Vail Daily column: Nostalgia clouds our memories

Jack Van Ens
My View
Jack Van Ens

Ask Donald Trump’s supporters whether they live in the best of times. Peer into their eyes. Their pupils glaze over with nostalgia for a prior era. Social changes disturb Trump’s voters, so they retreat into an idealized past.

Repeatedly, Trump shoves into reverse supporters’ mental gears. He travels back in time, imagining a Golden Age. Then, workers earned living wages on assembly lines. Their conservative Christian values carried clout. The Protestant Empire ruled America. White citizens’ Christian values functioned as the moral force that made America great.

Nostalgia tethers anxious minds to the past. It appeals to Americans longing to go back to a splendid past when fortune rewarded hard work. Then, resourceful citizens capitalized on tangible benefits.

“Return to yesteryear,” beckons Trump when the Lone Ranger ruled the West, and Tonto knew his place trailing the virtuous white masked man.

Wanting to retrieve a Golden Age is a nostalgic universal longing. The Greeks and Romans searched for it. Persians spun tales about how it’s elusive existence. Native Americans yearned to return to that place of innocence on the Great Plains where they hunted bison herds roaming as far as the eye could see.

Support Local Journalism

Nostalgic Donald Trump convinces voters that his vision for American greatness is realized when we retreat into the past — a dreamy Eden. We can’t roll back history, however, any more than we can push toothpaste back into a tube.

Hebrew sages pictured a grand, innocent time, a Golden Age when life felt swell. Their “Eden” didn’t refer to real estate in a part of Mesopotamia, now Iraq. Rather, Eden stands for that longing deep within where nostalgia blankets minds and soothes spirits. We yearn for a simpler era when life tasted sweet.

Actually, demanding events crowd our calendars. Days are sometimes unfair, full of sweat and tears. We suffer reverses not deserved. An ancient story-teller related how “God drove out humankind (Adam and Eve); and east of the garden of Eden He placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword, which turned every way, to guard the Tree of Life” (Genesis 3:24).

This ancient symbolism teaches we can’t get back to a Golden Age when jobs were plentiful, salaries abundant and kind white bosses called the shots. John Steinbeck had it right in the biblical title of his novel. Each of us lives “East of Eden” where happy days elude our grasp.

Trump seems oblivious to life’s hard edges a century ago or even 50 years back. He idealizes the Manufacturing Age when bosses and laborers violently contested each other. Trump blanks out blacks on freedom marches in the late 1950s when police hosed and beat them.

Does The Donald really want to return to the Great American Manufacturing Age of 1910? This past February 11th, Atlantic magazine describes tough times in 1910 when workers lived in cramped quarters, suffered job abuse and worked until they died.

“Economist Carol Boyd Leon points out,” reports the Atlantic, “that a hundred years ago manufacturing workers put in an average of 55 hours each week on jobs that were 30 times more dangerous than today; if they didn’t, there was no Social Security to support them, and poverty rates among the elderly were very high.

“The infant mortality rate was much higher: 10 percent of infants died in their first year compared to 1 in 168 today. Food was much less varied and more expensive. The average American ate almost as much lard as chicken. Housing was smaller and more crowded, and four times as many people rented compared to today.”

Trump’s wistful picture of the 1950s feels grand to conservative supporters. Then their kin held political, religious and social power. Seventy-two percent of white evangelicals feel their world had changed for the worse since the 1950s.

I grew up in the 1950s. Mother took me to see her friend Jean, a polio victim, who spent her adult life in a metal monstrosity called an iron lung. On summer days, Mom forbade us to swim in the city pool because a polio virus lurked there. Our black and white TV featured Sen. Joe McCarthy who snarled at Jews, blacks and other “saboteurs” who wanted to make American life fairer. Smoking Sen. McCarthy ranted against these “communists.” McCarthy felt at home in the Jim Crow 1950s when blacks drank from segregated water fountains for “colored folk.” At school we learned to hide under our desks, a training exercise if Russia fired nuclear missiles.

“I love the old days, you know,” gushed Trump at a Las Vegas campaign stop. “You know what I hate? There’s a guy, totally disruptive, throwing punches. We’re not allowed to punch back anymore. I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher.”

Has there ever been a time in national history when Americans won every round because we punched the lights out of opponents? We can’t get back to Eden. Don’t wish for yesterday’s return.

Learn from Dorothy that problematic Kansas is where we live, not Trump’s nostalgic Yellow Brick Road.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.the, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

Support Local Journalism