A Canadian historian reflects on Trumpism

Here is a taste of Jerry Bannister‘s recent piece at Borealia:

From the moment of Trump’s election four years ago, we have talked relentlessly about how long it will last. Fear of Tumpism is, at root, the fear of being trapped in a madhouse without an exit. As I said four years ago, as Canadians we never voted for or against Trump, but we all will have to face the consequences. One of the cruelties of the past four years is that, regardless of what happened, in a way, Trump always won. Wherever one sat on the political spectrum – no matter how much one hated Trump – most of us were talking about him. For four years, he has dominated not so much the headlines of today but the horizons for tomorrow. For one to write an accurate history of the past four years, therefore, one would have to focus an awful lot on how much Trump’s presidency shaped our idea of the future. For historians, this should prompt us to consider how people in previous eras dealt with crises like the ones we’re facing. Did they escape into a nostalgic past, confront the challenges of the present, or focus more on when it would end? 

While it’s fashionable these days to quote Orwell’s dictum that who controls the past controls the future, I wonder whether we might have it backwards. Despite all the right-wing rhetoric about history (in both the U.S. and other countries facing authoritarianism), Trumpism has remarkably little to say about the past. What it’s really about, in my view, is not so much turning back the clock as stopping it. What drives people to attend MAGA rallies is the same thing that drives those who want to suppress the vote: fear of the future. I don’t think they want to return to 1955 so much as they simply oppose the changes unfolding around them. For historians, this has important implications: it suggests that we should perhaps pay less attention to right-wing rhetoric about the past, despite all the ink spilled on conservative views of monuments. I am not denying that history is important to right-wing populism but I think that it serves a secondary, largely symbolic role. What matters most, in a figurative sense, is the battle over opening or closing the possibilities of the future. Like the literal struggle today to ensure that every vote gets counted, the struggle over our ideas of the future will affect us all for years to come. The outcome of that struggle will, in the end, determine how we look at the past.  

Read the entire post here.

Trump doubles down on the racism, nativism, and unhealthy nostalgia in Pittsburgh

Watch Trump on September 22, 2020 in the Pittsburgh area:

Trump is talking about Ilhan Omar, a Black Muslim congresswoman who represents Minnesota’s 5th congressional district. She won nearly 78% of the vote in her district in 2018.

Trump is playing both a racist and nativist card here. “She’s telling us how to run our country,” Trump says. Who is “us?” What does Trump mean by “our country?” He then makes a remark about “where she came from.” For the record, Omar is was born in Somalia and has lived in the United States twenty-five years. She has been a United States citizen for twenty years. Who is the divisive one here?

But Trump doesn’t stop there. After saying that Omar is destroying our country, he then illustrates perfectly the close connection between “Make America Great Again” and racism. Trump says: “From ten years ago it’s like a different world and we want to keep our world the way it was.” It is as if the racial unrest plaguing American cities this summer never happened. In the context of his previous comments on Omar, this is blatant racism.

And then there are the Trump followers cheering all of this.

The kind of nostalgia Trump is peddling here can be a powerful political tool. A politician who claims to have the power to take people back to a time when America as “great” stands a good chance of winning the votes of fearful men and women.

The practice of nostalgia is inherently selfish because it usually focuses on one own’s experience of the past and not the experience of others. For example, people nostalgic for the world of Leave it to Beaver may fail to recognize that other people, perhaps even some of the people living in the Cleaver’s suburban “paradise” of the 1950s, were not experiencing the world in a way that they would describe as “great.” This kind of nostalgia gives us tunnel vision. Its selective use of the past fails to recognize the complexity and breadth of the human experience–the good and bad of American history.

Nostalgia for a past that never existed

Believe Me 3dIn Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump I wrote:

It is easy for white evangelicals to look back fondly on American history. There is, of course, a lot to celebrate. We are a nation founded on the belief that human beings are “endowed by Creator with certain inalienable rights, namely, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We have established some of the greatest colleges and universities in the world. Our standard of living exceeds those in other countries. When we have failed to live up to our idea we have made efforts to correct our moral indiscretions. Those who fought tirelessly to end slavery, curb the negative effects of alcohol, defend human life, and deliver rights to women and the less fortunate come to mind. Americans have proven that they can act with a sense of common purpose and unity. We have seen the American character on display, for example, during two World Wars and in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. And the United States has always been a place where immigrants can come and start new lives.

At the same time, America is a nation that has been steeped in racism, xenophobia, imperialism, violence, materialism, and a host of other practices that do not conform very well to the ethical demands that Christianity places upon our lives. Christians should be very careful when they long for the days when America was apparently “great.” Too many conservative evangelicals view the past through the lens of nostalgia. Scholar Svetlana Boym describes nostalgia as a “sentiment of loss and displacement” that “inevitably reappears as a defense mechanism in a time of accelerated rhythms of life and historical upheavals.” In this sense, nostalgia is closely related to fear. In times of great social and cultural change, the nostalgic person will turn to a real or an imagined past as an island of safety amid the raging storms of progress. In other words, to quote Boym again, “progress didn’t cure nostalgia but exacerbated it.” Sometimes evangelicals will seek refuge from change in a Christian past that never existed in the first place. At other times they will try to travel back to a Christian past that did exist–but, like the present, was compromised by sin.

