Opinion: The Trump Presidency as a Catalyst for Millennial Activism
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Sanford Journal of Public Policy.
No election in modern history has so publicly exposed the political divide between the young and the old as the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Millennials voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton, who garnered 55% of the 18-29 vote, while Donald Trump only picked up 37%. On the flip side, 53% of those aged 65+ voted for Trump and 45% voted for Clinton. This glaring divide in American politics between the young (18-29) and the old (65+) has widened dramatically since George W. Bush’s first election when there was only a two percentage point difference between the young and the old that voted Democrat. The historic Millennial unfavorability for Trump, his cabinet, and his policies may well serve as a catalyst that spurs an increasingly generation-divided electorate to activism.
Clinton’s electoral defeat came as a complete surprise to the majority of the country, especially Millennials. The loss was particularly surprising because Clinton’s odds of winning had been projected at 95% by Reuters/Ipsos three weeks before the election and 71.4% by Millennial statistical soothsayer Nate Silver, up until the day of the election itself.
The fact that Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million votes, mostly from the Democratic and economic stronghold state of California, but lost the Electoral College is one manifestation of the specific characteristics that set Millennials apart from older generations. At 28.7%, Millennials make up the largest share of the US population, and are notorious for their lack of political participation.
Despite this, Millennials are ripe for activism not only because of Trump, but more broadly because of their youth, diversity, education, and discontent with their social and economic situation. Even though Millennials are the most well-educated generation, they are also underemployed and earn 20% less than their parents did at the same stage of life. Among Millennials themselves, there is a growing income gap between those with college degrees and those without, fueling a cultural gap as many college graduates head to liberal and economically powerful states on the coasts or to larger cities with relatively more job opportunities than the more rural or blue-collar communities from which they migrated out. For these non-urbanite Millennials, many of whom supported Trump, a common hope was that he would change the way Washington politics were “stacked against them.” However, by May of this year, only 40% of people said Trump had made such progress in changing the way Washington worked, while a majority 54% said he hadn’t. No wonder trust in the President to do the right thing has reached a nadir of just 24% among Millennials.
Only 32% of Millennials approve of Trump’s performance thus far, according to a poll released by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics. A new Pew study has identified a massive 23% shift of young Republicans (under 30) to the Democratic Party since December 2015, further emphasizing the fact that Millennials are dropping the GOP like hotcakes.
Here’s where my opinion comes in. In my view, my generation is one that is increasingly feeling isolated from society, disaffiliating from organized religion, and suffering from mental illness, bleak economic prospects, and manufactured crises, such as the opioid epidemic. Despite the unprecedented challenges we face from global warming and other man-made disasters, older generations have dismantled the very social institutions, specifically education and housing, that made them the most prosperous group of people in American history, to the detriment of my own. They brought about the election of Donald Trump who many Millennials believe won the election illegitimately. In fact, a majority of Millennials oppose a great many of Trump’s policies, including climate change, tax reform, legalized marijuana, the Muslim ban, and healthcare.
The latest decision of Trump to back out of the Paris Agreement is indicative of the entire presidency not only in its short-sightedness, but also in terms of its backlash. Every generation that faces immense global challenges, such as the Greatest Generation, must have a catalyst that spurs them to action, a crucible that forges their will and inspires them to organize. The Millennial backlash can be seen in the Women’s March in DC, which shattered the previous US record for largest one-day protest, and in the insurgent grassroots rise of special election Democrats, such as the razor thin losses in Georgia and South Carolina.
Despite the worrying trajectory that Trump's presidency has taken thus far, perhaps the silver lining is that this presidency has and will continue to galvanize this country’s young into political participation and give them the tools to face the immense challenges of the next half century head on.
Phil Hah is a 2017 Master of Public Policy graduate interested in politics, renewable energy, innovation ecosystems, and international affairs.