People often look back wistfully on Golden Ages that never happened, but Joe Biden’s recent statement to an Alabama audience is possibly the all-time peak of delusional nostalgia:
“I’ve been around so long, I worked with James Eastland,” said Biden, referring to a segregationist senator from Mississippi. “Even in the days when I got there, the Democratic Party still had seven or eight old-fashioned Democratic segregationists. You’d get up and you’d argue like the devil with them. Then you’d go down and have lunch or dinner together. The political system worked. We were divided on issues, but the political system worked.”
It is, to say the least, peculiar to look back on a time when the Senate had half-a-dozen outright Jim Crow racists in it and say that the “system worked.” It certainly wasn’t working well for the black people who lived in those states, and who would presumably have preferred not to be represented in Washington by openly bigoted Dixiecrats. And there’s something disturbingly casual about calling the fight over segregation a “division on the issues,” as if it’s akin to a disagreement on whether the Wilmington zoning board should grant a new variance. The only reason Biden is able to look back fondly on the “Old Boys’ Club” era of the Senate is that he had been let into the club himself. (And it was very literally a boys’ club: during Biden’s first term in office, there were zero women serving in the senate. We have, of course, come a long way: the Senate is now only 79% men.)
It has always been strange for people to look back on any previous period of American politics as being somehow superior to this one. When Biden came into office, the Vietnam War was still going on. That war existed in part because the Senate had given the president unilateral power to do as he pleased in southeast Asia. It resulted in the deaths of 2 million Vietnamese people and 60,000 Americans. You can’t ask whether a political system is “working” without asking what it’s working towards. “Bipartisanship,” “compromise,” and “camaraderie” sound like virtues the Senate ought to have, but they’re morally neutral by themselves, because they’re only good if the effects they produce are good. The Patriot Act and the Iraq War were both bipartisan, and they were terrible. Sometimes political inaction and gridlock is a good thing, if the acts that would be taken by a “functional” legislative body would actually make the world worse.
False nostalgia is the hazard of the Trump era. Donald Trump is so monstrous and vulgar that he can make almost anyone else look appealing by comparison. It’s a great time for George W. Bush, whose reputation is rehabilitated a little more with every new Trump outrage. And since so many things happen in Trump-land in a single week that months can feel like years, it’s very easy to forget how things actually were prior to all this. The Bush presidency caused the deaths of 500,000 Iraqis. I don’t miss it, I’m never going to miss it, and nor should anyone else. It’s important to remember that even though Trump has nearly started the Third World War with a single tweet, he’s actually not yet responsible for any atrocity anywhere approaching the scale of the Iraq War. He still has time, of course. But that (bipartisan!) war was an international crime on an extraordinary scale.
Yesterday, the top three opinion pieces on the New York Times webpage all involved some kind of false nostalgia. First, John Viola of the National Italian American Foundation wrote a defense of keeping monuments to Christopher Columbus, entitled “Tearing Down Statues of Columbus Also Tears Down My History.” Viola says Columbus is flawed, just as “all individuals are flawed,” and that while “some figures undoubtedly require re-evaluation,” Columbus has long been a symbol of Italian-American pride, and he still “represents the values of discovery and risk that are at the heart of the American dream.” But Viola, like others who defend Columbus as “flawed,” never actually specifically mentions the things Columbus did that have necessitated “re-evaluating him.” Columbus committed atrocities on the island of Hispaniola that horrified his contemporaries, tyrannizing over both native peoples and everyone under him:
One man caught stealing corn had his nose and ears cut off, was placed in shackles and was then auctioned off as a slave. A woman who dared to suggest that Columbus was of lowly birth was punished by his brother Bartolomé, who had also travelled to the Caribbean. She was stripped naked and paraded around the colony on the back of a mule.”Bartolomé ordered that her tongue be cut out,” said Ms Varela. “Christopher congratulated him for defending the family.”
Columbus governed through torture and mutilation, and his cruelty was so extreme, even for his age, that he was eventually removed from his position, arrested, and taken back to Spain. And that was just for crimes committed against colonists. As for the native population, according to Tulane historian Chris Lane:
[Columbus] saw profit in enslaving and selling native peoples kidnapped from Caribbean shores. Once he made allies among what he called “good Indians,” Columbus advocated fighting and enslaving native groups he presumed to be cannibals. By 1500, he and his brothers had sent nearly 1,500 enslaved islanders to European markets to be sold. Even “friendly” indigenous peoples were forced to mine gold en masse, speeding death from malnourishment, overwork and disease.