Is it possible to long for a past that never existed? According to Felipe De Brigard, a Duke University scholar who works at the intersection of philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience, it is indeed possible. Here is a taste of his piece at Aeon titled, “Nostalgia reimagined“:

I will conclude with a brief speculation on a topic of contemporary importance. In the past few years, we’ve seen a resurgence of nationalistic political movements that have gained traction by way of promoting a return to the ‘good old days’: ‘Make America Great Again’ in the US, or ‘We Want Our Country Back’ in the UK. These politics of nostalgia promote the implementation of policies that, supposedly, would return nations to times in which people were better off. Unsurprisingly, such politics are usually heralded by conservative groups who, in the past, tended to be better off than they currently are – independently of the particular politics of the time. In a 2016 study conducted by the Polish social psychologists Monika Prusik and Maria Lewicka, a large sample of Poles were asked nostalgia-related questions about how things were prior to the fall of communism 25 years earlier. The results revealed that people felt much more nostalgic and had more positive feelings about the communist government if they were better off then than now, if they were older, and if they were currently unhappy. Doubtlessly, older and conservative-leaning folk who perceive their past – whether accurately or not – as better than their present account for a significant portion of the electorate supporting nationalistic movements. But we’d be misled to think of them as the primary engine, let alone the majority. For the Polish results show something very different: a large number of younger individuals avidly supporting nostalgic policies that would return their nations to a past they never experienced.

The psychological underpinnings of this phenomenon would be hard to explain under the traditional view of nostalgia. If people have not experienced a past, how can they feel nostalgic about it? However, under the view proposed here, an explanation is readily available. For the politics of nostalgia doesn’t capitalise on people’s memories of particular past events they might have experienced. Instead, it makes use of propaganda about the way things were, in order to provide people with the right episodic materials to conjure up imaginations of possible scenarios that most likely never happened. These very same propagandistic strategies help to convince people that their current situation is worse than it actually is, so that when the simulated content – which, when attended, brings about positive emotions – is juxtaposed to negatively valenced thoughts about their present status, a motivation to eliminate this emotional mismatch ensues, and with it an inclination to political action. The politics of nostalgia has less to do with memories about a rosy past, and more with propaganda and misinformation. This suggests, paradoxically, that the best way to counteract it might be to improve our knowledge of the past. Nostalgia can be a powerful political motivator, for better or for worse. Improving the accuracy of our memory for the past could indeed be the best strategy to curb the uncharitable deceptions of the politics of nostalgia.

Read the entire piece here.

“As our current crises carry on, we will be sorely tempted to recreate an idealized, selectively remembered past…”

Golden Calf

Over at Christianity Today, Jeremy Sabella, a lecturer in religion at Dartmouth College, reflects on the place of nostalgia in times of social crisis. His theological reflection draws heavily upon the Old Testament story of the wandering Israelites and their nostalgic longings for their old lives in Egypt.

Here is a taste:

In times like these, communities of faith can offer something far more edifying than nostalgia: hope. Hope, in its full biblical sense, arises out of hardship: “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance produces character; character produces hope.” This hope endures precisely because it is the work of the Spirit: “hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5). Hope takes root when the people of God follow the Spirit’s prompting to face the present trial. Nostalgia, on the other hand, can tempt us to indulge phantoms of an idyllic past rather than face the present hardship. Giving into fantasies of the past cheats God’s people of the opportunity to cultivate hope that overcomes despair.

Our comfortable, settled American life has given way to a season of wilderness. Wilderness spaces unsettle us to our core by confronting us with how contingent our lives are. The manna God provides in such spaces does not taste like what we’re used to. But it nourishes us in ways that the rich fare of our previous settled life could not. As our current crises carry on, we will be sorely tempted to recreate an idealized, selectively remembered past rather than attend to the needs and concerns of the present. But God’s people must discipline themselves to focus on the here and now. For that is where the work of the Spirit unfolds, making all things new.

Read the entire piece here.

Should We “Be Like Mike?”

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Many of you watched the ten-part ESPN documentary, “The Last Dance.” It covered the career of Michael Jordan and his six championship runs with the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s.

I was riveted to the television set for the last eight episodes. It was a nostalgic trip down memory lane for me. I was dating Joy during the first three Bulls championships, so we watched a lot of those games together. (We got married in 1994). We lived in Deerfield, Illinois, a few miles away from the Berto Center, the Bulls practice facility. We saw the Bulls everywhere in those days. They were part of the community. Between 1989 and 1993:

  • I said hello to Phil Jackson one day while he was pumping gas at a local station. I remember being surprised at just how lanky he was.
  • I noticed B.J. Armstrong curled-up with a book in the back of an aisle at the Deerfield Border’s Books on Waukegan Road. I didn’t want to bother him. There was a reason he was hiding back there.
  • On more than one occasion I pulled-up alongside Scottie Pippen’s red Porsche at a traffic light.
  • I knew where Michael Jordan lived before he moved to his Highland Park mansion. (He owned a house in a development across the street from the Northbrook Court Mall). We drove by the house once and Jordan opened his garage door just as we slowly passed by. He gave us a look of disgust. This is a true story.  Joy and my father-in-law, a retired Evangelical Free Church minister, can confirm it. 🙂
  • I went to the same gym as Bill Cartwright and would often shoot at another basket while he taught his son how to play. (Again, I didn’t want to bother him with a challenge to play one-on-one). I can attest to the fact that he taught his son how to shoot free-throws like a normal person.
  • If I remember correctly, I was present at one of the last games in old Chicago Stadium. I have a concrete piece of the stadium from the standing-room-only area to prove it.

