A green lawn, a white picket fence, a shining sun. Small children walk home from school; their mother, clad in an apron, waves to greet them. Father comes home in the evening from his well-paid job, the same one he has had all of his life. He greets the neighbors cheerfully — they are all men and women who look and talk like he does — and sits down to watch the 6 o’clock news while his wife makes dinner. The sun sets. Everyone sleeps well, knowing that the next day will bring no surprises.
In the back of their minds, all Americans know this picture. We’ve seen this halcyon vision in movies, we’ve heard it evoked in speeches and songs. We also know, at some level, what it conceals. There are no black people in the picture — they didn’t live in those kinds of neighborhoods in the 1940s or 1950s — and the Mexican migrants who picked the tomatoes for the family dinner are invisible, too. We don’t see the wife popping Valium in the powder room. We don’t see the postwar devastation in Europe and Asia that made U.S. industry so dominant, and U.S. power so central. We don’t see half the world is dominated by totalitarian regimes. We don’t see the technological changes that are about to arrive and transform the picture.
We also know, at some level, that this vision of a simpler America — before civil rights, feminism, the rise of other nations, the Internet, globalization, free trade — can never be recovered, not least because it never really existed. But even if we know this, that doesn’t mean that the vision has no power.
Over the past few days, multiple polls have shown that Trump is the least popular new president in recent memory. He received 3 million fewer votes than his opponent. He won with the aid of a massive Russian intelligence operation, and by propagating lies about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. But don’t let any of this fool you: Do not underestimate the appeal of his nostalgic vision. His call for America to “start winning again,” his denunciation of the “crime and gangs and drugs” of the present, these are so powerful that he has triumphed despite his dishonesty, his vulgarity, his addiction to social media, his lack of religious faith, his many wives, all of the elements of his character and personal history that seemed to disqualify him. Surrounded by the trappings of the White House, its appeal may well increase.