Trump takes office today as the 45th President of the United States.
We live in untrustworthy times, haunted increasingly by bad dreams. Trump’s terrible dream overcame the lamely peddled and tainted dream of his opponent. It overcame his obvious unfitness for office. Now he is president. What can be done about it? Let’s un-dream the bad dreams.
Trump’s dream feeds on anger and resentment stoked by outlets shilling false or skewed stories, because providing citizens with the knowledge they need to make informed political decisions doesn’t draw as many viewers or hits. But it takes two to have a conversation, and it takes consensus to share, or to not reject, a dream. You cannot simply blame cable news or fake news for the argumentative shit show that just occurred in the United States. Those outlets are guilty of manipulation and dishonesty and they have and will continue to betray the public trust in that regard. Still, intellectual shit sandwiches are harmless unless masses of people are lining up to eat them.
A free democracy depends on the fairness of its electoral and political systems, the integrity of its media, and the wisdom of its voting public. For a long time now, American politics have been held hostage by two power-focused parties who answer first to money and might sometimes take the people’s concerns into account. There are good people in American politics, but the party and political funding structures are set up to take care of lobbyists and donors first and foremost.
Meanwhile, information is everywhere, and to engage in public discourse is easier than ever. Yet the media people consume is increasingly biased, allowing them to live in dream-bubbles that are increasingly bonkers (Pizzagate, pee-pee-gate, Birtherism, etc.).
Still, intellectual shit sandwiches are harmless unless masses of people are lining up to eat them.
Dreams can have more subtle effects, too. The left’s infighting and inability to unite is due in part to a dream of ideological purity. And while political correctness can be a force for good, and the fears of it are often overstated, the belief that language can be kept “correct” and non-offensive is also a dream that can distract from more pressing issues. From left to right, dreams rule the American mind.
In such times, the third element—the wisdom of the voting public—becomes all the more important. Here’s where we should be able to draw on a great American tradition. When Tupac implored us to doubt, to “recollect your thoughts, don’t get caught up in the mix, / ‘cause the media’s full of dirty tricks,” he was tapping a deep strain of American thought. Henry David Thoreau was likewise asking us to be woke:
shams and illusions are esteemed for soundest truths, while reality is fabulous. … When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of reality.
Forget spinning: Thoreau is flipping out in his grave right now. That’s nothing new. American wisdom has always fought an uphill battle against American Dreaming. Still, it’s hard to watch the country make this transition. We just had a cerebral president who, when asked by Trevor Noah how he’s managed to navigate racial issues, responded, “I try to comport myself in a way my mother would approve of.” Trump meanwhile favours Twitter rants against the dignified likes of Meryl Streep and John Lewis. So sad! But again, America has always had its Obamas and its Trumps, its would-be visionaries and its rabid reactionaries, its FDRs and its Andrew Jacksons, its Elizabeth Warrens and Sarah Palins. All have fought their battles on the fields of American Dreaming.
People remember Martin Luther King Jr. for a beautifully simple dream he once described, of children being judged on character and not skin colour. This is a good dream, one worth keeping, but it is also easier for some to celebrate than his less-uplifting and less well-known stand against the war in Vietnam. When King was killed, he wasn’t just working toward his good dream of racial harmony. He was in Memphis to support striking workers. America, though, prefers to recall King’s less complicated dream.
Obama’s presidency was born of a dream and hindered by dreaming. In making a black man president, America updated King’s dream, but “Hope and Change” never really meant anything. It had its requisite nightmare-backlash in a “Birther” movement led by a reality TV star who would prove such a master of the worst kind of American Dreaming that one day it would make him president.
From left to right, dreams rule the American mind.
Daniel Dale is right when he calls Obama a “paragon of personal dignity.” Obama’s failure was that he thought America could rise to his level, at least enough to force the Republicans to meet him on the plane of reality. Instead, they brought their own dream, in which Obama was not the reasonable, middle-of-the-road (to a fault) man that he is, but instead an un-American radical who needed to be stopped no matter what.
Obama gets that. He told Ta-Nehisi Coates that while he teaches his children “they’ve got responsibilities beyond just what they themselves have done,” he thinks that’s “a high level of enlightenment that you’re looking to have from the majority of the society.” Still, Obama remains, in Coates’ words, “unfailingly optimistic about the empathy and capabilities of the American people.” That begs the question: can a people unable to reach “a high level of enlightenment” be counted on to succeed when, as Obama put it in his farewell address, “the gains of our journey to freedom are not assured”?