I grew-up a long-suffering New Jersey Nets fan. I never liked the Bulls. I rooted against them during every playoff run. My good friend Vince Bacote, now a theology professor at Wheaton College, can attest to this. I was the guy who would go to a Bulls watch party and cheer for the Pistons in 1991 (I rooted for the Bulls in the NBA finals that year because I didn’t like the Lakers either), the Trail Blazers in 1992, and the Knicks and Suns in 1993. (I moved to New York for the last three titles, so it was easier to pull for the Pacers, Knicks, Sonics, and Jazz).

Charles Camosy, a theology professor at Fordham University and the author of the “Purple Catholicism” column at Religion News Service, shared my dislike of Jordan and the Bulls. Like me, Camosy loved to watch Jordan play, but had his heart broken by “His Airness” too many times.

In his most recent column, Camosy wonders if people of faith should strive to “be like Mike.”  Here is a taste:

Jordan’s nastiness first came out in the book “The Jordan Rules” by Bulls beat writer Sam Smith, but the ESPN documentary makes it clear as well: Many of Jordan’s teammates lived in abject fear of what he would do to them if he became displeased.

Steve Kerr said he was “scared to death” of Jordan — which is not surprising given that Jordan once punched Kerr in the face (and was kicked out of practice for it by Bulls head coach Phil Jackson).

Will Perdue said, “He was an a–hole, he was a jerk, he crossed the line numerous times.” In “The Last Dance,” we see footage of Jordan hounding and bullying younger players like Scott Burrell.

Perhaps the person he got on the most, however, was Horace Grant. Grant has been aggressively critical of “The Last Dance,” arguing that it is more like a piece of Jordan propaganda than a truly objective, journalistic documentary.

And who can blame him? Smith revealed in “The Jordan Rules” that, among other things, MJ would refuse to let the stewards on their private flights even give Grant his meals if he felt like the Bulls forward had had a poor game.

This not only reveals the power Jordan had within the organization, but the cruelty with which he could wield such power. When confronted with these kinds of negative responses from former teammates, Jordan’s response was, “Winning has a price.”

Indeed. And as the tears welled up during that part of the interview, Jordan was evidently confronting that price. The price of becoming the greatest of all time, the GOAT, in the game of basketball. 

Here one may be reminded of the wisdom of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians Chapter 13, when Paul claims that you can have everything that the world values — but if you don’t have love, you actually have nothing at all. If Michael Jordan had to give up on treating his teammates with love in order to win, then, at least from a Christian standpoint, his winning meant nothing.

Sports journalists often point to the careers of great athletes who didn’t win a championship and call their greatness into question by asking, “Where are the rings?” Christians, by contrast, must look at the careers of great athletes and ask, “Where is the love?”

Read the entire piece here.

White Evangelicals Fear the Future and Yearn for the Past

Believe Me 3dAs we have already noted, today is the release of the paperback edition of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  As part of the roll-out, I am going to republish some of the piece I wrote back in the summer of 2018 when the hardback appeared. This piece was published at USA TODAY on July 8, 2018:

Donald Trump is about to name his second conservative Supreme Court justice now that Anthony Kennedy is retiring. Conservative evangelicals are celebrating. They have been waiting, to quote the Old Testament book of Esther, “for a time such as this.”

For the last year I have been thinking deeply about why so many of my fellow evangelical Christians support Donald Trump.

I have wondered why they backed his zero-tolerance immigration plan that separated families at the border. I have tried to make sense of why some of them give him a “mulligan” (to use Family Research Council President Tony Perkins’ now famous phrase) for his alleged adulterous affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels. Why did so many evangelicals remain silent, or offer tepid and qualified responses, when Trump equated white supremacists and their opponents in Charlottesville, Virginia last summer?

What kind of power does Trump hold over men and women who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ? Evangelical support for Trump goes much deeper than simply a few Supreme Court justices.

Like most Americans on Nov. 8, 2016, I sat in front of my television to watch election returns, fully expecting that Hillary Clinton would be declared the country’s first female president. When this did not happen, I was saddened and angry. But my emotions were less about the new president-elect and more about the way my fellow evangelicals were using their social media feeds to praise God for Donald Trump’s victory.

I sent off a quick tweet: “If this is evangelicalism — I am out.”

