IT’S a near-universal way of thinking. All over the world, that hankering for when things were better, or to be more precise, when they were perceived to be better, influences us all.

I recall years ago, during the 1990s war in the former Yugoslavia, people talking of how “things were never like this under Tito”. That Josip Broz Tito was viewed as a unifying leader who, before his death in 1980, maintained the peaceful coexistence of the nations of the Yugoslav Federation before it crumbled into civil war and break up, belied the fact that under his rule there were often grave violations of human rights and basic freedoms.

More recently, while in Afghanistan, I still heard some people in Kabul talk almost nostalgically of the times when the communists ruled and the Soviet occupation helped keep them in power. It was as if that near-decade long bitter struggle – in which anywhere up to 1,000,000 civilians were killed and millions more Afghans fled the country as refugees to Pakistan or Iran – had been recast in their minds.

READ MORE: David Pratt: The Afghan people are still devastated by war 40 years on

Perhaps that prevailing view among some Afghans is understandable right now, given that last year more civilians died in conflict there that at any time since records have been kept.

Nostalgia is a powerful and emotive thing, and nowhere more so than in politics.

The word itself derives from fusing the Ancient Greek nostos (return home) and algos (pain or longing), and no matter where we might be in the world we have all felt it to some degree.

In terms of historical eras, research evidence and polls show that people born in the 1930s and 40s tend to think the 1950s were best. Those born in the 60s and 70s favoured the 80s. And those from the 80s and 90s preferred a time just 20 years ago. Few, it seems, tend to think that things are “great” now and fewer still appear to think they are likely to become greater any time soon.

Unless, that is, you are one of those current political leaders who would have us believe that by hankering after the past we can make things better for the future.

Nostalgic narratives like these that look back and promise to rediscover “the good old days” provide one of the most obvious and insidious devices in the tool kits of populist politicians. Just think of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again (Maga),” and its appeal to the apparently powerful and ubiquitous desire to return to a simpler and more secure imagined past.

Trump’s promise was a return to a time that preceded losses of jobs, futures, homes, and identities. As we now, of course, know the reality of Maga is something else entirely.

It is nothing more than a thinly veiled disguise for a concealed racism and intolerance rarely seen in American politics in decades.

Although Trump has referenced it constantly, it has proven difficult to pin down when, exactly, America was last “great”.

During the presidential election campaign, the question was put directly to Trump by NBC. “Great slogan,” Trump kept insisting.

But when was the last time America was great? “I would say that during the administration of Ronald Reagan

you felt proud to be an American. You felt really proud,” Trump replied. “I don’t think that, since then, to any great extent, people were proud.”

This in itself is something of a nostalgia echo chamber, given that Reagan’s campaign slogan was also “Let’s make America great again”.

As Herman Gray, professor of sociology at the University of California, observed in the wake of Trump’s election win: “Nostalgia makes a lie go down a little bit easier.” It’s a way of not having to confront the historical realities of how that moment was and how it produced inequalities and marginalisation.

The National: Donald Trump's campaign slogan echoed Ronald Reagan'sDonald Trump's campaign slogan echoed Ronald Reagan's

Watching the latest round of the US Democratic 2020 candidates in their televised debate the other night was an exercise in realising how difficult breaking the power of nostalgia as a political slogan can be. For nostalgia involves a repudiation of present-day social, economic, and cultural realities.

It was as recent as 2017 that the word “declinisme” entered France’s Larousse dictionary, describing the belief that a state of decay is sweeping through society. If some polls are to be believed, then in many Western democracies the majority of citizens believe the world has got worse, and say they no longer feel at home in their country.

As Samuel Earle, writing in the New Statesman last month pointed out: “This is nostalgia in its fullest sense: not just a rose-tinted recollection of the past, but a longing for a lost home. In Britain, slogans from across the political spectrum like ‘Rebuilding Britain’ (Labour), ‘Politics is Broken’ (Change UK), and ‘Take Back Control’ (Vote Leave) speak to the same sense of loss, differing only in the reasons why it exists.”

And so it is with those Brexiteers who are hell-bent on returning us to some rose-tinted period that never really existed. It is dressed up in a Little England mirage of red, white and blue flag-waving and talk of a war footing when plucky Britain “stood alone”. It is, of course, all nonsense, and a dangerous nonsense at that.

It’s no coincidence that, in light of this, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has identified the cause of Brexit as “nostalgia for the past”.

Perhaps it’s a peculiarity of politics that nostalgia only works in opposition to something. Reagan had Carter. Trump had Obama. In Britain, Brexit had the modern vision of the country to rail against, rather than any one person.

As the Canadian newspaper columnist Cathal Kelly wryly put it some time ago, the move to sever Britain from a largely successful European project “was an overt appeal to time travel”. If political nostalgia has its dark side, then Brexit is it, with Boris Johnson and his cohorts as malign political time lords.

As the late writer and critic AA Gill once observed: “In this Brexit fantasy, the best we can hope for is to kick out all the work-all-hours foreigners and become caretakers to our own past in this self-congratulatory island of moaning pomposity.”

Only the other day I overheard someone saying that in light of Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May’s position over Brexit seems almost welcoming. It’s a measure of the bizarre political place the UK now finds itself in that such a view can be expressed.

We must not allow Brexit to recast our minds. Above all we must beware the politics of nostalgia it has invoked. At best it is nothing more than a con and at worst where political demons undeniably lie.