At its most basic, all democratic politics could be described as a fight over the future. Different factions, parties or candidates propose competing visions for a society which would in some crucial way change it; the electorate assesses their ideas and decides which is the more desirable or feasible.
But watching Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton grapple over America’s future, it’s clear that this model is breaking down. To different extents, both candidates have retreated into the past rather than facing the future.
Trump’s famous and ubiquitous slogan is “make America great again”. He gives only the sketchiest of outlines as to what this would entail: jobs and growth, a wall on the Mexican border, defeating Islamic State – all huge, ill-defined policies whose feasibility is questionable to say the least.
The problems Trump identifies in today’s America greatly outnumber his ideas about how to solve them, and his blueprint is remarkably imprecise. During the debates, Trump tossed out the word “again”, the crux of his slogan, with compulsive insistence – “great again, safe again, wealthy again”. In the third debate in Las Vegas, he declared that he wanted to see the constitution enacted “the way it was meant to be”.
The murky nostalgia of this claim is obvious. This is less a matter of moving forwards and more a matter of recovering something lost. That is why Trump doesn’t really need to explain what his policies would actually be: the presumption is that Americans will know their former greatness when they see it. Campaigns like his bypass the arduous path of reasoning and set us on the easier but more treacherous terrain of instinct and emotion.
What we’re seeing is a turn away from optimism, a vivid feeling among vast swathes of the electorate that the future no longer implies improvement, if indeed it ever did. This brand of politics has a long lineage – and Trump’s nationalism is the direct descendant of a much older strand of far-right nationalism.
Just like old times
By the end of the 19th century, nationalist ideology was mutating, shedding its universalist skin and its often liberating intentions. In the 1890s it began to emerge in its inward-looking, essentialist incarnation: racialised, fearful, belligerent. This change is usually described as a shift from left to right, but that doesn’t entirely grasp what was going on.
Such a change required nationalism to conceive of the future in a fundamentally different way: it stopped representing opportunity and progress and started to connote threat and danger. Nationalists began to campaign on the promise that they would protect their people from the ravages of the future and of modernity, whether in the form of increasing immigration or exploitation at work.
The resurgence of this scared, suspicious eyeing of the future is at the heart of the Trump campaign. As Will Davies, a politics lecturer at Goldsmiths, argued, we have entered not only an age of post-truth politics but also an age of post-future politics. This is an argument that Davies convincingly applies to Brexit, too. Post-truth and post-future politics feed off one another: they form two sides of a coin whose only currency is fear and despair.
And what of Hillary Clinton? Does she offer an alternative vision, a future that stands for newness and progress rather than return? Not at all. Perhaps this isn’t surprising given the amount of time she has spent in politics — it’s unlikely that she would propose a complete break with a past in which she herself is so thoroughly embedded. But her emphasis on her 20 years’ experience, which she meticulously detailed in all three debates, traps her in a bygone era.
Clinton’s willingness to reference a direct return to or continuity of the other Clinton era was on full display in the first debate: “I think my husband did a pretty good job in the 1990s. I think a lot about what worked and how we can make it work again.”
Sure enough, there’s very little new about her proposed programme. Essentially, she advocates a return to a carefully delineated recent past of prosperity. It’s a big contrast with Trump’s fantasy of an all-encompassing paradise lost – but Clinton’s is a recreation of the past nonetheless.
Past our prime
Politicians of all stripes have long invoked what they see as the glorious aspects of their countries’ histories to bolster their own visions of the future. Consider Margaret Thatcher’s intense admiration of Winston Churchill and her use of the particular past he represented to shore up her own regime’s authority and legitimacy.
But the past is typically an inspiration, not a policy prescription. The revolutionaries of late-18th century France might have vaunted classical symbols and architecture, but they didn’t use them to assemble a strict template for a return to a bygone age; they incorporated the aesthetic into a radical vision of the future. That is not the case in this year’s presidential election.
What we are witnessing is a profound shift in the Western political landscape, a transformation by no means limited to the US. Sections of many electorates are losing faith in the idea of the future as we know it – something distinct from the past and the present alike, and which usually represents change for the better. Traditional establishment politicians have been all but paralysed by this development, while insurgent populists are eagerly fuelling it.
All the while, we’re faced with problems of a new urgency and scale: widespread disenchantment, marginalisation, and division; the threat of jobs lost to automation; antibiotic resistance; climate change; displaced populations. It is unlikely that looking back to any past, however attractive, will help us solve these problems.