How Gen X Became the Trumpiest Generation
It’s a drowsy rainy Thursday at the Iowa State Capitol, and Iowa State Representative Cherielynn Westrich is speaking to a school group about how a bill becomes a law. The state Legislature is out of session, and only a handful of members are lazing about the chamber catching up on correspondence. Westrich, a petite cheery blonde, is just finishing up explaining how a lawmaker can summon a legislative page to their desk if they have a specific request to add to a bill. Her audience is a group of about two dozen middle school-aged kids seated on the floor in the back corner of the room.
Just then, another legislator, Steve Holt, interrupts with a smirk. It’s a school group from his district but he had left Westrich babysitting them for a few minutes. “You all know a fun fact about Rep. Westrich?” he asks. “She was in a famous rock band when she was young; you can find the videos on YouTube.”
Westrich then tries to explain her past to the school group of children too young to remember Kanye West at the VMAs, let alone the mid-90s alternative rock scene. “Well so, you guys know who Madonna is? Madonna signed my band to her record label, and we toured all around the world and got to play all the big coliseums like Madison Square Garden, and then we had videos — you guys know about MTV? — we had two of them, and you can still find them online from a long time ago back in the 1900s.”
The children laugh politely, and then it is time for them to go back to their school bus. Both their tour of the Iowa State Capitol and brief excursion into ‘90s nostalgia were over.
But, for Westrich, neither was. The first term Iowa Republican was a Zelig-like figure in ‘90s pop culture. She worked for Flea, played with Spike Jonze in her first band and turned down the opportunity to appear on “Jackass.” But she’s perhaps best known for playing keyboard with the Rentals, a ‘90s band that scored a single hit with the song “Friends of P.” while touring the world with performers like Blur and Alanis Morissette.
Now, 20 years later, after getting inspired to enter politics by former President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, Westrich is a solidly conservative state representative from blue-collar southeast Iowa who is pro-gun and anti-vaccine mandate. It may be an unusual trajectory for someone who played moog synthesizer in a popular alternative rock band, but, given the politics of people in her generation, it actually might not be unusual at all.
Gen Xers, which can be roughly defined as those born between 1965 and 1980, came of age under President Ronald Reagan amid the end of the Cold War. The popular image of Generation X has never quite fit in within any easy political framing. It’s the generation that produced grunge rock and gangsta rap but also reached cultural consciousness at the height of the “greed is good” 1980s memorialized in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. In fact, if there was any popular image of this generation’s politics, it was that they were apolitical. The slackers depicted in Richard Linklater movies or the grunge rockers in flannel were almost devoid of political inclination save a generalized cynicism and MTV’s “Choose or Lose” campaign, which was designed to simply convince young voters that politics matters at all. After their first election in 1984, they bounced back and forth in presidential elections — although exit poll data doesn’t always provide a clear generation breakdown — but were never at all particularly progressive and veered to the right of the nation as a whole.
And there were always hints of a more right-wing inclination culturally even if they may have been camouflaged by the less politically charged atmosphere at the time. The first major political depiction of this cohort was on the sitcom Family Ties, where Reagan-loving teenager Alex P. Keaton clashed with his liberal boomer parents. As Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini put it to Politico, “the MTV generation has always been a little bit more conservative.”
Now, though, there is no confusion: Generation X is safely Republican. One model from 2014 measuring only white voters through the 2012 election shows those born in the mid-to-late 1960s being the most Republican-leaning of all, more so than the older Boomers and Silent generation. In a poll released in late April by Marist/NPR that separated voters by generation, Generation X had the highest level of disapproval for Biden and were the generation most likely to say they would vote for a Republican candidate in the midterms if they were held that day.
While voters have historically tended to be more conservative as they age, that has accelerated with Generation X. In fact, Tom Bonier, the CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm, told me that Generation X has now become the most conservative generation, surpassing the Boomers in their rightward tilt.
Some of this has to do with broader historical forces that were out of anyone’s control. The political atmosphere in which voters first cast ballots and became politically aware leaves a lasting impact through their lives. As Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson told me, “If you first became aware of politics during Reagan/[George H.W.] Bush/Clinton era, you’re more likely to lean a bit more to the right.” This was a time when even Bill Clinton was proclaiming “the era of big government is over.”
Westrich, born in 1966, fits in with the oldest and, according to some studies, most conservative tranche of this generation. The first presidential election she would have been eligible to vote in was Reagan’s 1984 landslide, and she would have come of age at time in which there were few strong personalities defining the Democratic Party. Exit polls from that year show Reagan improving by 15 percentage points over 1980 among voters under 30, which was the biggest change in any individual demographic that year.
For Westrich, the ‘90s were not particularly political times either. There was no discussion of Newt Gingrich or Hillarycare on the tour bus. Instead, it was a nerdy nomadic experience going from city to city and country to country. In lieu of political talk, Westrich and fellow keyboardist Maya Rudolph (who would later become famous on Saturday Night Live) would make humorous videos on their Super 8 camera.
For her, even joining the band was the result of a series of accidents. It was a side project of Matt Sharp, the bassist from Weezer. In the year leading up to the release of Weezer’s hit debut, the Blue Album, Sharp had some downtime. He used it to record a demo with some friends. A small punk rock label got a hold of it and became interested. Sharp roped in two friends, one of whom was Westrich, to pretend to be the band behind the demo.
It worked, and the two, along with Weezer’s drummer, Patrick Wilson, and the guitarist from Westrich’s band at the time, Rod Cervera, started recording an album before ever playing any live shows together.