Five days later, I could barely muster the will to attend services at my central Pennsylvania evangelical megachurch. As I stood singing Christian worship songs, I looked around the room and realized that there was a strong possibility, if the reports and polls were correct, that eight out of every 10 people in that sanctuary — my brothers and sisters in my community of faith — had voted for Trump.

I eventually calmed down and decided that, at least for now, I would still use the word “evangelical” to describe my religious faith. The word best captures my belief in the “good news” of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I have experienced the life-transforming message of this Gospel and I have seen its power in the lives of others.

My raw emotions gave way to my training as a historian and my study of American religion. My distress about Trump’s election did not wane, but I should have seen this coming. Trump’s win was just the latest manifestation of a long-standing evangelical approach to politics.

Read the rest here.

Happy 50th Sesame Street!

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Today I was at my local public television/public radio station doing some media with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and took advantage of a photo-op with Big Bird.

I know I am a few days late here, but I needed to do a post in honor of the 50th anniversary of Sesame Street.  The show premiered on November 10, 1969.  I don’t know if I watched that first episode, but I am pretty sure I started watching the show at some point during the first season on Channel 13 (WNET)

I grew up with Gordon, Susan, Mr. Hooper, Bob, Maria, Luis and, of course, Jim Henson’s Muppets.  I then watched thirty years later as my kids got to know some of these same characters in addition to new residents of the neighborhood including Alan, Gabriela, and Gina.  Here is a song from 1998 that brings back memories because I remember watching it (and later singing it) with my daughter Ally:

The Origins of Whiffle Ball

Whiffle

I’ve played a lot of it in my day, but until I read David Kindy’s piece at Smithsonian.com I knew nothing about the origins of the game.

Here is a taste of Kindy’s “How Whiffle Ball Came to Be“:

Patented in 1957, the lightweight plastic Wiffle Ball comes with slots on one side to make it easier to throw curves and other pitches without putting undue stress on young arms. It was invented three years earlier by David Mullany, who got the idea after watching his namesake son playing a makeshift game of baseball with his brother and friends in the front yard of their home. Instead of a regulation ball and bat, they were using a plastic golf ball and broomstick in an attempt to keep from breaking windows or having to chase home runs down the street.

“My father complained his arm was hurting from trying to throw curves with that small ball,” says the third David Mullany, who is currently president of The Wiffle Ball, Inc. “My grandfather figured he could come up with something better for them to play with.”

As luck would have it, the senior Mullany, a businessman who was between jobs at the time, knew someone at Coty Perfume, which at the time packaged its product in a hard plastic container about the size of a baseball. He asked for samples and began whittling designs to see which worked best for pitching. After several rounds of trial and error, he hit upon a prototype with eight oblong cuts on one half of the ball, which made it easy for anyone to throw a curve or other spinning pitch.

The kids loved it and soon Mullany could see the potential for it growing beyond his own front yard. He designed it with William Blamey and applied for a patent in 1954, which was granted three years later under the simple title “Game Ball.” U.S. patent 2,776,139 describes the invention as being durable, lightweight and inexpensive to produce. Because of the holes, it also read, the ball “will vary in flight when thrown and when struck.”

Read the entire piece here.

Song of the Day: Nostalgia Upon Nostalgia

Naples

I found Springsteen’s new album in a bookstore in the Naples train station.  Napoli loves Bruce!

I am really enjoying Bruce Springsteen’s new album Western Stars.  Like I usually do when Springsteen releases a new album, I have been listening to Western Stars on repeat.  (It has been nice to take a break from the Hamilton soundtrack). Last week I was walking and riding around Rome, Positano, San Felice-Circeo, Sorrento, and Capri listening to the album.  Western Stars was released on June 14, 2019.  I am guessing I have listened to it about 100 times so far.  In fact, I am listening to it as I type these words.

So far my favorite song–the last on the album–is “Moonlight Motel.”  Springsteen tells the story of an old roadside motel somewhere in the west.  The narrator spent a lot of time at the motel with a woman he loved.  The relationship is now over (did she die?) and the man reflects nostalgically on the old motel:

There’s a place on a blank stretch of road where
Nobody travels and nobody goes and the Deskman says these days ’round here
Two young folks could probably up and disappear into
Rustlin’ sheets, a sleepy corner room
Into the musty smell
Of wilted flowers and
Lazy afternoon hours
At the Moonlight Motel
Now the pool’s filled with empty, eight-foot deep
Got dandelions growin’ up through the cracks in the concrete
Chain-link fence half-rusted away
Got a sign says “Children be careful how you play”
Your lipstick taste and your whispered secret I promised I’d never tell
A half-drunk beer and your breath in my ear
At the Moonlight Motel
Well then it’s bills and kids and kids and bills and the ringing of the bell
Across the valley floor through the dusty screen door
Of the Moonlight Motel
Last night I dreamed of you, my lover
And the wind blew through the window and blew off the covers
Of my lonely bed, I woke to something you said
That it’s better to have loved, yeah it’s better to have loved
As I drove, there was a chill in the breeze
And leaves tumbled from the sky and fell
Onto a road so black as I backtracked
To the Moonlight Motel
She was boarded up and gone like an old summer song
Nothing but an empty shell
I pulled in and stopped into my old spot
I pulled a bottle of Jack out of a paper bag
Poured one for me and one for you as well
Then it was one more shot poured out onto the parking lot
To the Moonlight Motel

I am struck by the layers of nostalgia in this song.  Obviously the Moonlight Motel was new once.  The pool was filled with water.  The fence was not rusted.  Children played on the property.  One could easily write a song about how the motel has faded and become just another run-down stop in a place on a “blank stretch of road.”  That would be one kind of nostalgia.

