One of my favorite books is The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, by Stephanie Coontz. The book is a great read, and a debunking of the myths Americans like to tell ourselves: that in the “olden days” we didn’t depend on government largesse (we “always stood on our own two feet”), nice women were chaste (out-of-wedlock pregnancies are somehow a consequence of modern sinfulness), and similar beliefs belied by the evidence.
As Coontz documents, a man’s home has never been his castle, the “male breadwinner marriage” is the least traditional family in history, and rape and sexual assault were far higher in the 1970s than they are today.
Over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Ed Brayton reports that Salman Rushdie has updated Coontz’ insight and applied it to our contemporary political environment.
“I think that what Mr. Trump is doing here that is similar to what’s happening in Britain and even what’s happening in India is in all three place, leaders are inventing a mythology of a false past, a kind of golden age, you know, that if we could only get back to, that everything would be good,” Rushdie told anchor Ari Melber. “You know, make America great again. You want to ask when exactly was that? Was it last week? Was it before slavery was abolished? Was it before the civil rights movement? Was it before women had the vote? When was America great in the way we should get back to?“
The myth of the — the golden age is always a myth,” said Rushdie. “Boris Johnson right now in Britain is trying to sell the idea of a golden age of England that could be restored if only all these inconvenient foreigners would go away. Mr. Modi in India is trying to sell the idea of an ancient golden Hindu age which has been ruined by the presence of Muslims. All three are doing the same thing. They’re inventing history in order to justify the actions of the present, and I think that’s dangerous.”
As Brayton notes, this is the appeal of nostalgia for a past that never existed.
It’s the classic “paradise lost” myth and it’s a powerful emotional motivator for the most ignorant among us. We used to have a garden of Eden, until “they” came along and ruined it, so we just need to get rid of “them” and we can return to our glorious past and Make America Great Again. The weak minded, historically ignorant and most insecure among us find this kind of appeal irresistible. “They” can be almost any group of people, including vaguely defined groups like the “deep state.” It could be Muslims, Latinos, gay people, black people — the barbarians are perpetually at the gate, ready to storm the country and make it their own instead of the rightful owners of society, straight Christians.
I would amend that last sentence to read “straight white Christian men.” but otherwise, I think he is absolutely correct.
I have observed that this manufactured nostalgia is particularly seductive to older white men who have been disappointed in their lives. These are men who have gotten to a certain age without fulfilling whatever ambitions or dreams they may have entertained when they were young. Disappointment often breeds bitterness and a need to blame someone. It’s the fault of those uppity women! It’s because of affirmative action! It’s those immigrants! I’d have been properly appreciated in “the old days.”
It’s a short step to MAGA.