For more than a year, Donald Trump has harped on white nostalgia.
A hearkening back to a rosy, but ambiguous, time in American history with his Make America Great Again slogan propelled his presidential run. It was a message, though, largely not embraced in minority communities, given that blacks, Latinos and women were fighting for equal rights during the same period Trump has indicated he believes America was great (the Industrial Revolution and the post-World War II 1940s and ’50s).
President Trump did it again during his first address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, as he vowed that “dying industries will come roaring back to life.”
But appealing to white (specifically white male) nostalgia is nothing new. It was a consistent strain within pop rock of a generation ago (now, the Classic Rock popular with older, white men).
For example …
Listen to the first and third verses of Tom Petty’s “Here Comes My Girl”:
“You know, sometimes, I don’t know why, but this old town just seems so hopeless I ain’t really sure, but it seems I remember the good times were just a little bit more in focus. …
“Every now and then, I get down to the end of a day, I’ll have to stop, ask myself, ‘What’ve I done?’ It just seems so useless to have to work so hard, and nothin’ ever really seem to come from it.”
That was from 1979.
Probably the most famous from this nostalgia genre, though, came out five years later, with Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days.” It tells melancholy anecdotes — a man who was a star baseball player, a woman who pines to recapture her sex appeal of a younger day.
Around the same time as “Here Comes My Girl” and “Glory Days,” Billy Joel’s “Allentown,” was released. In 1982, it retold the story of a town that saw shuttered coal factories — despite generations since World War II (there’s that time again) working there, living decent, middle-class lives and spending “weekends on the Jersey Shore.”
But all that collapsed — and there was plenty of blame to go around, from the companies to the “union people” who “crawled away.”
Resentment, bitterness and the loss of belief in the American Dream was left:
“Every child has a pretty good shot to get at least as far as their old man got. But something happened on the way to that place. They threw an American flag in our face.”
The reality is that every period in American history has had its tumult. There wasn’t a time that was “great” for everyone.
Going back through American history, before even the founding of the republic, African-Americans were enslaved — and even after the Civil War, blacks had to march and fight for equal rights because of Jim Crow.
Women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920, and as late as the 1970s, women still largely weren’t allowed to wear pants to work — and there’s still a sizable wage gap between men and women. (It wasn’t until last year that flight attendants on British Airways won the right to wear pants.)
Latinos marched for farm workers’ rights in the mid-20th century — and still feel under siege because of immigration perceptions.
Gays and lesbians only won the right to marry in 2015.
But Trump doesn’t talk about that. He focuses, in fact, on a time when life was very different for minorities and women. It was a time of separate water fountains.
“Eisenhower, I don’t see him too much on lists of great, great presidents, but it was a nice time in the country,” Trump told Larry King in 1999 on his CNN talk show. “The country had a prestige, and he had a certain, you know, demeanor. He was a quality, class act. There are certain people who have that.”
That time happens to be when Trump was a child, son of a wealthy real-estate owner. So it’s no surprise that minority communities largely don’t feel that Trump is talking to them.
And for all the politicians that keep going back to places like Youngstown, Ohio, for photo ops of a city down on its luck and promising jobs, that is a very sepia-toned view.
The town’s fate had nothing to do with quarter-century-old NAFTA, which has been in Trump’s crosshairs. The problems are 40 years old, going back to this era of classic rock.
It’s something more scripted for Petty and Joel and Springsteen — than Trump.
Undoubtedly, changing economies do this — inspire nostalgia for something “great again,” for those glory days. This isn’t the first economy to leave some behind or down on their luck.
The problem is all the nostalgic daydreamers of “Glory Days” end up at the same place — “the well” drinking ” ’til I get my fill.”
Springsteen, instead of trying to play up resentment, seemed to be making a larger point — that staying stuck in the past doesn’t leave you with much:
“Well, time slips away and leaves you with nothing mister but boring stories of glory days.”
If Springsteen was too subtle, Joel tries drives it home more explicitly in 1983’s “Keeping the Faith”:
“You can linger too long in your dreams. Say goodbye to the oldies but goodies, ’cause the good ole days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”
In other words, linger too long on the past, and you don’t advance, you don’t get better, you stagnate and get passed by.
Democrats, because of a recovering economy quarterbacked by their president, largely missed how this economic recovery had resurfaced those resentments (which also led to immigrant scapegoats).
Trump exploited those feelings, and fueled his run to the White House. But it’s a familiar song — with familiar ends. Making good on his promises might prove tough, because no one can ever fully recapture the glory days.