A green lawn, a white picket fence, a shining sun. Small children walk home from school; their mother, clad in an apron, waves to greet them. Father comes home in the evening from his well-paid job, the same one he has had all of his life. He greets the neighbors cheerfully — they are all men and women who look and talk like he does — and sits down to watch the 6 o’clock news while his wife makes dinner. The sun sets. Everyone sleeps well, knowing that the next day will bring no surprises.
In the back of their minds, all Americans know this picture. We’ve seen this halcyon vision in movies, we’ve heard it evoked in speeches and songs. We also know, at some level, what it conceals. There are no black people in the picture — they didn’t live in those kinds of neighborhoods in the 1940s or 1950s — and the Mexican migrants who picked the tomatoes for the family dinner are invisible, too. We don’t see the wife popping Valium in the powder room. We don’t see the postwar devastation in Europe and Asia that made U.S. industry so dominant, and U.S. power so central. We don’t see half the world is dominated by totalitarian regimes. We don’t see the technological changes that are about to arrive and transform the picture.
[Trump’s inaugural address offers nothing to soothe the worst fears about him]
We also know, at some level, that this vision of a simpler America — before civil rights, feminism, the rise of other nations, the Internet, globalization, free trade — can never be recovered, not least because it never really existed. But even if we know this, that doesn’t mean that the vision has no power.
We live in a culture that celebrates disruption, innovation, entrepreneurship, risk, diversity and change. Yet many people dream of stability, security and homogeneity, even racial purity, as well as a world in which the United States is always and forever unchallenged. Indeed, the desire to turn the clock back is so powerful, so persuasive and so appealing to the “real Americans” who support it, the “forgotten men and women” of the inaugural address, that it has brought us the presidency of Donald Trump.
Over the past few days, multiple polls have shown that Trump is the least popular new president in recent memory. He received 3 million fewer votes than his opponent. He won with the aid of a massive Russian intelligence operation, and by propagating lies about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. But don’t let any of this fool you: Do not underestimate the appeal of his nostalgic vision. His call for America to “start winning again,” his denunciation of the “crime and gangs and drugs” of the present, these are so powerful that he has triumphed despite his dishonesty, his vulgarity, his addiction to social media, his lack of religious faith, his many wives, all of the elements of his character and personal history that seemed to disqualify him. Surrounded by the trappings of the White House, its appeal may well increase.
Of course this vision will not appeal to everybody: It is not designed to do so. On the contrary, this appeal to the so-called real America, a tribe that exists within the United States of America, deliberately excludes anyone black or brown, anyone who does not live in a nuclear family and anyone who cannot or will not aspire to a house with a white picket fence. Nor can it succeed: The “jobs” and the “borders” that Trump promised to “bring back” do not exist anymore, in a world of air travel and artificial intelligence and automation. But Trump is not the first demagogue to succeed by offering an impossible, idealized national vision. Anybody who reads history knows that people have argued with one another, competed with one another and even murdered one another in the name of countless national and tribal utopias, religious and secular, right wing and left wing, over many centuries.
[A most dreadful inaugural address]
Nor is it unique. Trump’s America has parallels in contemporary Europe, in the nationalist rhetoric of politicians who also seek to drag France, Britain or Germany violently backward into an allegedly simpler, safer, whiter and purer time. Now that he is in office, many others with radical, even bloody visions of change will seek to align with him, too.
Still others will reject his utopian American nationalism, his “America First” rhetoric and his brutal calls for protectionism and selfish tribalism. Indeed, it is likely the Trump administration will be remembered around the world as the tipping point, the moment when U.S. influence, which always had a base in ideas and morality as well as economic and military power, finally went into steep and irreversible decline. But the people who believe in Trump’s vision will not see that decline, they will not understand it and they will not have their hearts changed by it. The promise of the mythical past, now to be recovered, is far, far too strong.