Michael Harvey
Michael Harvey
Rabbi | Advocate | Educator

MAGA is just toxic nostalgia

In 2021, we find ourselves in the heart of the wilderness, bamidbar, as known in our Torah, and the yells of “Make America Great Again,” left over from the failure that was the Trump presidency continues to remind me of the rebellions and complaints of the Israelites as seen throughout Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.  How often do we see the complaints such as

“If only we had died in the land of Egypt,” the whole community shouted at them, “or if only we might die in this wilderness!  Why is God taking us to that land to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be carried off! It would be better for us to go back to Egypt!”  And they said to one another, “Let us ahead back for Egypt.” (14:1-4)

Over the last few years as we have seen, from the origins of “Make American Great Again,” the rise of the Alt-Right, as well as violent White nationalist organizations such as the “Oath Keepers,” “3 Percenters,” and “Proud Boys,” which have attempted to tap into to a particular idea in order recruit its members or find sympathy in political groups.  That idea is what is known as “toxic nostalgia.”

Dr. David Viscott, author of a book entitled Emotional Resilience, defined “toxic nostalgia” as “a subtle mixture of feelings, attitudes, perspectives and needs from different ages all showing themselves at once as the unresolved past attempts to define the present.”

“Your capacity for Toxic Nostalgia,” he continues, “limits your freedom to be who you are, to act in your own best interest, or to be open in expressing yourself.”

A more colloquial definition of toxic nostalgia is thinking that things used to be amazing, focusing only on good memories, and defining the past by those good memories, then projecting the difference between the reality of the present with the imagined reality of your past and seeing the difference.  The slogan of “Make America Great Again,” was the catalyst for this development. On the surface, to many White Americans, “MAGA” seemed appealing, but what did it truly refer to?  When was America great?  And for whom?

Those who hold this belief that there was a “Golden Age” in America fail to remember, or choose to ignore, that it may have been a Golden Age for them, but not others.  Were the years before the roaring 20s great for women who could not enjoy the rights of the 19th Amendment?  Can we really define the 1950 and 60s in America as a great time when segregation was a way of life and countless African Americans lost their lives fighting for basic equality? The words from, usually white men, regarding these times are “life was simpler” or there were “strong family values.”  What they are actually saying in these moments is that “back then,” there was a clear societal hierarchy that places white men at the top and everyone else in some form of servitude below them. What they are saying is that they didn’t have to fight for good paying jobs, for a quality college education, for the right to live their lives as they saw fit. That was simply a given. Of course, I’m oversimplifying matters here. Even white men faced struggles. But, what we are seeing today is a world in which more and more people have access to what was once a basic right for a select group of people. And that group of people, facing competition from those once thought below them, wants to go back to a time when they occupied a clear place on the top of the food chain. Sure, life was simpler for them back then.

The MAGA folk, including the blossoming and violent organizations that have spurned from Trump’s leadership, their followers, and their political allies therefore indulge in this toxic nostalgia, reminiscing at the days when White men were the center of the universe, living in patriarchal family structures and imperialistic monarchies. Minorities, women, immigrants, LGBTQ knew that they were below the status of the White man, and no one knew the words (or could be found capable of being the words) “racist,” or “homophobic.”  In his now notorious Esquire interview, actor Clint Eastwood vocalized this view when he stated, “Everybody’s walking on eggshells. We see people accusing people of being racist and all kinds of stuff. When I grew up, those things weren’t called racist.”

Eastwood, and those who hold onto this idea of “back in the day,” forget that just because something hadn’t been defined as racism, doesn’t meant it wasn’t racism. No, the beating, ostracizing, murder, and rape of African Americans during Eastwood’s childhood were not referred to as racism. Indeed, in too many places in our country, they were accepted ways of life. But that doesn’t mean they were okay then, and they shouldn’t be an impetus for saying everything is okay now.

