Trump, Nostalgianomics, and the Uses of the Past

15 02 2017

The Uses of the Past scholars in management schools are interested in how decision-makers use ideas about history to make sense of the present and to plan for the future. They have had lots of empirical data to work with recently thanks the Back-to-the-Future antics of the anti-globalization brigade on both sides of the Atlantic. Anti-globalization figures such as Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and some the rust belt protectionists who voted for Brexit have been pining for a return to the glory days when the North Atlantic countries were filled with belching smokestacks and manly, gainfully-employed, blue collar heroes. We’ve seen this rhetoric, this desire for a strategy of restoration is the decrepit manufacturing towns of Pennsylvania, in the Welsh city of Swansea, which voted for Brexit because it thought it would bring the steel jobs back from China, and in the industrial centres which were once Communist and now appear to be leaning towards the Front National.  People are seeking to Make [INSERT COUNTRY NAME] Great Again. It’s an anachronistic economic policy.

In today’s Financial Times, Martin Sandbu  calls this retro-grade mentality  Factory Fetishism in his excellent piece on Trump desire to bring back manufacturing jobs. In his companion piece on the FT’s Free Lunch blog, Sandbu recommends that we  recommend the economist John Kay’s recent essay, which also makes the connection between the nostalgic desire to bring back heavy industry and the politics of gender and old-school masculinity.

Some of the roots of the white working-class resentment which supports Donald Trump and voted for Brexit are found in these gender-related consequences of the structural consequences of economic globalisation. It would be an absurd response to look back longingly on pictures of men with bare torsos covered in sweat working in the light and heat of rivers of molten iron, or heaving coal as they spent half their day working underground; these may have been real jobs, but they were awful jobs, and our society is better off for no longer needing them. But there is a solidarity and stability that has been lost, and consequences of that loss which will not go away. But I am already past the point at which the economist must pass the baton to the sociologist, the anthropologist – and the politician.

Kay’s piece is interesting because he addresses two different divisions of labour– the ever advancing division of labour in the economy and also the division of labour within the social sciences — between economists, sociologists, anthropologists and so forth, with each discipline providing a lens that allows for a rounded view of the phenomenon under consideration.

I agree with the Kay and Sandbu that a particular vision of history, a nostalgic desire to return to a past golden age of manufacturing, is common to the New Right of all of the major North Atlantic countries (Trump and the Alt-Right in the US, the Chamberlainite Conservativism of Theresa May, the new UKIP’s leader’s plan to amalgamate socialism and nationalism so as to appeal to the patriotic working classes , Le Pen’s Front National). However, I also perceive important differences in how history informs the thinking of the anti-globalization right in each of these countries. In their rush to point out the similarities between the use of history by the protectionist right on both sides of the Atlantic, Kay and Sandbu appear to be ignoring some important differences.

One of the ways in which the use of history within the Trump administration appears to differ from the use of history from that of the other right-wing political movements in the West is the influence of the Strauss-Howe theory of historical cycles, a way of interpreting the past that claims some predictive power.


From what I’ve seen, the Strauss-Howe theory doesn’t appear to be used much outside of the United States, largely because the historical cycles seems to be designed to appeal to Americans, as it gives prominence to events in Western and, especially US history in its Anglo-American Saeculum, such as the War of the Roses or the US Civil War. This way of viewing history, which is supposed to help one predict future crises, likely wouldn’t resonate with a corporate client in say China or Germany.  Within the United States, however, this theory of the past appears to have attracted the attention of decision-makers in the private sector and now the Trump White House. LifeCourse Associates, the firm set up to commercialize this theory of history via the sale of consultancy services, has an impressive list of clients that includes the following companies, most of which are US firms, aside from the odd Canadian one:

Associated Financial Group
Booz Allen
Charles Schwab
Darden Restaurants
Ford Motor Company
Grey Advertising
Hanley Wood
Hartford Insurance
Hewlett Packard
Hillenbrand Industries
Honda Automotive Company USA
J. Walter Thompson
J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.
Joseph E. Seagram and Sons Inc.
Kaiser Permanente
Kellogg Company
Kraft Nabisco
Lincoln Financial Group
Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation
Manu-Life Financial
McGraw Hill
Mercer Human Resource Consulting
Merrill Lynch
Morgan Keegan & Co.
Morgan Stanley Capital International
New York Federal Reserve
Northrop Grumman Corporation
Pillsbury Company
Sun Microsystems, Inc.
Target Software

The American Council of Life Insurers
The Hershey Company
The Procter and Gamble Company
United Parcel Service
Walt Disney Imagineering
White Castle

We don’t know whether managers of any of these companies made decisions on the basis of the Strauss-Howe theory of history. However, it appears that they listened to this theory and paid to do so.

This theory of history offers predictions. For instance, the timeline of Anglo-American history on the LifeCourse website lists past events such as the “French & Indian Wars
(1746–1773)” as well as giving us an approximate end date for the “Global Financial Crisis (2008–2029?)”. The later set of dates could become actionable information for a businessperson who believed the  Anglo-American Saeculum provides a guide to the future.

Multiple sources report that Steve Bannon, President Trump’s top adviser, uses the Strauss-Howe theory as a lens to understand the world (see here, here, and here).

I think that the use of Strauss-Howe theory to comprehend the present make the historical thinking of the Alt-Right in the US somewhat different from that of the populist right in Western Europe. I agree with Sandbu and Kay that there are many similarities between how nostalgic populists on both sides of the Atlantic use the past to understand the present, but there are also important differences.



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