Nostalgia is defining US politics – in 2018, it may become a weapon

“I can’t believe we still have to protest this crap!”

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Memory has become a potent force in American politics: soothing, enraging and mobilising. For Democrats mourning the absence of Barack Obama, the Instagram feed of his former court photographer, Pete Souza, offers the daily balm of snapshots from a lost Camelot. In last month’s Alabama Senate race, the African-American turnout surged in the old battlegrounds of the civil rights movement because black voters refused to countenance being represented by the Republican throwback candidate, Roy Moore. Many white suburban conservative voters, who characterised themselves as “Reagan Republicans”, felt the same.

What was most striking about the Women’s March in Washington, DC, last January was not that so many young female activists wore pink woollen “Pussyhats”, but rather that the National Mall was thronged with so many veterans of the feminist struggle of the Sixties and Seventies. “I can’t believe we still have to protest this crap!” read their placards.

Ken Burns’s and Lynn Novick’s series The Vietnam War, which drew huge and admiring audiences when it was broadcast in September, has prompted a heightened respect for those who served, and raised questions again about those who understandably preferred to sit the war out.

 In the era of Donald Trump, presidential reputations have been subject to speedy revisionism. George W Bush, who described Trump’s “American carnage” inaugural address as “some weird shit”, has been rehabilitated as a statesman, even by progressives who used to deride him as a toxic cowboy. Criticism of his father, George HW Bush, was fairly muted when women accused him of being a groper, partly because his presidency is now viewed so wistfully as a model of political moderation, fiscal rectitude and foreign policy acumen. When the five living former presidents appeared together at a hurricane relief concert in Texas last October, they were welcomed on to the stage like retired caped crusaders reuniting for a final mission.

Among the reasons why the musical Hamilton has proved so popular is that it evokes the nobler impulses of America’s founding fathers. Even presidential mediocrities such as Ulysses S Grant, the subject of an upbeat makeover by the historian Ron Chernow, are now being re-evaluated.

Trump, too, was the beneficiary of nationalistic nostalgia in 2016. To many of his red-capped supporters, the slogan “Make America great again” evoked the country of the Fifties, before race and gender relations were upended by the black freedom struggle and the feminist revolution. White women voters, more of whom backed Trump than Hillary Clinton, were unimpressed that the Democratic nominee was in the vanguard of the women’s liberation movement and first came to national attention after her fiery graduation speech at Wellesley College in 1969.

In 2018, memory lane will be congested with golden anniversaries. It will be 50 years since the Tet Offensive, the Prague Spring, the Paris riots, Lyndon Johnson’s unexpected announcement that he would not seek his party’s presidential nomination and the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Some milestones will be politically benign. Others have the potential to become political calls to arms.

For example, in April is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, which will fuel America’s unending race conversation and raise the perennial question of how far the freedom struggle still has to go. Reporters will descend on Martin Luther King memorial highways in major cities and note how they are often lined with run-down and crime-ridden neighbourhoods. Commentators will again reflect on how the country’s first black president was followed by the most prominent salesman for the racist “birther” movement. More politically germane is the question of whether King’s memory will contribute to a nationwide version of Alabama’s black turnout in November’s midterm elections.

Less than two months after King’s assassination in Memphis, Bobby Kennedy was shot dead in Los Angeles. The anniversary of another liberal icon – a candidate who could quote the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, as he did on hearing the news of King’s murder, and who was far more idealistic than his cautious elder brother – should also bring on another surge of progressive reminiscence. But for Democrats, it also poses an irksome question. Where is the modern-day RFK? Where is a youthful candidate capable of forging a coalition to defeat Trump in 2020?

This year also marks an important conservative milestone: 50 years since the victory of Richard Nixon. Given the disgrace in which the 37th president vacated the White House, 5 November 2018 is unlikely to be celebrated with Republican fireworks. But for conservatives, there’s a more self-congratulatory way of thinking about the Nixon anniversary: it is five decades since the GOP became a dominant force again in presidential politics. Prior to 1968, the Republicans won just two out of nine presidential elections. From 1968 onwards, they won five out of six.

The political landscape created in the late Sixties – shaped by white fears about black advance, male fears about female advance and “silent majority” infuriation about elite condescension – doubled as a seedbed for Trump’s candidacy. Indeed, one of the great analytical mistakes of the 2016 presidential election was the widespread view that Nixon’s southern strategy was demographically obsolete.

Modern elections are always to some extent a referendum on the Sixties. Do voters prefer the America that emerged from that tumultuous decade or the America that preceded it? In 2016, this heavily favoured Trump. In 2018, as they seek to wrest back control of the House and the Senate, it could help the Democrats. Nostalgia has been described as the file that takes the rough edges off history. This year, it could well become a weapon. l

Nick Bryant is the BBC’s New York correspondent

This article appears in the 04 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old