Nostalgia is Destructive
Over the past decade, we’ve seen conservative rhetoric turn increasingly hostile. Politicians speak of upsetting the world order and returning to former glory - but how did it come to this?
In America, it’s known as the alt-right and is epitomised in it’s orange-iest form in Donald Trump. Erupting into the presidential race in 2015 with attacks on Mexicans, he has since picked Mike “wears the entire Jesus jersey” Pence as his VP and called for a ban on all muslim immigration into the US. Trump has attracted further criticism for allegedly asking three times if it was possible to use nuclear weaponry in a military conflict.
Comparisons to Hitler and warnings that American conservatism is turning fascist are easy to find. Yet this rhetoric - puritanical religiosity, militancy and the promise to “make America great again” - is similar to language we’re seeing across the globe.
The Economist published an article in August discussing “Ottomania”, or Turkey’s government-run fascination with the Ottoman Empire. This “Ottomania” cherrypicks from a collection of the Ottoman’s greatest hits, promoting “martial strength, Islamic values and imperial heritage”.
Erdogan’s politics can be seen as similar to Donald Trump or even Australian-grown tomato George Christensen. With Turkey trying to join the European Union for almost thirty frustrating years, is it any wonder that it’s now looking back to when it was an Empire™ both large and in charge of the Middle East? Yet it’s returning to a changed world. For that same thirty years, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been fighting it out for #largeandincharge plus the right to kill Salman “The Satanic Verses” Rushdie. A changed world is a theme that we’ll see come up again further down.
If we look at the “politics of nostalgia” through this lens - one of “martial strength, [religious tradition] and imperial heritage” - we notice a global phenomenon. It accurately describes modern Russia, isolating itself from the global community in its quest for a post-Soviet Soviet Union. Trump’s message is again similar. By focusing on America’s nuclear power, the evangelical community and returning America to a former greatness, he evokes Turkey’s Ottomania in responding to America’s imperial overstretch.
In many ways, these countries are much like poor Boris Johnson above - flapping around helplessly waving flags and trying to appear dignified.
Britain itself has had a bit of an identity crisis since it lost its empire what, nearly 50 years ago now? No longer #largeandincharge, Britain saw itself as second fiddle to the United States - and come on, that 80’s duo of Reagan/Thatcher was one of the greats of the 20th century (behind Lennon/McCartney and Batman/Robin).
Brexit is more than just a rejection of the EU. It rejects the need for European unity, and clings to a past of great individual European empires. One of the slogans of the “leave” campaign - “Let’s Take Back Control” - is even evocative of Trump’s “Make America Great Again”. But where will Britain turn? Some, such as Commonwealth-Secretary Patricia Scotland, have suggested a reorienting towards “enriching the Commonwealth”.
Yet the world has changed. The Commonwealth has gone its separate ways, and all the queen’s horses and all the queen’s men won’t put the Empire together again. It would force Britain to rely on an “inefficient tool” such as “raw economic and military power”. Isolated from Europe, Britain will share this non-EU wasteland with perennial outsider Russia. Putin’s propensity for macho-aggression, staunch social conservatism and neo-Soviet rhetoric is probably memetic enough at this stage tbh.
America would be in the same hot water under President Trump. With rhetoric labelled nativist and isolationist, Trump would be relying on the same inefficient tools as post-Brexit Britain - yet this has isolated Russia, left Britain’s future uncertain and were fuel to the Turkish mere months ago.
Calls to make America great again, reclaiming control and trumpeting the values of the past make for emotive, enthusing rallying cries… but in practice, it’s self-destructive. There’s still confusion about what role countries are to play in a post-Cold War world, that’s true. Nostalgia from the alt-right isn’t going to help. It’s been proven that the pillars of Ottomania will only create instability - to go forward, we must look forward. Walking backwards will only see us fall over and start voting in inefficient tools as our leaders.