The Final Militant Nostalgia

The 2008 election of Barack Obama, or first black president, didn’t usher in a new age of comity and tolerance. On Fox News and on talk radio and in the Weekly Standard and the National Review and all the rest, conservatives were saying that racism in America was now over – we actually had a black president now – so anyone who now talks about race is the real racist in the room. There would be no talk about race if they had their way, ever again, but of course there had to be, and still does have to be. Too many unarmed black men, and unarmed black kids, are being shot to death by white cops far too often. Something is up with that, but Obama’s election was also seen in terms that weren’t exclusively racial. Something bigger was up – a change in the culture that was more basic. Some people don’t like change. To be a conservative is to be suspicious of change. Obama was a big change, and people chose sides on many issues, and nothing much has changed since.

We know our roles. Those on the left have been making fun of those on the right since all those town hall meetings during the August 2009 congressional recess, when, as the Affordable Care Act and Death Panels were the big issue, it seemed that every Republican congressman or senator had some weeping woman rise and cry out, from her heart, that she wanted her country back. Sometimes it was an angry old white man, and of course this was about the impending complete government takeover of the entire healthcare system – there would be no more family doctors, just brutal and heartless bureaucrats – or else it was about Obama being black, or about Mexicans wherever you looked, or icky gay people, or it was about smug losers picking on people who had made something of their lives – the rich, who were rich for a reason, for their wonderfulness. Maybe it was all of that, a sort of generalized nostalgia for what sort of seemed like the fifties. What did these people want back? The fifties weren’t all that great.

Those on the left like to call themselves progressives and progressives are for progress, after all. They found all this absurd. There’s no going back. Nostalgia is not only stupid, it’s dangerous – we’ve moved on – and these people were longing for a past that was never all that good in the first place. Patriotism will not get it back, or another war, or old-time religion, or anything else. That’s what seemed to animate the Tea Party movement. They wanted their country back– which seemed to have something to do with Ozzie and Harriet and poodle skirts, and wholesome movies and blacks knowing their place, and gay folks hidden away, and the only Hispanics and Asians being the harmless and amusing Ricky Ricardo and Charlie Chan, a world of back-alley coat-hanger abortions only, where if the women died they got what they deserved, with Jesus everywhere.

The counterargument was that those days weren’t the good old days for everyone. All the civil rights stuff from the 1954 Brown decision desegregating schools to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, and all the turmoil of the sixties followed by the women’s rights movement in the seventies, happened for a reason. That past had been a cruel and stupid place for far too many people.

Those who are nostalgic about those days, however, talked about them as if they were the golden age of self-reliance, the days before the government was always trying to fix things. Back then, the government didn’t take all your money and hand it out to those Welfare Queens that Ronald Reagan was always talking about. Neighbors helped neighbors. Churches fed the poor. That’s why, a few years later, using the threat of crippling the economy, or even destroying it, to make sure thirty or forty million Americans don’t gain access to affordable healthcare, was about more than health care. This was that forty-seven percent thing long before Mitt Romney said a word, and it was not just about making it hard for the forty-seven percent to buy health insurance, because there was a parallel effort to pretty much end the food stamps program – Obama was the Food Stamp President, as Newt Gingrich was saying each time he decided he should be president. We were told that ending that program is necessary – others agreed, but health care was the main issue, even if, as the Affordable Care Act was finally implemented, a number of private parties started to make big bucks providing what many desperately needed – as planned. It wasn’t socialized medicine, not that it mattered. Sure, healthcare costs for everyone will slowly come down, and the economy will perk up as those worried sick about getting sick can get back to doing work and getting ahead – and those are fine things – but will any of that make the working poor better people? No, the golden age of self-reliance was over.

This was an odd view of how things used to be. The working poor had been in a bad place all along, and their numbers exploded after the economy collapsed in the final months of the Bush administration. For them, the economy never really recovered. The past was pretty awful, then things got much worse, and now things promise to get not much better – the economy hasn’t recovered for them. Maybe the working poor were better people at some point in the past, or maybe not, but that seems beside the point. They’d like a chance to buy health insurance. The Affordable Care Act makes that possible. Someone else’s strange nostalgia about the golden age of self-reliance was what was standing in the way, and what was overcome.

