We're All Complicit In The Culture Of Toxic Nostalgia That Ushered Trump Into Power
The Debrief: Culture is not a predictor of politics, but with a celebrity firmly ensconced in The White House, it can be a litmus test. And the toxic nostalgia that has permeated our culture helped to open the door for Donald Trump and Brexit
Rock bands, country crooners, classical singers, God Bless The USA’s warbler and middle-aged YouTube man-banders The Piano Guys…What did Donald Trump’s pre-inauguration concert look like to you?
A slicked up Nuremberg-meets-Deliverance? A throwback to 1979’s Disco Demolition Night? A spit-and-sawdust arena show to join together hillbilly hicks and pinstripe suits in pulsing red ‘Make America Great Again’ trucker hats?
We can laugh at how backwards it looked, how any truly modern act was either not invited, or refused to perform the inauguration of a proud bigot whose very presence in office threatens the existence of the USA - and perhaps the world - as we know it. We can point and laugh at these bloated past-their-prime blokes - for it was mostly blokes - as they try to summon the tobacco-stained, leather-chapped spirit of the non-existent place in time that Trump supporters voted to re-instate. But the toxic nostalgia that has propped up the anti-expert, anti-politician, anti-social progress, anti-equality platform that Trump embodies is something that so many of us have invested in.
Culture is not a predictor of politics, but with a celebrity firmly ensconced in the White House, it can be a litmus test. Some people may say that increasing social equality provoked the 'whitelash', that Trump was the inevitable response to political correctness gone mad. But perhaps it's the opposite; toxic nostalgia has permeated our mainstream culture and with it greased us up, in lard, for the far right's takeover.
At the time of Will and Kate’s royal wedding, Suzanne Moore wrote that had she arrived to the UK from far away, she could still tell who was in power: ‘I would simply glance around at people's homes, the clothes they wear, the programmes they watch on TV, and I would see as clear as day that conservative taste stalks the land. It was creeping up on us before the Tories were elected but now it is triumphant.’
She added: 'In its understated way of course. Conservative taste does not present itself as anything but good taste. It is just "classic". It is nice, cosy, comfortable rather than sexy. It is simply the way things should be.’
To Moore, X Factor was ‘music for people who do not like music’ and Strictly Come Dancing was: ‘another show that looks back, not forwards, to when men were men and women sequined ostriches'
Later in 2011, Peter Robinson explained how Adele’s Someone Like You had ushered in The New Boring, ‘a ballad-friendly tedial wave destroying everything in its path.’ Its posterboy, he said, is ‘acoustic guitar-bothering singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran.’ Come 2016, you could hear it in Lukas Graham, Justin Timberlake’s reinvention as a friendly dad-popper, Shawn Mendes, Calum Scott’s painful cover of Robyn’s banger Dancing On My Own, Jonas Blue & Dakota’s caterwaulling cover of Tracey Chapman’s Fast Car, James Arthur’s v sad number one and Twenty One Pilots’ annoyingly catchy Stressed Out. Some may argue Justin Bieber’s wildly popular tropical house is just a happy-clappy version of the edge that his producer Diplo once had.
What Moore called a ‘blanding out of our culture’, our celebration of the traditional and tame, persists: TV show Victoria, the Keep Calm And Carry On posters, the gin bars, the beards, the Emma Bridgewater, the Betty Boop dresses, Peaky Blinders haircuts, Peaky Blinders the TV show, 1950s-style cartoons of pin-up, conical-bra’ed women, Mumford & Sons, Cath Kidston, subway-tiled kitchens and bathrooms, the Magimixes, the Penguin Classic remakes…
Our bodies, too, are under the spell of a toxic nostalgia; women are encouraged to emulate the Kardashians, who may make money in ultra-modern ways, but adhere to bodily ideals of of old-school hyper-femininity with ‘waist-trainers’ (corsets) ‘detox teas’ (diet pills) and hair-plumping vitamins (helmet-hair blow-dries). Opposite, Dan Bilzerian, the Instagram cad with 20.6 million followers so far, who was literally photographed meeting Trump at the beginning of his campaign. He's all bustling beard, muscles, waxed arms and chest, army-style khakis and big, long, thick guns. A 5’6 Action Man, who lives to fight, fuck and gamble.
Of course modernisers on the fringes occasionally break through, showing glimmers of future. Grime is finally getting its dues at the Brits, which has, like The xx, FKA Twigs, Beyoncé (who’s only got more experimental as time goes by), her sister Solange and, well, Kanye West, push noise in new and challenging directions. Visually, we’ve had Transparent, which is the filmic equivalent of a Trumpidote, the success of films like The Hunger Games, the super-diverse Fast and Furious franchise and the currently top-billing film in the US: Hidden Figures (about the black women who helped the white men land on the moon).
Depictions of the past can send up the ridiculous old days and those who cling to it - The Crown is a long exercise in showing Prince Philip in turmoil as he realises he must fulfil a traditionally female role. Mad Men is a paean to the crumbling of be-suited men under a new world order of free love and the equality drives of the 1960s and 1970s. But these are notable exceptions to throwbacks which only ever seem to be set in the past in order to repeat its bigoted sentiments and traditional ideologies, without any recrimination. Julian Fellowes, the writer of Downton Abbey, was once asked why he made the only gay character in his series a really nasty guy: ‘I felt it was believable that someone living under that pressure would be quite snippy and ungenerous and untrusting’ To that, I wonder: as a fiction writer, could he not summon imagination - or reality - enough to create a gay man who, against the odds, was a kind soul? Culture isn’t the only thing to cause politics to stymy and stagnate so aggressively: the right-wing media which holds it to account in its shamey op-eds and outcries has serious change to make. But culture can certainly do its bit to push things forward. Thirteen years ago, The L Word hit our screens, and I know that first piece of visibility made me feel more comfortable in my skin.
Right now, though, with throwbacks all around us, we can’t properly notice the strangeness of man in mustard corduroys and a waistcoat, with pork-scratchings and ale breath bounding in to our political process to bark: ‘we want our country back’. After looking backwards for so long, it’s not hard to believe that the man in the long black coat and the hair of a clown Gordon Gekko, a Daddy Warbucks gone putrid with rage, can stroll into American public office on the merit of his being a loud, sexist, racist moneyman who is too busy to prepare, too short on temper to check facts.
What’s the solution? As Moore put it: ‘So away with the floral oven gloves! The down-home, retro, neutered aesthetics of conservatism are as deadly as their politics. Resist on every front.’ But to follow that would be looking backward in itself. There is no playbook for what comes next, and it’s too late for culture to stop the very real and tangible destruction that has been promised. But culture must do as it does when it’s at its best: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, bring people together while expanding the definition of ‘people’ and ‘together’ further. These principles must fill not just the room but the house, the neighbourhood, counties, states and cities alike, with moves forward into a brighter, bolder - but never orange - world.
And if we, personally, have the strength to do it, we must not let our edges be trimmed, our spark become neutered. The fight, as the old movies say, is on.
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