Six months into Donald Trump’s presidency, in July 2017, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, we learn in Bob Woodward’s book Fear, brought the President and his senior advisers into a meeting at the Tank in the Pentagon to discuss post-1945 American foreign policy. “The great gift of the greatest generation to us,” Mattis said, “is the rules-based, international democratic order,” which brought security, stability, and prosperity. “This is what has kept the peace for 70 years,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson added. Unimpressed, Donald Trump—who was himself 70 at that very moment—shook his head. Later in the meeting he railed against ungrateful NATO allies, threatened to pull US troops out of South Korea, and argued that international trade merely took advantage of the United States. He left the meeting defiant.
This week, the New York Times published one of the longest news-feature stories in history about the financial relationship between Donald Trump and his father Fred, who was born in 1905 and therefore qualifies as a member of the greatest generation himself. It turns out that Donald Trump has treated his father’s financial and corporate legacy in the same way that he wants to treat the diplomatic and economic legacy of his parents’ generation. Having taken advantage of it to become rich himself, he repudiated its basic principles and created an organization based on completely different values. In so doing he has evidently destroyed the foundations of an extraordinarily successful business, while insisting, all along, that he is one of the great businessmen of all time. That, essentially, is what he is now doing on the world stage: ripping up the foundations of a stable order, risking disaster not simply for himself but for the nation and the world, and claiming, all along, the status of a political genius.
Whatever his own politics, Fred Trump was a self-made man. He apparently never attended college and started his construction business in New York in the midst of the Depression at the age of 15. When he was in his twenties he built houses and a supermarket. Then his career as a builder became intertwined with major developments in American life. He built barracks and apartments near shipyards on the East Coast during the Second World War, and after it was over, he built more middle-class houses and apartments with government help. Fred Trump—like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life—was providing homes for his contemporaries and their growing families, and he was well-rewarded for it. And like so many fathers of his generation, he spoiled his own five children materially. Thanks to him, the Times tells us, his second son Donald—evidently his favorite—was a millionaire by the age of 8. Two decades later, it turns out, Fred’s wealth allowed Donald to launch his career, and for the rest of Fred’s life, it allowed him to continue it, providing a safety net to bail the younger Trump out when, as so often happened, one of his more speculative moves went awry.
Comparing Donald’s real estate empire to his father’s can easily make one think of the contrast between two very popular television shows: All in the Family, which like so many programs from the 1950s through the 1970s, focused on a lower middle-class family, and Dallas, which titillated the audience with a portrayal of profligate, super-rich Boomers in the 1980s. Donald Trump wasted no time on housing for ordinary people. He took advantage of the Reagan-era wealth explosion and a freer business environment to build luxury apartments and hotels. Later, instead of providing for the most fundamental needs of working Americans like his father—the need for a house or an apartment—he tried to get richer by taking advantage of their addiction to gambling—an addiction which he, in his own way, seems to share. He eventually turned himself, not his buildings, into the product that he was selling, enabling him to move into television and then into politics. And he managed to move his role within his family onto the national stage. He appears to have been the son who could get away with anything, confident that his father would bail him out when necessary. In the same way he survived repeated bankruptcies in the 1990s by convincing banks that they needed his name to recoup more of their disastrous loans, and he now occupies the White House thanks to a political following that will forgive him for anything.
Sadly, the story of Fred Trump, his son Donald, and the two very different Americas they represent reflects a much broader contrast between the GI or Greatest generation on the one hand and the Boom on the other. Boomers grew up in an era of large families and expanding infrastructure, including schools and universities, roads and bridges, and hospitals. Their parents paid for all this with the help of high income tax rates (and high estate taxes, which Fred Trump, the Times shows, managed to avoid paying for the benefit of his children.) The stable economy of the 1950s and early 1960s reflected tough regulation of Wall Street as well. Today, after 25 years of Boomer rule, many public school teachers do not make enough money to live on. University education costs at least three times as much as it did in the 1960s, even allowing for inflation, students have to mortgage their futures to pay for it, which Boomers did not. Infrastructure is falling apart. Right wing Boomers unreservedly praise free markets and the benefits they have reaped with them. Left wing Boomers seem to think that all is well as long as women and minorities claim their fair share of elite positions within our society. Neither are meeting the needs of the mass of the American people. In foreign policy, the last GI President, George H. W. Bush, left the nation with unprecedented power and prestige, only to see his own son squander it in an endless, useless crusade for democracy in the Middle East. Now President Trump is turning the US into a rogue state whose closest allies are Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Rather than extend their parents’ and grandparents’ legacy, the Boom generation has largely squandered it to enrich themselves. Eventually we may find out that Donald Trump’s share of his father’s fortune is now gone. Meanwhile, Trump’s extraordinary presidency reminds us, every day, of the collapse of our political life in the era of the Boom generation.