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Han '23: Children of Trump’s America: This is the country our generation will inherit. Now what?

Presidents have a way of defining the era that they exist in. For the longest time, Barack Obama  felt like my generation’s president. Cool-headed and technocratic, yet somehow barrier-breaking and inspiring at the same time. A symbol of unbridled American possibilities, and also the disappointment that follows the inevitably slow pace of change. But I was seven and eleven, respectively, during his election and re-election — old enough to remember little things, like the giant McCain-Palin sign across from our local ice rink in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but too young to have felt invested in either November election. After all, my parents, still South Korean citizens, couldn’t even vote in this country yet. Despite this, as deeply intellectual people who respected the similarly cerebral president, they imparted an admiration of President Obama onto me. 

But to call me a child of Obama’s America would be a mistake. I wish I carried the hope that he had represented to my parents and to so many across this country, and I wish that I could represent his eloquence and brainy charm. I wish that I believed in the American Dream as much as he obviously did when he began his 2008 victory speech by saying, “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible … tonight is your answer.” But I don’t. Our generation might have grown up during Obama’s presidency, but our political consciousness — and therefore, the way we view the world around us — has been molded by Trumpism and its alternate facts and realities that are reinforced by their relationship with entertainment from Twitter to CNN to Saturday Night Live. Donald Trump is gone, but the grievances and the media ecosystem that made him successful are more prominent than ever. 

In 2016, I didn’t know what was coming. Mark me down as yet another Democrat who didn’t take then-candidate Donald Trump seriously — not when he entered the race, not when he won the Republican primary, and not even on Election Day itself. I was a fifteen-year-old, unable to vote and just starting to care about politics, with Democratic parents and Democratic friends in the most Democratic county in Michigan. By then, my parents had been naturalized and were excited to vote against him, and everyone around me abhorred Trump as much as they dismissed his political chances: Between the Access Hollywood tapes, the David Duke endorsement and his readily apparent cruelty and selfishness, how could he possibly become Obama’s successor? 

We should have known better. Even if we were too young to grasp the complexity of white identity politics or the urban-rural divide, my peers and I were the social media generation. We should have understood the power of clicks, the potency of driving attention and engagement online. Instead, I went to sleep early on Tuesday night, tired of refreshing the New York Times electoral map, peaceful in my certainty of waking up in a country governed by our first female president. When I woke up and checked the map on Wednesday, I slapped myself, thinking that it was a bad dream. It was a haze I never really broke out of. The car ride with my dad on the way to school was silent; inside, the usually-bustling hallways were mostly empty, save for a few groups of kids leaning on each other, hugging, crying. The vast majority of us couldn’t even vote, and yet we were condemned to a coming-of-age in an America we hadn’t chosen. 

Even on that fateful Wednesday, I’m not sure that we had a good idea of just how nightmarish the next four years would be. The scars that Donald Trump’s presidency and Trumpism as a whole have left on our national consciousness are deep, perhaps irreparably so. An incomplete list: His never-ending lies and peddling of conspiracy theories have left half the country doubting the reality of everything from the coronavirus pandemic to the sanctity of our elections, sowing doubt in our democratic institutions; He convinced a base of white Evangelical voters to devote themselves to him, a deeply immoral man, by exploiting their fears of an increasingly secular nation; He empowered white supremacist groups and made QAnon’s absolutely crazy theories a genuine political force; He damaged our climate, the American Dream and our country’s international reputation; He oversaw a disastrous response to a pandemic which has killed nearly half of a million Americans; And in his final weeks in the White House, President Trump incited a marauding mob, which stormed the Capitol in the hopes of overturning the results of the 2020 election. Among the insurrectionists were members of paramilitary organizations, some of whom seemed intent on capturing and/or killing lawmakers who had the audacity to defy the President by defending democracy. A Capitol police officer was killed in the melee. Trumpism has cleaved our country in half, with the two ideological sides so far apart from each other that legitimate talks of secessionactually splitting the United States into two or more separate countries — are being had among political commentators. Even the less panicky among us have cut out family members and broken lifelong friendships over divided opinions on Trump. 

All of that said, Donald Trump was limited to a single term. He retired to Florida as the only president to have been impeached twice, and the results of his second Senate trial still hang in the balance. His successor, President Joe Biden, has already begun ripping up many of Trump’s executive actions. Neither Trump himself nor his limited legislative legacy will last forever. But there is something about the process of becoming a full-fledged, politically engaged citizen during the Trump years that is a unique sort of trauma: Trumpism has become part of our political normal. 