None of this works its way into Viola’s account, or, oddly enough, into the accounts of anyone who encourages us to go easy on Columbus. Viola’s NYT article literally fabricates history at one point, saying “Columbus’s earliest critics were the same white supremacists preying on our nation today.” This is, of course, false: Columbus’s earliest critics were those who witnessed his abuses of power and reported him to the Spanish Crown. (And, actually, if we assume that all people’s opinions deserve weight, presumably the Arawaks themselves were pretty critical.)
Elsewhere in yesterday’s Times, the “looking fondly back on terrible things” theme continues, with Batya Ungar-Sargon’s “I Miss The Old Megyn Kelly.” Ungar-Sargon laments the way Kelly has been turned bland and nice in her move to NBC, saying that she once “admired” Kelly for her willingness to be tough and is sad at her new sanitized incarnation. Of course this, too, is a historical falsification: Megyn Kelly was always a terrible journalist. (If “journalist” is even the right word for a FOX News anchor.) She was a racial demagogue who pushed fake news, running no less than 45 separate segments about the virtually-nonexistent “New Black Panther Party.” She decried the “thug mentality” in the black community and infamously insisted that Santa Claus was a white man. (Ugar-Sargon admits that Kelly “had viewpoints that liberals found unsavory” but will not call these what they are.) Kelly downplayed the incident in which a UC-Davis police officer pepper-sprayed peaceful protesters sitting on the ground, saying that pepper spray was just “a food product, essentially.” She hyped fears of voter fraud and suggested that a 15-year-old black girl attacked by police was essentially asking for it. In nearly every way she was a prototypical scaremongering FOX hack. The only praiseworthy thing she has ever done as a journalist was to offer some mild challenges to Donald Trump, though she decided against asking him about the allegation that he had raped his ex-wife, and when the two finally sat down for a chat, they got along swimmingly. (After the interview, Trump said: “I like our relationship.” If Trump says that, it means you have totally failed to do anything to undermine him, and have probably helped him.)
Liberals can only be nostalgic for FOX News Megyn Kelly because they have forgotten what she was actually like, and because there is a desperation to seize on anything and anyone who seems opposed to Donald Trump. (That’s the same reason conspiracy theorist Louise Mensch, who spreads constant falsehoods, was allowed space in the Times to burble about Russia.) And the same tendency was at work in yesterday’s third nostalgic opinion piece, “The Republican Guide to Presidential Etiquette,” this time an editorial on behalf of the newspaper itself. There, the Times laments that “Republicans used to care a lot about how a president comports himself, and whether he acts at all times with the dignity his station demands,” before giving a long list of crass and unpresidential things Trump has done, from tweeting too much to obstructing justice to calling the White House a dump. (Weirdly, sexual assault didn’t seem to make the list of things that render Trump unfit for office, possibly because it would have looked a little odd next to things like “throwing paper towels,” or possibly because that one wouldn’t actually be unprecedented for a president.)
Of course, we all know that Trump has said and done a whole bunch of totally uncouth and disgusting things: that’s part of why the people who voted for him voted for him, since they liked the contrast with the stuffiness of typical D.C. decorum. But in furthering the idea that Trump represents some massive departure from the norm, that he is far worse than the rest of the Republican Party, the Times is painting a too-generous portrait of American conservatism. They’re right that in terms of etiquette, Trump is very different. But who cares about etiquette? The question, in politics, is policy: what actually happens in people’s lives as a result of the decisions made by people in government? And there, Trump is not terribly different from the rest of the Republican Party. Cut environmental regulations, lower taxes, law and order, Muslims will kill you, Mexicans will take your jobs. This messaging is truly not unique to Trump. Perhaps the only difference between a Trump presidency and a Ted Cruz presidency is that Trump is better than Cruz would be at getting people to focus on his etiquette while he gives corporations everything on their policy wish-list.
So beware false nostalgia. Frequently, things were not as great as you remember them. The brotherly, functional Senate of yore was full of segregationists and almost entirely excluded women and people of color from representation. Columbus wasn’t a good man with a flaw, he was a tyrant who cut out people’s tongues and disgusted everyone around him. Megyn Kelly was a vacuous right-wing pundit and now she is a vacuous apolitical daytime TV host. And Trump is not an aberrant departure from a sensible and rational Republican politics, he is the logical culmination of the party’s long embrace of militarism, xenophobia, and predatory capitalism.