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Trump’s Rear-View Politics

The GOP candidate is manipulating Americans’ nostalgia for a country that never was.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 03:  Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a news conference before a public signing for his new book "Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again," at the Trump Tower Atrium on November 3, 2015 in New York City. According to a new poll, Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon, has pulled ahead of Trump with 29% of Republican primary voters.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 03: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a news conference before a public signing for his new book "Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again," at the Trump Tower Atrium on November 3, 2015 in New York City. According to a new poll, Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon, has pulled ahead of Trump with 29% of Republican primary voters. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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.

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.

First, policymakers and pundits with an ax to grind often use rose-tinted versions of the past to convince you that their preferred course of action will yield a seemingly familiar set of benefits. Case in point: Robert Kagan’s eloquently one-sided defense of American liberal hegemony in the New Republic, which used a potted history of the 20th century to argue that the muscular U.S. foreign policy he has long advocated — and which produced a steady diet of recent disasters, most notably in Iraq — was almost singlehandedly responsible for a (supposedly) long period of post-World War II peace. In Kagan’s telling, America’s steadfast willingness to serve as global policeman after World War II produced a long era of peace and prosperity, and we tamper with that formula at our peril.

The problem, as historian Andrew Bacevich quickly pointed out, is that Kagan’s glowing portrait of a global Pax Americana was mostly a fiction. U.S. engagement may have helped keep the peace in Europe and Northeast Asia (at least once we’d fought a pretty serious war in Korea) but it didn’t keep the peace in South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, or the Middle East. And in some cases, like Iraq in 2003, the United States started wars that caused enormous suffering and left chaos in its wake.

Second, nostalgia also 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. After 9/11, George W. Bush professed to be “amazed that there’s such a misunderstanding of what our country is about … because I know how good we are.”

Third, choosing politicians or policies on the basis of nostalgia assumes that it is possible to turn the clock back. But time runs in only one direction, and policies that made sense decades ago may be wholly unsuited to present conditions. The foreign policy the United States followed during the early years of the Cold War might have been the right one when Europe was still rebuilding, the U.S. had upward of 40 percent of gross world product, and the Soviet bloc posed a looming if uncertain threat, but that same policy may be unnecessary or counterproductive in a globalized world of nearly 200 states, many of them fiercely opposed to foreign interference, the absence of a similar geopolitical rival, and a host of other challenges unimaginable in 1947.

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.

Finally, 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.

Photo credit: SPENCER PLATT/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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