But Springsteen longs for the run-down days of the Moonlight Motel, when the pool was empty, the flowers were wilted, and the rooms were musty.  This was the motel where he fell in love.  Springsteen likes to write about things that are in ruins.

And let’s not forget that the entire album draws upon a 1970s California sound that is not around anymore and for which Springsteen seems nostalgic.  This is the music of Glenn Campbell (listen to “Sundown”), Jimmy Webb, and Burt Bacharach (listen to “There Goes My Miracle”).

So many layers.

Listen:

David Lowenthal, RIP

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I never met David Lowenthal, but his scholarship has influenced my work.  I highly recommend The Past is a Foreign Country (1985) and Possessed by the Past: Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (1996).

Here is a taste of his obituary at The Guardian:

In 2017 the historian and geographer David Lowenthal, who has died aged 95, gave a lecture at University College London in which he insisted: “Heritage is not history: heritage is what people make of their history to make themselves feel good.” He contrasted the way that individual nations and tribes imagine their own heritage with the conception recently promoted by international organisations, notably Unesco, that heritage must be universal, for the good of all.

A case in point is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, built on a site said to cover locations important around the time of Jesus’s death. Six Orthodox and Catholic Christian denominations own different parts of the church, while two Muslim families look after its entrance. Solutions to the resulting clashes of responsibility are very much needed, just as with other sacred sites in the city.

American-born but British by inclination, David became professor of geography at UCL in 1972, retiring as emeritus professor in 1986. Apart from Unesco, the heritage agencies he advised included the World Monuments Fund, English Heritage, the US National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Trust of Australia. Never afraid of controversy, he presented cogent opinions on a host of topics, such as the Elgin Marbles, the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford and the role of the Barclay twins on the island of Sark.

He helped make heritage studies a discipline in its own right: the lecture he gave last year was the first in an annual series for UCL’s recently founded Centre for Critical Heritage Studies. In doing so, he pointed to the way history seeks to identify the truth while heritage exaggerates and omits, invents and forgets in order to fabricate prejudiced pride in the past. Heritage is fashioned to “attest our identity and affirm our worth”, an argument he developed further in The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (1997).

Read the rest here.

More Evangelical Nostalgia

Metaxas at PartyOver at NBC News, Christian author Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove reminds us, as I did extensively in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, that white evangelicals are very nostalgic people.

Here is a taste:

Trump’s use of nostalgia has helped maintain connections between the Trump administration and a conservative faith community shaped by decades of culture wars. The religious right, which traditionally emphasized “family values,” has nonetheless lined up to support a thrice-married, Casino-owning playboy who flaunts morality and marital fidelity. When asked, Trump’s religious backers consistently point to his support for their issues. But the issues that the religious right taught white evangelicals to focus do not spring from a Biblical concern for widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor. They are instead the white cultural values of order, respect for authority and traditional gender roles.

Prophetic stands and moral outrage are well and good.  I respect Wilson-Hartgrove and others.

But if Christians want to do something to end the nostalgic longings of white evangelicals, they need to consider the long view.  A false view of American history, propagated by the likes of David Barton and Eric Metaxas, is the foundation of this nostalgia-fueled politics.  We must do better at teaching Christians about American history, the history of the Christianity, and historical ways of thinking about the past.  We must throw our money behind these efforts.  If we do not, we will be fighting these battles against evangelical nostalgia for a long, long time.

Yesterday’s Piece in *USA Today*

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Yesterday USA Today published a piece I wrote about Trump and evangelicals.  The editors chose the following title: “White evangelicals fear the future and yearn for the past.  Of course Trump is their hero.”  The article draws heavily from the introduction to Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Here is a taste:

Donald Trump is about to name his second conservative Supreme Court justice now that Anthony Kennedy is retiring. Conservative evangelicals are celebrating. They have been waiting, to quote the Old Testament book of Esther, “for a time such as this.”

For the last year I have been thinking deeply about why so many of my fellow evangelical Christians support Donald Trump.

I have wondered why they backed his zero-tolerance immigration plan that separated families at the border. I have tried to make sense of why some of them give him a “mulligan” (to use Family Research Council President Tony Perkins’ now famous phrase) for his alleged adulterous affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels. Why did so many evangelicals remain silent, or offer tepid and qualified responses, when Trump equated white supremacists and their opponents in Charlottesville, Virginia last summer?

What kind of power does Trump hold over men and women who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ? Evangelical support for Trump goes much deeper than simply a few Supreme Court justices.

Read the entire piece here.