The answer is, as always, in doubt. Yet, however delusional American Dreaming has sometimes been, it has also been a force for good. In making their cases against slavery and Jim Crow, Lincoln and King used America’s founding documents to point out that a nation founded on the dream of freedom was supported by horrific oppression. Both harnessed the power of American Dreaming to begin to correct the reality of American terror. That same power has made Obama unwilling to cede the high ground.
Obama’s failure was that he thought America could rise to his level, at least enough to force the Republicans to meet him on the plane of reality.
His earnest belief in the American Dream, no matter how tenuous it’s proven to be, is central to everything he has achieved and stood for. America can never be rid of its dreaming habit. It’s in the country’s DNA, like Bruce Springsteen and gun violence. A correction is needed though—these dreams need reigning in. We don’t need to get rid of dreaming. We need to negate the bad ones and promote the good ones. We also need less dreaming in general.
Distance breeds dreaming. In his farewell address, Obama suggested, “If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try to talk with one in real life.” I was just in America, and I talked to a lot of people. I talked to liberals and conservatives. Across the board, they were worried and thinking long and hard. But life was going on. I crossed back over the border with far less trepidation than I had coming in. National politics are a mess, but the country is not lost. That said, my skepticism of American politics was strong, so I had little room for disappointment (though Trump made the most of it). My hope now is that maybe, just maybe, the lunacy of a Trump presidency will be the wake-up call the dreaming country has needed.
I do know this: Trump is not Hitler and America is not the Weimer Republic. Trump is Trump. Someone I know called him “the wild card.” That’s true and terrifying. Trump’s dreams, and those of his cabinet nominees, loom darkly on the horizon. But America was terrifying even under Obama—just ask the people of Yemen or anywhere he deployed his flying robot armies, or ask the masses of the deported and jailed. This new fear should not seem that new. My feeling is that Trump’s closer to Reagan than any other president. I’ll refer to Killer Mike on the danger implied in that comparison. But America did survive the Reagan years, just like it will survive Trump. The question is: how does the country react?
I have an idea: establish a new American National Anthem, one that checks the dreaming instead of stoking it. The current one glorifies a pointless war that should never have started. “The Star Spangled Banner” celebrates the same false militaristic dream witnessed every time fans pause to “honour the troops” during a football game before quickly forgetting the horrors faced in the multiple tours the troops are forced to make.
A correction is needed though—these dreams need reigning in.
Most of the American people have sacrificed for the war on terror only in their dreams, while the volunteer army bears the brunt of war’s reality. We need an anthem that can help us counteract such gaps.
Given that America’s greatest cultural output is its music, finding a suitable dream-deflating anthem shouldn’t be hard (feel free to suggest your own in the comments). OutKast’s “Gasoline Dreams” would work, but I think we need something more approachable. I propose “Darn that Dream” and in particular the version that appears on Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool. It captures perfectly the inevitable existence and disappointment of American Dreaming. The speaker is addressing himself, the audience, and his lover—and his lover could be America itself. He’s conflicted:
Darn that dream, and bless it too.
Without that dream, I never could have you.
But it hurts me and it won’t come true.
Oh, darn that dream.
We can’t but bless our dreams, for they are what we are. But we should remember to darn them, too. Trump is president. The dream of the Electoral College blocking him is dead. Hillary Clinton’s dreams are dead and with them goes the beautiful dream that gender equality is nigh. Shit, shit, shit—but this is the reality we live in.
Come, un-dream with me, and maybe from the destruction of bad dreams we can build better ones. It’s not like America doesn’t have the makings. The people have shown signs of awaking. The last decade has seen a resurgence in street protests and activist movements from the Tea Party to Occupy to Black Lives Matter to the Women’s March on Washington. America un-dreamed the Cold War enough to let a socialist come close to the Democratic nomination. Even Trump is a rejection, however flawed, of the dream that the elites have all the answers. Trump’s dreams, too, will be rejected. John Lewis and Meryl Streep have an American dignity that will outlive every tweet Trump spits. I’m not counting America out just yet—though this is going to be intense. Buckle up.