But don’t just think about the word in moral or aesthetic terms. Think of it as a useful way of describing a society that’s wealthy, powerful, technologically proficient — and yet seemingly unable to advance in the way that its citizens once took for granted. A society where people have fewer children and hold diminished expectations for the future, where institutions don’t work particularly well but can’t seem to be effectively reformed, where growth is slow and technological progress disappoints. A society that fights to a stalemate in its foreign wars, even as domestic debates repeat themselves without any resolution. A society disillusioned with existing religions and ideologies, but lacking new sources of meaning to take their place.
This is how many Americans, many Westerners, experience their civilization in the early years of the 21st century. And both Trump and Bernie Sanders, in their very different ways, are telling us that we don’t have to settle for it anymore.
With Trump, the message is crude, explicit, deliberately over the top. Make America Great Again. “We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with the winning.”
But it resonates because the diagnosis resonates — especially with older Americans, who grew up amid the post-World War II boom, the vaulting optimism of the space age, the years when big government and big business were seen as effective and patriotic rather than sclerotic and corrupt. Trump is offering nostalgia, but it’s not a true reactionary’s lament. He wants to take us back to a time when the future seemed great, amazing, fantastic.
Likewise Sanders, except that in his case the glorious future is more midcentury Scandinavia than space age America. After Obamacare became law it seemed to many people that the welfare state project was basically complete, that the future of American liberalism mostly involved tweaking entitlements around the edges to keep them solvent. But Sanders is telling liberals, younger liberals especially, that the heroic age of liberalism isn’t over yet, that they can have a welfare state that’s far more amazing and fantastic than the one their forefathers constructed.