We’ve all seen them. Those words stitched onto the little red hats at the Trump rallies. The seemingly innocent white letters spelling out Trump’s slogan; “Make America Great Again.” A memorable, if plagiarised, call for Trump’s supporters to rebuild something of their nation’s proud past. A call to “relight the flame of America”, and make it “the great country it once was”.
These words ignite the long fermenting passions of his supporters. A few months back, the Guardian published a number of letters from anonymous Trump supporters giving their reasons for why they back him. “The Hispanic attorney” wrote that “Political correctness is the birthplace of disastrous, un-American policies that will destroy the country in a death by a thousand cuts.” His fellow writers did not fear for their country’s future; the problem was the present.
In December, Vox interviewed a number of Trump supporters in Iowa. The tone of his rally’s attendees was perhaps the most intriguing element. Phrases like “we want our country back” were commonplace. “I don’t feel safe” said one. Muslims, in particular, were the focus of despair for many. Some felt that “Muslim values” were eroding the principles they think America holds dear. “Muslim values” are, one can only imagine, as homogenous as Christian values, which spans Mormons, Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, the Amish and the “I went to church once when I was twelve”-ists. Those Christian values, of course, never encroaching on the American founding principles of secularism, diversity, and the pursuit of happiness.
Trump’s supporters feel lost in a supposedly new “un-American” land. It is a world which they feel no longer speaks for them and which they no longer feel they know or love. Trump’s message has captured this resentment, with the accusation that America has been ‘destroyed’. If only it was like the old days.
If you want to see the inferiority complex of a country in decline, Americans can just gaze across the Atlantic. Britain’s right-wing UKIP supporters have a similar message. Buzzfeed amusingly asked members of the United Kingdom Independence Party “when was Britain last Great?” Two members answered 1895, five years before Britain would starve Boer civilians to death in concentration camps. A younger man answered 1986.
In Britain, UKIP have no monopoly on this message, nor is a reverence of the past something new. In 1950, during her first election speech, a young Margaret Thatcher announced to her listeners that she wanted to “make Britain great again.” This is a slogan with a long history of plagiarism.
Underneath it is a common anxiety shared by nationalists across different societies. Most hark back to some golden age, before some national embarrassment, before social and economic decline, before the existence of their favourite bogeyman. Be that the Falkland’s War, the years of Reaganism, the Declaration of Arbroath, even the peak of the Roman Empire, nationalists feel an attachment to some golden era. They dream of capturing the essence of when the country was last ‘great’, just like in the stories they read in the history books.
Fawning over the past is an egregious waste of time. Most of those fantasising either don’t remember that time, or at that time were remembering some other previously fond era. Take the following quote; “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” That statement is commonly attributed to Socrates, which was sadly was not followed by “Make Athens Great Again”. The world always felt awful, and it probably always will.
Machiavelli, in his Discourses on Livy, published 1517, briefly discusses this phenomenon and is equally perplexed. He begins book two by arguing that that “men always praise, but not always reasonably, the ancient times and find fault in the present”. Humans are “partisans of the past”, celebrating distant memories either held in their head or scribbled by scholars who glorify history.
But why? Firstly, Machiavelli says it is ignorance. Knowing the full truth of history would “bring out the infamy of those times,” sitting uneasily with the romantic notions we hold today. Secondly, he blames partisan historians for their habit of exaggerating the successes of any empire: They “obey the fortune of the winners”, making the heroes unrealistically virtuous and their enemies often comically difficult to overcome.
For Machiavelli, current events are comparably unromantic. Living in the present brings the unfortunate plight of knowing the facts. We see today that even the prettiest city has its sewers. “Knowing the good together with the many other things which are displeasing to you, you are constrained to judge the present more inferior than the past, although in truth the present might merit much more of that glory and fame… He who is born in that state, and praises the past more than the present, deceives himself.”
Such is the futility of this odd national restorationism. To restore one’s country to a near-mythical state of existence is as pointless as chasing the end of a rainbow. Romanticism makes for nice stories, but we should not let ourselves be guided by those stories saturated with fiction. We do ourselves a disservice to submit ourselves to such fantasy, particularly when the world as it is has its own difficult beauty.
President Obama is in agreement. Speaking to the graduates of Rutgers University, he advised his audience that “When you hear someone longing for the “good old days,” take it with a grain of salt,” astutely reminding us of “life in the ‘50s, when women and people of colour were systematically excluded from big chunks of American life.” In the 1960s Britain had a severe issue with racism too. In 1964, Conservative candidate Peter Griffiths was elected with the slogan “if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Lib Dem or Labour.”
The trouble with national restorationism is not simply that it dismisses the realities of the past. It fails to recognise that no amount of nostalgia will solve the dangers we face today. It is procrastination on a national scale. Instead of making difficult compromises, we blast our puritanical songs of choice and listen to our chosen narcissist goad the ‘establishment’ so that they may replace them as the next establishment. Instead of asking how we can better co-operate on tackling cross-border issues, terror and economic decline being two, we quibble over whether we should dismantle those organisations most convenient for solving them. And for what? To restore a past that never really existed.
Do not assume I glorify the present. In our modern age, we are faced with continuing difficulties; a huge disparity between rich and poor, a lack of opportunities for the young, and continuing racism and bigotry. This sounds harrowing, but all humans across all generations are united in having difficult issues to overcome. The problems we face will not be solved through a return to some fictional golden age, which likely suffered from worse injustices than we see today. Our concern should not be to make our country great again, it must be to make the world better than it ever was.