Those on the left had all along seen that as utter nonsense – nostalgia for what never was – and somehow got the Affordable Care Act passed and signed into law. Those on the right are still working to make it go away – all of it – but that seems unlikely now. In this one case, America got itself unstuck from the fifties – but there’s no going back, generally. Yes, our president is black, and our next president will likely be a woman, and those who think gays are really icky can no longer use the law to make their lives miserable, and more and more of our citizens will be folks who started out south of the border, or from even stranger places, and they’ll be fine citizens – and some of them will be Muslims or Buddhists or something else that has nothing to do with Jesus – and we’ll be fine. Deal with it.

There’s only one exception. Those on the left really do find nostalgia dangerous but have a different form of nostalgia, for the days when there was a middle class, which might have been an anomaly. That would be the period from 1947 to 1974 – the one time in America when wages rose for everyone, top to bottom, and everyone, from top to bottom, was doing just fine. For a brief shining moment things fell in place, economically, even if that past had been a cruel and stupid place for far too many people in so many other ways. The past isn’t all bad.

We’ve had six or seven years of this dialog, with minor variations. Everyone knows their lines and how to deliver them, and it turned out that those on the left were just better at that. Obama can be inspirational and reasonable and nonthreatening all at the same time. Hillary Clinton never got the hang of that, but those on the right were deeply flawed messengers. John McCain was too angry when he wasn’t befuddled, Sarah Palin was simultaneously belligerent and incoherent, and Mitt Romney was hopeless – he was the clueless rich guy with the heart of an accountant. Paul Ryan was even more heartless, although he was quite good at looking thoughtful, as he still is. Those who wanted their country back had no compelling champion.

Now they do. That would be Donald Trump, and Marc Fisher in the Washington Post shows how Donald Trump pulled it off:

The way Joe McCoy sees it, the last time America was great was when Ronald Reagan was president, when people played by the rules. No, it was in the ’70s, Holly Martin says, when you could depend on Americans to work hard. No, to find true American greatness, Steve Trivett contends, you need to go back to before the Vietnam War, “when you could still own a home and have a good job even if you didn’t have a college education.”

Even if they don’t have “Make America Great Again” campaign caps, Donald Trump’s supporters easily recite the signature slogan of the real estate developer’s insurgent presidential bid. And even if they don’t agree on exactly why the country lost its way, they do accept – give or take a few degrees of hyperbole – Trump’s contention that the United States has become, as he has put it, “an economic wasteland” that is “committing cultural suicide.”

All he had to do was go utterly negative with these folks:

What bonds them is a sense of frustration so abiding that they’re willing to take a chance on a man they readily admit is anything but presidential, at least the way the term has historically been defined.

“The way he talks is just silly sometimes – he sounds like a fourth-grader,” said Holly Martin, a freelance technology writer who recently moved, in search of a lower cost of living, from the suburbs of Washington to the exurban town of Winchester, Virginia. But Martin, 59, attended a training session for Trump campaign volunteers recently because “he talks like a regular guy, and he actually loves this country. He’s not afraid to say that we’ve lost our good character.”

Many Trump supporters interpret their candidate’s rough rhetoric not as anger, but as determination. Without ever having seen Trump’s reality TV show, “The Apprentice,” Martin has come to think that he has a rare ability to get things done. She was a Republican all her life – until her party regained the majority in Congress in 2014 and proceeded, she said, “to do nothing. They did nothing on Obamacare, nothing on cutting spending, nothing on restoring honesty. They hate us, so now I’m done with Republicans. Trump is not one of them. He doesn’t hate us. He really believes we can make America great again, and I’m not an optimistic person, but I think he can, because he’s got a built-in ability to use the media, just like Obama.”

