First 100 Days: Donald Trump and the Illusion of the American Dream and American Exceptionalism

By Allan Scholom


ASPerhaps nowhere is the illusion of the American Dream and American Exceptionalism more evident than in the election of Donald Trump. “Make America Great Again” was his successful campaign slogan meant to arouse a fantasy that in essential socio-economic respects has been relentlessly and significantly disappearing since the 1970’s. The facts are that 92% of children born in the 1940’s made more money than their parents whereas only 50% born in the 1980’s did. Given the further declines in median income for families that we have seen since then and the increase in the income disparity between the 1% and the 99% we can safely conclude that the situation is getting far worse for recent generations.

When we factor in the increasing inequality due to neoliberal economic policies (tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, privatization and deregulation, cuts to the social safety net and other forms of income redistribution upward) over the last 35 years, we find that 80% of children would be making more than their parents if these destructive policies were not implemented. The US is now the most economically unequal of all Western nations and has significantly less social mobility than Canada and Europe.

What is most striking here is that Americans are both unaware of the extent of the inequality here and do not believe that it is as bad as it. Clearly the public is in cultural denial about the vanishing American Dream.  As comedian George Carlin joked, “The reason they call it the American Dream is that you have to be asleep to believe it.”

Furthermore we have always been told that the American Dream was responsible for waves of immigration to the US. However the facts are otherwise as 30-40% of immigrants from Europe before the First World War ultimately returned home and many more were unhappy they had come. Surely we must consider that the US was built upon a legacy of genocide of 9-10 million Indians and 30-35 million Blacks not including those who lived in slavery (Zinn, 1980).

Add to this the fact that the US is the most war mongering country the world has ever known and that most polls taken in other countries reveal that the US is seen as the country posing the greatest threat to world peace.Thus we can see that there has been a dissociated, disavowed and denied US history that has been compensated for by the fantasy and illusion of the American Dream and American Exceptionalism.

While there is great deal of understandable fear and uncertainty about what Donald Trump will actually do it is quite clear so far in light of his cabinet appointments, executive orders and policy statements that from an economic perspective we will be getting another, likely stronger dose, of these same neoliberal redistributive policy poisons. Undoubtedly it will not be long before the people who voted him in should realize their betrayal. But will they or will they cling to the fantasy of the American Dream and American Exceptionalism since the loss of the illusion is too painful to digest?

This tragically also applies to many if not most of the rest of the public who are horrified by the specter of Trump. We might attribute our fears of Trump to his personality and character, which embodies and applauds our basest destructive instincts. This is certainly fair and understandable on a manifest level. However I believe that the deeper fear is that the policies he embodies are reflections of a system that is in decline – that the dissolution of the fantasy of the American Dream and American Exceptionalism may be far too terrifying to face.  Furthermore it is an illusion that for many if not most people never was but always dreamed of.

As Freud has said in Reflections on War and Death (1918), “Illusions commend themselves to us because they save us pain and allow us to enjoy pleasure instead.

However, as French philosopher de Chamfort asserts, “pleasure may come from illusion but happiness can come only of reality”.  It is here that we in the psychoanalytic world have much to contribute in helping people to understand what has been happening to them both on an external political/historical level as well as what this means to them from a personal/internal point of view.

In essence our work can help people move from disillusionment to empowerment. While we do talk to our patients about politics undoubtedly now more than ever in the wake of Trump, it becomes more important to do this so as to avoid the danger of blaming the victim (us) for our struggles and recapitulating our collective trauma by failing to sufficiently address the outside forces that are terrifying and harming all of us in real terms.

Furthermore it is incumbent upon us to speak out beyond the consulting room to help bring about the broader systemic social change we so desperately need. In this regard I do not believe that research demonstrating psychoanalytic efficacy will reestablish our place in the mental health world. The research is already there and has been for many years. Those who blame our declining status to this are themselves blaming the victims (us) of the system that we too are oppressed by.

If we are at fault in some way it is in our failure to comprehend and strongly oppose the forces that are exploiting all Americans. We have much to contribute in the realm of helping people address their fantasies and illusions. In doing so we make ourselves relevant in ways we have not been, yet can and need to be. Now is the time to join with our fellow citizens not only to resist the poison pills that Donald Trump is offering but moreover to help set a new course, freer of fantasy and illusion, that meets the real needs of the many in the 99% and not those of the few in the 1%.



