Riot of the Fiftysomethings
By Daniel Vollaro
When I watched the news footage of the Capitol insurrection in January, my first thought was “there are a lot of people around my age out there.”
I am 56 years old, born two weeks before the Baby Boom officially ended and Gen X began, right on the cusp of a new generation but unable to claim membership in either. Maybe because of this generational liminality, I could not help noticing that many of the insurrectionists who broke into the U.S. Capitol, stole stuff, took selfies, chased down and beat cops, built a noose outside, and trashed the place were white men “of a certain age,” in their late forties, fifties, and early sixties. Someday, researchers will pin down the demographics of that riotous mob, but for now, I will trust my powers of observation when I say that it was not a young crowd.
What were they doing out there, so many lost souls from my age cohort?
Full disclosure: I have never identified with Trumpism—not even a little, not even in jest. He sounded like a fascist when he descended those escalator steps in 2015 and he went out like a fascist five years later by summoning his brownshirts to sack the U.S. Capitol. I have always believed he was a con man and a person of low character, and I have never understood his appeal—the meanness, the trolling, the compulsive lying. I want to believe that my opinion of the man is shared by others who possess a rational perspective on the world, yet I have watched smart, well-educated people around my age tumble down the MAGA, QAnon, and “Plandemic” rabbit holes, descending into unfathomable depths of irrationality.
Like so many other Americans, I wonder how the insurrection could have happened. Some of the causes are obvious. The insurrectionists had been lied to and manipulated by powerful people in government, including President Trump. And there were the militias and hate groups and keyboard warriors who whipped up the crowd, in some cases organizing small groups to break into the building itself. Racism was another ingredient in the toxic mixture that day. Some white people, when the chips are down, fall backwards into believing that being white is a zero sum game, with winners and losers. Trump is a master manipulator of their sense of racial grievance.
But there is more to it. The anger, frustration, and alienation evidenced in that crowd is shared by many late middle-aged Americans who would never have gone near that demonstration. Despite the MAGA hats and the politically charged context, the Capitol riot felt to me more like the symptom of a spiritual crisis than a political one. And if a “spiritual” crisis sounds too fuzzy and granola for you, think of it instead as a crisis of meaning. A crisis of meaning revolves around existential questions: Where do I fit into this world order? Economy? Society? Culture? What is my life worth? My children’s lives? Like I said, I despise Trump and Trumpism, but I feel like I have lived inside of that kind of spiritual crisis for most of my life.
If we are experiencing something like a generational spiritual crisis, it likely began when we were young and impressionable, in the late 70s and 80s, with our indoctrination into consumer capitalism. Fiftysomethings came of age in the era of triumphal capitalism, and we were fed its ideology of less regulation, more private ownership, and more radical individualism, always with a side order of conservative family values and cheerleading for the nuclear family thrown in. We grew up hearing out-of-context Reaganisms on the subject like “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
And many believed them.
When we were young, one of the originators of this transactional magical thinking was enjoying the high water mark of her cultural reputation. Ayn Rand, the Russian-born philosopher and novelist, was being fervently read by an entire generation of socialism-hating free-market worshipers everywhere. Conservative politicians loved her. Paul Ryan, Clarence Thomas, Ron Johnson, Rand Paul, and Mark Sanford have all professed their admiration for her. So did Reagan. My dad’s computer engineer friend was a devotee; so was one of my philosophy professors. Rand was everywhere being read as a serious political philosopher by ordinary people who imbibed her elaborate and seductive fictional fantasies that were meant to sanctify libertarian extremism. In her novel Atlas Shrugged, for example, she introduces a pirate character named Ragnar Danneskjöld who attacks ships carrying relief supplies and who vows to erase Robin Hood from human history. According to Rand, the most just social system should be based on a radical form of selfish individualism. Government regulations and social programs weaken societies. Transactionalism is evidence of virtue. Anything that smacks of socialism is the enemy. Does any of this sound familiar?
Born-again Christianity was also poisoning the ideological ecosystem when we were young. It permeated the suburbs in the 1980s, on Saturday morning television shows and on high school football teams and in churches on Sunday where people were speaking in tongues and falling down on the floor, “slain in the spirit.” Weirder still were the dozens of religiously-tinged urban legends floating through the high school halls about how Satanists were kidnapping and sacrificing virgins, sexually abusing children in day care centers, and inserting secret messages into rock music that could only be heard when the record was played backwards (not that I ever figured out how to actually play a record backwards). Maybe a heavy dousing in this nonsense prepared the way for some to later believe that a secret conspiracy of rich, powerful Satan-worshipping pedophiles controls governments and economies all over the world—AKA QAnon.