Believe Me 3d

CPAC: “Victimhood” and “Paranoia”

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The Republican Party is now the party of victimhood, paranoia, and fear.  Sadly, much of its support comes from evangelical Christians–people who are commanded to “fear not.”  There is no hope.  There is no humility.  There is a lot of nostalgia, but very little history.

Over at The Nation, John Knepfl writes about CPAC‘s “red hot rage.”  Here is a taste:

Trump repeatedly warned the crowd that if Democrats were elected they would repeal the Second Amendment, and at one point asked the attendees to cheer if they preferred the Second Amendment or tax cuts. It was a bizarre moment, one of many, but suffice to say the Second Amendment received very loud support. That defensive posture in the midst of a seeming sea change in the gun-control debate was not a coincidence, and a clear sign that the CPAC doesn’t see itself as responsible for the prevalence of mass shootings.

What makes the rancor especially absurd is that not only is the Republican Party in charge of the Executive Branch and both chambers of Congress, but, by all honest accounts, the Trump administration is succeeding in implementing a hyperconservative agenda. CPAC favorites Ted Cruz and Shapiro acknowledged that they had no substantive disagreements with Trump. Nevertheless, the entire event was defined primarily by victimhood and paranoia. The enemies are everywhere: Democrats, socialists, college professors, regulators, black athletes, reporters, “fake news,” the FBI. “They try like hell, they can’t stand what we’ve done,” Trump said ominously.

Read the entire piece here.

The Transactional Relationship Between Christian Right Evangelicals and Trump

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Below is a taste of Paul Waldman‘s recent piece at The Week: “How ‘values voters’ made a deal with the devil.”  It reminds me of something we recently discussed in my class on Christian politics at West Shore Evangelical Free Church.  I asked the class what conservative evangelicals would do when and if (a big if) they got everything they want.

What would happen if the proverbial dog catches the proverbial bus?  Will evangelicals send abortion doctors to prison? What about the women who have abortions?  Will they be somehow punished?  Do Christian Right evangelicals realize that if they overturn Roe v. Wade it will not end legal abortion in America?  What about gay marriage?  Will they put homosexual couples in jail?  Will they kick Muslims out of the country? Will they require television stations to only show Leave it to Beaver reruns?  What will conservative evangelicals do to respect the liberties of all human beings–people created in God’s image?  Have the conservative evangelicals of the Christian Right thought about these questions?

Here is Waldman:

…But we also have interests: what’s good for us, regardless of what might be good for other people. And there’s a ground where values and interests meet, and that’s where conservative Christians welcomed Trump. They’d like to roll back civil rights protections for gay people, outlaw abortion, and generally engineer a return to a more traditional, patriarchal society. They want that for themselves, but they want to impose it on everyone else as well. And they shrewdly realized that when it comes to the policy decisions that move us in that direction, Trump just doesn’t care. He’d be fine if abortion is legal, or if it isn’t. He’d be fine if gay people can access services without being discriminated against, or if they can’t. What matters to Trump is Trump.

So he and the Christian right made a transactional arrangement: He’d give them what they want (like hard-right judges and an attack on reproductive rights) and they’d stay loyal to him. As long as both sides hold up their end of the bargain, it works.

However, it does mean that those who claim to be of higher moral character because of their reliance on God’s word have to do certain things that are a little uncomfortable. They have to pretend that they believe Trump carries with him a deep religious faith, even though they know it isn’t true. They have to excuse his bigotry. They have to go before the cameras when news of the latest Trump scandal breaks and act as though Trump is a man of the highest character and integrity, despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary.

Read the entire piece here.

The Pros and Cons of Historical Re-Enacting

Confederate Reenactors

Over at The Walrus, Erin Sylvester has written a very interesting and balanced piece on historical re-enacting.  I was struck by this piece because it quotes academic historians whose scholarship has actually benefited from the work of re-enactors.

Here is a taste:

If one major risk of re-enactment is that it romanticizes the past, another is that it is wildly selective: not everyone has a history that would be fun to relive, and few people are interested in playing a slave on the weekend. Inevitably, most history does not get re-enacted. Though most re-enactors are not explicitly motivated by the selectivity, some do enjoy it for nationalistic reasons. It lets them play in an imagined past, free from their pet complaints about the modern world.

Civil War events are among the most popular to re-enact, attracting all sorts of people. And some of those people really want to be Confederate soldiers. Many become interested in participating through a personal or family connection—so if you live in the South, you may have had an ancestor who fought on the Confederate side of the war. And some are then inspired to follow in their ancestor’s footsteps, perhaps too closely. For these re-enactors, it’s not just a fun hobby, it’s tied to something much deeper to their identity—and, in particular, to improving the image of their ancestors by portraying them as honourable and brave.

Kimberly Miller-Spillman is a textiles professor at the University of Kentucky who studies re-enactment costume. In her research, she has come across a number of Civil War re-enactors who are unwilling or unable to switch sides at a re-enactment. Re-enactors will often have both Union and Confederate uniforms, although neither is cheap to assemble, and will go on whichever side needs men. But some, typically men who have a strong political or family connection to one side, simply won’t. At Civil War events, the scale is usually tipped toward the Confederate side, although during the actual war, the Union Army outnumbered the Confederates.

