The language of contemporary right-wing politics is the language of restoration and nostalgia. “Make America Great Again” was fundamentally an appeal to those values. Other writers, especially Black journalists, have noted that the “again” language requires an appeal to a historical period, but it’s frequently unclear what historical period they’re referring to. Often this observation is accompanied by the historical point that it wasn’t great for Black, LGBTQ+, Asian, Jewish and other minority communities of Americans. The Leave It to Beaver ‘50s was a period of segregation; the Reagan ‘80s was the period of HIV/AIDS and grotesque, politically supported homophobia as well as the “war on drugs” and wanton police brutality directed at Black communities.
One approach to those discussions is to focus on an era. The idea is that contemporary right-wing politics are fundamentally regressive and the era that they want to “return” to entails historically marginalized groups being made worse off, whether that’s the loss of women’s reproductive rights or enshrining the rights of businesses to discriminate against minorities. The specifics vary depending on views about the era; it ranges from opposition to Roe and Griswold to Sections II and VII of the Civil Rights Act to large sections of the Voting Rights Act.
But I want to focus instead on a more insidious tactic that builds on this attitude of nostalgia: the exploitation of reactionary nostalgia as a way of on-ramping conservatives (usually conservative white people) to white supremacist political ideology.
Beyond dog whistles
The idea of needing to repulse attacks on “western civilization,” of the importance of preserving traditional values, has long been a major feature of dog-whistle politics. This way of talking is a staple for Fox News’ opinion anchors like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham as much as they have been a feature of the political speeches of Trump, Steve King, and other such figures. It has become less of a dog whistle, as popular understanding of these issues has made people more acutely aware of the alternate meanings. A dog whistle, as the philosopher Jennifer Saul lays out in her seminal papers on the subject, requires having an auxiliary meaning which is known only to a subgroup of listeners, but as these auxiliary meanings become common knowledge, the efficacy of the dog whistle deteriorates. Still, it remains a major lever for leading people who are center-right to more regressive positions, including racist and nativist positions.
The proposal of an “America First Caucus” floated by Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Paul Gosar (R-AZ), two of the more openly racist members of the Republican and Freedom caucuses, includes “common respect for uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions” and emphasizes architecture—such that “befits the progeny of European architecture.” (Greene now insists that she is happy as a member of the Freedom Caucus and that it was floated by her staff, and not by her.) This is all deeply historically confused. The most explicit intellectual roots of American democratic philosophy are French, as is clear to anyone who has read the Francophile founders like Jefferson and Franklin. To the extent that there is any “Anglo” influence, it is the Magna Carta, which is notably not “Anglo-Saxon.”
The idea of “European architecture” (cribbed from Trump, whose administration likely cribbed it from the late Roger Scruton) is less historically inaccurate, but only because it is so vague. “European architecture” could refer to anything from the Hellenistic columns to Gothic cathedrals to Bauhaus office spaces. The phrase means nothing, because it has no attachment to a style and only to a region where there have been a wide range of architectural styles over the course of 2500 years. But the purpose is not to be specific about either a political history or set of aesthetic values; it simply serves to evoke whiteness without saying white. That’s why “Anglo-Saxon” is used improperly as a blanket term and “European” is a regional catch-all.
These ideas aren’t meant to get the history right; they’re meant to summon a political mythology and historiography of distinguishing “our” (really, “their”; I’m an Ashkenazi Jew, so it’s not clear whether I count) civilizational roots from other competitors.
These ideas illustrate a way of thinking about American history (and world history) which work as a direct program of on-ramping white conservatives to white supremacist thought, and it is worth talking about so we can better identify how this path to radicalization develops. The core element is the focus on a clear delineation of “European” cultures. This might be carved up in a few different ways, but usually includes the ancient Greeks and Romans, the French and British “enlightenment” periods, and the imperial age of conquest (especially in North America, though also Africa, south Asia, etc.). It explicitly excludes most Middle Eastern culture (Egypt, the Persian Empire, the Islamic Golden Age) as well as anything else “foreign” (China, the Mali empire, etc.).
