In my experience, “nerd culture” columns don’t usually dive into politics on their second entry. But given the current political climate and the recent election results, to hell with precedent.
Now that the election is over and Donald Trump is officially our commander-in-chief for the next four years, the endless analyses and theories as to how a reality television star rose to the White House will begin to circulate, all through the miracle of hindsight. One idea in particular caught my eye because of its implications: the idea that Donald Trump’s campaign, especially his slogan of “Make America Great Again” actually tapped into the same concept that much of popular culture (especially nerd culture) is built on: nostalgia.
People have looked back on “the good old days” for as long as they’ve been able to grasp the concept of time. The past is simple, familiar and certain. The present, and by extension, the future, is complicated, intimidating and unknown. I think we all realize that this is an incredibly broad generalization, but it’s also something we all relate to on some level.
Memories and nostalgia are incredibly powerful things, and Trump knew that. The very slogan “Make America Great Again” implies two things at once: that America used to be great, and that is currently not great. It’s romanticizing our ideal of America in the past; strong, vibrant, and with a booming economy, while also playing up the fear of a weakened, divided country.
Hollywood knows that too, and has relentlessly taken advantage of those feelings for years. With each successive generation, what is associated with nostalgia changes as well. Back in the 80s when Ronald Reagan was running (successfully) for the presidency, he often pointed to the idyllic romanticization of 1950s America as a sort of golden period that the nation had to return to. Hollywood likewise would put out dozens of movies that directly played on the aesthetics and sensibilities of the 50s (while usually scrubbing out the less savory parts, such as racial segregation or Jim Crow laws). “Grease,” “The Outsiders,” “American Graffiti” and “Hairspray” all took influence from that decade. “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” were both series that were purposely created to reflect the old-fashioned sci-fi serials of the 50s.
So how does this relate to today? Instead of romanticizing the 50s in pop culture, we’ve been romanticizing the 80s. But what stays consistent is that we’re romanticizing culture from around 30 years ago (from the 50s to the 80s, and the 80s to the 2010s) Look at the top 40 charts from this past year. The Rae Sremmurd song “Black Beatles” is a prime example, with its heavy synth bass and and blown-out, neon aesthetics. Bruno Mars’ new single’s music video “24K Magic” displays its title in quite literally the same font and design as the original printing of our new President’s 1987 book, “The Art of the Deal.” In movies, we’re now seeing a direct follow up to the original Star Wars Trilogy with Episodes VII-IX, completely skipping over any references to the badly-received prequels. We’ve also seen a Ghostbusters remake, a Robocop remake, a Footloose remake, even a Red Dawn remake, all within this decade.
Video games have also been incorporating “retro” and 80s elements into new titles more and more. Hotline Miami, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, and the new Doom sequel all take direction from the violent and drug-fueled excess of era of that era of pop culture, and they’re some of the most financially successful games that have come out in the last decade. All these new albums, movies and games have a single common thread: nostalgia-pandering, specifically nostalgia for the 80s.
I’m not trying to assert that these artists and creators are secretly Trump supporters, or that they support any of his views. Nor am I arguing that enjoying these works is tantamount to supporting Trump (otherwise I’d be going out to buy a particular red hat). What I am saying is that nostalgia is dangerous. It’s completely natural and damn near universal to the human experience, but it can also be incredibly deceptive. The 50s were nowhere near idyllic if you weren’t white. The 80s were not in any way a “golden age.” They were both, like today, rife with racial tensions and social justice movements and debates over the rights men and women of all skin colors. In the last decade, there have been instances of a person (usually white) proclaiming that racism is “over”. As if the lessons of the past no longer had any hold on us, and we could all walk hand-in-hand into a racism-free utopia. That’s not how that works. But by consuming media which creates a clean, scrubbed representation of the past, we can often gloss over the glaring social issues associated with those time periods, allowing ourselves to make the same exact mistakes.