You are here:   Features > Belated revenge of the 1968 generation

The deeper and more worrying legacy of 1968 which we face today has been the long-term mutation of liberalism. We are again witnessing the destruction of political consensus, but this time of the liberal world order that Fukuyama assured us was the ideological end point in the wake of the Cold War. Jean Baudrillard, the French philosopher whom Fukuyama was attacking in his seminal essay, might have been closer in his vision of the end of history. For him, and others, the end of the Cold War was not so much an ideological victory as the destruction of the possibility of meaningful narratives about progress from either the Left or Right.

The confused politics of refusal and revision that fermented in the late 1960s have returned to haunt us. The response to Obama’s eight years of self-righteously progressive politics was predictably powerful but took an unexpectedly significant direction. Trump’s convention theme in 2016 — “make America safe again” — self-consciously channelled Nixon’s apocalyptic election platform of 1968. Nixon’s vision was of “Sirens in the night” and “Americans dying on distant battlefields”. He pledged to represent “the forgotten Americans”, “the non-demonstrators”, “the real voice of America”.

At a later point Trump substituted the word “great” for “safe”. Dismissed at the time by the media, Trump’s appeal to Nixon’s “silent majority” proved to be electoral dynamite. It remains to be seen if it will be matched with a comprehensive policy programme that fulfils its promises. Unlike those who voted for Nixon, Trump’s supporters were a generation also influenced by the countercultural strands of 1968 that questioned the very legitimacy of organised politics. A March 2016 Pew survey revealed that 50 per cent of Trump supporters described themselves as “angry with government”, compared with 30 per cent of those supporting rival Republican nominee Ted Cruz. The “government” in question clearly wasn’t just Obama’s administration nor a question of party politics. Nixon backed change designed to sustain the system. Trump’s message appealed to this base of supporters by promising to overturn it.

Referencing Nixon was a curious act of political revisionism for a conservative politician such as Trump. It chose to ignore the ideological innovation, optimism and free-market zeal of Reagan. In 2016 as in every election since 1980 potential Republican presidential candidates portrayed themselves as agents of optimism, except for Trump. Indeed, Trump’s split from Reagan and the Bushes couldn’t have been more pronounced. “The American dream is dead,” he declared in June 2015, the political system was “rigged”, Nato was “obsolete”. These sounded uncannily like the updated slogans of 1968. True to his word and bizarrely also true to the ideals of 1968, Trump is gradually overturning a bipartisan consensus on an international order based on free trade and the defence of democracy.

The alt-Right that claims to have helped propel Trump to power is infused with a logic of negation and inversion that must be all too familiar to students of 1968. One of the favoured internet memes of the movement is the “red pill” from the film The Matrix. If one swallows it, one is suddenly released from the illusion that one lives in a thriving, happy country to the hideous reality that one is deceived and exploited. The parallels with the Situationist exhortation “Sous les pavés, la plage” (“under the cobblestones, the beach”) are ironic but distinct.
View Full Article

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.