The world’s worst authoritarian leaders have realized nostalgia is way more powerful than fact

Some things never change.
Some things never change.
Image: Reuters/Stringe
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Facts are unpleasant things. They tell you that you are going to die. That you are not terribly good looking or that you are not all that clever. They suggest your country is in decline and that you will never be as well-off as your parents. If you are a politician, the last thing you want to tell people is “the facts.”

Look at the remarkably effective and remarkably inaccurate campaign Donald Trump has waged in the US: While Trump’s falsehoods are well documented, especially by his opponent Hillary Clinton, it’s surprising that politicians ever bother to try and make fact-based arguments. The only reason politicians might occasionally use facts in the first place is if they are attempting to achieve a specific political goal. Facts are annoying, but they’re useful if you want to prove a specific point.

If, however, you have no real vision for where your country is heading, then dreamy nostalgia is a much more pleasant potion to peddle. This is especially true if you don’t feel like working on the difficult, often incremental steps that push societies forward; it’s much easier to wallow in invented pasts then plan for the future. It’s no coincidence that the politicians who most dislike facts are also the most enthusiastic nostalgists.

Faced with the reality of a slumping economy, Vladimir Putin regime is currently promoting fantasies about restoring Russia’s great power status. By the Kremlin’s logic, of course, this doesn’t mean increased well-being for its population, but rather a population cowed by Moscow. When Putin tells the world, with a smirk, that there are no Russian soldiers in Ukraine and then casually backtracks and admits that they are there, he isn’t so much trying to substitute one reality for another as he is suggesting that facts don’t matter.

In the US Republican primaries, the fact-checking agency Politifact found 71% of Donald Trump’s statements to be half false or false (compared with 27% for Hilary Clinton). Trump, like Putin, seems to actually take pleasure in his inconsistencies; rebelling against reality is part of the thrill. Take this example from a new Legatum Institute report on how to improve fact-checking:

In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Trump called New York reporters and editors who covered his early career pretending to be a PR professional calling on his behalf. In the 1990s he admitted that he himself was the caller, and yet in 2016 he went back on the admission. By putting both statements in the public domain, it is essentially left to the listener to work out which version of the story is true.

And yet despite all this, the former reality-TV star easily clinched the Republican nomination, buoyed by his nostalgic, triumphalist gospel about making America great again. Trump’s campaign may be melting down now, but that has more to do with his offensive personality traits than his mendacious ones. And, unfortunately, someone else will likely be able to take up his banner later.

In the UK’s referendum to leave the European Union, both sides were brazen in their banishment of boring facts. In one striking example, Brexit leader Michael Gove announced that the country was “sick of experts.” Advocates of the winning Brexit campaign instead called for a reuniting of the British Empire in the form of an “Anglosphere” and a return to an ethnically pure England.

Meanwhile, in some Eastern Europe countries, the future ended when it was reached. Since the Cold War, the great compass for development in the region has been acceptance in the European Union (EU). During this process, a fact-based public discourse dominated. But the problem with the EU is that once a country makes it in, its progress can stall; there is nothing new to aim for.

Soon Eastern Europe’s newly minted EU members discovered that for all their success, they still lagged behind their Western peers. As this realization sunk in, facts began to be rejected in countries such as Hungary and Poland, replaced with conspiracy theories, phobias about phantom immigrants, and fanatical near-mystic nationalism. Nationalism is nostalgic by its very nature; it is the dreaming of a lost, pure country in some golden age rather than making practical plans for the future.

The problem for politicians trying to stand up to fact-free nostalgists is that they need to create a new vision of the future to replace the emotional appeal of nostalgia—facts can seem rigid and limiting, especially if you’re trying to whip up popular sentiment. In order to bring back facts, what we most need is the imagination to envision a better future.