Donald Trump was recently elected President of the United States of America on the slogan “Make America Great Again.” Few thought he would win for most of his 18-month campaign. Then he won. Donald Trump – the huckster Donald Trump, who doesn’t read a book and doesn’t appear to know anything at all about, well, anything except his own branding, is now President of the United States of America.
Trump won for many reasons, but one compelling reason was the use of the word ‘again’ in his primary slogan. We human beings long for the past. When someone promises the past to us we believe him, no matter how incompetent he appears. Why?
Why did “Make America Great Again” allow millions of American voters to overlook the numerous problems with Trump? Here are just a few of his glaring problems as a presidential candidate:
- his misogyny (women voted for him)
- his open racism (some non-white people did indeed vote for him)
- his long history of business failures (his supporters all insist he’s great at business despite piles of evidence to the contrary),
- his ignorance of policy and even actual facts,
- his unwillingness to think before he says literally anything.
Many if not most Trump supporters feel like they no longer recognize America. They feel like things have changed since they were younger. Trump may not have been able to articulate coherent or specific policies – and when he did, he may have made bizarre, insane promises, such as building the world’s most expensive wall – but what he did well was he promised to bring back the Glorious Past of the United States of America. The great thing about his slogan – and all effective political slogans – is that all his supporters brought different things to what “Great” means. Every single person who fell for “Make American Great Again” saw their particular version of nostalgia reflected in it, imagining a past that, had it been articulated, might not have meshed with any other supporter’s vision of the Glorious Past of The United States of America. That’s the appeal of the slogan. It’s all things to all people.
Reagan pulled the same trick with “Morning in America,” promising a return to the Glorious Past of The United States of America while creating an environment where Hardcore Punk music made sense as a reaction to his politics.
“Make America Great Again” was particularly invulnerable in Trump’s campaign as, when people on “the left” pointed out the problems with viewing America’s past as “Great,” Trump supporters saw this as just more proof that their country is no longer great and needed to be brought back to greatness by someone, preferably a strongman with no tolerance for snowflakes, women, or black people. I know someone like this personally. I don’t know that she wanted Trump to win for any particular policy of his,1 but she loved that Trump was showing up everyone on the left. It was the idea of a big, blustery man coming in and speaking his mind (like men did in the old days, she imagines) to these snowflakes. It was this kind of truth to power that would help Make American Great Again™.
The Power of Nostalgia
Why is nostalgia so powerful? Why does an appeal to the past override our rational faculties and make us do stupid, potentially suicidal things?2 Why is it so easy for modern conservatives to appeal to a certain segment of society with myths of the distant and recent past? Why do allusions to these myths overwhelm voters so that they vote against their own self-interest?
The past was better because childhood and youth are in all of our pasts. For many of us, the best times of our lives were during our youth.3 For those of us who did not have that experience, there is still a relative freedom of youth that has an appeal. Age changes us and, as we get older, life looks different – it is less carefree, it is often far less fun. Even if there is no truth that your youth was the best part of your life, at some point in your life you are going to look back and believe that your best days are behind you. It’s only human.
But there’s something else going on here. The appeal of the past isn’t just about lost youth. It’s about lost simplicity. Childhood and youth imply innocence for most of us and, moreover, a just world. That’s what I’m concerned with here. No doubt there lots of interesting things we can discuss why humans think their youth was more fun, or more vibrant or what have you, and why we have evolved this way but, for me, what I’m really interested in is why the past appears as more fair, more just.
When we’re young, we don’t just have innocence, we have justice. If something happens to us, our parents, our aunts, uncles and grandparents, and our teachers and coaches, are there to make things right. Sure, we may not like their decisions at the time, but they create order in our universe. There is a sense of right and wrong even if a parent is saying something to us equivalent to “Do as I say not as I do.” Sure, teenagers love to exaggerate the iniquities of their families but, on the whole, most of us not only agree to play by the rules of our parents and other authority figures but appreciate and love – yes love – these rules.4
The same is true of our cultures at large. Cultural norms provide stability and fairness. One of the challenges of multicultural societies is that different cultures have competing ideas of fairness and morality, meaning that we don’t all agree on what these things should be and we all believe norms are the right norms.
When we become adults, we lose the easy morality and justice of our youth. We learn about how our parents weren’t necessarily right about everything, nor our teachers, nor our culture at large. Many of us – though hardly most of us – also learn that the universe is actually without rules, that our rules of morality and fairness are creations of humanity and not set in stone. This is a big problem.
