Michael Harvey
Rabbi | Advocate | Educator

The Toxic Nostalgia of “Better Off 4 Years Ago”

The question being asked of Americans during this presidential election “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” is one that nearly every candidate for president has asked in recent memory.  The problem, of course, is that the answer becomes complicated when viewed through the polarized narratives of each party, no more so than today’s race between Trump and Biden.  Even those who are better off than they were four years ago refuse to see it, or maybe there are those that are better off but only see those that are worse off, etc.  In any case, what we are seeing from the Trump campaign is simply an extension of the “MAGA” movement, “Make America Great Again,” which invokes the faux nostalgia of a time when America was “great.”  “Are you better off than you were four years ago,” is a microcosm of that nostalgic political rhetoric, but still invokes falsehoods and feelings rather than facts and history.  One need not dive down the rabbit hole to see that yes, of course we are better off now than we were four years ago.  Four years ago was the height of COVID-19, thousands of Americans dying, hospitals overrun, food shortages, gas shortages, medical supplies shortages, empty grocery store aisles, the fight about masks and freedoms which led to protests at capitals and violent rhetoric, anti-vax movements from the right despite Trump taking credit for the vaccine and taking the vaccine itself, crying Holocaust metaphors, conspiracy theories about 5g implantation and magnetism, Trump asking if injecting disinfectant or bleach into the bloodstream could kill COVID-19, the economy in jeopardy, small businesses like restaurants failing, workforces going remote, price gouging for necessary materials by corporate America…indeed I could go on.  Four years ago, we were a mess.  For someone to say that they were better off four years ago, they are as narrow minded and blind as the Israelites who had just escaped Egypt, seen miracle after miracle, been granted their freedoms, and still cried out “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).  Amazingly, the idea of toxic nostalgia appears as early as in the Torah itself! 

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?  Could we do the same for four years go?  Was four years ago great or better? If so, 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 mean 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.”

Just as MAGA has made up an America that never existed, they are now, in a smaller way, doing the same for “Four years ago.”  It was not great in America four years ago, quite the opposite.  Our country is open, COVID-19 is still here but controlled, vaccinations are the absolute majority, business is booming, infrastructure and science bills are passed, gas is lowering, price gouging is being restricted, inflation is being reduced, and Bidenomics is working.  They can yell and stomp that they would rather be back in Egypt, back in the days of a global pandemic let loose by a problematic President, or they can recognize that things are better today, even in the wilderness, when we are unsure of our future.

About the Author
Michael E. Harvey is a Reform Rabbi, ordained by the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in 2015. After leading multiple congregations across the United States, Mike proudly served as a hospital chaplain at IU Health during the height of COVID-19. Mike is passionate about social justice, interfaith cooperation, and bringing deep Jewish learning to the lay public. He has followed these passions in serving his communities, including founding and directing interfaith councils and sitting on multiple boards, locally and nationally. In 2022, Mike wrote and published his first book, Let’s Talk: A Rabbi Speaks to Christians, which became an Amazon Bestseller. Mike's current projects include finishing his second book, and completing his doctorate degree at Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership. His new book "From the Gospels to the Gas Chambers: How Christian Scripture Inspires a Pattern of Genocide" is in production and is in need of a publisher.
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