The president of the United States of America only got elected because he scared the crap out of people with talk of America being "so weak" while its rivals were "so strong," leaving us in "great danger within the next few years." No, we're not talking about Donald Trump. Those quotes were from John F. Kennedy, who also warned of a feeling that "maybe our high noon has passed, maybe our brightest days were earlier, and that now we are going into the long, slow afternoon." Rewrite that sentence using only three-letter words and at least ten exclamation points, and it could have been one of Trump's tweets. In both cases, increasingly prosperous Americans heard those messages and said, "You know, the guy's got a point." But making us feel like we're teetering on the brink of the toilet bowl is more than a political strategy; it's something we've been doing for a long, long time.
At the end of the 19th century, despite industrialization and modernization, there was a general sense of emptiness and decline among people in the Western world. It was fin de siecle culture, the idea of a moral and cultural downfall that surely meant the end of society. [Editor's note: As of this publishing date, society is still a thing.] At least one American author predicted that the country would be kaput within the next few decades.
The idea that society was hurtling downhill really gained steamed after World War I, which was ... understandable, but not exactly harmless. See, around this time, German philosopher Oswald Spengler published a well-received and massively influential book called The Decline Of The West, which stated that such a fall could only be stopped by an "all-powerful executive." One with a silly mustache, preferably. The Nazis were big fans, is what we're saying.
This pessimistic "Everything's going to hell" worldview persisted after the World Wars, not only in ravaged Europe but also in triumphant, baby-booming (read: everyone got laid) America. But we only stopped worrying about German supremacy for about 15 minutes before creeping anxiety about communism set in. We knew Russia had nukes, but that wasn't what hit America's insecurities the worst. No, it was their space rockets.
In 1960, JFK exploited those insecurities by drumming up a panic about a (wholly made up) "missile gap" between Russia and the U.S. -- a tactic Ronald Reagan blatantly copied in 1980. As the Soviets fizzled out, experts started hyping up Japan as the next world leader that would totally unseat us. Then it was the European Union, then China. Since the 1950s, America has never gone more than a decade without feeling like this is it, we had a good run, the end's around the corner. Now it's Guatemala or something's turn to be top dog.
Today, the feeling that things are getting worse than ever is ... uh, getting worse than ever. A 2016 Wall Street Journal poll found that, despite having it better than anyone else in history by almost every metric, 73 percent of American voters believed the country was not on the right path. Why is this happening? We don't really know. Some commentators have linked the growing pessimism to the fact that more Americans suffer from depression than ever, but it's possible that there's just more awareness of the condition (we used to call it "being in a mood," and the cure was punching a horse). Another theory involves the reminiscence bump -- our tendency to think that the world in general was way better back when we were younger, cuter, and our parents paid for everything.
Maybe the more our life expectancy grows, the more negative Nancys and Nelsons survive? Whatever the explanation is, Trump played his cards well when he focused on how bad things were. It's what America wanted to hear at that moment. Voters were looking for someone who would take them back to the good ol' days, whenever that was and whether or not they actually existed. Trump probably won more sympathy for acknowledging the "obvious" decline than for offering any real solutions.
But we're not alone. A few months before the U.S. election, this bias had worked itself up in Britain too. The boogeyman in this case was the European Union, which was coming to install a poor Bulgarian into every English household (the "Leave the EU" referendum won largely because of a demonstrably irrational fear of immigration). A recent Cambridge University study found that Europeans who support right-wing populists don't do it because they're worried about the economy, but due to "a very negative view of the evolution of society."
But just as Trump wasn't the first American politician to take a declinist stance, he won't be the last. Hell, Bernie Sanders' popularity could be chalked up to declinism, too. Would you be shocked if the next president's slogan was "Welp, It Can't Get Any Worse"? How many of you would vote for that? And more importantly, how much is it to copyright a slogan? We'll be right back.
Judith can be reached at email@example.com.
We've still got Stephen Colbert -- can you believe it's been over 10 years since he released I Am America (And So Can You!)?
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