announcement that politics had just departed, that they would be the first to live in times when all public questions were technical, and all personal questions ethical, leaving nothing important to politics.