The 1950s, American Greatness, And Trump’s Brand Of Nostalgia
If you’re unfamiliar with the advertising firm of Ogilvy & Mather, consider this: What James Madison did for the US Constitution, Ogilvy did for advertising. Ogilvy was a champion of pragmatism and a fierce romantic, a combination that made for advertising that reflected the cultural fantasies of the moment while remaining accessible to consumers. Ogilvy built an empire on giving consumers precisely what his advertising made them want: “In the modern world of business,” he proclaimed, “it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create.”
If we analyze historic ad campaigns to discover why they were successful, we probably would hear the Marlboro Man speaking to us from beyond the grave (though quite likely through a voice box). Advertising makes us believe products have value that exists beyond the things themselves. Yet, an advertisement’s value is based solely in its ability to convert consumers — to make us buy products — and in so doing, we confirm the life that we want to live as well as our desires, dreams, hopes, beliefs, and all the other commitments we make when we want to show what we find meaningful in life. We are saying more than, “We bought it;” we are saying, “We buy into it.”
My first thought of bringing historical ads to bear on the Trump campaign’s promise to #makeAmericagreatagain was in response to a series of critical essays on the Republican National Convention (RNC) by Jeffrey C. Isaac recently published by this journal. I wanted Isaac to engage with the mythical underpinnings of the Trump campaign’s slogan. This idea had no sooner entered my mind than I found myself signing up for an Instagram account to comment directly on just what it would mean to #makeAmericagreatagain.
@ByeGoneTrump provides a space to contemplate the meaning of Trump’s promise to return America to an idealized time when police officers were not shot by angry citizens, a time before news agencies had to re-define “terrorism” because Americans did not yet know what it meant to be attacked in the metaphorical heart of our nation. While challenging these realities, I also question whether time could be turned back as easily as Trump claims. Rather than a return to happy days, such erasing of historical wrongs to make America rhetorically great again is a flimsy mask for Trump’s more bellicose responses to today’s challenges.
The great America of Trump’s promise would deliver us from political correctness, release us from a commitment not to commit war crimes, punish women for exercising their constitutional rights, revoke the US heritage and national promise of religious freedom, and return us to a state of sanctioned racial profiling. These are among Trump’s most dangerous prescriptions. They also provide a solid roadmap for how Trump imagines that we can — and should — make the American nation like it was before and, somehow, no longer is.
The problem from Trump’s perspective is about more than the shifting dynamics in international relations and war tactics. Though very serious problems, they serve only as warrants for Trump’s true ambition: turning back the clock on social progress. Trump has made this reversal his clear platform at the RNC. To address the problem of terrorism, he has promised that a Trump presidency will be concerned mainly with solving America’s domestic problems to the exclusion of working with NATO and other European allies: Al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, Hamas, and the Taliban are really calls to take action against Uppity Women, Angry Black Men, Violent Immigrants, and Murderous Muslims and the Mosques that harbor them in the United States. Trump has done more than confuse the Quds Force with the Kurds; he is close to blaming American civil and equal rights movements for international terrorism.
The trouble with Trump’s approach is obvious. Eroding civil rights will not solve any of the real problems we are facing. Diversity, inclusion, compassion, and dignity are more than token words; they are necessary characteristics of a nation, communities, and individuals if we are to respond to very real threats such as terrorism. For many Republicans, however, short-circuiting civil progress is an appropriate response to the multifaceted calamity in which we now find ourselves.
On the morning before Trump took the stage at the RNC, Jerry Falwell, Jr., spoke on NPR’s Morning Edition. Though not a pastor, Falwell channeled the voice of evangelical Christian preachers who have reached out to him fearing the “dire straits” of current America. “What difference does it make what happens to social issues,” he argued, paraphrasing their concerns, “if we lose our country. We gotta save our country first.” Yet, should we not also ask, what happens to a country when it discards its social issues? Dismissing and surrendering the gains of progressive movements in the United States is a heavy price to pay for national security promises from the lips of the most obstreperous Republican candidate in national memory. Falwell said Americans were voting for Trump to “control immigration, stop terrorism, and bring jobs back to the country,” but let us not forget the distinction between ostensible and actual when drawing relations between civil rights and terrorism.
Lacking as it does an historical referent, the era of American greatness the Trump campaign heralds as ideal — perhaps the one that will come (again) when Trump ascends — remains unclear, but most people who are moved by this myth likely imagine the 1950s. This was the era of Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. The US economy grew tremendously during the 1950s, which saw more families moving to suburbia and fulfilling what has been crafted as the American Dream: white picket fences, white-collar jobs, white families. While the Civil Rights Movement was beginning, Truman and Eisenhower were more focused on national security issues fueled by fears of the spread of communism. That time of real (Korean War, Vietnam War) and manufactured (Red Scare, Cold War) concerns is the moment to which Trump and his supporters are harkening by decrying the strides our nation has made in human civil rights since that era of white privilege.
This penchant for Trump and his supporters to propound the necessity of making America great again is a form of hyper-nostalgia. They are doing more than praising the past; they are creating a past, hoping to convince Americans we can return to an idealized moment of American greatness. Not unlike Ogilvy & Mather, Trump by his own account speaks in “truthful hyperbole” (lies told for a “greater” truth). He has advertised himself as the candidate who can return law and order to the nation by making America great again. Thus, to succeed, Trump must get us to buy into his 1950s-nostalgia campaign.
Recognizing this tactic, @ByeGoneTrump showcases vintage advertisements from this same time period. Short readings are included with 1950s ad campaigns to draw attention to the full meaning of Trump’s presidential campaign. Viewed critically, this bygone cultural moment might induce shudder instead of nostalgia, as voters, including Trump supporters, reconsider lauding that time and its regressive values as what make us a great nation.
Follow @ByeGoneTrump for the latest updates to Fernandez’s project on Instagram. Readers may also submit content to be featured by emailing the author directly: firstname.lastname@example.org.