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All that glitters isn’t Trump’s golden age

  • Published at 06:26 pm March 19th, 2017
All that glitters isn’t Trump’s golden age

Clearly, the advent of Donald Trump has brought the concept of a golden age to the center of US politics. Golden age politics are, I believe, backward-looking. We see them in history, especially in Europe in the early 20th century, and again now as many countries fall back on attitudes that prevailed back then.

In the US, however, while politicians often seem backward, their politics and their practices have usually focused on the here and now and millenarian apostles who cited a golden age were pushed to the margins. Trump has changed all that, at least for now.

The idea of a golden age evidently comes from Greek and Roman mythology. It has become a metaphor for a time of accomplishment, of a flourishing of art and science, a period when men’s affairs have been at a great height, better than periods before or after. In effect, the concept has become mainly a political slogan to be used for political advantage.

It is also, of course, a religious and political metaphor. Readers in Pakistan and the Muslim world will understand this.

Religious organisations have picked up the concept to describe a better time, when man was more pure and religiously-led societies flourished. It seems that either in religion, politics, or both, the concept of a golden age is widely shared among societies.

Religious parties are likely to refer to a golden age and promise policies that mean a return to at least the virtual reality of that age.

Much mythology is involved in the efforts of different groups to extol whichever golden age they put up as the ideal, but very little is said about the lives of the common people who lived in those ancient times.

This is particularly toxic in the case of extremist organisations, such as IS.

I know of no surveys on this subject, but I imagine European politicians in the 18th and 19th centuries also have used the return to a golden age as political bait. What that golden age could have been, given European history of almost constant warfare, is not clear.

While Trump’s core constituency sees the 1950s and 1960s as the golden age they thought Trump would bring back, it is more and more apparent that Trump’s golden age is the 1930s

We know for sure that the European fascist parties of the 1920s and 1930s were deep into the golden age mythology as they sought office electorally in order to undertake their revolutions. Those golden age images were far less pristine than those of the Greeks of Romans, or, in fact, the religious images of golden ages, being violently nationalistic and revanchist.

And it is the echoes and shadows of those European golden age politics that set an undertone for this US election that seems in one part anomalous, and another part very dangerous.

The US election of 2016 brought in the politics of the golden age in a very important way. This may not be the first time that a golden age has been mentioned in US politics, but I believe it is the first time it has played an important role in a national election.

The evidence is in the campaign statements Trump made while running, and in his inauguration address, as well as his joint address to congress.

Actually, I think that his campaign motto “Make America Great Again” says it all.

Clearly, in his mind, the trade policies he emphasised as destructive to his core constituency, the currency manipulation he ascribed to China, the de-industrialisation he blamed on unfair trade and commercial policies of many trading countries -- in particular Mexico -- said to his followers that he could and would bring back their golden age.

That is the anomaly. The data I have looked at of voter patterns and the exit polls suggest strongly that his core constituency sees the 1950s and 1960s as the golden age.

These voters and their parents benefited from one of the best periods of growth the US has experienced -- 25 years of solid economic growth, driven by rising productivity of both labour and capital.

Globalisation and falling productivity slowly took their toll and the economy began to shed the industrial growth and the frothy economy in which this constituency had flourished. And frankly, these were also times of social progress when some felt their golden age was slipping away.

Racism, misogyny, intolerance of “the other” played a role in the alienation of the Trump constituency.

While Trump’s core constituency almost surely sees the 1950s and 1960s as the golden age they thought Trump would bring back, it is more and more apparent that Trump’s golden age is the 1930s. His continued use of the soundbite “America First” gives this away. That was the slogan of the quasi-fascist right in America, led by Charles Lindberg, who really was a crypto-Nazi.

The “deconstruction of the administrative state,” so often cited by his chief political adviser, Steve Bannon, clearly refers to a return to things as they were in the 1930s before and without key historical figure Franklin Roosevelt. I suspect that many of his supporters would balk at that image, if it were to become clear in their minds.

What would most likely succeed in diverting the attention of his supporters is a security crisis -- another terrorist act in the US. James Madison, one of the main authors of the US Constitution, wrote presciently, in 1789, that tyranny “rises on some favourable emergency.” 200 years later, Trump himself wrote “civil liberties end when an attack on our safety begins.”

Steve Bannon is a believer in Huntington’s “clash of civilisations” thesis. He is believed to hold that war between the West and the Islamic word as inevitable. Historian Timothy Snyder, who has looked closely at the lessons of the 1930s, most recently at the Hitler’s use of the Reichstag fire to seize emergency authoritarian power, points out that Bannon is leading Trump’s efforts to stigmatise and provoke Muslims, the immigration ban order being the prime example.

Is it not possible to argue that actions that stigmatise and provoke Muslims are likely to increase danger of a security incident rather than forestall one, as Trump claims? It is a tried and true method of authoritarians to use a security crisis to seize or increase power. Putin did it. Erdogan is doing it. Both men are leaders Trump has said he admires.

William Milam is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh. This article previously appeared in The Friday Times.