National nostalgia most strongly predicts pro-Trump attitudes among those high in racial prejudice

Higher levels of national nostalgia are associated with positive attitudes toward former President Donald Trump and racial prejudice, according to new research published in Frontiers in Psychology. The findings suggest that the appeal of nostalgic political rhetoric is tied to racial animosity in the United States, particularly among Whites.

“My main areas of interest in research are the self and identity. Personal nostalgia is a self-focused emotion because it results from reflecting on your life as it once was, and most of the research on this topic focuses on the positive aspects of this experience,” explained Anna Maria Behler, a teaching assistant professor at North Carolina State University and the corresponding author of the new study.

“Conversations about identity have become especially prevalent in politics in the last several years, and national nostalgia is a darker side of the nostalgic experience that combines a longing for the past that can be influenced by our various identities, such as race, nationality, political views, or gender, etc.”

The researchers surveyed 252 U.S. voters during the Fall of 2017, about one year after the election of Trump. They found that higher levels of national nostalgia were associated with more pro-Trump attitudes above and beyond political affiliation. Higher levels of personal nostalgia, on the other hand, were not associated with more pro-Trump attitudes after controlling for political affiliation.

“The main takeaway is that personal nostalgia and national nostalgia are two very different emotional experiences,” Behler told PsyPost. “Unlike personal nostalgia which is based on individual experience, national nostalgia is related to groups and can occur even when someone has not experienced something for themselves.

For example, people can have a sentimental view of a time that they themselves have never been a part of, but may have experienced secondhand through the lens of storytelling, TV shows, or films that portray the past in a very specific light.”

The researchers also found that racial attitudes and racial prejudice played a role in the link between national nostalgia and pro-Trump attitudes. Whether participants were White or Black had no impact on this relationship. However, having a strong sense of belonging to one’s racial group strengthened the relationship between national nostalgia and positive attitudes toward Trump among White participants.

“At first glance, this finding does not align with media narratives and political polling suggesting that Trump’s messaging appealed mostly to White voters. However, although race itself did not predict support for the President, racial identity salience moderated the link between national nostalgia and pro-Trump attitudes. White Republicans felt more strongly connected to their racial identity than Whites who identified as either Democrats or Independents,” the researchers wrote in their study.

The relationship between national nostalgia and pro-Trump attitudes was also stronger among those who agreed with statements such as “Over the past few years, blacks have gotten more economically than they deserve” and “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.”

Those who agreed with statements such as “African Americans hold too many positions of power and responsibility in this country,” meanwhile, tended to exhibit higher levels of national nostalgia.

“People who experience more feelings of national nostalgia are also more likely to feel their group identity is threatened in some way and may also express prejudice against other groups,” Behler said. “It’s possible they might be wishing to go back to a time where they believe that present-day threat may not have been an issue.”

But the study — like all research — includes some caveats.

“First and foremost, this study was correlational, so more research is needed to determine whether there truly is a cause and effect relationship between identity threat and national nostalgia, because a causal relationship hasn’t been well established yet,” Behler explained.

“Also, this research idea was conceptualized just before the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 and the data was collected shortly after, and it seems as though the role of racial identity in shaping political attitudes has continued to grow since then. Given that, I think it would be important to further explore where perceived threats to group identity come from, to help give us a better understanding of how we can alleviate these feelings of threat and hopefully reduce the prejudice that results from them.”

“The phrase ‘Make America Great Again’ was a great example of how to invoke national nostalgia as a political tool despite the fact that it also evoked a lot of backlash,” Behler added. “I think a major part of its polarizing nature was that it allowed every voter to interpret it in a way that was significant to them as a function of the unique identities they hold.”

“It likely spoke to some voters’ desires to recreate a time when they felt America was ‘better off’ as a country – whenever and however they perceive that to be. At the same time, others may have felt that it called back to a time when members of marginalized groups faced significant oppression, or that it was a coded way of expressing a desire to reverse social progress.”

The study, “Making America Great Again? National Nostalgia’s Effect on Outgroup Perceptions,” was authored by Anna Maria C. Behler, Athena Cairo, Jeffrey D. Green, and Calvin Hall.