She has issues with the current Republicans in Washington, but there’s the pure nostalgia crowd:

“He could have said, ‘Make America what it was before’ and I would have voted for him,” said Jane Cimbal, 69, who lives in Winchester and signed up to collect signatures to get Trump on the Virginia ballot. “The last time we had good jobs and respect for the military and law enforcement was, oh, probably during Eisenhower.”

Cimbal doesn’t view Trump as an optimist of the Reagan stripe, but she’s okay with voting for a harsh critic. “He speaks his mind,” she said…

Cimbal, a loyal Republican, wants people to think about how to curb illegal immigration and protect Second Amendment gun ownership rights, but she’s mainly drawn to Trump because she thinks his plain talk can get things done. Her goal is to restore a time “when there wasn’t as much animosity toward each other, when everything wasn’t about race and people just got along.”

When was that? That must have been the episodes before the Fonz jumped that shark, or when Ward Cleaver was explaining to the Beaver that the kid had to do that homework, or all those weeks when father knew best. They seem to have mistaken those shows for documentaries, but that’s only part of the Trump crowd:

The crowds at Trump events tend to be older and whiter than the national population, but so is the party whose nomination he seeks, and so are frequent voters generally. If younger supporters don’t have firsthand experience of the Eisenhower, Kennedy or Reagan years, they nonetheless share the older generation’s sense of loss.

Joe McCoy, who is 31, says he started out this campaign season “laughing at this Trump guy like everyone else.”

Still, the more he heard Trump, the more the greatness slogan resonated. “He boasts a lot, he’s got trophy wives, he’s not exactly Mr. Clean, so I was skeptical,” said McCoy, who lives in Norwich, Conn., where he does tech support from home for a multinational company.

“Mitt Romney was more my kind of guy: practical, a nice guy. But you know, people don’t like a nice guy. They like this guy because he’s right about us losing our country. I really don’t think we should be letting kids go into whichever bathroom they want to in school. The Democrats are really reaching too far on the social issues. And there’s no retirement anymore, no pensions.”

That’s a different sort of nostalgia:

McCoy recognizes that his sense of lost greatness is probably different from that of others who are drawn to Trump, but he says that’s all right. When Trump talks about losing the country, “it’s about whatever you want it to be,” McCoy said. “He lets you fill in the blanks.”

That free-floating sense of decline expresses itself in many different ways among Trump supporters. Some speak of a fading sense of mobility, a loss of the expectation that each generation will surpass its parents’ standard of living. Others focus on the loss of blue-collar jobs and a sense that only those with computer backgrounds can take advantage of the new digital economy.

Trump is the vessel for all of that, and he’s far better than his rivals at this sort of thing:

In this past week’s GOP debate, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) pointedly presented a more optimistic perspective, rejecting the developer’s blunt, blustery barbs about the nation’s decline. “Our greatest days lie ahead,” Rubio said.

Undaunted, Trump began his closing statement with one of his trademark lines: “Our country doesn’t win anymore.” It’s a theme he has developed in several of his books, including a new 2016 campaign edition of “Time to Get Tough!” There he writes: “The country I love is a total economic disaster right now. We have become a laughingstock, the world’s whipping boy, blamed for everything, credited for nothing, given no respect. You see and feel it all around you, and so do I.”

Trump understands you need to get negative about it all:

Steve Trivett, sports editor of a newspaper in central Florida, worries about his six grandchildren’s futures “in an anything-goes society where there are no ramifications for any action. People here are concerned about why nothing gets done. We’re not angry, we’re frustrated. And then Donald Trump comes along and says, ‘I am going to make America great again’ and we all go, ‘Hallelujah!'”

Trivett, who turns 70 this month, is still working because he says he “blew my 401(k) sending two kids to college, and I don’t regret it, but where’s the security? When America was great, our economy was strong. Our economy’s been shipped off to other countries. Can Donald Trump solve that? Hell, I don’t know. Somebody not as flamboyant or egomaniacal might be more effective, but I’m not sure anybody can bring us back. At least Trump gets things done. The last Democrat I voted for was Jimmy Carter. He was a good, honest man, and the system ate him up. So maybe we need a guy like Trump.”

