When the Old Rule with Impunity

Pride, or fist-pumping, comes before the fall.

A lot of people, not just Donald Trump’s critics, are looking at this picture on the anniversary of September 11 with jaws on the floor. Here’s the president pumping his fists as if he were on the way to a campaign rally. Trump had in fact just arrived in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, to give solemn remarks, or what should have been solemn remarks, in honor of the people killed by Islamist terrorists 17 years ago today.

On the one hand, this picture informs us of what we already know well. Nothing—stress: nothing—is more important to this president than what’s immediately relevant to his shattered glass of an ego. But there’s another way of looking at this picture, a way that sums up the state of global politics, particularly the internal threats posed to democracies around the world: the old rule, and they rule with impunity.

Democracy is a young person’s game. That’s why there are so many built-in checks and balances—to stymie or channel passions. But as Cambridge scholar David Runciman wrote for Time, the world’s oldest democracies are now top-heavy. For the first time in world history, democracies have more old people than they do young people.

This is especially true in Europe, where birth rates are the lowest while resistance to immigration is the fiercest. This, Runciman said, has led to a vicious cycle in which “keeping migrants out reinforces the generational divisions in democratic politics.”

The US isn’t aging as fast, Runciman said, because it has been more open to immigration. But Trump’s victory and his subsequent policies—confiscating infants at the border being the most atrocious—are paving the way to an equally vicious cycle in the future. The older the country gets, the more it resists the need for immigration. Put less charitably: the older we get, the more fascist we get. The more fascist we get, the more willing we are to tolerate evil, and celebrate it with fist-pumping.

If our politics feels upside down, that’s because they are. Images of kids being ripped from their mothers would have scandalized previous generations of Americans, invoking memories of atrocities committed by Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. Because the young bore the brunt of war, the young demanded full participation in democratic republics. Now, images of kids being ripped from their mothers barely elicit shrugs from Americans older than 65. Indeed, they elicit more hostility.

Why? It’s more than racism. It has something to do with older Americans never having experienced world war. In the past, “democracies collapsed because they could not accommodate the impatience of the young, who had been through the turmoil of war and economic depression,” Runciman said. “Now they are at risk from the intransigence of the old, who have known little except prosperity and peace.”

As I have said, the people who most benefited from the expansion of democracy in the postwar years are the same people seeking to pull up the ladder behind them, preventing the brown, the black and the young from enjoying the blessings of liberty while forcing them to pay for their old age. Call this gerontocracy if you like.

I’ve called it geriatric fascism.

America isn’t Southern Europe. We not only beat the Nazis; we beat the Soviets. After 1989, we were the last remaining superpower. We were the best. Until Sept. 11.

In the aftermath of the attacks, we should have awakened to the “obvious point that millions of people in other parts of the world live in a state of perpetual danger,” wrote Steve Almond a decade later. “And that the events of 9/11 might therefore require of us a greater empathy for those suffering elsewhere, might even nudge us toward a more serious consideration of our own imperial luxuries and abuses, and how these might relate to the deprivations suffered in less fortunate precincts.”

Instead, the United States smashed people who did us no harm, just as we are smashing people now who pose no threat to us. We did that, and are doing that, because so many cannot accept that America is not omnipotent, an attitude among the old that stems from not seeing atrocities and crimes against humanity made possible when leaders convince followers they are victims who can do no wrong.

Pride, or fist-pumping, comes before the fall.

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