Trinity’s Portico, a Lutheran online blog, wrote about what they call the “sinister myth of the golden age of America” through the lens of a fairy tale:

Once upon a time America was great. Once upon a time a man was the king of his castle, the master of his home. It was a time when doctors, lawyers, senators and state representatives were men-white men to be specific. There was a time when everyone knew what it meant to be a man and women knew-and accepted-what it meant to be a woman. There was a time when people of color knew their place in America-and were happy to stay there. It was a time when businesses closed on Sundays, sports leagues ceased their activities and the only people on the street were those on their way to church. There was a time when the way a man chose to keep his family in line was his own business and he didn’t have to concern himself with visits from the police, nosy social workers or child protective services. There was a time when just wars were the only ones America ever fought and America always won. This was an America where opportunities abounded for anyone willing to work and there was no explanation for failure or poverty except laziness and dishonesty.

The blog’s author was quick to note that “no such America ever existed,” and that this myth is just that, and that myths “need not be true.”

This is the scariest part of toxic nostalgia, the idea that the myth of the golden age does not need to be true in order to wreak havoc on the present.  This is toxic nostalgia, a nostalgia which creates a one sided Golden Age, ignoring the realities of the time period.  And, it turns out, the Israelites were guilty of exactly this in throughout the Midbar. After months or years following the end of 400 years of slavery, oppression, and pain in Egypt, after the exodus of 650,000 Israelites into freedom, crossing the Sea of Reeds, eating magic bread that fell from the sky, and being led to a land of Milk and Honey by a pillar of fire, can you imagine a group of people screaming, “it was better in Egypt”?  Can you imagine what Moses must have thought, hearing the 250 chieftains saying basically that Moses was not their savior, but had stolen them away from a wonderful life?

In today’s political climate, it is not as laughable as it was before.  These Israelites had forgotten what their lives were in Egypt; they were slaves. They had no rights, no land, and toiled day in and day out in hard-labor with the fear of death constantly upon them. But yes, they got to eat the Egyptian food in between those moments.  They, similarly to the MAGA folk and their allies, imagined the years before as a Golden Age for themselves, and yearned to return to those simple times.

We not see the “victimhood” of White Americans, complaining about “tyranny,” within the topics of masks, vaccines, equity, equality, attention to pronouns, racism, feminism, the truth of police brutality, the “Black Lives Matter,” movement, the presence of LGBTQIA+ in characters on television and movies, and Critical Race Theory.  And we see the consequences of such toxic nostalgia from MAGA, with the fight against these changes, this productive discomfort to White people in 2021.  There is great denial, victimization, lashing out, laws to strip away rights that people fought and died for, and the words of equality in our Constitution, as well as of the notions to “love your neighbor” are being blatantly ignored.  And why? To make White Americans feel like they’re back in the 50s.  I’d say it was a ridiculous notion, but the MAGA folk are not the only who hold these views. They are shouted from podiums from our government leaders, and discussed on cable news shows.

White Americans, specifically those who wear the crest of “Make America Great Again,” are fooling themselves.  This notion is simply a call back to White supremacy, wishing to return to a time of more White power in America, when minorities did not have such a voice, when White people could ignore the struggles of those around them, when White people did not have to face the history of imperialism, systematic racism, brutality, genocide, that now have created collective trauma for minorities in America who, for too long, have felt to be unaccepted as true American citizens.   While MAGA scoffed at the history of “America First” (a past motto of the KKK), the connection is more than a coincidence.

Equality and Justice for all means for all.  America was never great for all Americans.  It was great for White Christian Male Americans.  It’s time for MAGA folk to realize this.

About the Author
Ordained rabbi and social justice advocate with extensive experience serving congregations and leading large-scale community change. Published author who concentrates on bringing deep Jewish understanding to the lay public. Doctoral student with a focus on how Jewish philosophy can drive social justice work in the United States. Passionate Jewish educator using innovative teaching methods to reach unaffiliated Jews. Founder of "Teach Me Judaism": educational and animated Jewish lessons on scholarship: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4vNAB0lVE4munW_znGdEtQ
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