To take the uneven pulse of America’s youth politics in this fraught year of 2018, I had to climb an exquisite, dark wood-paneled, curved stairway of contradiction. It was Saturday afternoon at Houston Hall — the University of Pennsylvania’s student center, a Gothic edifice built at the height of one Gilded Age, in 1896, that now offers pizza and a place to hang out for the children of our current Gilded Age.
But the two dozen or so undergrads from Penn and nearby Temple University gathered here under portraits of a revolutionary who’d once overthrown his government. They were huddled in the Ben Franklin Room to talk about their movement to topple another regime, to impeach President Trump — a grassroots operation backed with $30 million from the California billionaire they’d come to hear, Tom Steyer. There’s a lot that could be said about all these ironies — not to mention the irony of kids meeting in the heart of this Ivy League campus to scheme about getting rid of the only Penn alum (Wharton, Class of 1968) to ever reach the White House.
But six gruesome minutes on a Wednesday afternoon, in a high school 1,000 miles away, have changed everything. Less than a week earlier, the story at Penn would have been whether this handful of college kids could cut through their generation’s apparent cynicism and apathy about our muddled politics. Now, amid the froth of existential anger over a madman’s ability to slaughter 17 high schoolers with a semi-automatic weapon of war, and the older generation’s failure to address a wave of school shootings, you had to wonder if these kids were suddenly thrust into the vanguard of a revolution. The main goal of these kids who’d signed up for Steyer’s NextGen America is electing a new Congress in November that will impeach Trump, but it was the massacre in Parkland, Fla., that was on everyone’s mind Saturday.
“If you’re waiting for the old people, if you’re waiting for the powerful people, if you’re waiting for all of the people in positions where you expect them to take care of us, to take care of you, it’s not going to happen,” Steyer — a 60-year-old who is now spending a big chunk of the $1.6 billion he’d made as a hedge fund manager to support liberal causes — told the Philadelphia college kids. “If you kids are waiting for the adults in the room to step up, take a look at what those kids in Florida are doing.”
Everybody is looking at what these kids in Florida are doing. At practically the same moment that the Penn and Temple kids were eating pepperoni pizza and scrawling reasons to impeach Trump (because “He is infringing on our HUMAN RIGHTS,” or because “This is not normal!”) on placards, a 17-year-old girl from grief-stricken Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School named Emma Gonzalez was riveting the nation with a plea to America’s grown-ups to protect our kids and not their craven political self-interests.
“The people in the government who were voted into power are lying to us. And us kids seem to be the only ones who notice …” Emma told a gun-control rally in Fort Lauderdale. “Companies trying to make caricatures of the teenagers nowadays, saying that all we are is self-involved and trend-obsessed and they hush us into submission when our message doesn’t reach the ears of the nation, we are prepared to call BS. Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have ever been done to prevent this, we call BS. They say that tougher guns laws do not decrease gun violence. We call BS.”
"They say that tougher gun laws do not decrease gun violence. We call BS!" Florida high school shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez calls on President Trump and lawmakers to tighten gun restrictions in impassioned speech at an anti-gun rally in Fort Lauderdale https://t.co/DgnqrrVs9x
— CNN (@CNN) February 17, 2018
While Tom Steyer was bringing his well-funded organizational skills to Penn, Emma Gonzalez and her peers in Florida — and a horrific unwelcome gun tragedy — were providing the missing raw ingredient to the so-called youthquake that didn’t seem to be happening before this week: The fierce urgency of now.
Indeed, the Florida kids are answering a question that troubled me since the very first anti-Trump protest that I covered 13 months ago: Where were the youth? It’s not that I didn’t meet any college or high school kids at events marking the so-called Trump resistance, but the leadership and energy seemed to be overwhelmingly over the age of 30, as well as heavily female and heavily white. In that sense, political activism in the age of Trump looked very little like the mass movements I’d seen in my lifetime — from the anti-Vietnam protests of the 1960s to the failed 1989 uprising in Tienanmen Square, when it was students manning the front lines.
On Saturday, I asked some of the kids in the Ben Franklin Room about that. Some told me that a campus letdown — especially after Trump’s victory in an election in which young people had been electrified, for a time, by the insurgency of democratic socialist Bernie Sanders — was inevitable.
Haven Lerner, an 18-year-old Penn freshman from Scarsdale, N.Y., said it’s “probably disillusionment with the process, that no matter what we do, that it might not work, that the policies that are implemented are going to be terrible, or that special interests are going to control people, or that there’s nothing to be done – voting, or protesting, or otherwise. I also think that people might be tired of it (the various Trump controversies), because it’s constantly in the news, and college students have a lot of other things going on with their lives …”
Americans — young and old — have a complicated history with the notion of political protest. It’s a cherished right, but you’re only going to see large numbers in the streets when people feel a bona fide existential threat. In the 1960s, kids protested Vietnam because their neighbors and their siblings were coming home in body bags from a war that made no sense. In the case of the Trump resistance, women have been front and center because a nation that would elect a man who openly bragged about being a sexual predator has infuriated them on such a fundamental level. Now, the sight of teenagers hiding in closets to avoid being killed — again! — is having a galvanizing impact on the under-21 generation. This goes beyond politics. It’s saving their lives when the adults don’t seem to care.
In just three days, nationwide calls for student strikes and mass walkouts to protest gun violence in America and the political stranglehold of the NRA have grown from a whisper to a scream. We are suddenly looking at the cusp of possibly the most powerful student movement in the United States in the last half century. And the timing is perfect. In just nine months, the American people — including the first voters born in the 21st Century — will have an opportunity to elect a Congress that’s not in the back pocket of the NRA. And the spillover will be politically toxic for Trump, who was elected with the help of $30 million in mysterious dark money from the gun lobby, and his hope of avoiding impeachment.
“Our largest, most diverse, most progressive generation is about half as represented as it should be,” said Steyer, noting that in the last midterm election four years ago, millennials took part at a rate far less than half of voters over 55. “It’s not that your generation is not informed and it’s not that you’re not passionate – it’s that you don’t believe that the system really works.” But he noted that youth voting spiked upward last November in the off-year election in Virginia — and close to a dozen pro-gun Republican lawmakers were booted from office. Both Steyer and the Penn and Temple kids who gathered on Saturday are hoping this lightning will go national on Nov. 6.
Look, the reason that kids think the American political system doesn’t work is because it in fact hasn’t been working for a long, long time. We have a Congress and a president too cowardly to pass simple gun safety measures that are supported by an overwhelming majority of the American people, but now it feels like everyday citizens are starting to wake up from a bad dream. Political change always seems impossible, until there is a Selma, or a Stonewall Inn — or a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Our empire, and our emperor, haven’t been wearing any clothes for a long time. And as Emma Gonzalez said, the kids were the only ones to notice.