Politicians are malleable. They rarely stand on principle when there’s a nice comfy pragmatic seat to be had. So the Republican Party is learning to love Donald Trump. Even Paul Ryan, bastion of conservative righteousness, seems ready to reconcile–after a suitable courtship–with the policy-challenged tycoon, and a good thing too: the Republican electorate has demonstrated a distinct indifference this year to the party’s stated philosophy. It seems opposed to free trade, to entitlement cuts, to tax breaks for the wealthy and to neoconservative adventurism overseas. It doesn’t seem to care all that much about unisex bathrooms, either. All of the above are positions–or “suggestions,” in his most recent formulation–posited by Trump.
So the question: What remains of conservatism? I’m tempted to say: only the nasty bits–nativism, isolationism, protectionism. But a broad swath of the Democratic Party is every bit as nasty. Bernie Sanders’ supporters eschew nativism but adhere to the latter two isms, and socialism as well. For those of us unattached to either party, all these isms should be wasms–a point made with courage and insight by conservative thinker Yuval Levin in his new book, The Fractured Republic.
But first, a bit of history: In the 1950s, C. Vann Woodward wrote an essay called “The Burden of Southern History.” He believed that the South was different because it was the only part of the country to have lost a war. Consequently, it was choked by nostalgia for its antebellum self, a chivalrous, courteous–and white–fantasy. Woodward wrote before Vietnam. In the mid-1970s, as that disaster ended, market testers began to pick up a new trend, which they called “natural/nostalgia.” It was a wistfulness for pre-Vietnam America–and not just for the country that “always” won wars, but also for the humming factories, belching smokestacks, intact families–and, of course, the place where blacks and women knew their respective places and homosexuality and Latinos had yet to be invented. (Desi Arnaz was an exotic avatar of the latter.)
Levin believes that both of our current political parties are trapped by nostalgia for that era. Democrats are nostalgic for the economy of the 1950s–concentrated, with Big Business and Big Labor synergistic–and for the New Deal notion that massive government programs to alleviate poverty and regulate industry were an unalloyed good. Republicans are nostalgic for the family values of that period, the homogeneity of society and the fleeting reality of transcendent American power.
What has happened since is a fracturing. It has affected every aspect of our society. We have gone from three television networks to a thousand. A new immigrant wave, a tide that commenced in 1965, has made us polychromatic and multicultural. Both parties became obsessed by the deregulation of restraints–on personal behavior for the Democrats and economic behavior for the Republicans. This has been the golden age of marketing, an essentially fragmentary phenomenon. America was founded on the principle that the things we have in common are more important than the things that divide us. The fundamental principle of marketing is the opposite: you sell to the things that make us different. We have become a nation of niches–which is wonderfully liberating but lonelier and less easy to govern than, say, Dwight Eisenhower’s America. We have moved from the restrictive safety of conformity, Levin argues, to enervated hyperindividualism.
Enter Donald Trump. It’s amazing that it has taken so long for someone like Trump to appear. He is the ultimate hyperindividualist and–hilariously, brilliantly–he is selling nostalgia big-time: Make America Great … Again. Like it was before the Chinese and Mexicans stole our jobs and all those furriners invaded our communities.
Trump is the first presidential candidate to truly understand the grammar of the Too-Much-Information Age, the new technologies that have made everything seem less private and personal, the false intimacy of reality TV. As I moved from primary to primary this year, Trump supporters were likely to tell me two things: he’ll bring back jobs and he talks the way we do.
In other words, he’s done a stunning job of repurposing the past as the future. In the end, though, nostalgia is a sepia-toned refuge for those suffering a sense of diminished capacity–of wars, and manufacturing jobs lost, of father knows best, of racial privilege. It is a nursing home for those more comfortable looking back than looking forward.
This appears in the May 30, 2016 issue of TIME.