The purpose of these distinctions is to set up the sides for the “clash of civilizations” historiography, where the history of the world is seen as a conflict between the “Western” European powers and the “Eastern” Other. There is often a good amount of fudging here. For example, some Christian hardliners don’t want to include the Greeks and Romans (because of polytheism and homesexuality), and European Jews are often a complicated case. However, the broad idea is that the conquests of the imperial age are reflective of the superiority of those European powers, and that the conquests were righteous because there was a need for a kind of evangelism—both of Christianity proper and of “Western civilization” more broadly.
The clash of civilizations narrative
The first classics course I took as an undergraduate was a Latin course with Bruce Thornton, a famous advocate of the clash of civilization theory who was both a staunch political conservative and opponent of immigration. His reactionary political commentaries Plagues of the Mind and Bonfire of the Humanities are paradigm cases of the attitudes I am talking about.
This course was focused on linguistic basics, but often featured long asides on the importance of Roman poetry and the development of the Holy Roman Empire and “European civilization.” It often included discussions of democratic values, and how these principles of governance were both morally superior and narrow products of the local environment.
This clash of civilizations meta-narrative was the prism through which Thornton looked at every element of political life. Nixon in China was about the confrontation between Western democracy and capitalism and the foreign ideology of communism. The global war on terror was about the confrontation between those same “Western” values and Muslim civilization, understood broadly and homogeneously. Immigration to California from Mexico and Central America was a confrontation between that “Western” civilization and the values of those Spanish-speaking communities (because, for those purposes, Spanish countries were excluded from the Western tradition somehow).
There was a nebulous character to this bigotry. Sometimes it was religious, pitting Christians against Muslims. Sometimes it was racial or linguistic, pitting white English speakers against brown Spanish speakers (pretty much all of whom were Christian). But the adversarial structure remained the same. There was “our culture” and there was the Other.
The nebulous character of this narrative was not so strange for the politically conservative students in the class of about 30 mostly white, evangelical Christians. It was a bit more complicated for me, since even at 19 I was acutely aware that there were times when my own culture did not appropriately align with this, even if one set aside the fact that I was a queer kid (and fairly open about it, at that point). In Thornton’s case, there were moments of his advocacy of the “Athens-Jerusalem” theory of Western civilization where Jews were included as proto-Christians and the development of his idealized civilization required Christianity. However, there were also moments of conspicuous exclusion of contemporary Jews as a sort of suspicious Other.
In our contemporary context, where an awareness of conspiracy theories and their role in antisemitism is more established, this should not be surprising. Cold War-era panics about the communist infiltration often targeted minority groups advocating for their own welfare (whether we are talking about Dr. King being labeled a communist or various Jewish writers getting blacklisted and called before HUAC). Keep in mind that I took this Latin class in ’08-’10, so the Cold War had been over for a while—we were watching the rise of Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, and the popular discourse around these right-wing conspiracy theories was centered on a few fringe right-wing figures (Sarah Palin, Donald Trump’s birtherism, etc.) very few of whom had any role in government.
Thornton was just an instantiation of the trends which would eventually take over the American right. He was a Pat Buchanan conservative whose views have since become the mainstream of the modern Republican Party.
Hindsight isn’t quite 20/20, but it certainly provides more clarity than the chaos of the present. In retrospect, the thematic contents of that narrative should have been clearer to me much sooner. It wasn’t simply that Thornton was obsessed with the classics and with the character of Eisenhower’s white, suburban, Christian America. Rather, it was that the two worked together: the nostalgia for the white picket fence was tied up in a view that the culture of that era of nostalgia was the inheritance and culmination of his epochal “Western”-centric historical narrative. The two were inseparable, and they continue to be inseparable in the civic consciousness and culture of the American political right today.
“America First” in context
The so-called “America First” movement that emerged out of American white nationalism and then popularized by the Trump campaign is deeply parasitic on these views. The “America First” label, as I have discussed elsewhere, is derived from American Nazi sympathizers who advocated isolationism during WWII and then was picked up by nationalist ideologue Pat Buchanan during his 2000 Presidential run on the Reform Party ticket (where there was speculation he might face a challenge from the left by a New York real estate developer named Donald Trump).
