Maybe it was seeing the former Oath Keeper wearing a Descendents T-shirt when testifying before the January 6 committee, but I think it’s past time we reckoned with Generation X. The backbone of Trumpist alt-right support comes from my generation. Learning that polls show people born between 1965 and 1980 are the foot soldiers and ideological minders of the new fascism has been jarring, because I’ve always considered Gen X underrated. There has been much ink spilled about the culture wars between boomers and millennials, skipping right over us. It seemed unfair. After all, we were the generation of grunge, some of the best hip-hop ever made (defined by the revolutionary sounds of Public Enemy), and the last generation to read newspapers (that matters to me, for some reason). We should be recognized. We launched movements and challenged the two-party duopoly.
Yet, somewhere along the way, we made a hard turn toward right-wing, even fascist solutions for the decline of this country. I know that grouping people by generation can be an exercise in stupidity. Not accounting for the ways race and class vivisect a generational analysis is to be derelict in duty. After all, a generation of Black Americans or immigrants have not gone full white nationalist—although the shallow inroads Trumpism has made in these groups is a cause for alarm. But still the question lingers: Why is Gen X, even by a number significantly greater than seniors, the heart of Trump’s support?
I have thought about this until veins pop in my head, and my conclusions veer toward the depressing and maddening. My generation, coming of age with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Reaganism, felt that we had the power to reshape the world in a more just direction. The media may have portrayed our alienation as turning some of us into “slackers,” but that was always more of a cultural trope than a reality. Popular culture tended to ignore our thirst for change. We looked at the history of this country and saw the massive steps forward for racial and economic justice our parents won in the 1960s and how our grandparents wrested a measure of control from the powers of capital in the 1930s. We believed that the arc of history bent toward justice, and that social progress was more than a possibility—it was a birthright. We were also told that we would be the first generation of Americans who would be worse off than our parents, something that both fueled our desire to remake the world and made us the most alienated generation since the one defined as “lost” after the carnage of World War I.
This is now a forgotten history, but Generation X led some of the largest and most significant protest movements in the history of this country. We were the youth of the mass marches for LGBTQ and abortion rights at the turn of the 1990s. By decade’s end, we were the heart of the Battle of Seattle and the international marches for global justice against organizations like the IMF and the World Bank. The 9/11 attack was a punch to the gut and a shock to the system, but we never stopped organizing, turning our sights toward Bush’s illegal wars. We organized the largest ever anti-war mobilization in the US—and the world—against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. We held the massive March for Women’s Lives for abortion rights in 2004. We were shaped by anti-racism, growing up under the logic of the aims of the Black freedom struggle. We were prison abolitionists and marched against racialized police violence decades before Black Lives Matter. We regularly kicked the Ku Klux Klan’s ass when they so much as lifted their hooded heads. We were both part of and inspired by the mass immigration rights marches of 2006, which filled the streets with millions. We fought for marriage equality, with hundreds of thousands descending upon Washington, D.C.
Yet what is the common thread of everything described? We lost. Unlike the generations before us, we were defeated. Again and again and again. We marched, and the war still happened. We fought for immigrant rights and reaped an unholy backlash of vigilantes and minutemen. We challenged globalization, and it barely skipped a beat. (Now the most prominent voices of anti-“globalism” are tragically the anti-Semitic nationalist right.) In the wake of even losing abortion rights, we are now faced with the repeal of marriage equality. We were anti-racists only to see Charlottesville and the rebirth of a Nazi movement now marching in masks through the streets of places like Boston and Philadelphia—places that would have torn them to pieces in decades past.
All of this losing takes a tremendous psychological toll. Some drop out of politics. Some believe that leaving the streets and dourly electing the Joe Bidens of the world is the best we can do, and some turn to the right for answers.
We are left with a minority of people still in the fight, but also, increasingly, a husk of a generation that has rejected Margaret Thatcher’s maxim that “there is no alternative” to global capitalism but has made the alternative an orange, clownish, petulant, corrupt, bigoted wannabe billionaire rapist riding in with an army pulled from the ideological sewers. They are ready to burn liberal democracy to the ground, not caring that they lack popular support for their authoritarian plans. It’s a small blessing that Gen X is smaller than other generations.
If there is a lesson, it is that there is a social cost to losing beyond mass depression. We need to restore the confidence that what we do matters and that the left can put forward a credible alternative. There is a young generation of people more comfortable with the language of socialism than with capitalist cant, staring down climate catastrophe and thirsting for racial and economic justice. The true believers we have left in our generation have a responsibility to support these struggles to our last, to restore radical optimism to our lives and our fights. Our generation failed to stop the racist, capitalist tides, but it would be the worst possible epitaph for Gen X if, in the face of fascism, we became the slackers that the our parents’ generations always accused us of being.