President Trump’s lamentations about a foreign language film winning “best picture” at the 2020 Academy Awards has opened an unexpected window into important features of American thinking that are based on nostalgia and fears about loss, writes Ron Pruessen. Trump’s populist efforts to counter latent fears about American decline are nothing new, he argues; presidents from JFK to Barack Obama have made sometimes-poor decisions fueled by concerns about the loss of power and influence.
Can we get ‘Gone with the Wind’ back, please. ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ So many great movies.
This is my current favorite among Donald Trump’s 2020 pronouncements – a rally rouser/quasi-rant (delivered in Colorado Springs) that starts out being laughable and then becomes revealing on second thought.
One thread that emerges when we look more closely is the way the president’s recollection of Hollywood oldies captures some of the complex emotional drivers that propel Trumpian thinking and action: nostalgia paired with regret, wishful thinking aligned with blindness about causes and circumstances, disappointment darkening into resentment and anger. Psychologists and behavioral economists would see “loss aversion” at work here – conjuring up an image of Scarlett O’Hara or Norma Desmond sparking angst as they grab what one of the president’s predecessors would have referred to as his cojones. (Since it’s 2020, the president would surely allow women who are famous to have privileges equal to his own?)
That Trump has tapped into wellsprings of dashed hopes and rising fears has long been clear. The Make America Great Again/MAGA mantra, limp though it may be, has acquired power because it draws, for example, on understandable sensitivity about failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Add in nerves frayed by the economic insecurities of a beleaguered middle class and the shifting of tectonic plates in the global arena (particularly the rise of China). Add in yet more: re-escalating racial tensions (Ferguson, Charleston, Black Lives Matter et al); domestic demographic shifts increasing the visibility and political influence of “minority” groups and people of color more generally (California’s population in 2020 is estimated to be 39 percent Latinx, 38 percent “white,” 13 percent Asian, and 6 percent Black) ; exploding gender norms (#MeToo and LGBTQ assertiveness, etc.); generational tangles (OK, Boomer; Hey, millennial).
Countering despair by fueling American exceptionalism
Trump has intensified the distressing and disruptive impact of these feelings, even if he did not create them. From the beginning, he has worked to counter despair through bully pulpit boosterism and aggressive actions. His inaugural address declared that “When America is united, America is totally unstoppable”; there is no need to fear the future, he added: “We are protected, and we will always be protected.” Confidence in divinely ordained exceptionalism (and his own personal “genius”) has continued to fuel signature initiatives aimed at reversing losses and/or finding what might be enjoyed as compensatory satisfactions. A partial list: wall-building and parent-child separations/incarcerations at the border; “Muslim bans” and other forms of immigration restrictions; alliances with evangelical Christians to restrict abortion rights and the role of Planned Parenthood; “fire and fury” threats against Iran and North Korea; trade wars and skirmishes with Canada, Mexico, Europe, and (especially, again) China; the spurning of restraints inherent in multilateral agreements and institutions (as with the Paris Climate Accord, the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, and the United Nations).
“Nikolas Liepins – Trump Rally – MPLS – 10 Oct 2019 – by Nikolas Liepins-1.jpg” by NSPA & ACP is licensed under CC BY NC 2.0
Neither Trump nor his enthusiasts, however, grasp the consequences of policies heavily influenced by “loss aversion” emotions. The fear of declining power, status, and wealth tends to yield hybrids of anger and nostalgia – and psychologists know that neither is conducive to effective decision-making. To be angered by the fading of some romanticized “good old days,” for example, undercuts analytical abilities: by limiting what is being noticed in the environment, it encourages “selective processing” of circumstances and challenges. (Think of Norma Desmond obsessed with DeMille’s “close-up,” oblivious to the way a wide-angle shot would show the dead man floating in her pool.) Failure to literally “see” all the dots that would warrant connecting before a course of action is determined then feeds into a greater sense of optimism about meeting difficulties. (Think of Scarlett O’Hara’s classic parting line, accompanied by orchestral uplift: “I’ll think about that tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day.”) If anger is also in the air – as it often is with Trump – optimism can easily bleed (literally?) into either a tolerance for taking risks or even their welcoming. And one other consequence of loss aversion temper or nostalgia revealed in the psychology literature: their inhibiting impact on innovation. Raiding the attic for the ideas and tools of yesterday (those that had seemingly produced better times) tends to take precedence over the devising of new approaches that might stand a better chance of solving multiplying problems.
