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President Donald Trump, Melania Trump, former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama attend the funeral of former President George H.W. Bush at Washington National Cathedral in 2018. The two presidents helped define the 2010s, columnist Neil Steinberg writes.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

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The ’10s? The Teens? Decade defies labels

The period between 2010 and 2019 divides almost in half between Barack Obama and Donald Trump. No wonder we’re dizzy.

It says something about both the dominance of social media and the fading iconography of eras that I didn’t realize a new decade is upon us until I saw a meme on Facebook at Halloween.

“Just a friendly reminder,” it announced, above four slim women in flapper dresses, “The ’20s start in 60 days.”

Right. They do, don’t they? Those 60 days have dwindled to a handful. Then it’ll be the ’20s, again. Will they roar? The last ’20s sure did, a growl of prosperity and sexual liberation and music so loud that we still remember it all a century later. Followed by the grim ’30s. The wartime ’40s ...

It wasn’t until he saw a meme picturing flappers in The Roaring Twenties that columnist Neil Steinberg realized that 2020 was almost upon us.
Sun-Times file photo

In the 21st century, that pattern broke. What do we even call the decade years that just expired? “The Teens?” I never did, and I lived through every minute, so far. MSNBC is going with “Decade of Disruption,” which might be true — Amazon and China both muscling aside old powerhouses, America and Britain stumbling badly — but that won’t be flying off anybody’s lips.

And the 10 years before that? “The Aughts?” Even worse. And what was the flavor of the ’00s? The Post-9/11 Decade? Maybe. But even then, nowhere near the instant emotional impact of “The ’50s” or, the ultimate, “The ’60s.”

Then again, the period between 2010 and 2019 was particularly schizophrenic, given that about halfway through it Barack Obama, a most careful, reserved and thoughtful president, did his mic drop and ambled out of public life, exiting stage left. Immediately replaced by Donald Trump and his parade of clown cars, tripping over themselves and into power from stage right, calliope at full wheeze, ushering in what can only be described as perpetual pandemonium.

What will history call that decade? “The Troublesome Teens?” America is sorta old for a stormy adolescence at this point. “The Trump Triumph?” Could be. “The Pre-War Years?” Let’s hope not.

It’s hard to remember now — the Orange Moon blocks out the sun. But 2010 came in with a murmur. Obama wasn’t even at the White House he had entered with such joyous pageantry 11 months earlier. He was vacationing in Hawaii. He and his family watched “Avatar” in 3D, then rang in the New Year hidden from public view.

GERMANY-EUROPE-US-DIPLOMACY-OBAMA Photo by John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images

Obama achieved much in the aftershock of the Great Recession of 2008. Chrysler filed for bankruptcy three months after he took the oath of office.

He repaired the economy while pushing toward a more humane health insurance program — Obamacare as it was dubbed, derisively. The tea party movement grew up to oppose the idea that Americans should enjoy the same kind of access to health care that every other nation in the industrialized world takes for granted.

The world seemed to be changing. In 2011, Osama bin Laden was killed. Occupy Wall Street gave hope — false as it turned out — to the economic underclass, just as the Arab Spring seemed to thaw Middle East oppression, briefly. Americans worried less about terrorist attacks and more about mass shootings — assuming they aren’t really the same thing — and the once unassailable NRA shuddered and suddenly appeared the small and vulnerable band of fearful gun-caressers it was all along.

In 2012 Obama defeated Mitt Romney — with 51.1% of the vote, for those tempted to exaggerate Obama’s popularity. Pundits wondered whether the Republican Party would ever win another national election. Obama made it look easy. He expected to pass the country into the able hands of Hillary Clinton.

President Trump Departs White House For Michigan Campaign Rally On Day Of House Impeachment Vote Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Then Trump happened. Cut through a field of 15 more experienced Republican candidates like smallpox through a nursery. Trump won against the Democrats, but he ruled — that seems the proper word — against the government itself, against the idea of a bureaucracy, a Justice Department, a media, a Congress and factuality.

No American president has lied so consistently, so twisted the engines of government to his own benefit, nor enjoyed the fanatical support that Trump receives.

Suddenly Obama seemed a footnote, a musty relic from another era, the way Tiberius is overshadowed by his successor, Caligula. If you still haven’t learned that 45% of the country will disparage a laudable black man, no matter his accomplishments, while celebrating a loathsome white one, no matter his flaws, perhaps you should take a moment to do so now.

Maybe that’s why we can’t characterize the Teens. We don’t know how the story ends. Are they the 1930s, the world becoming unmoored, fascism on the rise, a doomed shuffle toward the cataclysm to come? Or the 1890s, a bumbling plutocracy, run by essentially benign ninnies? Is Donald Trump Benjamin Harrison? Or Mussolini?

The crux will be whether the Trump playbook — lie continually, demonize your opponents, wreck any institution that might challenge you — is transferable. Will that work for Ted Cruz? Or is Trump sui generis, a thing unto himself? That will be hashed out in the ’20s. One way or another, expect lots of roaring.

Editor’s note: For our look back on the decade, we’re reviewing all the years that land numerically in the 2010s, from 2010 through 2019. The decade doesn’t technically end until Dec. 31, 2020.

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