Obviously, Trumpism has changed American politics in so many ways. But none more so for our generation than how he has entangled politics with entertainment. Under his influence, politicians have achieved movie-star status in our public consciousness, with both the 2016 and 2020 elections covered like a blockbuster movie. On both the political left and right, a “stan” culture has developed — supporters no longer simply support politicians that they agree with. Instead, certain politicians command armies of devotees who build their entire identities around their adoration of a certain candidate. Actors like Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington used to drive millions to the theaters off of their star power alone. That kind of all-encompassing movie stardom has been replaced by the likes of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, who galvanize massive crowds of fans wherever they go. This sort of politician fandom is, of course, encouraged and developed by the American news media. Both social media and cable news (which together provide the vast majority of Americans’ information) rely on entertaining their viewers in order to keep them engaged. That is a reason that ratings for all three major cable networks — CNN, FOX and MSNBC — soar during primetime when news is presented in the form of opinion, minimizing objective reporting in favor of engaging storytelling. As for social media, the entire business model is based on showing people what they want to see in order to generate user engagement and, in the process, funneling people into “filter bubbles,” where personalization leads to the rejection of information that does not fit into one’s point of view. 

The media ecosystem has adapted to the era of personalization by splintering into narrowly focused outlets, so that most news networks report to a select audience who choose the source based on their pre-existing opinions. Consumer choice sounds like a great idea, until it becomes obvious that when each American gets their news from their own little bubble, sooner or later normal political partisanship turns into entirely separate, contradictory realities. The consequences of this are obvious: There is no incentive for a far-right network such as OAN to tell the truth about the results of the 2020 election when their viewership wants to have their beliefs about fraud reinforced and when their bottom line depends on their viewership ratings. Such networks push a narrative that is blatantly and objectively false in order to create outrage and gain viewers, further radicalizing their audience. When that audience, fully confident in their point of view, is incited to violence by the political leaders that they idolize, it’s like a lit match being thrown into a tinderbox. And thus, we not only end up with the events of Jan. 6, but also a political culture that revolves less around policy differences, or even identity differences, but reality differences. That is the true and lasting legacy of Trumpism. 

Trumpism was not created by the media. The movement is rooted in what has been described as white panic in the face of a changing country. The great Toni Morrison wrote about this very phenomenon directly after Trump’s 2016 victory, stating: “So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.” But it is beyond doubt that the American media ecosystem fueled the rise of Trumpism, and even worse, has made the problem unbelievably hard to fix by creating information silos that can be basically impenetrable, as the heartbreaking stories of people dealing with loved ones who have fallen into the QAnon conspiracy cult can attest to.

Despite all this, we have moved on from Trump, if only symbolically. President Biden has taken office, promising to not only deliver on what he sees as the four major crises facing America — COVID-19, the economy, climate change and systemic racism — but to do so by unifying the country. After the results of the 2020 election were confirmed, and as his predecessor seethed and plotted against the peaceful transfer of power, Biden stated his goal in his victory speech: “I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide but to unify, who doesn’t see red states and blue states, only sees the United States.” 

It was deeply moving to see decency and humanity restored to our nation’s highest office. But my happiness lasted for about a second before the existential dread returned. Now what? How can we tackle the cascading crises that loom over our country when we are so disunified that different Americans may as well live in different realities? How can unity be achieved when a not-insignificant portion of the Republican party, one of the country’s two major political parties, believes that Democrats, the other major party, is made up of Satan-worshipping pedophiles? And how can we change those blatantly false beliefs when people have been able to create information bubbles around themselves, rejecting anything that doesn’t line up with their pre-established point of view? The entertainment-as-information crisis is the most daunting one we face, because our ability to effectively tackle any other crisis — from the pandemic that threatens and upends our lives every day, to the systems of white supremacy that created Trumpism in the first place and must be dismantled — depends on our ability to agree upon a set of facts, a shared reality. If we can’t do that, we cannot continue as one nation. Most of us did not ask for the deeply divided country we will inherit. Nevertheless, it is the burden we must bear and the challenge we must solve.

Bliss Han ’23 can be reached at bliss_han@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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