American Nightmare: Trump denies the Dream to who he fears
PUBLISHED: 14:10 20 January 2017 | UPDATED: 14:10 20 January 2017
The American Dream belongs to every US citizen, but Donald Trump has denied it to many. As he is sworn in to office, Bonnie Greer remembers her earlier protest against another "Strong Man" president
I went to my first Washington protest in the Nixon era.
The anti-Vietnam War organisation that was sponsoring us had organised a bus, a scruffy smelly thing that chugged along and sometimes broke down on the highway. That was OK, but a few of us on board – we African-Americans – didn’t want that bus to break down in Indiana. A state where there were branches of the KKK.
We were kids, just in university and all sizes and shades. We had come from different communities, different walks of life. But the thing that we had in common, besides our youth, was a Dream of America.
Our parents had emerged from the war years full of hope and belief.
It had been easier for some, much harder for others. But we, their children, had been given the best that they could afford and more. We knew it, and we loved them for it.
Yet their obsessions with conformity – with God and with war – were not ours. We were loud about our feelings and knew we were right.
After all, a best-selling book on how to raise children ushering in a new kind of paediatrics had emerged with us. Our mothers and fathers were no longer expected to leave us to our own devices after we were watered and fed, as their parents had done. We were paid attention to; we were cherished. Adored.
So riding to the White House – to the seat of power – to protest was a natural thing for us. It was an expression of our will, a living of our Dream.
Our history prof, who was with us on the bus, had announced to us one day in class that Richard Nixon would bring disgrace to the office of president .
We had only known of him – as we had known his predecessor, Lyndon Baines Johnson – as a man to oppose, to drive out of office. We didn’t know then that he had undermined Johnson’s efforts to pull out of the Vietnam War; or that there were forces aligned with him that were actively working to exploit white Southern rage after the height of the civil rights era. We didn’t know that “Nixon” was a coalition of forces ranging from centre right to far right.
His campaign slogan screamed: “Nixon’s The One!” But he was many.
The things our prof told us – about Nixon’s tricks during his initial political campaign for Congress in California two decades earlier – were just stuff to us.
He had threatened to bring “law and order”. But instead he brought increased surveillance and a sense that the country could neither trust its government, nor the people next door. We sensed – as young people – that what he really was, was a “Strong Man”, like our fathers had aimed to be. So this – and he – were what we rebelled against, what some of us may have secretly longed for.
Nixon fell, but, 40 or so years later, the “Strong Man” is here.
And president of the United States. Again.
When Freud was asked once what he thought of America, he is said to have replied: “It’s a mistake. A gigantic mistake.” No one knows exactly what he meant, but I think it’s about The Dream. And how we fight to make it true.
Every American has a Dream-narrative of the US – complete with soundtrack running through their heads. It belongs to us. It’s our birthright. Often we build it out of movies and self-help manuals; out of the past of our parents and those before them. We build it out of what our teachers tell us, and also, out of our own determination to move “forward”.
The president of the United Sates is the incarnation of The Dream – collectively and individually. We see the holder of that office as both monarch and citizen. The president is Commander-in-Chief; is sacred and secular. The office is full of the romantic things that we believe the nation to be and which we extend outwards from ourselves and to the world, while never venturing into the world unless we “have to”.
We see the world through the filter of dreaming.
“Dreams are made for children”, Shirley Temple sang to us in a very popular television show decades ago, shimmering in her gossamer dress and shiny crown, waving her magic wand as she emerged from the mist. She embodied for America the dreams we really wanted: transcendence; growth; safety and stability.
Sir Christopher Meyer, a former UK ambassador to Washington, said recently that during his time in DC he banned the term “special relationship”. Now there’s a Dream term if ever there was one.
To Sir Christopher, special relationship is phony, romantic, incorrect. He points out that the special relationship is mostly on the UK’s side, an idea mainly promulgated by Churchill during the Second World War in order to keep the isolationist US awake to the dangers of Hitler. In other words, keep America onside.
When Clement Attlee, after the war, tried to get aid from the US in order to rebuild a bankrupt and wiped-out United Kingdom, he was given a loan instead.
On our bus to Washington, all those years ago, we played the Beatles and Led Zeppelin; the Stones, everything. The UK was cool and fun – a kind of fantasy.
It was a “Canada-Across-The-Ocean” a place not our Daddy’s, where we didn’t have to worry about speaking anything other than English. America’s Dream of the UK is made up of all of all sorts of clichés and fantasies. Dreams.
When Michael Gove recently asked Donald Trump if the UK was in “the front of the line” re: post-Brexit trade deals, Trump replied something like “You’re doing great”. This was splashed in the press as “UK In Front Of The Line”. As a Dream.
And so Theresa May will go to Washington interpreting Trump’s words as an affirmation. Trump will see her as his Iron Lady. And the dreaming will continue. On both sides.
The Inauguration of the President is ritual; coronation; sacred anointing; The Dream Made Flesh.
America, invented in the Age of The Enlightenment to embody its ideals of freedom and to extend them beyond the elite to ordinary people, finally, at the ceremony in the Washington Mall, comes into its own in the purest sense: “the peaceful transition of power”.
Winston Churchill, son of an American heiress whose family name – Jerome – is the name of an avenue in Brooklyn, understood the American Dream and how to exploit it. He flattered and cajoled – for the sake of his people – an America which never really existed. And still doesn’t. He appealed to what was struggling to come into being, something noble, something about freedom for all.
When the civil rights icon, Congressman John Lewis calls Trump “illegitimate” he is right. He is right because Trump denies the Dream to whom he fears, he hates. He parcels it out; defines it according to his will; his preference. His inauguration therefore becomes both a repudiation of the American Dream and, too, a call-to-arms. Not a literal one, but an arming of our minds and our spirits.
We are being called to stay true to what we have strived for across the generations and not to succumb to the “Trump Reality”: the twisting of facts; the repudiation of knowledge; the denial of legitimacy. The crushing of dissent.
We students rode to Washington with our teacher because it was what we had to do. We got off at a diner in Pennsylvania, in the backwoods, early in the morning.
It was a diner for hunters, their shotguns in their arms, their hunting jackets on, eyeing us over their coffee and eggs and bacon. They weren’t much older than us. So we told them where we had come from, and where we were going and why.
We got a torrent of abuse and when I think about it, we were lucky to only get that. They called us everything, but the name I remember now is “elite”. We were “The Elites”. It didn’t matter that many of us were the children of factory workers. We were at university and therefore people to despise and to distrust.
The Vietnam War was to “stop the domino effect”, one man shouted at us. The War was to stop the “Commies” from coming to the USA. If we protested the War, we were no better than they.
“That’s what Nixon’s done,” our prof said as we made it back to the bus and got the hell out of Pennsylvania. “These people haven’t had a raise in years. They’re not going to have one for years to come, because their industries are dying. Nixon knows this. So he diverts them. It’s an old ploy.”
Eventually, we got to the White House.
Back then you could get up closer to it than you can now. Somebody even got on the lawn.
We protested against the war and then went home and back to uni.
And Nixon did what our prof had prophesied: he disgraced the office and began the journey for my generation in which many learned to trust nobody. Except maybe Trump.
It was around that time in Washington that I began to dream, too.
I dreamt of living in Great Britain... where I could be in the wide, unafraid world.
Bonnie Greer is an American-British playwright, novelist and critic.