This presidential campaign has been a referendum on change. Trump wants to make America great again – the implication being that there was some shining past and if it wasn’t for all this troublesome globalism and technological change, America would still be great. But his campaign is based on imagination rather than reality: the belief that Trump (or anyone) can magically make US manufacturing jobs return and put brown and black people and women in their place. His brand of nostalgia diminishes history and experience.
Change is a threat to identity. It’s hard to accept changes that confront our values, our way of life, our history. Even an identity based on misconceptions or injustice is hard to let go of. People don’t just adapt or become willingly re-educated when some part of their core belief system becomes unacceptable or outdated. Preserving things as they are, or slowing the pace of change, preserves the identity. Trump seems to appeal to this less-educated group who have been left behind. He has given them permission to say out loud the parts of their identity that have resisted changing times and attitudes. Their fear and hopelessness is expressed as anger.
This isn’t new. I’ve been on a Joan Didion kick and read this recently (apologies for the length, but I couldn’t bring myself to edit any more). Didion was reporting on a convention of Jaycees:
I suppose I went to Santa Monica in search of the abstraction lately called ‘Middle America.’ … In a very real way the Jaycees have exemplified … certain ideas shared by almost all of the people in America’s small cities and towns and by at least some people in America’s large cities, ideas shared in an unexamined way even by those who laughed at the Jaycees’ boosterism and pancake breakfasts… If only because these ideas, these last rattles of Social Darwinism, had in fact been held in common by a great many people who never bothered to articulate them, I wondered what the Jaycees were thinking now, wondered what their mood might be at a time when, as their national president put it one day at the Miramar, ‘so much of America seems to be looking at the negative.’
The word ‘apathy’ cropped up again and again, an odd word to use in relation to the past few years, and it was a while before I realized what it meant. … It was a word meant to indicate that not enough of ‘our kind’ were speaking out. It was a cry in the wilderness, and this resolute determination to meet 1950 head-on was a kind of refuge. Here were some people who had been led to believe that the future was always a rational extension of the past, that there would ever be world enough and time for ‘turning attention,’ for ‘problems’ and ‘solutions.’ Of course they would not admit their inchoate fears that the world was not that way any more. Of course they would not join the ‘fashionable doubters.’ Of course they would ignore the ‘pessimistic pundits.’ … It occurred to me finally that I was listening to a true underground, to the voice of all those who have felt themselves not merely shocked but personally betrayed by recent history. It was supposed to have been their time. It was not. [Joan Didion, from “Good Citizens” in The White Album, page 95.]
This was written in 1970.
There is a disconnect between militant nostalgia and contemporary reality. There's that pull toward an idealized version of the past, but at the same time, we marginalize people who don't accept or adapt to change. Older people are proverbially patted on the head when they can’t figure out how to use a computer or smart phone. The Luddites live on, though we don’t hear too much about angry mobs destroying iPhones. When the world seemed on the verge of being controlled by robots, we got the maker economy (hipster for “craft fair”), micro-brews, and slow food. And people of a certain age, like me, aren't opposed to change but can’t keep up with everything, then feel stagnant or are shelved at work because our skills are less applicable than the Tweet Generation.
There are times when we all put up buffers to help us resist new truths. When change feels threatening, we seek comfort in simplicity; we’re nostalgic for something we may never have directly experienced, but that feels more authentic than our present. But if we can’t move past nostalgia, our present can’t evolve. We can neither totally focus on the now and forget the past, nor live in the past without acknowledging the present. A stubborn commitment to the past only magnifies the ways we changed and the irrelevance of those who stay behind.
A few words on ordinary virtues and change from Nobel laureate Bob Dylan (here singing Forever Young with Springsteen):
May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.
May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young…
As always, thanks for reading!