Appealing to loss aversion is nothing new in presidential politics
As is often the case, Trump’s mindset and behavior deserve historical context. The challenges thrown up by “loss aversion,” in fact, are especially severe because emotional pressures were building long before the current president’s dangerous weaknesses became apparent. It did not take the 2016 election to reveal the ways in which flawed decision-making can emerge from discomforting worries about declining power and influence. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, Richard Nixon in the 1970s, Ronald Reagan in the 1980s: all sought a manly reassertion of American global leadership to deal with vexing challenges. From Vietnam to the Middle East to Central America – and points between and beyond – determination and “vigor” (a JFK favorite word) was needed to make it clear that “third rate piss-ant” countries (LBJ on North Vietnam) would not turn the United States into a “pitiful, helpless giant” (Nixon’s phrasing). If Jimmy Carter worried about the pall of “malaise,” his successor believed that revival of patriotism and religious faith – paired with tax cuts and swelling defense spending – would bring back “morning in America.”
The early 21st century has seen a steady escalation of fear and anxiety. George W. Bush and his self-styled “Vulcan” team wanted to respond to tests posed by globalization and terrorism, for instance, with a vengeance. War in Iraq, especially, was conceived to grip the new millennium by the throat, meeting thrown-down gauntlets (some perceived more than real) with an exhilarated assertion of power. Toppling Saddam Hussein would be a “cakewalk” demonstrating the open-ended potential of “transformational” action and diplomacy. “This is a new world,” Bush declared. “Start the clock.” If there were risks, they were met with renewed confidence in the nation’s exceptionalism – and faith. “I’m an American,” Condoleeza Rice believed: “Nothing is impossible.”
Barack Obama handled loss aversion’s emotional terrain much more effectively – even if he (and the nation) did not emerge unscarred. His presidency was impressive for at least beginning to turn the proverbial aircraft carrier as it moved through uncomfortable new millennium waters: witness the withdrawal from what he had early on seen as the “dumb war” in Iraq as well as the controversial avoidance of any risk-seeking major mission aimed at pulling success out of the maw of the Syrian civil war. Such policies reflected reassessments of American power and a shrewder weighing of options. Multilateralism’s value was also ratcheted up, making it a more “go to” tool for taming (or at least containing) dangers like those posed by North Korea, Iran, and climate change. And yet. Obama also inherited no small measure of his country’s traditional arrogance – making for troubling detours away from his seemingly default prudence.
As late as 2014, he could maintain that “if you look at American history, there have been frequent occasions in which it looked like we had insoluble problems,” but “as long as there were those who stayed steady and clear-eyed and persistent, eventually we came up with an answer.” This inheritance could produce the 2009 surge in Afghanistan – a half-reluctant operation fueled by a belief that elegant policy design would triumph over stubborn conundrums. Likewise, with the increasing utilization of drones. The awful consequences of intervention in Libya in 2011 revealed the most extreme example of an only partial adjustment to altered circumstances, even if the move to be on the right side of history in the Arab Spring involved the seemingly shrewd innovation of “leading from behind” and avoiding boots on the ground. To his credit, Obama came to see that this North African initiative was the worst mistake of his presidency – a “shit show” he called it. But the fact remains that Bush’s successor (who happened to be a smoker under pressure from his wife to quit) took something of a Nicorette approach to dealing with the wishful thinking and risk-welcoming that could come with the discomforts of slippage in American power and management capabilities.
And what of Obama’s successor? Has Nicorette given way to the revival of a two-pack-a-day habit – or vaping? “Loss aversion” is certainly still alive and well in the Trump years, evident in both the president and large segments of the American citizenry. The 2020 election campaign will inevitably feature calls from virtually every quarter for policies designed to restore maximum greatness – with debates about methods rather than goals. Few are likely to choose contemplation of the ways in which some cherished features of power and hegemony may be as “gone with the wind” as Norma Desmond and Cecil B. DeMille.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Ron Pruessen – University of Toronto
Ronald W. Pruessen has served as the Munk School of Global Affairs’ Director for International Partnerships & Research and is former Chair of the Department of History, University of Toronto. His primary research and teaching interests are in 20th century US foreign policy and international relations. Early work focused on the Cold War (e.g., John Foster Dulles: To the Threshold, 1888-1952) and he recently co-edited (with Soraya Castro) Fifty Years of Revolution: Perspectives on Cuba, the United States, and the World. His current book project is called Cakewalking with Tigers: Americans Choosing War and Making Mistakes, From James Madison to Donald Trump.