It’s not merely that the America First Caucus has adopted this language, focusing on the “Anglo-Saxon” roots of American history and engaging the erasure of influence by various groups that do not satisfy that narrow classification. “Anglo-Saxon” is a peculiar framing because, strictly speaking, it would exclude the most explicit routes of American democracy in the French radicals, as well as the European aesthetic values of the Italian renaissance. Even if one were to get the Eurocentric reading right, it would still ignore the influence of non-European systems of government like the Iroquois confederacy.
It comes out of this tradition because it takes a narrow understanding of what it means to be “American” and therefore to put “America First” in making decisions. It is not merely a matter of isolationist policy, though that was an element of the original WWII-era Lindbergh-types; it was also about anti-communism and the convenient role of Nazi Germany as a bulwark against Stalin and who would fight the anti-colonial revolutionaries in north Africa as well. Further, there was a very particular, very white and Christian orientation to the American identity. Those who were not compliant with the image of that American identity were not part of the America that the movement wanted to put first, but rather were subversives internally undermining that vision. They were not “real” Americans.
“America First” is not necessarily a nostalgic slogan; it only happens to be nostalgic because of the context and the vision of “America” that the enthusiastic users of the slogan are endorsing. It is inherently nationalistic, which is part of how we get to the regressive nostalgia. In the context where there is a clear combination of nostalgia and the use of the “America First” slogan, there is also an attempt to sidestep concerns about what “America First” meant in the nostalgic period. The history of “America First” is the history of Nazi sympathizers in America, from Lindbergh to Buchanan. Trump, Greene, and plenty of others have tried to evoke that term without acknowledging its historical meaning, but still preserving core ideological tenets of isolationism, nationalism, and nativism.
There is a big contemporary debate about historiography, and the insistence by right-wing ideological figures that the new historiography is ideologically left-leaning. Perhaps this is true; perhaps taking account of the history and perspectives of oppressed groups within historical political structures is a leftist project. It certainly has developed within leftist intellectual circles most vibrantly. However, it is hardly a left-leaning position to hold that the historical treatment of these groups was bad; it should be uncontroversial to acknowledge that Black people in America fared considerably worse than Ward Cleaver, that Jews in Spain and England fared considerably worse than the nobles that are studied and venerated for chivalry or whatever other “traditional” values are being advocated. Further, it could be simple enough to acknowledge that appeals to “golden age” nostalgia evokes the historical treatment of those marginalized groups during that “golden age.”
Conservatism and nostalgia
As a matter of political philosophy, conservatism need not entail regressivism. The idea of maintaining certain historical and cultural institutions, or engaging in the gradual change while endorsing certain economic and social values doesn’t require the glorification of the age out of which those values sprung. But, as a practical matter, those two things are very hard to separate. It is hard to simultaneously venerate an institution while acknowledging serious historical moral failures, and contemporary political conservativism is unwilling to reckon with the latter.
On its best day, American political conservatism has the posture of Mitt Romney talking about the Mormon Church’s attitudes on race: wanting to maintain certain values that are deep and essential to his way of living while simultaneously taking seriously the moral failures of the Church.
The relation to nostalgia and golden age mythologies, and to the narrow understanding of the cultural history of the contemporary world, makes conservatism regressive. It makes the idea of conserving the historical institutions a matter of ideological continuity with the bright and shiny moral standing of those institutions. In doing so, it comes to regard any criticism of those institutions as fundamentally hostile not just to the particular institution, but to the whole gestalt.
This is hardly an overarching theory of the culture wars; this is, at most, a primer on a single ideological commitment of a particular moral and political position. I think there’s a tendency to give a reductive treatment of the ideology of right-wing positions on the culture wars. Just because the positions aren’t morally or intellectually complicated—and they’re not—does not mean the history behind those positions is simple.
Featured Image Date for the Dance, Saturday Evening Post, August 5, 1950, cover by George Hughes