US 2020 Election

Why the Trump Campaign is haunted by Nostalgia

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How do you “Make America Great Again” when you’re already president? Donald Trump’s team has been grappling with this question for months, and it’s not clear whether they’ve found the answer yet.

What made the MAGA slogan so popular – it adorns around a million of those red baseball caps – was its vague nostalgic appeal. By gesturing towards a glorious American past without specifying when this bygone era occurred, it acted as a lightning rod for all sorts of personal discontents. As David Berry notes in On Nostalgia, the motto “says just enough to prompt someone to fill in the rest themselves.”

Trump could have kept the slogan for the 2020 race, but it would have been a tacit admission of failure. And fuelling a re-election bid with nostalgia is near-impossible: can you “Make America Great Again” again? There’s a MAGA-shaped hole in the campaign that the Trump team is struggling to fill.

True, the billionaire ran under the “Keep America Great” slogan for a while, but that idea seems to have been shelved. It might have worked in the political climate of 2019, when the motto was officially adopted, but feels tin-eared whilst the U.S. is ravaged by Covid-19. The Biden campaign has even used it as an ironic comment on the Trump presidency, highlighting the incumbent’s broken promises on keepamericagreat.com.

The Democrats aren’t the only ones sensing blood. The Lincoln Project – a PAC formed by anti-Trump Republicans – is mobilising nostalgic feeling against the beleaguered president. Its very name evokes a nostalgia for the 16th president, and draws a contrast with the 45th.

Ironically, a number of Lincoln Project ads strike a similar theme to Trump four years ago: a kind of muted MAGA. One video pays tribute to the presidents carved into Mount Rushmore, then ends – with a definite sense of bathos – on Donald Trump. “America’s worst president will neither be remembered, nor revered,” intones the gravel-voiced narrator. 

Another advert tells the story of an “imperfect” America “bending the arc of history”, as sepia-tinted photos give way to recent footage of protestors. Trump’s failure will be part of the nation’s inveterate striving for justice, it suggests. As in many Lincoln Project videos, the race isn’t framed as Trump vs Biden, but Trump vs America.

For his part, Trump isn’t going quietly. The Republican nominee may have played on people’s nostalgia, but he’s far too abrasive a character to be a dyed-in-the-wool sentimentalist. Rather than talking about the past, he’s prophesying a dystopian future under his Democratic rival. Biden is portrayed as a Trojan Horse for socialism, too sleepy and too slow to face down the radicals in his party. In one advert, an intruder breaks into a home while the elderly female resident desperately calls 911. There’s no response – the police have been defunded in Biden’s America – and the camera cuts away as the phone ominously topples to the ground.

But Trump is worried by the Lincoln Project. And he has a right to be.

Nostalgia is a powerful force, especially in times of upheaval. It was the case in 2016, when millions felt set adrift by the forces of globalisation – and it’s the case now. Americans are seeking refuge in the past, turning to former pastimes and old TV shows. The Lincoln Project seized upon this trend in their “Trumpfeld” ad, pairing the president’s Chris Wallace interview with a laugh track and Seinfeld’s jaunty bass line.

Perhaps voters are longing for a time when the presidency didn’t feel like a sitcom, when the world seemed more familiar and less frenetic. Perhaps they’ll contemplate whether the 45th president is an obstacle, and not the solution, to American greatness. And perhaps Donald Trump, always so proud of his ratings, will find himself cancelled before his second season.

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