It is now fashionable to blame social media for the proliferation of disinformation and conspiracy theories, but fiftysomethings were already softened to large-scale prevarication long before anyone had opened a Facebook account or sent their first tweet. We were the last cohort of young people to be indoctrinated to the Cold War, which was itself birthed in a cloak of lies, secrecy, and deception. An entire city was covertly constructed in New Mexico to house the Manhattan Project—a city not found on any map with streets that had no street signs. Subsequent nuclear testing produced its own massive fallout cloud of untruth. In a 2018 Time Magazine opinion piece on the “compulsive secrecy” of the atomic age, Fred Pearce writes “Nuclear subterfuge has eroded public trust, debate, and decision making alike.”
The first war that fiftysomethings can remember was cloaked in lies. The Pentagon Papers exposed a vast conspiracy to deceive the American people about the Vietnam War, revealing that four consecutive presidential administrations from Truman through Nixon covered up the extent of America’s military operations in Southeast Asia and its interference in the internal politics of South Vietnam. They also revealed that the war’s true purpose was to contain Communist China and that many of the top generals believed that the war was unwinnable.
The Big Lies did not end with the fall of Communism. When the CEO of R.J. Reynolds testified in 1994 to a congressional committee that “cigarette smoking is no more ‘addictive’ than coffee, tea, or Twinkies,” that was not a single lie as much as it was a brief flash of lightning on the leading edge of a hurricane of untruth. The fossil fuel industry was caught in a similar big lie when Americans learned that from 2005 to 2010, ExxonMobile funded climate change denial research for hundreds of thousands of dollars despite the fact that its own scientists had long ago concluded that burning fossil fuels would cause global warming. Look beneath Dick Cheney’s claim that “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction” and you will find the entirety of that catastrophic war in the Middle East. Look deeply into the financial crisis of 2008 and you will see what Barry Ritholz of the Washington Post called the “Big Lie” that Wall Street was merely a victim of the crash and not a primary architect of it.
But perhaps the biggest lie of them all is the one we were all born into—The American Dream. This lie was brutally exposed in 2008 when the real estate market imploded but only after a decade of predatory lending had run its course. Many Americans lost their homes and jobs and then witnessed their own families being literally evicted from the American middle class. But even the fortunate were not spared. Many people who survived the layoffs and estate sales to live on in the suburbs now suffer from feelings of hollowness, alienation, and lingering disappointment engendered by consumer capitalism’s false promises of happiness, satisfaction, wholeness, and perfection. This disappointment manifests in many ways—addiction, feelings of hopelessness, hypervigilance, and for some, an attraction to conspiracy theories and radical politics.
Hannah Arendt wrote of the Pentagon Papers “The divergence between facts — established by the intelligence services, sometimes by the decision makers themselves (as notably in the case of McNamara), and often available to the informed public — and the premises, theories, and hypotheses according to which decisions were finally made was total.” This divergence between facts and the faux reality spun by ideologues has been pervasive in our society since the end of World War II. The Big Lies are everywhere, so we shouldn’t be shocked to see so many Americans queuing up to believe another one, that the election of 2020 was stolen by Democrats. Likewise, we shouldn’t be shocked to see the popularity of QAnon and its big lies. Generations of Americans have been systematically stripped of their capacity to discern facts from the fog of misinformation and disinformation that surrounds us.
It is certainly true that the insurrection was sparked by a bizarre, fascistic political movement, but its roots penetrate deeply into the collective psyche of America. Decades ago, fiftysomethings followed the best advice of parents, teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, and ministers into a suburban middle class lifestyle only to feel betrayed and unsatisfied later in life. This sense of betrayal—this loss of faith in the American system—simmers beneath our politics. We are now well advised to take it seriously.
About the Author: Daniel Vollaro is a writer who lives in the Atlanta Metro area. His essays have also been published in Adbusters, Boomer Cafe, Litro, Michigan Quarterly Review, Missouri Review, Rise Up Review, and The Smart Set. His fiction has been published in Blue Moon Review, Crania, Creo, Fairfield Review, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, Thrice Fiction, and Timber Creek Review. He is an associate professor of English at Georgia Gwinnett College.