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Did Trump pervert "The American Dream"?

James Truslow Adams (1878-1949) was a wealthy Am­erican who decided to leave banking and go into writing. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his series on New England history 1921–26. And his Epic of America 1931 was an international best seller. He was also the editor of a scholarly multi-volume Dic­tionary of Am­erican History and co-editor of The Album of Amer­ican History 1944. It is to Adams that the term The American Dream must be credited.

In The Epic of America, Adams wrote “The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and full­er for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest st­at­­ure of which they are innately capable, and be recognised by ot­h­ers for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstan­ces of birth or position.”

Adams felt the American Dream had been in peril since WW1 ended. He complained that money making and material imp­rovements had become goals in themselves, mimicking moral virt­ues. But the original American Dream, that lured tens of millions of foreigners to the USA, had not been a dream of merely material plenty.

The Epic of America was Adam’s attempt save a priceless heritage, and sustain the distinctly American under­st­anding of progress in humane and moral terms. The true American Dream was of a genuine, individ­ual search and striving for the abiding values of life, and for the common man to rise to the top in the free realms of communal, spiritual and intellectual life.

Adams remembered that in the 1916 presid­ent­ial election, the rival candidates presented similar formulae to the voters: the Republican Charles Evans Hughes advocated "America First And America Efficient", while Democrat Woodrow Wilson promoted "America First". But beneath the banality of phrase, early C20th America was a country haunted by anxiety about the purity of its ethnic stock; a land of public lynchings where white families watched blacks hanged.

In May 1927 there were violent, racist fights at New York’s Mem­or­ial Day parades when protesters confronted Ku Klux Klan marchers. In Queens there were seven arrests: 5 avowed Klansmen and 1 person arrested by mistake and immediately released. The 7th man was arraigned and discharged, not notable except for his name: Fred Trump, President Donald Trump’s father.

By the 1930s there were local imitations of European Fascism eg the Crus­ader White Shirts and the German-American Bund, but in many res­p­ects American Fascism was the bitter fruit of the obsession with America First.

"Behold, America: A History of America First & The American Dream", 
by Sarah Churchwell.
A new understanding of The American Dream

Now a new book. Behold, America: A History of America First & The American Dream, written by Sarah Churchwell (2018) shows that the version of American values espoused by Fred Trump’s son Donald and the hate-filled racism of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottes­ville were not aberrant blips. Rather, racism, nativism and the neo-Fascistic call of America First were part of the changing modern American experience. Far from being an ephemeral spasm of protest against globalisation, Trump-style American nationalism has long been integ­ral to American political life, though usually marginalised by both parties’ leaders.

Donald Trump used both these phrases (America First; The American Dream) in his campaign and presid­ential inauguration. Church­well reminds the reader that neo-Fascism, white supremacy and economic and political exploit­at­ion have long supported the dark underbelly of American society. We can rel­at­e these Trumpian values to wider social, polit­ical and cultural developments.

So how did it happen that American Dream, an expression conceived in terms of social and economic equality, now refers to the opport­unities ONLY open to fortunate individuals who are born rich or rise from rags to riches? The Guardian said the original phrase functioned as a “corrective, not as an incentive”, trans­mitting “moral disquiet” about the dangers of runaway capitalist excess. Originally the rise of a plutocrat class founded on vast concentrations of wealth was deemed to be un-American, because it threatened the cherished American dream of equality and social justice. But in time, the notion was turned inside out, becoming instead the anaesthetising fantasy which doused equalitarian aspirations in the underclasses.

Despite the fact that he was born into immeasurable wealth, Trump positioned himself as a self-made man, the epitome of the American dream. In fact this “modest”, “self made” man now occupies the White House, meaning he is personally living out the American dream! The easy equation of white, mega wealthy and American seems lud­icrously outdated, but since Trump’s election and the Charlottes­ville disaster, it has become sinister and permanent.

So.. the expression American Dream was conceived as a warning against rampant capitalism, meant as a moral appeal for Americans to protect opportunity for all, rather than facilitate the ascendance of a few. That such a central notion to the American sense of self has since morphed so dramatically is frightening. In tracing the origins of these terms, and charting their evolving twists, Churchwell reflects modern American history itself.

As an Australian, I recognise that the American Dream was always specifically the dream of one part­icular land, the USA. Adams wanted a life that would be better and richer and fuller for every individual, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. But British and other liberal democracies would have said “accord­ing to the needs of each individual”, not according to the indiv­idual’s ability or achievements. Universal health care, for example, would not have been guaranteed in Adam’s American Dream.







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