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Seniors Are Having a Moment

Maybe Trump shouldn’t have treated them as expendable.

Hey,

That loud beeping you hear isn’t the coin-operated I.V. drip machine I bought on Amazon announcing I need to add more quarters if I want more scotch. It’s me backing up into some rank punditry. Please be patient—or just skip ahead. 

Longtime readers probably know that I’m not a huge fan of generational politics. In fact, I’m downright curmudgeonly about it. Yeah, yeah, there are some things that shape generational cohorts in interesting ways. For example, Gen X attitudes interest me because A) I am a Gen Xer, and B) We were the last generation to grow up in a pre-internet culture, yet were young enough to make the transition relatively easily. 

But for every interesting thing to be said about generational stereotypes, 10 dumb things are shouted that amount to a kind of secular astrology or, particularly in the case of youth politics, the cheapest form of identity politics. 

A few of my longtime obsessions:

I don’t like talk of the Greatest Generation, because it confers credit-by-association. We’re all familiar with guilt-by-association, but we’re not used to spotting the reverse. As I often say on The Remnant, if you stormed the beach in Normandy, you deserve all the praise you get and I’ll happily buy you a beer. If, however, you spent D-Day in a drunk tank in Peoria, please don’t tell me you were part of the Greatest Generation. 

Moreover, for all the glory some in the Greatest Generation rightly lay claim to, political pandering to that generation messed up a lot of our politics. I think the G.I. Bill was, on the whole, a good thing. But it accelerated a long-term trend of Washington changing the rules to suck up to one generation, from mortgage regulations to various tweaks in Social Security. 

“The entire modern growth in government spending has coincided with the duration of their adult life cycle,” write William Strauss and Neal Howe in their book, Generations

We talk a lot about how young people are turning socialist, but it was the G.I. Generation, Howe and Strauss’ term, that drove America’s turn toward greater statism. And that shouldn’t be surprising. Depending on when they were born, the big formative experiences in their lives were World War I with its top-down rationing and war socialism, then the Great Depression, and then World War II. This was a generation that thought it was right and proper to take orders from Washington. 

And then there are young people. I’ve written so much about the folly of pandering to young people that I don’t think I should belabor it here. But to quickly summarize:

It is no great accomplishment to be young. Every non-young person still alive managed to pull off this feat. The great stuff about being young that we jaded oldsters take for granted or no longer enjoy—high energy, passion, childlike discovery of new things, fast metabolisms, ease of urination, the ability to sleep really late, etc.—do not amount to profound or unique wisdom. We are all born amazingly ignorant. At birth not only do we not know the difference between shit and Shinola, we have to be taught—carefully taught—not to crap our pants. Broadly speaking, this ignorance has only one reliable remedy: getting older. 

Every year someone proposes lowering the voting age because voting is so great (don’tget me started on that), and because we need the energy and passion of young people. But you can be sure that if the people saying this believed that young people would vote for things old liberals don’t like, they wouldn’t be saying it. 

Which is to say that most of the rhetoric about youth politics is really about political power. When politicians say “Children are our future,” you should always assume an addendum to the end of that sentence: “… So we should get on their good side now.”

When people say that politicians must connect to young people, I think that’s fine—if you mean that young people are citizens who should have buy-in to the political process. It’s also fine if you think there are unique problems facing young people that deserve some sort of policy remedy (there certainly are). But spare me the romantic treacle about how youth itself has some intellectual or moral superiority to it.

My complaints about populism—it elevates passion over reason, entitlement over obligation, grievance over generosity—apply in equal measure to youth movements. I’m a conservative. And as a conservative, I don’t think society should be bent to the will of the loudest people simply because they are loud. Sometimes shouting is necessary—it’s not just fine but obligatory to shout “fire!” in a crowded theater if there’s an actual fire. But in a democracy, the substance of what you’re shouting has to matter more than the decibel level.

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors,” Chesterton writes. “It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” This doesn’t mean we should be enthralled or held captive to tradition. Some traditions are bad. But we have an obligation not to automatically bow to people who don’t even know why we have those traditions in the first place. 

