This article is a study of nostalgia, its weaponization in politics, and why it is such a powerful force.
I have written a little bit, already, about how I believe the world to be "spiritually and socially empty." In retrospect, this description is quite vague. I will now build on this description, from a new angle.
Our world, and our individual lives, have been stripped of their significance. There is no God ruling over the Earth, the earth is one planet among innumerable others, and I am one man among innumerable others. The meaning of life is not imposed on us, so we are born without direction. The best society can muster is to call on us to be hard workers. The dream is to one day afford a down payment on a home and become enslaved to a mortgage until age 55.
Commitment to Enlightenment values has helped create this state of affairs. I say this as a fact, not to imply that rationality is a bad idea. For all of the progress it has brought, rationality has stripped our world of myths. Myth expresses a yearning for a world beyond--not necessarily to enter it, but simply that it exists. More than that, though, it expresses a desire for an underlying structure in the world; God is a king, and He arranges the universe into a hierarchy and commands it.
The comfort in the Absolute is that it confines us in a way that we cannot question. God exists because the bible says so, the bible is true because it is God's word. The process of rationality has obliterated God and all other gods. Science offers no respite, it describes but never prescribes.
Since we are individuals without a social fabric, the best we can hope for is to find meaning for ourselves. Neoluddites, like Ted Kaczynski, believe that meaning in the modern world is impossible, and only a return to true subsistence can bring meaning. He would describe the action undertaken in a search for meaning as just a surrogate activity [see manifesto sec. 38-41]; a cheap substitute for the fulfillment of real--life or death--goals.
Kaczynski is actually a pretty interesting case to consider when talking about nostalgia. In his manifesto Kaczynski points repeatedly to "primitive society" and "primitive man" as exemplifying the time when humanity's power drive was satisfied by pursuing real, tangible goals. It is clear that Kaczynski wants to feel empowered--the manifesto defines 'freedom' as freedom to fulfill the power process. This, and his larger hatred of technology, is probably a reaction to the psychological torture he was subjected to at Harvard. But I digress.
What is significant is that Kaczynski points to, and is inspired by an image of a past that did not exist. He may not be wrong that primitive man's actions were more "meaningful," but the trade-off for this meaning was a life of constant struggle. Knowing what we know about Kaczynski, this may be a deal he is willing to take, but it translates to a pastoral cartoon in the manifesto.
In this we get our first taste of distilled nostalgia. It is a yearning to lose oneself in a dream of the past. Nostalgia's power to captivate people is in its dreamlike qualities; it is a sketch of the past that you get to fill in and adapt. For Kaczynski, a world without technology was a world where his mental torture could not be carried out, and where he could have power.
Now that you understand what exactly I mean by the word nostalgia, we may look at its role in society. The most obvious manifestation of weaponized nostalgia today is in Trump's enormously successful slogan Make America Great Again. These four words tell us everything we need to know about weaponizing nostalgia to gain power.
Here is our appeal to a world from the past. Trump's messaging resonated mostly with older, wealthy, white Americans who are nostalgic about their youth. Without tackling any specific cultural connotations, "great again" implicitly states that:
The degree to which this is true for Americans is highly variable. I would guess most people, especially people in lower social strata, aren't nostalgic about America's past. It is comforting that we can still say that overall people's lives are better than they used to be, at least quantitatively. Weaponized nostalgia implants nostalgic dreams in, for example, voters. In the case under consideration, Trump is able to conflate the voter's glorious youth with the overall state of the society they lived in. Taken this way, when someone says nation x used to be vigorous, powerful, attractive, &c, but now is withered, bumbling, weak, &c, they are really talking about themselves.
The time when x was great is also stated implicitly. In politics, the age of the figurehead gives voters a pretty good idea of when x was great: when the figure was young.
How does Trump sell himself to us? He projects himself as confident, practical, honest, and patriotic. He has achieved the American dream in wealth and a hot wife. He stands up to the pathetic liberal media. He had a TV show, and everybody (old people) loves TV. In the 2016 election he also necessarily appeared as the opposite of Hillary Clinton, who embodied the politically correct establishment.
To his supporters he represents America Classic. Trump is a truth-spitting, hard-working, business-owning American in contrast the the effete Democratic party. Over time he has become mythologized into a heroic figure in the fight against the Deep State, as Patriots will surely attest. Trump was an image of America-the-idea to the people who voted for him.
