Asked how high he would raise the top tax rate, Bernie Sanders said he wouldn’t go as far as the 90 percent rate of the 1950s. “I’m not that much of a socialist compared to Eisenhower.” Eisenhower is a strong presence in this election cycle. Donald Trump justified his plan to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants by citing (although not naming) the example of “Operation Weback,” an Eisenhower policy that led to the deportation of nearly a million Mexican immigrants in the 1950s.
The fact that Sanders and Trump both cite Eisenhower shows how tricky the politics of nostalgia is. The two politicians are evoking very different memories of the 1950s. Sanders is conjuring up a 1950s where the middle class was strong and inequality was much less steep. Trump is holding up as a model a 1950s where racial hierarchy was much more entrenched. Both visions of the past have an element of truth. The question is which version of the 1950s America voters would choose.