Human beings appear to want to live in ordered worlds. This may be nature: it’s easy to imagine why early humans would have needed to believe in Right and Wrong in the distant past in order to succeed communally. Belief in Right and Wrong helps a community figure out who is playing by the rules. If someone doesn’t play by the rules, they can be ostracized (which could easily mean death in pre-agricultural societies) and the community is better off. Or it may be mostly nurture: we are raised in societies that talk endlessly about justice, fairness, morality etc. But whether the sense of justice is innate or a product of society, or more likely both, we appear to desire a sense of order provided by the idea of just desserts. When we discover that the world is not like that – that people die for no reason, for example – this is alarming to us. Many of us retreat behind the cover of the ideas of justice and morality we were raised with.5 We miss this childhood certainty. Ideologies and the politicians that use them prey on our nostalgia for a just past.
The Right has long viewed the recent past as particularly great. Even before radicalism found its way into conservative politics, conservatives have been insisting that it was better when our parents were our age or that it was better when we were kids or that it was better before we were born. With radical (neo) conservatism, it’s only the tactics that have changed – revolution instead of cautious reform – as there’s still a strong longing for a recent, departed past. A return to this recent past will restore the country to its former glory.
The Left used to obsess about the very distant past. Communism and other forms of socialism were, at least initially, about returning humans to a pre-industrial or even pre-agrarian state, albeit using the powers of industry (at least in the case of communism) to get us there. A return to pre-industrial or pre-agrarian social arrangements will create a new paradise on earth.
The current Left in the United States seems to be far more concerned with a return to recent childhood instead, with university campuses being hijacked by people who want the safety of their childhood recreated in their late teens and early 20s. Punishing people for microaggressions will bring us back to our easy childhood lives, where we didn’t have adult problems and where our precious feelings were coddled and protected by our parents.
For both “sides,” there is a strong desire to return to the past, a past that never existed. With that past comes willful ignorance and the fairness of your parents. It returns us to the Just World we desire, where bad people (i.e. The Other) are punished and good people (i.e. us) are protected from bad people.
The power of something like “Make America Great Again” is that it not only promises a return to a nostalgic past that didn’t actually exist, it promises a return to a Just World, where The United States of America is the Best Country in The History of The World, created in a miraculous act by godlike geniuses, and dominating the world through sheer American can-do, ingenuity and moral superiority. When politicians appeal to the past, they are really appealing to our fallacious belief in the Just World, a world that does not exist, but which we thought existed when we were kids.
Though Trump used this appeal particularly well, all ideological politicians need to appeal to this past to get elected. Practical, policy-minded politicians are at a huge disadvantage because they are appealing to our brains rather than our desires.
Here are some American myths that people fall for:
- The Founding Fathers were the best of people, and were completely objective – they created the best government in The History of The World
- American Capitalism was once pure, beautiful, and successful, before the federal government introduced the federal income tax and expanded its powers
- States better looked out for everyone than the federal government does
- America was perfect prior to FDR
- Before the 1960s, everyone had more respect for each other
- Republicans spend less money than Democrats and restrict the size of government more than Democrats
- The Republicans are the Party of The Rich.
I am Canadian, and we have our own myths:
- The Liberal Party is the party of Canada
- Canada was perfect prior to PET
- Canada was perfect before we made concessions to Quebec.
This is far from a comprehensive list of myths that we’re manipulated over. I would appreciate your suggests for others. We can add to the list and see it grow.
- I avoid the subject with her, so we can remain on speaking terms ↩
- If Trump fires missiles at Syria, it’s one thing. If he fires missiles at a nuclear power, it’s another thing altogether. As I said to friends before the election: Hilary Clinton is a flawed candidate, but I have complete trust that she will not launch nuclear weapons at another nuclear power. I have no such faith in Trump having that kind of discretion. You shouldn’t either. ↩
- For Black Americans and Native Americans, and other marginalized groups, “Make America Great Again” likely doesn’t make much sense. If they experienced injustice in childhood, they likely don’t understand how the past was Great! ↩
- If you were spanked mildly as a child, chances are you think spanking is not only okay but necessary to raise your child. If you weren’t spanked – like I wasn’t – you might find the practice bizarre, whether or not you believe it’s cruel. ↩
- If you had an awful childhood, this might not apply to you. Since everyone’s childhood is different it’s hard to enumerate all the different ways childhoods can impact our adult ideas of fairness and justice. ↩