Just before noon Sunday, Hillary Clinton staffer Victor Ng posted a photo to Twitter. It had been taken a few days earlier, at an event in Orlando, Fla., by Barbara Kinney, Clinton’s full-time photographer. In it, Clinton stands on a small riser. A railing separates her from a crowd of people, the majority of whom have their back turned to her—not in protest, but so that they can grab a photo of themselves in the presence of a presidential candidate. Clinton waves as a hundred selfies are captured. Ng captioned the shot “2016, ya’ll” [sic], and it quickly went viral, collecting over 20,000 retweets by early Monday afternoon.
Few knew the context of the photo—that Clinton, on entering the room Wednesday, said to the crowd, “Anyone who wants a selfie, turn around right now”—but it didn’t matter. What this picture said was apparently unsettling. There was something “really weird” about it, someone said. It was “beyond bizarre,” said another. There was agreement on something else, too: that it is the image of a cultural or societal nadir. “Welcome to 21st-century selfishness,” one user tweeted. “When the only goal is a selfie, you wonder where the world goes,” someone else worried. “Millennials are the WORST,” a self-loathing user tweeted.
Millennials—those born roughly between the mid-1980s and mid-2000s—have for years in the popular discourse been accused of being deeply narcissistic, and the selfie has been viewed as that trait exhibited in its purest form.
And those who subscribe to that perception have some evidence on which to build their case. It has been shown, for example, that narcissism appears to be on the rise, and that men in particular who post numerous selfies score higher on measures of narcissism and psychopathy, according to one study. Or they could just point to the older gentleman about two rows back in this photo, the only person clearly visible who is not taking a selfie. Generation selfie is real, see?
But to assume that Millennials are all—or even mostly—self-interested, vain, celebrity-seeking and/or ignorant of the world around them, would suggest they support a candidate in whom they most clearly see themselves: Donald Trump, a man who has built his career by being all of those things.
They don’t. Trump scores terribly among Millennials. An ABC-Washington Post poll earlier this month found 70 per cent of people aged 18 to 39 don’t think Trump is qualified to be president.
Yet despite what this photograph might suggest, when the four choices for president (Clinton, Trump and third-party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein) are presented to younger Americans, Hillary Clinton has so far not fared all that well, either. The same poll suggested that only 44 per cent of voters under 40 would support her, versus 24 per cent who would side with Trump. A full 20 per cent would vote for Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, and a further six per cent would vote for Stein, the Green candidate. In other words, when given the choice, Millennials veer toward what the system has not yet tried.
Bernie Sanders, the outsider, socialist Democratic primary candidate who campaigned on lowering student debt, staying out of wars in the Middle East, and increasing affordable housing, was generally beloved by the party’s younger cohort, specifically for the substance of those sorts of policies. Because for all of the technological wonder and so-called shared economy that has been built for young Americans by their parents, they appear to feel as though the system created during the booming years of the 1980s and 1990s is not merely of a different era, but of a different reality. “The 22 babies born in New York City while the World Trade Center burned will never know what they missed,” Hunter Thompson wrote a week after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “The last half of the 20th century will seem like a wild party for rich kids, compared to what’s coming now.”
For all the selfies and Snapchats, and for all the Kardashian-style pics from vacations abroad, the cold truth at the heart of the Millennial world view is that many things are artifice and put-on. They understand that a magazine-quality picture of a weekend brunch might hide the lack of conversation, or the imperfections and annoyances of the everyday. Or that a hyper-capitalist system that promises meritocracy might actually work to undermine it. Or that a justice system that promises fairness might not practise it. Or that an American dream that promises prosperity might not deliver it.
Perhaps when the most important institutions of the system in which you were raised either assume the worst of you, or ignore you, you look elsewhere for confirmation of your value. Maybe you vote for the outsider. Maybe you march in the streets. Or maybe you just take a picture.