Most people get nostalgic about something at some point. I myself get nostalgic for deep public swimming pools, 2-D animated Disney films, and the pre-1960s Republican Party. But oftentimes, nostalgia involves subscribing to an inaccurate vision of the past. In 2012, a clip from Aaron Sorkin’s T.V. show, The Newsroom went viral. In the clip, William McAvoy, a character played by Jeff Daniels, rants that America is not the greatest country in the world–but it used to be. I am posting the latter part of the tirade here because it is most relevant to the point of this blog: “So when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about! Yosemite?! … It sure used to be… We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reason. We passed laws, struck down laws, for moral reason. We waged wars on poverty, not on poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were and we never beat our chest. We built great, big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists AND the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men. We aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it. It didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election and we didn’t scare so easy. We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed… by great men, men who were revered. First step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.”
Given how inaccurate this statement is, one would think that the clip would have gone viral because people were marveling at how silly McAvoy sounded. Instead, the speech resonated with many people, who felt that Newsroom had hit upon a great truth about our country. Granted, in addition to the predictable anger from conservatives who saw the clip, it also did end up getting significant criticism from history aficionados. These people pointed out that McAvoy was ignoring the oppression in previous eras of millions of Americans who were not white, heterosexual, cis men. Now there is certainly no denying that bigotry and discrimination remain major problems, but it is also clear that they were more extreme in previous generations; we don’t have legalized chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws, or sodomy bans anymore. Women can vote, and while Native Americans are still being denied sovereignty and land/water rights, there is a significantly more widespread commitment among white Americans to treating them fairly than there was 50, 100, 0r 150 years ago. Our immigration laws are less geared toward keeping out non-WASP immigrants, and we have less government censorship, more due process, and no active military draft. There is a greater degree of understanding toward disabled people. Rape laws, child abuse laws, and spousal abuse laws have slowly but surely gotten stricter. The list goes on and on. One can debate about whether or not America is currently great, but it is simply untenable to make the case that it no longer is great but used to be. Of course, the people who talk about America being better in the past, whether they be right-wing or left-wing, are usually white, heterosexual cis men. You do not often see black lesbians or Cherokee male-to-female transsexuals making such a claim. Of course, there is a degree of irony in this viewpoint even coming from Aaron Sorkin: Sorkin is Jewish, and in past eras, universities often had quotas limiting the number of Jewish students. Herbert Hoover had to be talked out of his original policy of not having more than one Jewish person on the Supreme Court; the current Supreme Court has three.
I do not believe that Sorkin or most of the people who forwarded around the Newsroom clip are bigoted. It is true, however, that there is a myopic vision and a warped sense of the past intrinsic in these sorts of nostalgic speeches. And whether liberal Newsroom fans want to admit it or not, there is an undeniable parallel between McAvoy’s attempted history lesson and Donald Trump’s bigotry-fueled “Make America Great Again” slogan. Trump and large numbers of his supporters believe that the United States has gone downhill. To many of them, a key part of America’s decline is the progress of feminism, racial equality, and LGBT rights. Other Trump supporters probably do not think very much about the history of oppression in the United States, instead focusing narrowly on specific, individual aspects of life that have admittedly gotten worse for many lower middle/working class white, heterosexual cis men. This myopia makes them less inclined to question the sinister undercurrent of Trump’s nostalgic rhetoric, just as some white, heterosexual, cis male liberals failed to think about how McAvoy’s speech could come across to Americans from groups who most certainly had it worse in the past.
In fact, Trump has benefited from an apparent double standard: it appears to be more socially acceptable to state that America used to great but no longer is great than it is to say that America is now great but did not used to be great. Michelle Obama was raked across the coals by conservatives for suggesting that perhaps she had once not felt patriotic but was now proud to be an American. Few of those conservatives have dared point out the obvious unpatriotic implications in Trump’s slogan. And try being a presidential candidate and saying that the framers of the Constitution were hypocrites and that America is a great country now but was not great until the 1960s. Let me know when you are done getting screamed at. If you are lucky, you might get a writing job at Huffington Post, but your political career will probably be over. Nostalgia reigns supreme when it comes to what you can and cannot get away with saying about America. The danger in all of this is not only failing to acknowledge the past sufferings of many Americans. There is also a real danger that this sort of nostalgia will lead to people being swayed by a leader who promises to effectively return our country to a previous era. To this I say, be careful what you wish for.