Every time I’ve visited my dad and stepmother over the past couple of years, our conversation has turned toward venting about the latest horrors of the Trump administration. We all fall on the progressive end of the spectrum and tend to agree on the issues. But there has always been one topic that made me groan and shift my attention to the home-cooked food on the table: the Mueller investigation.
My dad and stepmother have been following the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election very, very closely. Nearly every time I enter their apartment, the TV is playing MSNBC, the cable news channel that has given the Russia probe the most attention, with Mueller coming up one in every three times Trump is mentioned. I know not to try to reach my dad on the phone between 9 and 10 o’clock on weeknights, when he’s normally in bed watching The Rachel Maddow Show, the program that has perhaps been the most generous in lending its time to covering the Russia probe.
It’s not just my dad and stepmother. For the past two years, Mueller has been nearly omnipresent in cable news coverage. A study found that 55 percent of all broadcast news coverage of Trump centered on the Russia probe. Even the most casual newshounds can easily get sucked into the adrenaline-pumping intrigue around collusion and foreign espionage. And for the baby boomers like my parents who make up a substantial share of the cable news audience — the median age of MSNBC viewers is 65 — the Mueller frenzy is all the greater. One recent NPR story interviewed elderly Americans in a retirement home praying to live a little longer so they could see the special counsel’s final report.
But for younger Americans, the Mueller story might not be quite as riveting. In a poll taken last year by Vanity Fair, less than a third of all millennials said they were very closely following the Russia probe. This relative disinterest is markedly generational — the share of millennial Democrats who were closely following the investigation, 38 percent, was lower than the share for those 35 years and older of all political stripes, 45 percent.
It’s not hard to figure out why. First, we’re likely not watching cable news, where the Russia story has dominated the news cycle since 2016; millennials are less likely to pay for cable. But beyond news sources, young people are more concerned with the larger, more structural issues of today: climate change, violent racism, economic inequality. As a 2018 Pew survey on the generation gap found, large majorities of millennials (66 percent) believe that our economic system unfairly favors powerful interests and that more needs to be done for racial equality (68 percent), well in excess of the share from older generations. (For the silent generation, 50 percent said that our economic system unfairly favors powerful interests, while 54 percent said more needs to be done about racial equality.)
When my friends and I joke about wanting to enjoy a snow day in New York while we still have them, it’s because our generation will likely see climate catastrophe in our lifetime. When mass famine, rising sea levels, and an economic situation resembling a science fiction dystopia are on the horizon, it seems almost irresponsible for the media not to devote the majority of its resources to that instead of legal proceedings that have yet to personally implicate the president. When neo-Nazis are shooting up synagogues and marching in American cities, Russian social media trolls don’t seem quite like the greatest threat to our democracy.
There’s a reason some of the biggest protest movements of the past two years — the Parkland survivor-led March for our Lives, or the students marching for climate change — have been led by young people. But none of these movements have much to do with Russia.
The generation gap comes down to fundamental ideas about our country
Don’t get me wrong — like more than two-thirds of millennials, I’m very concerned about corruption in government. And my cohort are hardly in the tank for Trump: Nearly all of the anti-Trump protests, rallies, and canvasses I’ve gone to have been led by millennials.
It’s just that the attention to the Russia probe simply doesn’t reflect where many people in my generation’s priorities are. With more than half of us supporting a Green New Deal and nearly 70 percent demanding Medicare-for-all, we want our politics to be about the transformational paradigm shifts to safeguard the health and security of our planet, ourselves, and future generations. There’s a reason only a third of millennials view the Russia investigation as a top priority for Congress, while a majority say it should be addressing climate change.
This generational gap is really much larger than Russia. For boomer liberals like my father, there is still a belief that Trump is fundamentally un-American in his bigotry, xenophobia, and corruption, and that the combined forces of Congress and the courts can prevail in excising him from a vision that this country ultimately bends toward justice.
For many millennials and younger — even those of my cohort who are not avid politicos — this positivism feels naive. In the face of climate catastrophe, rising wealth inequality, and a surge in violent racism, what ails America does not seem curable through the special counsel’s report. It’s no surprise that roughly one in three millennials, like myself, call ourselves socialist. An investigation into one president’s corruption seems almost quaint in the face of the massive political change needed to ensure our very survival.
As we head into what could be the most important presidential election in a generation, we need our politics to be focused on large, structural issues, not narrow investigations of connections between Trump and Russia.
I have another dinner with my parents coming up soon. I hope that with the Mueller inquiry behind us and Trump himself likely in the clear of donning an orange jumpsuit as “Putin’s puppet,” our conversations will drift instead to the more pressing issues our country faces.
Aaron Freedman is a writer based in Brooklyn. Find him on Twitter at @freedaaron.