Saturday, April 21, 2018
Opinion

Column: What the Vietnam War tells us about Trump voters

Baby boomers elected Donald Trump. Not all of them, of course. Trump won convincingly among voters 45 and older — the bulk of whom are boomers — and lost convincingly among voters 44 and under, according to the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University. Back in the day, we boomers called that a generation gap.

And why did boomers go for the radical outsider? One root is laid bare by directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, whose masterpiece of documentary history, The Vietnam War, is unfolding nightly on PBS.

Vietnam stamped the boomers with suspicion of elite institutions and mistrust of elected government. From the start, the Wise Men of national security lacked a winning strategy, and people on the inside knew it. Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson all expressed a sense of futility even as they led the country into the quagmire, pouring lives and money into a civil war in a distant country that they never really understood.

The cost of such negligence, such hubris, such error, was huge. Vietnam sapped the spirit of the U.S. military. In his biography of Richard Nixon, Stephen Ambrose reports that by 1971 nearly one in six U.S. troops serving in Vietnam was a heroin addict, 40,000 out of a quarter-million men. "Fragging" of unpopular officers — that is, murder or attempted murder by enlisted men — was so common that more than 200 cases were reported the previous year. "Racial tension" in the ranks "was at an all-time high."

"It was Nixon's own fault," Ambrose summed up. "He was the one who kept sending half-trained, at best, 18-year-olds halfway around the world to engage in a war he had long since decided he could not win, to participate in a rearguard action designed to protect a corrupt and non-representative government long enough to secure his own re-election."

The impact at home was equally demoralizing, and the blame was not Nixon's alone. Vietnam was a tragedy wrought over many years by multiple administrations. Democrats and Republicans alike, the so-called best and brightest of both parties, put the credibility of the government on the line for policies they did not believe in. They sacrificed trust on the altar of pride, and wound up with neither.

The Burns and Novick film moves with silent power from recent interviews with elderly men and women to photographs of the same people in the fervent freshness of youth. This powerful technique silently measures the weight of broken faith they carry. One of them, a Marine named John Musgrave, says, "We were probably the last kids of any generation that actually believed our government would never lie to us."

How thoroughly that trust has been abused across the span of 50 years. Think of the political scandals: Watergate, Iran-Contra, the Bill Clinton impeachment and more. Think of the financial panics: runaway inflation, the savings and loan crisis, Enron, the Great Recession. Think of the disputed elections, and the marooned masses in the New Orleans Superdome, and the Obamacare enrollment portals that crashed almost as soon as they were switched on.

Think of our seemingly endless war in the Middle East and Afghanistan — for which leaders have drawn heavily and repeatedly at the bank of national honor with no clear plan to make up the balance. Someday, when enough time has passed to make it history rather than news, a documentary can recount the way then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld barred the Vietnam veteran Colin Powell, then secretary of state, from the planning process for the Iraq invasion. And how, with heedless cynicism, he arranged to topple the government in Baghdad with little apparent concern for what would come afterward.

No government has ever been perfect. But the boomers have seen their elites break faith again and again. I compare our experience with the government that sent my grandfather to war in 1942. George Love was a small-town railroad man from Oklahoma who volunteered along with his sons in the days after Pearl Harbor.

He spent most of his war years at a stateside office building alongside other railroad men from other small towns across the country. They worked out train schedules for a liberated Europe that did not yet exist — work that reflected the determination of men such as George C. Marshall to think things all the way through.

Voting for Trump was a strange way of voicing a frustration rooted in Vietnam. Trump was a privileged kid who avoided service, and unlike Hillary Clinton and many of her friends, he wasn't part of the tide of protest that eventually reversed Johnson's escalation.

But Trump's victory was not primarily a vote in favor of anything. Trump is a surfer atop a wave of mistrust and disillusion that has been building for a lifetime.

© 2017 Washington Post

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