The GOP’s crisis.

Okay, I had to get that out of my system, because I’m about to engage in some punditry that might seem contradictory to my stated positions if I didn’t first clarify them.  

Donald Trump is losing seniors like a Boca Raton Denny’s after cancelling the Early Bird Special. He’s hemorrhaging oldsters in numbers not seen since CBS canceled Matlock

In 2016, Trump won seniors by 7 points. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from Sunday has him losing them by 27 points (62 percent to 35 percent). The CNN poll from yesterday—which I originally thought was an outlier—has him losing seniors by a mere 21 points (60 to 39). 

For years now, many of us have warned that the GOP can’t just keep relying on old white voters. This was not a sop to youth politics nor a backhanded way of pushing the GOP to get its act together on immigration. This was not an argument for trying to market the GOP as hip or cool. It was an analysis grounded in the cold actuarial truth that the GOP was losing more voters to death from old age than it was replacing through persuasion. 

But when we said the GOP needs to fix the problem, this is not what we had in mind. It’d be one thing if the GOP were trading its lead with seniors for a marked improvement with younger voters. But Biden—an unappealing (according to polls) old white guy—has been crushing Trump by 20 points or more with young people. 

Why is Trump losing seniors? The glib answer would be because they’re paying attention.

A more nuanced answer is that older people, while not a monolithic group—again, no age cohort is—do share something in common: They’re old. And old people go to the doctor a lot. They tend to trust their doctors for the simple reason that if they didn’t, they’d go to a different doctor. And their doctors have been telling them that COVID can kill them. And yes, it’s true, old people are just as capable of being skeptical about some of the pandemic hype as anyone else (including me). It’s also true that their lives have been disrupted more than others, and in ways very specific to them. I should add that the older population is disproportionately female, because the ladies live longer. And Trump’s problem with women exists with the Golden Girl set too. 

They’re also disproportionately on fixed incomes—low interest rates have been brutal on them—and they watch TV more, which reinforces my point about paying attention. 

They heard him insinuate that everything would be open by last April (yes, I know he didn’t say it outright, but he deliberately left that impression when he spoke about packed churches on Easter). They were paying attention the countless times he said we’d turned the corner. They heard him say he didn’t want the cruise ship to unload because it would screw up the number of cases here from five to a few hundred. They heard him ask if maybe we could use UV light or disinfectants internally to kill the virus (he said in the debate he was just being sarcastic, which is nonsense). They heard him—and so, so, many of his ostensibly pro-life boosters—talk as if oldsters were an expendable population.

At every stage, they took him seriously until it became clear that he wasn’t taking the pandemic seriously. It’s not hard to imagine some crotchety dude in an old age home wearing a MAGA hat every night as he watches the news (or the “news”) until all of this accumulates to the point that the hat comes off, but the mask stays on. 

I don’t think the race is over. I may want to slap everyone who says “The only poll that matters is on Election Day” with a semi-frozen flounder, but that doesn’t make it untrue. First of all, voting has already begun, which means that the polls are in some limited sense not just prospective but descriptive. But more importantly, if these numbers remain remotely where they are for another three weeks or so, Trump won’t just lose, he will lose in a historic landslide, taking the Senate with him. 

If Trump cared more for his party or for the country, he’d use his COVID diagnosis as an excuse to resign and give Pence and McConnell a shot at salvaging this debacle. Of course, if he cared more for his party and his country, he’d have behaved in ways that wouldn’t have gotten him in this predicament in the first place. He’d have used his affliction to sell a new sobriety and seriousness. Instead, he’s back to the it’s-just-the-flu talk and railing against Section 230.

So, like Slim Pickens riding the ICBM, he’s going to play this thing out to the (electorally) apocalyptic end. But unlike Slim, he won’t be flying solo. 

And then we all get to argue amid the ashes about who was really to blame.

Photograph by Suzanne Kreiter/Boston Globe/Getty Images.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.