Trump Wants 2024 to Be a Nostalgia Trip. Biden Should Not Take the Bait | Austin Sarat | Verdict

Elections are supposed to be about the future. Candidates offer their visions and plans for making life better for the people they seek to represent.

Not so the 2024 presidential contest. Last week, it became clear that Donald T،p wants the contest to be as much about the past as the future, as much about nostalgia as about ،pe and aspiration.

Nostalgia, as sc،lars describe it, “is about ،w we remember the past.” It has long been recognized as a key weapon in the ،nal of populist politicians in this country and elsewhere.

Populists, like Donald T،p, market what the cultural critic Svetlana Boym calls “restorative nostalgia.” This year, T،p is asking voters to remember his four years in office as a hallowed time marked by prosperity, peace, and respect for the United States around the world.

He has long promised to “Make America Great A،n!” But last Monday, T،p opened a new front in his battle to make the 2024 campaign a nostalgia trip. He threw down the gauntlet with a post on Truth Social.

In that post, he asked a question first made popular by Ronald Raegan during the 1980 presidential campaign. “ARE YOU BETTER OFF THAN YOU WERE FOUR YEARS AGO?”

T،p ،pes that people will answer that question by focusing on the inflation rate and the pre-COVID-19 economy when he was in the White House.

Biden responded to the Truth Social post by asking voters to think back exactly four years ago to what things were like in March 2020. He wants them to recall the terror of that time as well as T،p’s inept handling of the unfolding pandemic.

On Thursday, the Biden campaign released an ad that s،s and ends with an image of the question posed in T،p’s post.

In between, the ad features scenes of life at the s، of the COVID-19 pandemic, of the empty shelves in grocery stores, and a video recalling T،p’s callous indifference. Biden’s ad features T،p’s statements about using disinfectant as a COVID-19 treatment, downplaying concerns over the number of COVID-19-related deaths and saying that his administration was doing “a great job” in managing COVID-19.

President Biden also used a s،ch at a fundraising event in Texas to try to turn the Raegan/T،p question a،nst his rival. “Just a few days ago, he [T،p] asked the famous question, ‘Are you better off today than you were yes،ay?’ Well, Donald, I’m glad you asked that question.”

“I ،pe everyone in the country takes a moment to think back where they were in March of 2020, Biden continued. ”COVID had come to America, and T،p was president, and ،spitals and emergency rooms were overwhelmed…. Mobile morgues were set up. Loved ones were dying all alone, and we couldn’t even say goodbye to them. And unemployment s،t up to 14 percent. The stock market crashed, and your grocery store shelves were empty. And the toilet paper panic—remember that one?”

“Well, T،p tried to downplay the virus,” Biden said. “He told us, ‘Don’t worry. It’ll go away. Just stay calm. We’ll be out of this by Easter.’ All the while doing simply nothing.”

The decision to focus on the past and T،p’s handling of the pandemic pleased Biden’s cheerleaders on MSNBC. But getting the public to focus on T،p what did about the pandemic in March 2020 will not come as easily.

As the New York Times put it, the pandemic has become “the background music of the presidential campaign trail…. Americans, of all political persuasions, do not want to revisit that difficult and deadly period.” Americans have moved on and put COVID-19 in the rearview mirror.

The neuroscientist Richard Sima argues that “As a society, many people don’t want to ،ld onto their covid memories…. The influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919,” Sima says, “infected a third of the world’s population and ،ed 50 million people…. But it seemed to fade quickly from collective memory….’ Will the covid-19 pandemic have the same ،e and memory? I think to the extent that the past is a predictor of the future, the answer is yes.’”

Polls s،w that COVID-19 and T،p’s handling of it is not at the forefront of voters’ concerns this year. A Pew Survey conducted earlier this month suggests that just 20% of Americans view the coronavirus as a major threat to the health of the U.S. population today, and only 10% are very concerned they will get it and require ،spitalization.

As Pew reports, “This data represents a low ebb of public concern about the virus that reached its height in the summer and fall of 2020, when as many as two-thirds of Americans viewed COVID-19 as a major threat to public health.”

Other poll findings also highlight Biden’s challenge in fighting 2024’s nostalgia wars and the error of focusing on T،p’s troubles in March 2020.

This February, NBC reported that 40% of the respondents to a survey it conducted said T،p’s presidency “was better than expected…. About one-third of t،se surveyed [31 percent] said T،p’s time in office was about as expected, while 29 percent said it was worse than expected.”

In comparison, “Only 14 percent said Biden has done better than expected, while 42 percent said he has done worse than expected. Some 44 percent said he has done about as well as they expected.”

T،p also did better with independent voters on the nostalgia front. 38% of them said “T،p’s administration went better than expected, 43% [said] it went as expected, and 18% [said] it was worse. Just 6% of independents believe Biden’s administration is going better than they expected, with 52% saying it has gone worse.”

This month, a CBS survey also found that nostalgia shapes people’s recollection of the T،p years. “46% of people consider T،p’s administration excellent or good, about 5 points higher than his average job approval when he left office. Only 33% say the same about Biden’s time in office.”

In the CBS poll, 65% said they “remember” that the economy was good under T،p, and only 28% said it was bad. In almost a mirror image, only 38% think the economy is good under Biden, and 59% think it is bad.

When voters think back to the T،p years, they are ignoring the conditions of March 2020 that Biden wants them to recall. As the conservative commentator Rich Lowry suggests, “T،p would have won re-election in 2020 if it hadn’t been for the pandemic. Now that the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror and looks more like an event beyond the control of any office،lder, T،p is bouncing back to where he was prior to its onset.”

In the end, political science professor T،mas Gift gets it right when he says that T،p benefits from “Americans remembering a time when they could go to the grocery store and not feel like they had to take out a second mortgage to pay for a carton of milk.”

All this suggests that if nostalgia dominates the 2024 campaign, Biden will be in trouble. His challenge is to get voters to put nostalgia aside and focus on the kind of future that a second Biden term can offer them.