The Long Holiday

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Just weeks after 9/11, Charles Krauthammer declared in these pages that our holiday from history—the 1990s—had come "to an abrupt end." And the United States did get back to work—briefly. But it turns out that President George W. Bush's exhortation in the aftermath of 9/11 that we should keep on shopping—though understandable and perhaps defensible in context—captured the broader truth: We were still on holiday. We still very much wanted to be on holiday.

So 9/11 turned out not to mark the end of the holiday. The 9/11 generation—those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those who still fight for us in defense of liberty and civilization—is the one group that really reported to duty. But the rest of us mostly drifted on, carried by the current, occasionally steering away from rocks and whirlpools, but mostly going nowhere fast and nowhere purposefully. Conservatives were preoccupied with yearning for a tantalizingly restorable past. Progressives made themselves busy proclaiming an imminent glorious future. Most of the country felt vaguely discontented but remained quiescent.

The desire for a respite from the travails of hard work, from the burdens of history, was understandable. The preceding three-quarters of a century, from the entry into World War I in 1917 through the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, had been all too full of history. After such a period, after the success marked by the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, any nation—even a Sparta or a Rome or a Britain—would have taken a holiday.

It was fitting that it was the baby boomer generation that presided over ours. The four presidents elected during this quarter century—a commiserator in chief, an exhorter in chief, a posturer in chief, and now a braggart in chief—were baby boomers. We began our holiday in 1992 and ended it in 2016 with the election of draft dodgers. Dodging responsibility is what baby boomers do best.

We baby boomers inherited a great gift from our parents' and grandparents' generation. It would be an overstatement to say we squandered it. We perhaps did an adequate job most of the time of maintenance, of patching up, of keeping the ship afloat. All was not lost over the last quarter-century. It wasn't a time of disaster or dissolution. It was a time of drift and indecision.

Has that time ended? The accession to the presidency of Donald Trump—the last baby boomer—might suggest not. And perhaps we will try to continue to sustain the holiday for at least four more years. But if Trump's victory is not the end of the holiday, it is surely the beginning of the end.

And history works in funny ways. The 2016 campaign may well have been the end of an era. One has the sense that the next years—perhaps in part due to Trump, perhaps in greater part in reaction both to Trump and a discredited opposition—will be a time of choosing. It seems unlikely that the United States will continue to drift. The ship of state will either take on serious water and begin to capsize, or begin to right itself. This wouldn't be the first time that a new age is born in the shadow of the last gasp of the old.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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