(VANCOUVER ISLAND) Brexit’s cheerleaders on one side of the Atlantic and presidential candidate Donald Trump and his faithful on the other share a yearning for a halcyon past that never existed. They all want to retreat from globalisation, they want their countries to be free of people whom they don’t understand and who are therefore scary, they want to go back to an imagined Arcadian period that, in America, looked like Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, or Happy Days. What they fail to grasp is that those were television comedies and not documentaries depicting real life in the Eisenhower/Kennedy period. (One way I could always tell that Leave it to Beaver was a fantasy was that Barbara Billingsley could, with a straight face, deliver a line like, “Gee Ward, don’t you think you were a little rough on the Beaver last night?”)
The back to the future crowd consistently refuses to grasp the reality of today’s world and, as a result, cannot really be expected to understand the reality of an historical period they only know through pop culture. The world today has transcended national economies and is now operating on a global scale; King Canute demonstrated clearly that one cannot hold back the tide and yet the wishful thinkers are standing there with the waves lapping their tender parts, demanding that the waters recede. The reality is that the only elements of that period we could possibly bring back would be the ones that we would hate; the ones they really want are the purest fantasy.
The want to see a return to a time when Dad would come home in a suit from work in an office where he did something or other, to a suburban colonial or ranch style house, where his kids would be safely playing unsupervised in the neighbourhood, and be greeted by a perfectly coiffed trophy wife who had dinner on the stove, and his pipe, slippers, and martini waiting.
What they tend to forget, or, in the case of the younger back to the futurists, what they never knew is that in the 1950s, the little pill called Miltown was the 3rd most prescribed drug in the United States. Miltown was the very first effective tranquiliser and the country’s first real blockbuster drug. Those Stepford wives were zoned out and so compliant largely because they kept running for the shelter of their mother’s little helper. Contraceptives in pill form didn’t yet exist, so unwanted pregnancies and high-risk illegal abortions were at epidemic levels. Polio was rampant as were scarlet fever, Rubella, and a whole assortment of diseases for which rational people now inoculate their children. Everyone smoked; lung disease was killing people with depressing regularity. We are speaking of a time when, under Republican President Eisenhower, taxes on the upper income brackets exceeded 90%. The McCarthy witch hunts and blacklists were features of those Elysian Fields. This was a time before the Voting Rights Act, even before the Civil Rights Act; racial segregation was not only acceptable, it was the law in southern jurisdictions. Sammy Davis Jr. routinely performed in venues that he couldn’t enter with the rest of the Rat Pack and had to use the back service doors. The Korean War and then Vietnam were causing civil unrest. This wasn’t just Happy Days and American Graffiti; it was also The Wild One; it was Blackboard Jungle; it was Rebel Without a Cause.
Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post covers notwithstanding, it was a time from which we have escaped through technological, scientific, and social progress. We have moved beyond those times by applying human ingenuity, a consensus of compassion and equality, and the lessons learned from history. It is not a time to which rational people would wish to return. Of course, that last sentence had to be qualified by including the word “rational”; there are plenty of reactionaries who see the period through the lens of their bewilderment and alienation. The real world of the 21st Century is complex and frightening beyond their ability to grasp, or even in which to participate fully. For them, that period seems like the ideal restore point in this great program. Supporting and even voting for fascism is seen by those outcasts as a way of hard crashing the system and restarting at a point where, in their paranoid delusions, everything is ideal.
The historical reality is that the period which is being held up as a time when all was perfect was so stultifying, so unequal in its distribution of rights, of wealth, of freedom that it inspired and launched one of the greatest social backlashes in history. The post war period, the baby boom, spawned the revolution of the 60s; the convulsive rejection of the values and norms of the period so nostalgically yearned for was a direct result of the inane, shallow, and dehumanising zeitgeist. Far from being the apotheosis of civilisation, the post war period was the nadir of western society in its social stratification, its complacency and self satisfaction, its intolerance, and its blindness. A revolution was inevitable and, sure enough, it happened.
The current politics of false nostalgia are curious. There is, on the part of the burgeoning ultra conservative movement, a desire to return to a time that never existed in the form they seem to remember. They want to revive the period after WWII in America as the time with which they feel they can best identify. But for some reason they are doing their level best to elect a leader who is far more reminiscent of politicians in Europe in the 30s. Donald Trump in America in no way resembles Dwight Eisenhower; he is more closely aligned politically to the strongmen, demagogues, and fear mongers of pre-war Europe.
Mussolini and Hitler rose to power on a similar wave of xenophobia, bigotry, anti-intellectualism, violence, and centralised power; every one of their election strategies would be recognised today as Trump’s game plan, if they had any historical knowledge. Promises of making their alienated and whiny base powerful and superior to the mongrels who are taking their jobs resonate again today. Their desperate desire to dominate, their conviction that they are the long suffering victims of minorities who get all the breaks while honest white people suffer courageously, their belief that Trump will wipe the slate clean and eliminate all those who stand in the way of their divine destiny to be at the top of the heap; all these are precisely the unrealistic promises implicit and explicit in the speeches at fascist rallies in the 30s.
And, like the crowds enthusiastically raising their arms in salute and swooning at the rhetorical flourishes of their beloved leader, they couldn’t care less that their leader is a charlatan, an empty sack who lies with every breath. Their loyalty to the cause cannot be diminished by facts or by demonstrating unequivocally that their leader really is a racist, a bully, and a demagogue. That’s why they love him. All the characteristics that would disqualify anyone else are the very qualities they love about him. He calls Hillary crooked; the crowds are willing to reject her on suspicions that have been investigated for 14 years without finding anything. Their leader on the other hand is currently under indictment on criminal fraud charges and is likely to be charged in more frauds and they love it; proves he’s a good business man, apparently.
It’s up to those Americans who possess a scintilla of wisdom, a modicum of education, and a human soul to reject the politics of fascism. That political philosophy has failed and is recognised for the evil it embodies. So thoroughly rotten was fascism in the last major go-around that it is fair to say that WWII was the last truly righteous war; the last time one could truly say that it was a battle against true evil. And that’s an evil that is raising its ugly head once again.