And so the America represented by MAGA must be something like the GOP voters' dreams of a powerful America that policed the world and kicked out illegals.
Make is an unassuming word, but it is the action item in the proclamation of MAGA. Making America great again isn't too hard, you just need to vote for Trump. Old people love to vote. It makes the voter/hat wearer feel like they are playing a role in politics and being subversive by voting for Trump.
So if we wanted to weaponize nostalgia in the abstract, how would we do it? We need:
A time period in the past. From 45 years ago to prehistory is fair game.
To sketch out the dream. For Kaczynski, prehistory was freedom and power. Trump sells people America-the-idea. This should only be a sketch, so that the target group can fill in the gaps themselves.
A scapegoat. For K. this was technology, for Trump it is fake news/liberals/Muslims. Instilling hatred or fear works. Preferably both.
An action. Some people want votes. K. wanted spontaneous violence.
When this technique works, the resulting images, which are personal creations of the voter, or at least feel like personal creations, are incredibly powerful. Nostalgia in this form is a spectacle which takes hold of the dreamer and reproduces itself within him or her. For those who have not come to terms with their own aging, had great childhoods and meaningless adult lives, or generally feel worse than they used to, nostalgia is a transportive vice.
Soria Moria Castle represents a search for meaning or perfect happiness, which is eventually found after a long and difficult journey. Nostalgia visits Soria Moria, takes the princess' hand, then gets stranded back home and never finds the castle again. It expresses the longing for a return to that perfect happiness in the past.
This state of affairs is quite tragic, and it's not a nice place to be mentally. So nostalgia grasps at some way to return to Soria Moria. If a sufficiently charismatic man comes along and capitalizes on the demand, they have a good chance to captivate people. The nostalgia characterized by MAGA existed long before the red hats--MAGA is just a signifier for us to study. The successful nostalgia-weaponizer knows how to transfer the power of nostalgic myth onto him or herself.
Here are a few more examples: Joe Biden (or the campaign propping up his corpse) is capitalizing effectively on the past in his presidential campaign, the corporate-government argument for sacrificing people to COVID-19 is the absolutely odious slogan "get back to normal" which appeals to nostalgia for just a few months ago.
In the first section of this post I mentioned that the dissolution of myth coincided with the emergence of science and Enlightenment values. Knowledge follows the third eye principle: once you see the truth, you can't unsee it. None of the Absolutes that science slayed can be brought back. The darkest parts of humanity are now readily available at all hours of the day, in HD.
Nostalgia is a modest replacement for myth. It transports the dreamer back to a time when life had meaning/structure for them; when you didn't have Twitter to beam police violence and bad jokes into your head 24/7, when a parent made you stop looking at the screen after so many hours. For conservatives, Nostalgia gives the world its order again: men were men, and so on. I suspect the surge in conservatism among kids expresses a desire for a world with community. Grifter dork Nick Fuentes makes money by selling young people an in-group and traditional values.
None of this implies that looking into the past is inherently nostalgic. There are good ideas in texts and societies of the past. But the past is not good because it is past; the past is good insofar as we can take lessons and ideas and carry them into the future. Moreover, we cannot adequately understand (or criticize) the present without understanding history.
Foucault's approach is notable. In Discipline and Punish he delivers a history of the French penal system, traces its evolution and the dissipation of its ideas into education and medicine, and then details the panopticon, the realization of discipline. Foucault is willing to dig deeply into primary sources and tear history apart to expose the ideals underlying institutions. Using the same process to resurrect a positive idea is certainly possible.
This article is not meant to be a critique of conservatism, although it may explain some conservative behaviours. I do not think that all conservatism is necessarily nostalgic, or that nostalgia is pathetic. Nostalgia is an understandable state of being that all people descend into at times, but it must be recognized as a hallucination, rather than an ideal. Rather than aiming the future backward, we should allow the past to inform progress.
Nostalgia today yearns for a world that isn't so complex and chaotic--ultimately, for an infant's world with structure imposed upon it. Perhaps simplicity is something worth yearning for, but a nostalgic frame makes the past into unachievable perfection. To gain and wield power without weaponizing nostalgia, there must be a vision of the future which is more compelling than visions of the past.