In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famed novel, The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway proclaims to Jay Gatsby, “’You can’t repeat the past.” Gatsby denies this advice, replying, “’Why of course you can!” Albeit a fictional anecdote, this rhetorical obsession with the past is transcendent: today, political rhetoric is rife with the predilection to march triumphantly forward without looking back. Such is particularly salient amongst the slogans of various presidential candidates and ex-candidates: Ted Cruz’s charged “Reigniting the Promise for America”; Martin O’Malley’s promising “Rebuild the American Dream”; and Trump’s sonically succinct “Make America Great Again.” Though the motif of renewing the past, specifically renewing the actuality of the American dream, is prevalent in almost all campaigns, Republican utilization of it is peculiar. The Republican Party’s glamorization and deliberate rewriting of the past is a masked attempt to absolve the United States of its prior wrongs, to scribble over injustices with sanitized versions of false glory. In an age when amassing as many votes from diverse groups as possible is key to presidential success, the GOP risks alienating voters by selling too heavily the idea of an exclusionary and false past.
The prioritization of the past is an interesting political tactic. The idealization of what once was raises an existential threat to both the present campaigns and the past of which they speak: If progress can only be made through paradoxical regression, does that then mean that progress never occurred in the first place? The answer to this can only be found by inspecting the rhetoric of the GOP as it relates to a voter base. According to census data, the idea of a non-Hispanic white minority in America is not a question of if, but a question of when. Data from the the U.S. Census Bureau shows that there were “more than 20 million children under 5 years old living in the U.S.,” and of this number, 50.2 percent of them were minorities. The generation of the so called “minority-majority” has already been born. This fact has the implication of changing campaigns in the future—for both parties. Republicans “hold 40-49 percent lead over the Democrats in leaned party identification among whites,” but Democrats have a major advantage over Republicans in minority groups—especially amongst black and Hispanic voters. As the demographics shift, campaigns will have to focus on issues that matter to those that are encased within the “minority-majority,” and will have to appease their demands. But for now, the Republican Party faces a troubling choice: whether to cater to that Nixon-like silent majority — typically older, blue collar white people who do not take an active part in politics and who tend to lean right on the political spectrum — of today or begin to morph into a better reflection of the changing tides of demography. If the campaigns of today are any portent of the future, it seems as though the former is what will dominate, at least for the 2016 election. The Republican refusal of Syrian refugees and anti-immigrant rhetoric, Trump’s egregiously popular wall-as-a-border idea, and other scare tactics used by the GOP to put down protests for equal rights and justice across the country — these all seem commonplace in this election, but future elections with different demographics could not have a party support these messages and still expect to win.
The general arc of history tends towards increases in rights and justices. Public racial segregation, once accepted in the country, is now intolerable in political discourse — at least de jure segregation is. Because of the Hart-Celler Act, which “ended a long-standing quota system based on national origin that heavily favored Western Europeans,” immigration in America has been dramatically transformed and has led to major cultural and political shifts, especially in underrepresented groups. It is not just changing racial and ethnic demographics that Republicans dismiss when they glorify sanitized histories; other marginalized groups are left out as well. LGBTQ+ rights have advanced far from where they were 50 years ago, with 55 percent of people “favor[ing] allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally” and increased exposure in media to intersectional identities of nonbinary and trans characters. Christianity saw a decrease in number of followers, while non-Christian faiths and the unaffiliated (atheist, agnostic, and “nothing in particular) both saw increases in the population. Though the stereotypical WASP male is still the face of politics, this will not be the case for much longer.
The glorification of the past is a dangerous option. Depending on the era that Republicans are speaking of — typically the eras of Reagan or the Founding Fathers — entire swathes of the nation are lacking basic rights that they have campaigned for fervently for years, and are still fighting for equality and justice in many aspects. The rights of many marginalized identity groups have frequently relied upon the progression of the years to ware away prejudices of the past. The Democratic Party has capitalized upon this sentiment, frequently employing the idea of looking back to the past and launching triumphantly into the future, proclaiming that we are now much better than we were and can only get better. The Republican Party has not caught on to this; instead, it rhetorically relies on nostalgia of certain groups to overpower the disdain for the past that those marginalized people have. The power of this group, made up of older whites, comes at the expense of other marginalized people.
If the silent majority can look past troubled times and see those years in black in white as better than they are today, the Republican techniques have won.
To do this, Republican candidates often misconstrue history, whether they are cognizant of it or not. Candidates within the GOP have repeatedly misattributed quotations that align with their ideals to the Founding Fathers in order to create a framework of republicanism within the narrative of the past. In constructing false histories, these candidates erase actualities and directly challenge what is taught in classrooms across the country. Jody Hice, a member of the House of Representatives from Georgia, quoted on his Facebook account Thomas Jefferson as saying, “That government is best which governs the least, because its people discipline themselves.” The problem with this is that the Thomas Jefferson Foundation has stated they have “not found this particular sentiment in his writings,” and the quotation is more realistically attributed to Henry David Thoreau in his work, Civil Disobedience. Paul Ryan and Ben Carson have both been caught red-handed by the media after they put words into the mouths of Patrick Henry and Alexis de Tocqueville. These misattributions are probably mistakes; after all, politicians can’t all be historians with eidetic memories. That being said, these honest mistakes are not harmless: they feed — somewhat narcissistically — into the conservative narrative that their ideals are matched with the ideals of the Founding Fathers, that modern conservatives are the heirs to those great men of history that brought forth this nation. This ahistoricism is a dangerous tactic, especially because the vast majority of voters have very little knowledge of what the Framers believed.
The past is not just something that once existed and is now left behind; it is kept alive through remembrance of times long gone. The Republican Party’s language and party ideals hearken constantly back to a better past, but this past oftentimes is only better for some or doesn’t even exist. In a time when demographic shifts are becoming the rule rather than the exception, the GOP must make more conscious efforts to recognize the historicity of their language and confront the future without reminding many of a darker past. History is not a concrete entity; it is malleable and can be warped through careful and conscientious manipulation of the gazes towards it. A very real quotation from George Orwell, found in his book 1984, warns: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” In order to clearly see where we’re going and how far we’ve come, it’s paramount to see where we, as an entire nation, came from.