Unsurprisingly, there aren’t many black Civil War re-enactors, and they are almost always on the Union side. Patricia Davis is a professor of communication at Georgia State University who has written about these re-enactors, and she says that many black people aren’t interested in re-enacting because they see the Civil War as a history that belongs to white southerners, or they might be discouraged because they assume that many white participants want to be in an environment where they can be freely racist. The ones who do participate, she has found, often do so because they are trying to educate people. (Similarly, in Canada, most Indigenous re-enactment takes place in an educational context.) “For African American re-enactors in particular, the causes and the consequences of the war are important for them to get across to the visitors at re-enactments, and what they often do in these interactions is they talk about how the history of slavery [and] the history of reconstruction have everything to do with racial inequities in the present,” Davis says. “And then a lot of them emphasize to me as well, visually seeing black men and women working in various ways to secure their own freedoms—they’re letting people know, ‘Look, we didn’t just sit around and wait for Abraham Lincoln and white Union soldiers to free us, we were actively engaged in securing our own emancipation.’ That has a huge impact on black children in terms of their ability to see themselves as important and valuable people.”

Read the entire piece here.

Message to Mitch Landrieu: This IS About Politics

Landrieu

We have already sung the praises of Mitch Landrieu’s speech on Confederate monuments in New Orleans.  It is a classic.

Nathan Pippenger, a contributing editor at Democracy, agrees with me.

But Pippenger has a small criticism of Landrieu’s speech. His short piece “Opposition to the Lost Cause Is Still Political,” is worth considering.

A taste:

“This is not about politics” is a phrase that should always set off alarm bells, especially when it comes from a politician. Interestingly, the word “politics” does not make another appearance in the speech. But what else could a political figure making a speech about racist public memorials be talking about? Landrieu’s suggestion might be that the issue is somehow beyond politics—that a democratic argument over the statues would be inappropriate because they are so obviously unfit for public display. But if he truly thinks that, then the persuasive effort offered by his own speech is very strange indeed. Perhaps what he really intended was to say that the issue should be beyond politics, by which he means beyond disagreement: No American citizen should approve of a pro-Confederate public memorial. That is a world worth striving for, but as Landrieu knows, it is not an accurate description of the world we live in. The world we live in is home to many intellectual and political descendants of the Confederacy, and pretending that they somehow exist outside politics, or that they are not enabled by so-called “respectable” mainstream figures, is confusing and misleading.

Instead of marring an otherwise excellent speech with this trite declaration, Landrieu should have said something that the current crisis demands, something we must repeat loudly and often: The question of how we Americans remember our past and, symbolically, draw the boundaries of our civic community is a deeply political one. Indeed it is one of the oldest and most difficult, and something that would certainly be very dangerous to get wrong. The sickening blend of ahistorical nostalgia and white nationalism that currently dominates the White House is proof enough of that. In response to its ascendance, we should not only hope for moral transformations in the hearts of individuals; we should actively work for more just and democratic ways of understanding ourselves, and our history. The significance of that project, and the very activities of public engagement and argument through which it is carried out, is absolutely and necessarily political. Finding and elevating more politicians capable of giving speeches like this one, save that one pesky rhetorical feint, would be a good place to start.

Read the entire piece here.

The “Strange Alliance” Between Modern Life and Nostalgia

Retrotopia2“Make America Great Again!”

If you interpret this phrase historically you need to identify the time period or era that is being invoked by our POTUS.  This is still not clear.  Is Trump referencing the 19th century? The 1950s? The 1980s?

Once the era is identified, historians can then tell us something about what that period or era was like.  Then we can decide, using some system of morality, whether or not the era was “great.”  The interpretation of such a phrase requires the work of both historians and moral philosophers.

Or we can interpret this phrase nostalgically.  This does not require a great deal of historical work and it is often the preferred method of politicians.  It merely requires that we tap into feelings of longing for a bygone era. We don’t think too deeply about such an era.  Instead we merely assume that it was better than the present–a kind of golden age to which we need to return.

Nostalgia can be a very selfish way of thinking in the sense that it focuses entirely on our own experience of the past and not on the experience of others.  For example, people nostalgic for an “Ozzie and Harriett” or “Leave it to Beaver” type of world may not be aware of the fact that other people, including some of the people actually living in this suburban “paradise,” were not experiencing such a world in a way that might be described as “great.” Or perhaps they do know that people were not experiencing such a “great” life in this era, but they just don’t care. Nostalgia can often give us tunnel vision.  It often goes hand-in-hand with a very selective view of what was happening in the past.

From a Christian point of view, nostalgia denies the fact that sin has always been a reality in this world. Golden ages are hard to find because human beings are inherently flawed.

I started thinking about nostalgia again after I read Alastair Bonnett‘s review of Zygmunt Bauman‘s Retrotopia in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Here is a taste:

For many, the past has never looked more attractive and the future more scary. In his last book, the eminent British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who died in January, turned his attention to this nostalgic mood and labeled it “retro­topia.”

