“I’m not sure which is more damning: the emptiness of his happy-talk campaign or the cynicism that it implies,” Democratic nominee Walter Mondale said of President Ronald Reagan seven weeks out from the 1984 election. “I’m not sure which is worse: the arrogance of Mr. Reagan’s isolation or his confidence that the American people will let him get away with it.”
What one derides as empty happy-talk another praises as a lofty vision of Americans’ most noble ideals coming to fruition. Reagan, with his slick “Morning in America” ad and confident, camera-ready aloofness, presented to the nation—both in 1984 and four years prior—a gleaming image of its future, by fostering a reverie for its past. Donald Trump, like the two-term Republican he has claimed to revere, marketed his 2016 campaign by promising to make America great again, hearkening the mysticism of an indefinable era.
As president, Trump has swiftly propelled the narrative forward. He boasts that after two short years the country is “respected again” in the eyes of the world, that we are experiencing the “strongest economy in the history of our nation,” and that our nuclear arsenal is “far stronger and more powerful than ever before.” His campaign slogan for 2020 is nothing other than Keep America Great. At the same time, his belligerent intrusions on all sorts of flash-point issues, enwrapped in a protective shroud of exaggerated, buzzword patriotism, only serve to exploit people’s feelings, while disregarding facts. It is this two-pronged appeal that, with his reelection in mind, he is certain to bolster by imprinting in the minds of those who cast their ballots for him two years ago the nostalgia of his unprecedented nineteen-month journey from Trump Tower to Oval Office, for that period itself is for some a golden age exerting an immense emotional draw.
Trump seems to know that maintaining this aura is key to extending his time in office. Having filed his reelection paperwork on the day of his inauguration, he has since held 54 campaign-style rallies, in which references to the 2016 election are common because they are emotionally charged. “That was an amazing evening,” the president reveled before a Duluth audience in June. Fox News clips from election night blared on the jumbotron. Chants of CNN sucks! and Build the wall! and Lock her up! rolled through the crowd. Gatherings of this sort are as much reunions to gloat about the accomplishments of yesterday as they are rallies for tomorrow. Their purpose: to re-sell a potent feeling whose essence is unique in every single individual, to re-invigorate passions strong enough to dwarf pressing domestic and international concerns, as well as the looming special counsel’s investigation, which casts doubt on the future of his presidency. Never mind those, Trump tells anyone who will listen, remember what happened from June 2015 until November of the following year. Remember how it made you feel.
Any decent politician must become attuned to what people are longing for. They “must read, animate and activate the powerful desires and interests of the electorate, including past-directed fantasies, and then alchemize them into usable building blocks of political change,” psychologist Dr. Stacey Novack writes. Having been described as a tactical opportunist not beholden to any particular ideology, Trump is able to follow this advice quite well. Relying on emotion and nostalgia isn’t a bad game plan, either, as long as he continues to prioritize satisfying his core supporters over staking out some middle ground.
It’s difficult to talk people out of how they feel—especially if they equate a reversal or substantial change in their views to curtailing progress as a nation and in their personal lives too. Trump’s emotional discourse while running for president, a post-election study notes, “oriented audiences to (1) temporarily feel ashamed about and fearful for their country and their neglected place in it; (2) feel righteous anger at political elites by blaming them for class-based suffering and widespread threats; and (3) feel hope for change that would bring personal happiness, national pride and economic and physical security.” When Trump proclaims to audiences that he is undertaking an America first agenda and assures them that the “forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer,” he marries the nation’s course to his cause and to each individual’s personal stake in it.
The nature of Trump’s appeal is also grounded in the displacement of traditional political knowledge. In “The Cognitive and Emotional Sources of Trump Support: The Case of Low-Information Voters,” political science professors Richard C. Fording and Sanford F. Schram suggest that Trump voters depend more on emotions than critical thinking skills to make decisions. “Absent a Need for Cognition and possessing a paucity of political knowledge,” they write, “voters then become vulnerable to relying on how they feel about the prevailing political climate, various political controversies and other emotional reactions in deciding whom to support.” An experienced communicator such as Trump can then manipulate and exploit those feelings enough to coerce his audience to overlook his false statements in favor of what, to them, feels right.
Similar studies indicate that the president’s supporters also experience what is called relative deprivation. They “feel deprived relative to what they expected to possess at this point in their lives and relative to what they erroneously perceive other ‘less deserving’ groups have acquired,” UC Santa Cruz psychology professor Thomas Pettigrew writes. Qualms about the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, new technologies, immigration policy and so on are, to a certain degree, justified and made in good faith. Yet they are rooted in relative rather than absolute deprivation, as their driving factor is a skewed perception of events. “What voters think is true,” as Pettigrew puts it, “is more important in elections than the actual truth.”
Trump is fine with this, of course, partly because it’s integral to his chief objective: to prevent his supporters from two years ago from straying from the pack. “[Trump] is trying to get all the people who voted for him in 2016 back out to the polls in 2018,” White House Political Director Bill Stepien said in June. “The best way to win in 2020,” he added, “is to win in 2018”—a strategy made less toilsome if Trump keeps people feeling good about him and bitter toward his rivals.
It might work. Shortly after the election, 87% of Trump voters said they had warm feelings toward him; in March of this year, 82% did, survey data from Pew Research Center show. (Within that category, 63% had “very warm feelings” in 2016; 62% said they did this year.) The amplified tone of Trump’s graceless discourse has stirred up responses—sometimes garbled or off-putting themselves—from political opponents which he then, with the help of his cheerleaders in conservative media, turns into fodder for his audience in the same vein as his name-calling during the primaries and general election two years ago. In his supporters, too, Trump brings forth a spectrum of emotions—pride, admiration, spite—depending in part on their situations at home and among their circles of friends. “Families dividing over the 2016 election reflects just how central feelings about Trump have become to people’s identities,” Bill Clinton’s pollster Stanley Greenberg observed this spring. As it becomes increasingly difficult to stay informed about current affairs that aren’t at least tangentially related to the president or his administration, these tightly wound feelings won’t subside.
Reagan’s landslide re-election suggested that voters were swayed by the zeitgeist of the age, the president’s prominent place within it, and their amicable feelings about both. Does this mean they were out of touch with reality? Not necessarily, as reality encapsulates the intangible—moods, impressions, anxieties—things that allowed Reagan and his commercial to “slide over the real complexities of our age” and be “misleading in their vagueness,” as Washington Post editor Robert Kaiser wrote at the time. Misleading vagueness it might have been, yet it gave Reagan a share of the electoral and popular vote that no presidential candidate has since matched.
Trump supporters who decided last week to stick with their man by voting his endorsee into Congress were likely prodded by a similar feeling, one that Democrats shouldn’t underestimate when the president himself is on the ballot again. When that time comes, the advantage of Trump nostalgia will be truly daunting—because the playbook on how to counter it has yet to be written.