Nostalgia takes all sorts of forms, and Trump offers militant nostalgia, which seems to have little to do with competence or direct experience in the new environment he’d face. That doesn’t matter. He’ll bring back something, which seems to be wholly imaginary. America was powerful and good, and good for everyone, once. The imaginary was wonderful, wasn’t it?

David Atkins comments on that:

It’s easy to make fun of these people. But it’s also hard to blame them. … The principal reason for the lethargy of the government and its inability to solve basic problems lies in the way Congress operates and the way the Constitution is set up. There was a period from the 1920s to the 1980s in which, by historical accident, racist and populist Southern Democrats could make common cause with socially liberal Northern Republicans to craft consensus public policy. That uncomfortable and unjust alliance is thankfully broken now, but left in its place is a country starkly divided on policy and cultural lines. Republicans and Democrats have very different, diametrically opposed visions of what is wrong with the country, and their policy solutions usually move in directly opposite directions.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), America’s system of checks and balances prevents either side from making much progress even after it wins elections. Unless one party has the White House, over sixty Senators, a sizable majority in the House and a working majority on the Supreme Court, truly transformative change is simply not going to happen. Since people are getting frustrated and want transformative change, they’ll seek out increasingly unusual solutions and candidates.

Someone should have told them how things actually work:

It should be the job of a functioning press to elucidate this for voters. The press should clearly explain that Democrats want to do X, Republicans want to do The-Opposite-of-X, and that in almost all cases compromise is impossible because it would be schizophrenic to try to do both. If one person wants to break a fever by sweating it out and the other person wants to cool it with a cold bath, you can’t “compromise” by putting them in lukewarm water. That would be stupid. And yet, that’s all too often what mainstream pundits and journalists ask for: cooperation, compromise and an end to “bickering”, as if the disagreements involved were mere childish spats for power rather than deep and abiding disagreements about moral imperatives and the nature of economic and social realities.

That’s part of the problem here:

Mainstream pundits feed into public malaise by pretending that government fails to deliver on its promises because politicians refuse to be adults and make “moderate” policy (as if there were any such thing), rather than because political parties and their adherents have very different ideas about what the country should do. And in almost all cases, the press adamantly refuses to pick sides in terms of who is actually right about the policy disagreement, because that might constitute a shocking lack of objectivity. But the alternative is worse: a press that not only refuses to elucidate the basic facts that allow voters to understand whose fixes are right and whose are wrong, but fails to even inform voters about why things are broken in the first place.

That in turn leads a huge number of voters, understandably, to reach out in frustration to someone – anyone – different. It could be the brash and abrasive real estate magnate, or the weird soft-spoken brain surgeon, or even the angry Jewish socialist. Someone who will break through the clutter and just make things happen.

That’s totally understandable. And the press deserves the lion’s share of the blame for failing to educate voters about why it’s so hard to make things happen in America.

That may be so, but if so, there’s not much anyone can do about that now. The notion that politicians could suddenly choose to be adults and make “moderate” policy is compelling – it ought to be so. Obama believed that once. Now he doesn’t, but the blogger BooMan is more concerned with something else here:

If you nominate a candidate that the party power players do not want to work with, you’re going to have a lot of problems trying to win the general election. And if you somehow manage to make that happen anyway, the new president will have to try to deliver on their promises with two antagonistic parties in Congress instead of the customary one.

Maybe that’s what you want because the two parties stink to high heaven and can’t work together anyway, but you shouldn’t invest much hope in the results. You’re creating a recipe for a failed presidency and hoping that it will somehow fix the system. Unfortunately, it’s more likely to create chaos.

What’s making this risk seem attractive is partly that a lot of folks don’t understand that they’re inviting chaos in the first place, but it’s mainly that things are already too chaotic. So, people think “What’s the difference, really?”

And it’s getting hard to argue with them.

But they still won’t get their country back, no matter how compelling Donald Trump’s militant nostalgia seems to them. There was no such country. America has always been wonderful and awful both at the same time, both on the same day, day after day, since we started this experiment. And there’s no going back to what never was.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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