Column: Populism and the danger of blind nostalgia

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump acknowledges the crown during a rally at the Times Union Center on Monday, April 11, 2016, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

The businessman alpha of the Republican presidential field, Donald J. Trump, has come to rely on a slogan of vacuous power, recalling halcyon days of American glory.

While millions have turned out for him, his campaign message, those four words embroidered on ball caps and banners – “Make America Great Again” – recall an era which has never existed. 

Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and their contemporaries possessed enough wisdom to understand sociocultural structures would change with the passing of decades. These Founders understood the need for forward-thinking progress in the American experiment. From Jamestown to Ellis Island, this slope of progress has been undeniably positive, albeit rising slowly and with sharp drops at times.

The erosion of prejudice, injustice and all forms of men repressing men have come chronologically. A gradual improvement from the Founding means that one cannot point to a year, decade or era and refer to it as the “great” period of American history. 

Greatness in terms of the 2016 presidential race refers to the same speech all youth have earned from elders: “What you have now is a coddled, muddied version of what I once had.” The GOP frontrunner uses the same skewed goggles to view American foreign policy, relying on a Reaganite understanding of international affairs, in which testosterone-filled speeches, ICBMs and rolled-up sleeves in the depths of the Russian winter meant “greatness” – an era during which we fought outmatched enemies and, to use his jargon, won more.

For children of GIs, the strengthening of the post World War II middle class and suburbia – Levittown, New York and rows of little boxes, houses of perfect replication – constitute the great days that waned in the wake of the oil shocks and Watergate. 

Some might look back even further, holding the simple yeoman farmer, the Jeffersonian dream, as the American ideal of greatness. For those who wish America would return to the days of simplicity, the early to mid-19th century is ideal, with our young nation having just claimed a second victory over the Crown, while also securing new territories in a fight against an infantile Mexican Republic. 

This nostalgic thread, sewn into our national fabric, is stirred most often by charismatic figures of indefinable appeal. Swelling populism breeds, to borrow a term from Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” golden-age thinking. This mindset kicks up a haze of such density that we forget the ills that disallow any one period in American history from being referred to as the hallowed “great” period. 

While the Reagan-era served the upper-middle class well, the War on Poverty and the War on Drugs, begun under President Nixon, decimated entire communities. An idyllic understanding of the Eisenhower, post-WWII era – the commencement of the baby-boomers – fails to recognize the violent resistance Civil Rights protestors met from their fellow citizens, government and law enforcement. 

The yeoman farmer days of America and the new frontier bring to mind the paintings of Winslow Homer, but push images of Jacksonian massacres of Native American nations, the chains of slavery and the discrimination of immigrant peoples to the abyssal crevices of the collective American memory. 

When Donald Trump asks us to vote for him in November and make America great again, he is asking us to believe that America was once perfect. Though America has gradually provided more of her people the natural rights and liberty, there has never been one period of perfect equality for all members of American society.  

If Donald Trump were concerned with the American future and not the puppeteer-like power he holds over his audience, he would change his slogan to reflect the desire to make America great. Though this goal is ambiguous in substance and reality, turning the collective gaze of the American people forward is paramount. Looking back, one either forgets the struggles of millions, or relishes in former inequities progress has reduced. 

A nation stuck in dreams of a fictional yesteryear only feeds lifeblood to feelings of hatred and division. Aiming to make America great means trying to improve upon the previous generation’s failures, seeking positive change. An American people bent on making America great again lives divided, with each successive division pushing the slope of progress further down.


Christopher Sacco is opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at christopher.sacco@uconn.edu.