Magazine | February 6, 2017, Issue

Seven Lean Years

By the time you read this, Donald Trump will have been sworn in as the 45th president of the United States.

Or maybe not. For all I know, some celebrities will have teamed up for a last-ditch viral video montage that proved so edgy and sentimentally profound that Trump was persuaded to step down and apologize to Hillary Clinton. You never know. Why else would they keep making them?

Either way, Barack Obama will no longer be president. Millions of Americans will delight in this fact, most of all Barack Obama, who seems eager to return to his roots as a community organizer and serial memoirist. Hillary is going to defile her Depends when she finds out how much he’s charging on the corporate speaking circuit.

The dawning of the Trump era in America also means we can finally close the book on 2016, a most discouraging year in what is shaping up to be one of the most lackluster decades in recent memory.

The thought occurred to me after watching The Eighties, the most recent installment in the CNN-produced decade-documentary series, which has also examined the Sixties and the Seventies and will tackle the Nineties later this year. The programs consist of ten episodes exploring the momentous political events and cultural trends that defined each decade, colored with media coverage from the time.

Will they even bother, years from now, to make a documentary about our current decade? It doesn’t even have a proper name — the Teens? the Tens? — or at least not one you’d ever use to advertise a documentary. Granted, a Donald Trump presidency has the potential to cram a decade’s worth of world-altering history into these next three years, but what do we have to show for ourselves over the past seven?

Arbitrary as it may be, this decade offers an interesting, and rather unflattering, snapshot of the Obama presidency. It begins, on January 1, 2010, at the peak of Obama’s presidency. Nineteen days later, Republican Scott Brown scored an improbable victory in the special election to succeed the late senator Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts, threatening to derail the president’s signature achievement, Obamacare.

The rest is history. Brown’s election did not derail the controversial health-care bill as Republicans hoped, but it did mark the beginning of a political realignment in which, save for Obama’s reelection in 2012, the Democratic party suffered a string of humiliating defeats at the state and national level. Seven years later, a Republican president will preside over a Republican-controlled Congress whose first order of business is to repeal Obamacare. The man once hailed as the greatest orator of the modern era has been forced to admit: “I lost the PR battle.”

The most interesting thing Obama ever did was wage a brilliant PR campaign in 2008, beating Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary and becoming the first African-American president. But that belongs to the previous decade, as does the financial crisis, easily the most significant historical event to play out during his presidency.

Since 2010, the economy has (sort of) recovered. Race relations have . . . never mind. Global events over the past several years certainly do not reflect well on the foreign-policy record of our Nobel Peace Prize–winning president who “ended” the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and promised to “restore our moral standing in the world.”

When the decade started, no one had ever heard of ISIS. Those who suggested Russia posed a “geopolitical threat” were mocked by the president and his allies, who’d famously promised a “reset” in relations. Ukraine and Syria weren’t bastions of stability, but they weren’t active war zones. Refugees weren’t streaming into Europe, and the European Union seemed, well, less on the verge of collapse.

Politics aside, what has the United States, or the human race more generally, accomplished in the fields of culture, science, technology, everything else, over the past seven years?

Try to imagine making a seven-part documentary series about the past seven years. What makes the cut? The Sixties had “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.” The 2010s have a heroin epidemic and Justin Bieber screaming “F*** Bill Clinton” while urinating in a mop bucket. Our “space race” is mostly just a couple of billionaires vying to be the first to send other billionaires on atmospheric joy rides.

The Eighties and Nineties saw revolutions in computer technology and the Internet. Thirty years later, plucky startups have become corporate giants in a race to see who can hire the most government lobbyists. Innovation, if you can call it that, has given us more and more reasons to never go outside, unless we’re chasing down magical creatures for our Pokémon collection.

There could be an entire episode devoted to the rise of social media, which like to claim credit for fueling (at best marginally successful) revolutions in the Middle East but have really just revolutionized the way we deliver insults to people we’ve never met and allowed “new media” websites such as BuzzFeed to promote stories like “16 Photos That’ll Make You Say ‘Aww’ and ‘Hot Damn’” that consist of “literally just 16 pictures of half-naked guys and cute animals.”

In many ways, electing a billionaire reality-show host (and promiscuous social-media insulter) to the most powerful office in the world is probably the perfect near-culmination to whatever it is we end up calling this decade. (The Trump Turnaround? Decline and Fall of the American Empire, Volume 6?) You won’t want to miss the finale.

Andrew Stiles — Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online. He previously worked at the Washington Free Beacon, and was an intern at The Hill newspaper. Stiles is a 2009 ...

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