Ironically, the 2020 US Presidential election pitches two septuagenarians whose mental acuity is suspect at this particular moment of historical crisis- a historical crisis marked by what I would call a social dementia. Trump’s cognitive abilities have drawn attention and speculation for the duration of his presidency. Does he have late stage syphilis? Is he suffering from geriatric dementia? The effects of Adderall addiction? Shortly after Trump took office, Bandy X. Lee edited a volume of twenty-seven essays entitled The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump in which mental health professional argued Trump’s mental stability posed a clear danger to U.S. national interests.
Over the course of the summer, the Trump campaign claimed that Biden is experiencing cognitive decline that makes him unfit for the presidency. On the one hand, Trump and his followers frequently externalize their own doubts, fears, and desires in acts of projection. But also, the instinct to attack Biden’s mental fitness connects with larger concerns in the electorate over the impact of cognitive decline of the Silent Generation (Biden) and the Boomers (Trump). In caring for their parents and grandparents, younger generations experience in the miniature a phenomenon they see at work socially.
Generational conflict has returned to public discourse with a vigor not seen since the political explosion of the baby boomers in the 1960s. It is, maybe, the most American of things to think in periodized terms invented by advertisers. In fact, the saliency of generational conflict in the U.S. at this moment would be better understood as a conflict of general tendencies of material conditions that have some generational vector. Boomerism may appear to be an attribute of age, but there are plenty of boomer adults across the age gradients. In other words, what makes a Millennial a millennial is less their birth date than it is their experience of the material conditions of economic crisis at particular periods of their economic productivity. At the level of psychological time, though, Millennials well imagine their experience to be a generational attribute to which advertisers have given a name.
This is a mistake most often made by the Boomers themselves. Beneficiaries of the vast economic expansion rooted in the U.S.’s unique postwar position, the robust public support of Keynesian administered capitalism, and later the new accumulation schemes of the financialization turn of the 1970s, many (white) boomers have interpreted their temporal luck as signs of personal virtue. Such a response to the ideologies of the American dream is not limited to the Boomers themselves, though. The virtue of mistaken virtue is its ability to mobilize grievance.
Trump’s strongest support nationally trends old, white, evangelical, and middle income, in other words, people convinced that their struggles are a betrayal of their personal success. Or that their prospects for personal success have been forsaken by the boogieman du jour. That position of victimization is predicated on a systematic disavowal of history and material conditions. And this disavowal, this victimization, unites fascists in the U.S. more than age. The fascism of Trump and his movement emerged with the financial backing of the deep pockets of the same ruling class that has produced the crisis in capitalism to which that fascism is responding. This contradiction, though, requires repression.
In the 1930s, Japanese Marxist Tosaka Jun argued that the confluence of imperialism and capitalism that produced Japanese fascism, or Japanism, manifested culturally through a valorization of three connected forms of restorationism– 1. agriculturalism; 2. militarism; 3. spiritualism. These movements were associated with popular conceptions of a prior feudalism, but were not simply anachronisms. Rather, Japanism took associational elements of a pre-national past and reconfigured them to provide a moral discourse of the disavowal of Japanese modernity.
Tosaka wrote, “the important parameter of the feudalist consciousness here is in fact the idea of the ‘oneness of soldiers and farmers.’”1 To this unity, Japanism married a primitivization of consciousness in the form of a restorationist spiritualism in service of the Emperor that “must capture the middle class in general, or the petit bourgeois, which is experiencing extreme turmoil in its social consciousness.”2
It is not hard to imagine corollaries in the American present. In the place of disavowed historical and material conditions, Trumpism offers the triune ideologies of heartland-ism, militarism, and evangelicalism. In place of an anachronistic feudalism, American fascism deploys a petit bourgeois defense that is of more recent origin, but no less nostalgic, appealing to the (white) boomer’s childhood while repressing the material conditions and limits on capital necessary for its return.
The appeal to heartland-ism, militarism, and evangelicalism are nostalgic antidotes to the disruption of the social dementia that acts as a refusal of history.