Making America Great Again: Nostalgia, Hucksterism, and the Empty Signifier

This post originally appeared on In Media Res.

Curator’s Note

America in decline. It’s a narrative that resonates powerfully among conservatives in the Obama era. In the 2016 election cycle, the desire to “Make America Great Again” has been expressed by the Ted Cruz and Scott Walker campaigns – that is, until Trump filed a trademark application on the slogan.

It’s a pitch that plays to Trump’s image as a “World Class” businessman and visionary developer, inviting us to think that America – like the 60th Street Rail Yards, or the Bonwit Teller building – is simply another distressed property awaiting the Trump touch.

In this context, “America” (as in most U.S. political rhetoric) functions as an empty signifier – an absence of content onto which competing political forces vie to inscribe their own preferred meaning.

In the struggle to define the nation’s future, Trump fills America’s absence of greatness with Trump – a brand with its own curated significations. His success hasn’t derived from promoting a considered policy agenda, but from a play of images, harangues, cheap evasions, and trite superlatives. Moreover, the grotesque theatrics of his campaign, its unremitting demagoguery, misogyny, bigotry, and xenophobia are so outrageous as to seem calculated – a strategy of sensationalized self-promotion he once called “truthful hyperbole,” a brash exaggeration that “plays to people’s fantasies.”

The fantasy here is largely nostalgic – a desire to return to the values of, say, the Reagan era, which Trump has pinpointed as America’s last moment of “greatness.” The 1980s were certainly good for Trump. But the reference also imagines a return to a time before cultural liberalization, political correctness, feminism, and globalization – all while identifying him with the highly-fetishized Gipper.

But whether it’s the Material World of the 1980s, the postwar years, or the Gilded Age, such nostalgia papers over historical realities of racism, oppression, and economic hardship, as John Oliver once pointed out.

More troubling, is that Trump’s fantasies have appealed to white supremacists’ sense of heritage, while his invocation of “the old days” has valorized violence against protestors.

Trump has been accused of cynical opportunism, glibly pandering to conservative anger before flip-flopping toward the center. Playing both to historically conservative objectives (immigration), and to progressive ones (infrastructure), this clip illustrates the elasticity of Trump’s slogan, which may be contorted to suit whatever fantasy he is hawking that day.

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