“Trump’s campaign rests on nostalgia for a bygone era”

Stephen Walt argues that Trump’s view of America never existed, “If Donald Trump’s presidential campaign had an official theme song, it would probably be “The Way We Were,” or maybe Archie and Edith Bunker’s rendition of “Those Were the Days.” More than anything else, Trump’s campaign rests on nostalgia for a bygone era when America was indisputably “great,” immigrants came through Ellis Island (and only in small numbers), and where everybody (and especially women, minorities, and journalists) knew their place. The fact that his campaign slogan says he’ll make America great again tells you Trump’s gaze is firmly in the rearview mirror. But he’s not alone. All of the remaining candidates indulge in their own forms of nostalgia, defined as “sentimentality about the past, typically for a period or place with strong personal associations.” Hillary Clinton wants Americans to hearken back to the 1990s, when somebody with the same last name occupied the White House. Bernie Sanders would like to take us back to those halcyon days when Glass-Steagall was still in place, and 1 percenters didn’t earn vast sums while tanking the world economy. And Ted Cruz would like you to think he’s the reincarnation of Ronald Reagan — with a bit of Jeremiah and St. Paul thrown in — and that electing him will return the country to its Puritan roots”.

Walt argues that “Nostalgia can be a powerful emotion, and it’s hardly surprising people try to exploit it to get elected or to sell a particular set of policies. The basic method is simple: Construct a mythical past in which today’s problems were largely absent, and then promise to restore (some of) the policies of that bygone era, thereby dispelling our discontents and returning us to that familiar and comfortable world we feel we have lost. Unfortunately, nostalgia is a poor guide to choosing a president or constructing a foreign policy. Human memories are notoriously unreliable, and the past that we look back on with fondness was probably nowhere near as idyllic as we now believe it was. Even the happiness we associate with some bygone era may be wholly illusory; we may well have been just as anxious, insecure, angry, or frustrated then as we are today. We just don’t remember it that way. More importantly, nostalgia can actively mislead us when it comes to choosing policies for the here and now”.

He rightly points out that “nostalgia blinds us to our own misdeeds, thereby making it harder to understand why others see us as they do. All countries sugarcoat their own history, constructing a fictitious past in which the virtuous moments loom large and the mistakes, injustices, and cruelties are airbrushed away. Once this collective amnesia takes over, however, we’ll no longer remember why Iran, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Iraq, and a number of other countries have valid reasons to be more than a little upset at Uncle Sam. And having forgotten it, we are ready to see any acts of opposition on their part as totally irrational and unwarranted hatred”.

He adds that “Gazing solely in the rearview mirror also discourages us from thinking about the actual problems we face today and devising constructive and creative solutions to them. Case in point: The United States is not going to go back to being a society with a comfortable Anglo-Protestant majority, no matter how much some people might want it to be. It’s not going to be a country where gay people are back in the closet. It is not going to have a nuclear monopoly; it’s not likely to turn its back on global trade (and if it does, it will be poorer), and it’s not going to be able to dictate terms to anybody who gets in our way. It will be the world’s more important country for many years to come, but successful statecraft will require playing well with others and not just threatening to take our marbles and go home”.

He ends “politicians who try to sell themselves or their policy preferences on the basis of nostalgia invariably cook the books in another way. Trump or Cruz promise to restore American military might so that “nobody will mess with us,” and both suggest that the United States will enjoy the sort of military dominance that we supposedly had in earlier periods. But you don’t hear them saying they will also restore marginal tax rates to the same level as those earlier periods, or introduce the financial regulations that existed under Eisenhower and Reagan. In other words, campaigns based on nostalgia are notoriously selective: After describing a mythical past, they also cherry-pick among the policy choices that allegedly produce that earlier Eden. The lesson: When a candidate or a pundit says they have a Wayback Machine that will magically catapult us back to some earlier Golden Age, they are probably hawking something that is long past its sell-by date and more than a little bit rancid. Caveat emptor.

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