The Politics of Nostalgia
The Psychoanalysis of Longing for Politics Past
A well-recognized dimension of Trump’s success has been his ability to capitalize on nostalgic yearning, particularly among white, “rust-belt” voters. “Make America Great Again,” appealed to the apparently powerful and ubiquitous desire to return to a simpler and more secure imagined past, to a time that preceded losses of jobs, futures, homes, and identities. Losses on such a massive scale are basic ingredients of nationalist/populist sentiment. Because it needs scapegoats to thrive, such sentiment invariably draws upon and stokes resentment, racism, and xenophobia. Taken together, we are now forcefully reminded, these forces can comprise a monumental and highly explosive political power.
Political nostalgia involves a repudiation of present day social, economic, and cultural realities, and there is much in the present that has been rhetorically repudiated by the Trump campaign: immigration, globalization, feminism, and the growing multiculturalism of the US, to name just a few. Less easily recognized has been the nostalgia that has infused the politics of the left through the course of this election. While Democrats did not articulate the wish to return to an idealized past as directly, the politics of the left have belied an unspoken wish to return to time when, to cite an often repeated refrain, people “voted in line with their own interests.” The notion, for instance, that demographic groupings such as “women” or “Latinos” would vote unilaterally against Trump, or that such groups would be motivated by a “break the glass ceiling” discourse appears itself to, in part, reflect a nostalgic political desire for what is apparently now a bygone era. Even Clinton’s campaign slogan, “Stronger Together,” sentimentalizes an oversimplified solidarity in a manner that, in the aftermath of the election, seems radically out of touch with the driving ethos and anxieties of the 2016 swing voter.
“Nostalgia,” a term from the Greek that is comprised of “algos” (pain, grief) and “nostos” (homecoming), in its earliest uses referred to a medical condition: to “severe homesickness considered a disease.” It was originally used primarily in military contexts, often treated as a cause of death unto itself for soldiers. By the 1920’s, the word had been transformed into its contemporary usage of “a wistful yearning for the past.” In this subtle transmutation of meaning, the object of longing became abstract and shifted from place to time, a move that perhaps made sense in the context of the first World War. The nostalgia of 2016 has become perhaps even more abstract, because the losses include such ineffable entities as identity, masculinity, and purpose. These losses are so intangible that they are nearly impossible to identify, making them even more likely to lead to a melancholic alienation. The use of scapegoats ensures that such losses remain beyond the realm of self-knowledge.
In psychoanalysis, nostalgia has historically been a highly pathologized condition. In “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud describes nostalgia as a persistent refusal of loss, a repressed yearning for a lost object, which thwarts the mourning processes necessary for health. When this occurs in extreme forms, the refusal of the loss risks compromising individual’s relationship to reality itself. Object relations theorists such as Klein also view nostalgia in primarily regressive terms, as a clinging to, or wish for, a symbiotic relationship to the mother, and a refusal of frustration, loss, and separateness.
These powerful human motivations can also be the engine of political affiliation and ideology, and smart and effective politicians will appeal to their power. Trump’s strategy was ultimately effective because it connected to the deepest longing, anxieties, and passions of a substantial part of the electorate. However, the fact that the Trump campaign exploited the baser aspects of nostalgia — racism, protectionism, and fear-driven rage — does not, I believe, negate the potential for a creative, generative engagement with nostalgic longing.
The psychoanalyst, in dialogue with the patient, tries to help the patient transform nostalgia into grief, and ultimately into a creative, living relationship with one’s present reality. Therefore, a wistful, affectively charged relationship to the past does not need to inherently obstruct experience and action in the present. Longings for the past in fact often contain a key to the patient’s strongest desires, including desires for the present and future. If the analyst only hears in the nostalgic longings a regressive wish for an archaic past, she misses the future potentials hidden in the patient’s communications. The analyst must help the patient translate the wish for a lost past into a desire for a yet-to-be created future, a future that is animated and vitalized by past loves and losses, but is not tethered to them. The security of wistfulness must be transformed into the risky and uncertain prospects of hope and desire. When Freud famously said that “the finding of an object is, in fact, a refinding of it,” he meant to remind us that new love always traffics in old longings; some degree of nostalgia — longing for our original home, our original objects, our past — is inherent to desire itself.
Effective political slogans are like the best psychoanalytic interpretations: they simultaneously speak to the deepest psychic truths while intermixing new and unexpected elements. “Make America Great Again,” worked primarily not because people believed that Trump would actually deliver us to 1955, but because he gave language to strong anxieties and frustrations. “Stronger Together,” in contrast, rushes the process; it substitutes the end goal for the present task, and tragically forgets that mutuality and relatedness are conflict-filled and hard won.
Just like the psychoanalyst, the politician must be a reader of desires and an interpreter of nostalgias. She must read, animate, and activate the powerful desires and interests of the electorate, including past-directed fantasies, and then alchemize them into usable building blocks of political change. In our present context, politicians and citizens on the left must be able to hear the anguish and grief subtending nostalgia and even bigotry, with the hope and belief that when these losses are recognized, even when they cannot be immediately remediated, people will cling less fiercely to paranoia, hatred, and insularity.