  1. Indeed, the insistence of the denial of the basis of the American industrial economic growth experience – such as which had its roots in genocide and an extended period of slavery; now in the post World War II era reflecting the reality that the United States was the sole surviving industrial economy following the War and, thereby, the sole nation capable of benefiting by reconstruction in the post-War environment are the seeds of our self-delusion. Europe, Japan and Russia lay in shambles. Apart from Pearl Harbor and a tiny segment of the Aleutians, the US had wholly escaped the destruction that laid most all of the developed world wastelands. While Europe lay in ruins we modified our war-time manufacturing mechanisms to construction materials and consumer goods. ‘Buy American’ was the only game in town – globally. Begun under the foundations of FDR’s progressive efforts in the depths of the depression in the 1930’s, a United States – beyond the range of enemy bombers, geared up for war. Following the war machinery that had been producing the materials of war were retrofitted [mostly] to peacetime production and while England remained on rations well into the 1950’s, the United States churned out consumer goods hitherto unheard of. Instead of Jeeps, it was sedans, rather than Liberty Ships, it was steel for magnificent skyscrapers. Under the GI Bill veterans went to college and bought homes. Eisenhower undertook the national highway system’s construction and ‘Suburbia’ sprang into being. Apart from the Cold War, the 1950’s were a truly exceptional period in the history of the United States. We ended World War II as both the sole nuclear power and the sole producer of what we and world needed {and wanted}.
    However, we allowed ourselves, nea, undertook the roll, to become the world’s policeman. As the European colonial powers influence around the world diminished in the aftermath of WW II, we filled the vacuum. We fought – to a stalemate, in Korea, then and despite the efforts of such as LBJ and the ‘Great Society’ legislation of the early 1960’s, we – Americans, we dabbled in Viet Nam following the French withdrawal. By 1971 Nixon took us off of the gold-standard, we fell victim to OPEC in 1973/1974 and last saw a balance of trade surplus in 1975 – 42 years ago! During the expansive economic growth period following the war beyond the 1950’s and 1960’s we – essentially / with few exceptions, neglected our infrastructure, public education and medical care distribution models to the point of seeing Western Europe and Japan begin to surpass us in countless quality of life fundamental criteria. Well before China began to emerge from their self-imposed isolation, we Americans – collectively, rested on our laurels.
    While Western Europe and Japan were building state of the art high-speed-rail services, regaining their manufacturing capacities and providing medical care to one and all, we spent massive amounts of our resources on military capacities and an ever bloating medical care services ‘industry’ – a highly inflated and cost-inefficient medical care industry viewed as a profit center.
    Successive administrations [of both/either party] here in the United States failed to address core domestic issues and embraced ‘globalism’. Though the personal computer and post-industrial era of technologies may have had their beginnings here, we expediently gave away our advantage by shifting production off-shore. Counter-intuitive [to those who don’t control capital nor reap their benefits] trade agreements, e.g., NAFTA, Most Favored Nation status and World Trade Organization membership for China, commoditized labor on a global basis and fundamentally undermined the pretense of upward mobility. Successive waves of domestic down-sizing, right-sizing, out-sourcing, seeking ‘synergies’ and otherwise reducing our labor-force [in real numbers], coupled with smoke and mirrors regulatory oversights led to the… market-correction of 2008/2009. Meanwhile, bail-outs of public monies went to private companies – without claw-backs of their profits, massive public debts along with the plundering of Social Security to mask those habitual deficits persisted, along with union [non-public-employee] rolls being imploded and real-incomes [for most Americans] now having reverted to early 1990’s levels. Meanwhile, the preposterous management of the single largest identifiable sector of our GDP – medical care services, has reached the absurd level of equating to approximately 20% of our nation’s GDP.
    Our former industrial cities: Detroit, Flint, Cleveland, et al, have imploded. The population of Chicago has so declined as to have reverted to a level first seen around 1920 – a century ago, and what remains is a profoundly divided city – by both race and wealth. Yet – in our massively
    self-denying proclivity to avoid the truth of the matter{s}, we [at least sufficiently in terms of the Electoral College vote] took the snake-oil charlatan’s pandering to our fears and inherent divisive proclivities hook, line and sinker. None of the hollow promises of the campaign are either going to be forthcoming, nor will the alleged policies of this administration help ‘make America great again.’ If we Americans believe for a moment that Donald J. Trump isn’t wholly unsuited for and incapable of fulfilling either the duties of the office he now holds [when not playing golf in Florida and/or tweeting off simply ridiculous… gibber-jabbering] and/or of the promises he’s made – well, I’ve an inventory of bridges to sell you.
    Sure, we want to believe our own mythology, but, when we’ve an administration that makes countless appointments to head agencies and departments of ‘our’ government that are fundamentally juxtaposed to the core mission statements of those entities, and with the likes of Bannon and his cadre making policies; to deny that the American Dream has become a nightmare [for all but the very few] is tantamount to being clinically psychotic. In a nation that readily wants to drink the Kool-aid, we’ve entered the realm of life under ‘alternative facts’.
    Meanwhile, time – and technology, marches on. The Internet, robotics, voice-recognition and assorted technologies, e.g., 3-D-printing, have already fundamentally changed the workplace. Gone – for good/ever, are countless formerly white-collar jobs. All of the huffing and puffing you can imagine isn’t going to bring those jobs back. With labor having been commoditized – globally, and capital being both highly fluid and extra-national, the same must be said for blue and gray-collar jobs. Automation and globalization are reality[s], they are not ‘alternative facts’.
    No amount of denial or Luddite-proclivities can alter bonafide facts. As but one example of to just how weak our grasp actually is, the administration has proposed to cut subsidies for long-distance Amtrak trains, e.g., the California Zephyr between Chicago and the West-coast. While other nations are on the 5th or even greater generations of high-speed-rail, we’re on the brink
    of extinguishing the sole – albeit antiquated, rail service that services some 500 or so locals around this country. ‘American exceptionalism’? Exceptionally-ignorant and in a frozen state of animation intent on living in a window that existed [for some to some degree] a half century or so ago. Now, pass that Kool-aid.

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