The result was repeated rehearsal sessions at a studio broken up by games of hacky sack while Ronnie James Dio, the former lead singer of Black Sabbath who was recording in the same building, sat in and watched.
At the time, Westrich stood out for her hobby of repairing vintage cars rather than any political inclinations. As Sharp recalled, “there weren’t too many Moog-playing … mechanically inclined synthesizer players in the alternative landscape of 1995.”
In fact, Sharp couldn’t really recall much political engagement at all at that time. “We were quite young and had our minds on other things and don’t think any of us were too engaged in that stuff.”
Westrich didn’t recall any political conversation either. She said at the time she “felt like politics was for rich people.” “Everyone in politics had money,” she said, “and I just felt that was never going to be for me because I grew up … without a lot of money.” She couldn’t even recall any candidate who had ever really inspired her before Trump and described her past votes as just “picking between the lesser of two evils” and often just voting against incumbents of either party.
In the decades since leaving music, Westrich reached an entirely different niche of quasi-celebrity as a mechanic on Overhaulin’, a reality television show where a team of auto mechanics surprises someone by rebuilding their car into a custom hotrod. Westrich took great pleasure in noting to me that while there were other women on the show, she was the only fully-fledged mechanic who actually worked on the cars.
Westrich’s introduction to politics didn’t come until 2016. Having recently moved to Ottumwa, Iowa, to be with her long-term boyfriend, she was coaxed into volunteering for Trump’s general election campaign by a friend with whom she worked out. In Westrich’s telling “she kept talking about making phone calls and knocking doors for Trump and asking me to go and I kept saying ‘no thanks.’”
Eventually, though, she relented and went to Trump’s campaign office.
She found that she enjoyed the process of engaging with voters. “It was fun talking to people,” she said, and she enjoyed able to give them good information. “They really weren’t doing their homework,” she said of the voters she talked talk to. “They felt informed because watching evening news, but really weren’t able to go beyond that.”
It was an unlikely path to a political career, and in keeping with her roots, she often sounds less like a savvy political insider and more like an average voter who is still figuring out which party is right for her. Her thoughts on her own political journey also shows how Gen X voters square their conservative views with the independent streak one also finds in the alternative culture they gave a name to.
Although she was attracted to politics by Trump and voted for him twice, she has not embraced the personality cult around him and struck discordant notes about the 45th president at times. She certainly didn’t like his temperament, but she made clear that she was still a fan of his policies, pointing to achievements like “supporting our veterans” and “getting innocent people out of prison.” She also praised him as “the first candidate who was anti-establishment enough that I took a second look at him.” “I thought he may be someone that was actually different from the Clintons and Bushes,” she said.
In her recollection, her interest in Trump was prompted by his positions on trade. However, looking back six years later she confessed, “I’m going to forget all the facts.” She tried to recall: “I did my research back then into what was happening with Paris Trade Accord [a reference to the climate agreement that the Obama administration had entered into] and things … I didn’t like it, and Trump was against it. I said, ‘Ok, great.’”
This is roughly consistent with Bonier’s analysis of Gen X voters, which has found that they are very concerned about the economy, somewhat concerned about retirement (although nowhere near as much as Baby Boomers) and not terribly concerned about issues like the environment or guns. These general trends were echoed by John Della Volpe, the director of polling at Harvard University’s Kennedy School who found that on economic issues, Generation Xers leaned far more to the right than any other generation.
Her journey to supporting Trump was also a typical one for Gen Xers, As Anderson explained Trump in particular had an effect polarizing politics along generational lines. Younger voters broke heavily towards Democrats while older voters broke heavily towards the GOP.
From there, Westrich was recruited to run for office by local activists in what was a traditional Democratic area in and around Ottumwa against an eight-term incumbent. Although she lost on the first try in 2018, Westrich won in 2020.
In her first term, she’s sponsored legislation to ban vaccine mandates, to prohibit libraries from making obscene materials available to minors and to nullify federal enforcement of gun control laws in the state. Now, in 2022, she is expected to easily win an open state senate seat created as a result of Iowa’s non-partisan redistricting process.
Yet, despite being a Republican elected official, she still maintains a certain insistent independence. In fact, she insisted that she had kept her independent registration until two weeks before her first election until she was told that Iowa election law did not offer her much of a choice. She still insisted that she votes for “the person,” not “the party.” “That may disappoint some Republicans,” she said, but “you have to elect the people who will do the right job.”
In the past, that meant she would deliberately switch back and forth to vote against incumbents “just to get them out of power.” Now, in reality, as an incumbent herself, that meant she was still just supporting Republicans.
Westrich’s journey may be unusual in its details, but it still captures the political arc of her generation. Increasingly, the demographic base of the American right will be those too young to remember Watergate but too old to have spent much if any of their childhood on the Internet. It’s not just their life experiences that differ from other generations. At a time when American politics is increasingly polarized around education and racial views, Generation X maintains higher rates of racial resentment than succeeding generations while still having lower rates of educational attainment.
In 2012, Paul Ryan, who is perhaps the most politically successful Gen Xer so far, was the subject of bewildered stories when it was reported that his favorite band was Rage Against The Machine, the anti-capitalist rap metal that had multiple triple platinum albums in the 1990s. In response, the band’s guitarist, Tom Morello, called Ryan everything “we’ve been raging against.”
That may have been true, but it was also a hint of the politics to come. Gen X is full of contradictions, but not surprises — at least not when it comes to politics. In 2024, and probably for many years afterward, the fate of the GOP will rest safely in the hands of Gen Xers such as Westrich. First they were latchkey kids and then they were slackers — but now, they’re Republicans.