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Trumpism Was Born in the ’90s

If decades have distinct personalities, they also have shadow selves: covert and latent tendencies that are only barely visible at the time but serve as harbingers of change to come.

The stereotypical view of the 1950s is of suburban placidity presided over by the grinning golfer Dwight Eisenhower. There’s some truth to this image, but even at its most bland, the decade saw the sprouting of many seeds that would flourish in the years to come: the Beat writers forging a counterculture that rejected middle-class conformism, the organizers of the Montgomery bus boycott raising the curtain on a new era of civil rights activism. Not to mention the Senate vote to censure Joseph McCarthy and the wave of campus enthusiasm that greeted the Cuban Revolution.

In popular memory, the 1990s were another supposedly nonpolitical decade. The Cold War wrapped up in 1989, which allowed Francis Fukuyama to proclaim the “End of History” in a much-discussed article that became a 1992 best-selling book. The age of ideological competition, Fukuyama and other sages assured us, was over. Liberal democracy had triumphed, and there was no alternative. The Washington consensus of neoliberalism was now the only path for humanity. Henceforth, politics would be a technocratic contest between the center-left (Bill Clinton) and the center-right (George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole). Clinton, the master triangulator who repeatedly outwitted Republicans by selectively adopting their policies, was the king of this centrist utopia, presiding over a stock market boom, a new push for the globalization of trade, and a renewal of American hegemony under the banner of liberal humanitarianism and the “responsibility to protect.”

The very fact that the major domestic political crisis of Clinton’s presidency was an impeachment over extramarital fellatio speaks to the fundamentally trivial politics of the decade. (There’s no need to credit the transparent GOP talking point that Clinton was impeached over a violation of the rule of law.) If Seinfeld, the quintessential 1990s TV program, was “about nothing,” then the Clinton era offered a politics about nothing much.

In his book The Nineties, the culture critic Chuck Klosterman neatly articulates this view of the era. “It was perhaps the last period in American history when personal and political engagement was still viewed as optional,” he argues. “Many of the polarizing issues that dominate contemporary discourse were already in play, but ensconced as thought experiments in academic circles.”

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