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

By Allan Scholom



Perhaps 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%.