For people of a certain advanced age, the first openly Republican or conservative fictional character they can remember is Alex P. Keaton from the NBC sitcom “Family Ties.” The role launched Michael J. Fox’s career, but it did something else, too: in many ways, Alex Keaton predicted the conservative movement that we see emerging today. Energetic and aggressive, Keaton was an unapologetic conservative character at a time conservatism was in many ways an apologetic underdog.
It is important to note that Alex P. Keaton was born in 1965, the very first year of Generation X. The comic tension he provided was his rejection of the 1960s hippie ethos of his progressive parents. He is arguably the first manifestation of something that is now a staple of our society, the countercultural conservative. Conservatism as counter culture has reached an apex in the age of Trump. But its seeds can be seen in this old NBC sitcom. Keaton might as well have said, “Okay, Boomer.”
When the show launched in 1982, and indeed for the following three decades, most conservatives in the media were very unlike Alex P. Keaton. The Platonic ideal of the late 20th century conservative pundit was a George Will, or a William F. Buckley. Both operated with a kind of outsider status, Buckley in particular, although still a conservative hero always seemed to be operating from a defensive crouch. He stood athwart history, he looked for the conservative who was most electable. The mantra coming out of the 1960s seemed to be, “We will eventually lose, but we can lose more slowly.”
This was not the way of Alex P. Keaton, the first Gen X conservative. He was joyous and confident in his conservatism, a kind of Reaganite happy warrior. And it is interesting to note that this character was an iconoclast for supporting Reagan, even though in the show’s third season Reagan won an absolute landslide of an election against Walter Mondale. Surely there were millions of Alex P. Keatons heading off to college or the workforce, yet in the eyes of Hollywood this type was still a freak.
As it turns out, there were a lot of Alex P. Keatons, and just as the character would be, they are now in their 40s and 50s and for the first time taking institutional power within conservatism. The new energy that the Gen X conservative is bringing has everything to do with being countercultural. In fact, it might fairly be said that Gen X had no culture, only countercultures. The conservative of the past was of the past, always seeming to want to wind the clock back — to the 1950s, back to some American ideal unsullied by the riotous 1960s.
But the conservative contemporaries of the hippie Boomers were in some ways ill-equipped to fight those who had bested them in defining a generation, so it would fall to the children of the flower children to challenge the shibboleths of Woodstock. Every Gen X kid who grew up rolling his eyes at stories of communes and anti-war protests, who has a nostalgic disdain for Crosby, Stills, and Nash, carries in him the essence of the new conservative.
Although we like to center Donald Trump in everything these days, what we see looking back to Alex P. Keaton and the almost-adulthood of Gen X is that Trump is a manifestation of the new conservatism, not its creator. The pugnacious nature of the former latchkey kids, the last generation to play outside without a cell phone, lies at the heart of Trumpism. The question for conservatives used to be “How do we stop losing?” now it’s “How do we keep winning?”
It is interesting to wonder if Alex P. Keaton would have voted for Trump. I tend to think he might not have in 2016, but I tend to think he would in 2020. He would have come to see, as many who were incredulous about Trump, that the blusterer in chief from Queens showed a way out of constant apology, towards a positive right, interested in building, not simply conserving.
Gen X will not hold power for long. It is a tiny generation, and those born after 1980 are already installing themselves as the new arbiters. But what the kids, and by kids I mean most of my editors, will inherit from Gen X is all about Alex P. Keaton. A winning smile, a joke, an anxiousness for the fray. The old conservative movement has given way, and in its place stands a generation willing to fight, and unwilling to accept their parents; 1960s as the be all and end all of what America is.