Throughout his long career, Bauman remained fascinated by the paradoxes of modernity. His most important works, such as Modernity and the Holocaust (Cornell University Press, 1989), are exemplars of empirically led critical social theory. In Retrotopia he explores the strange alliance of modernity with nostalgia. The book’s main intent is to dissect the way different nostalgic currents act to both create and cope with a dysfunctional and bewildering present.

Bauman begins by outlining what the late Harvard University literary scholar Svetlana Boym called the “nostalgia epidemic,” a condition that, Bauman tells us, is now “palpably felt at every level of social cohabitation.” He sets out his task as “unraveling, portraying, and putting on record some of the most remarkable ‘back to the future’ tendencies inside the emergent ‘retrotopian’ phase in utopia’s history.” These tendencies are grouped into four chapters: “Back to Hobbes?”; “Back to Tribes”; “Back to Inequality”; and “Back to the Womb.”

Read the entire review here.

Nostalgia is a “valid, honorable, ancient, human emotion.”

nostalgia

I have always been a very nostalgic person.  If you read this blog you may have recognized this character trait.  I regularly get nostalgic about 1970s and 1980s Mets baseball or my childhood in the Catholic working-class world of Northern New Jersey.  My kids get sick of me constantly rebuking their lifestyles with the phrase “back in my day….”  But as a historian, I also realize that nostalgia can be a dangerous thing.

For example, I have written that nostalgia for a time when America was a “Christian nation” can be problematic for moral, political, and historical reasons.  The longing for a golden age of Christianity in America often overlooks the fact that Christians often stood on the sidelines in the fight for justice.  This same longing is historically problematic because one could also make a pretty good argument, based on the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, or the beliefs of the founding fathers, that America was not founded as a Christian nation .  Politically, nostalgia for a Christian America has often been used to shape public policy, particularly on social issues.

Nostalgia can often get in the way of good history and sound moral and political thinking.

Yet I have always thought about whether or not there was anything redeemable about nostalgia.  Rarely do you hear historians, or anyone else for that matter, talk about it in a positive way.  In my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home (2008), I wrote a bit about the power of nostalgia in eighteenth-century America. I tried to call attention to the early American tensions between cosmopolitan pursuits of ambition or progress or learning and the longing for place, roots, and home.  For me, this book was an exercise in how to bring these things together.  In some ways, it has been a life project–thus the name of this blog.

I think this is why I was immediately attracted to Michael Chabon‘s recent piece at The New Yorker titled “The True Meaning of Nostalgia.”  I have never read one of Chabon’s novels, but I hope to get to one of them soon. (Any recommendations?)  In the meantime, here is a snippet of his essay that resonated with me:

My work has at times been criticized for being overly nostalgic, or too much about nostalgia. That is partly my fault, because I actually have written a lot about the theme of nostalgia; and partly the fault of political and economic systems that abuse nostalgia to foment violence and to move units. But it is not nostalgia’s fault, if fault is to be found. Nostalgia is a valid, honorable, ancient human emotion, so nuanced that its sub-variants have names in other languages—German’s sehnsucht, Portuguese’s saudade—that are generally held to be untranslatable. The nostalgia that arouses such scorn and contempt in American culture—predicated on some imagined greatness of the past or inability to accept the present—is the one that interests me least. The nostalgia that I write about, that I study, that I feel, is the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection…

Nostalgia, to me, is not the emotion that follows a longing for something you lost, or for something you never had to begin with, or that never really existed at all. It’s not even, not really, the feeling that arises when you realize that you missed out on a chance to see something, to know someone, to be a part of some adventure or enterprise or milieu that will never come again. Nostalgia, most truly and most meaningfully, is the emotional experience—always momentary, always fragile—of having what you lost or never had, of seeing what you missed seeing, of meeting the people you missed knowing, of sipping coffee in the storied cafés that are now hot-yoga studios. It’s the feeling that overcomes you when some minor vanished beauty of the world is momentarily restored, whether summoned by art or by the accidental enchantment of a painted advertisement for Sen-Sen, say, or Bromo-Seltzer, hidden for decades, then suddenly revealed on a brick wall when a neighboring building is torn down. In that moment, you are connected; you have placed a phone call directly into the past and heard an answering voice.

Read the entire piece here.

“Time slips away and leaves you with nothing mister but boring stories of glory days”

Of if you don’t like Springsteen, here is Billy Joel:

“You can linger too long in your dreams. Say goodbye to the oldies but goodies, ’cause the good ole days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”

Check out Domenico Montanaro’s piece at NPR on white nostalgia in classic rock ‘n’ roll music.

Here is a taste:

Probably the most famous from this nostalgia genre, though, came out five years later, with Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days.” It tells melancholy anecdotes — a man who was a star baseball player, a woman who pines to recapture her sex appeal of a younger day.

Around the same time as “Here Comes My Girl” and “Glory Days,” Billy Joel’s “Allentown,” was released. In 1982, it retold the story of a town that saw shuttered coal factories — despite generations since World War II (there’s that time again) working there, living decent, middle-class lives and spending “weekends on the Jersey Shore.”

But all that collapsed — and there was plenty of blame to go around, from the companies to the “union people” who “crawled away.”

Read the entire piece here.