Bacevich: We are Not Living in the “Age of Trump”

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the National Day of Prayer event at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington D.C.

President Trump speaks during the National Day of Prayer event at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington D.C., on May 4, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Carlos Barria

A few months back I got into a small dustup over my use of the phrase “Age of Trump” to describe American life during the Trump presidency.  A few folks pushed back. They suggested that it was irresponsible for a historian to describe a given period as an “age” while the said historian was still living in it.  Others criticized me for trying to connect everything bad in the world–racism, anti-intellectualism, etc.–to the so-called “Age of Trump.”

These are all fair criticisms.  I addressed them here.

Over at Commonweal, Andrew Bacevich, a scholar of American foreign policy, is skeptical of the phrase “Age of Trump.”  He writes:

So at least hordes of hyperventilating journalists, scholars, activists, bloggers, and opinionated citizens purport to believe. Mark me down as skeptical. My bet is that when future historians render a verdict on Donald Trump they will see him as our least consequential president since Benjamin Harrison, whose signature diplomatic achievement was to persuade Europeans to lift a ban on pork imported from the United States, or even since William Henry Harrison, B. Harrison’s grandfather, who died after a mere thirty-one days in office.  

No argument here.

Bacevich continues:

Yet to suggest that Trump will end up on the Harrison end of the presidential spectrum is not to imply that the United States as a whole will remain stuck in neutral as long as he occupies the White House. On the contrary, dramatic, fundamental, and probably irreversible changes are transforming American society day by day before our very eyes. It’s just that Trump himself is irrelevant to those changes, which predate his entry into politics and continue today all but unaffected by his ascent to the presidency.  Our collective fixation on the person and foibles of Trump the individual causes us to overlook what is actually going on.

Melodramatic references to an “Age of Trump” that suddenly commenced in November 2016 obscure this reality. Simply put, our collective fixation on the person and foibles of Trump the individual causes us to overlook what is actually going on. And what is actually going on is something that Donald Trump hasn’t, won’t, and can’t affect.

Bacevich concludes that we are “living in the age of something”:

The real story is this: Ours is an “Age of Autonomy,” in which received norms—the basis of freedom as my grandmother understood the term—are losing their authority. This is notably the case with regard to norms that derive from religious tradition. How and whether the forces displacing those norms—science, the market, Big Data, social media—will foster a durable basis for a morally grounded community is at present impossible to foresee.  

Yet this much is for sure. Long after Trump has retired to Mar-a-Lago, the revolution that predates his rise to prominence will continue, with implications far outweighing anything he—or any other president—may do….

Read the entire piece here.

If we are indeed living in an “Age of Autonomy,” I think future historians will say that Donald Trump provides a window into such an age.