As an avid reader, writer, and former English teacher, I am drawn to symbolism, especially when it concerns the American character and who we are as a people.
Celebrating our American Dream “from sea to shining sea,” then, represents polar differences in how we define ourselves: the Statue of Liberty, our towering commitment to democracy and a steadfast belief in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” is to the east, and then there’s the Hollywood sign, the blinding allure of glamour and everything in excess, to the west.
More than a year ago, I viewed Donald J. Trump running for president as little more than a sideshow, a joke. He was a clown, full of bombast, and everything that could be wrong about capitalism and reality TV.
Then Trump was elected.
Since that election, I have returned often to American novelist John Gardner’s essay written for the bicentennial, written just four years before Ronald Reagan became president. Gardner argued that the American Dream was not dead, as some people claimed: “That idea — humankind’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — coupled with a system for protecting human rights — was and is the quintessential American Dream. The rest is greed and pompous foolishness — at worst, a cruel and sentimental myth, at best, cheap streamers in the rain.”
I struggle to share Gardner’s optimism, because in 2016 the U.S. chose “cheap streamers in the rain” by electing Trump.
As an academic, I have tried to come to terms with both what happened and what this means.
First, having rechristened the U.S.A. “Trumplandia,” I have decided that this moment in history is far more about us as a people than about Trump as an individual.
Trump was elected by 26 percent of the eligible voters, only 19 percent of the U.S. population. This significant minority of support, however, has inordinate power in our country. If some wish to shout that Trump is destroying the country, I would caution these paltry percentages are where our concerns should lie.
And if we dig deeper, despite disturbing audio exposing Trump’s crass language and sexist attitudes, 51 percent of white women voted for him. Research also suggests that a fear of diversity lurked beneath his base’s concerns about jobs and the economy.
If democracy is dead in the U.S., this is our negligence, not the caveat of a sideshow barker.
And, yes, I share grave concerns about Trump the person: his serial adultery and predatory behavior toward women, recurring bankruptcy, racist and xenophobic inflammatory language, and cavalier to pathological lying.
Trump appears to suffer almost no negative effects for who he is, and I am suspicious it is because some, maybe many, people have decided the ends justify the means.
The rise of Trumplandia is not just about an election; it is about policy — and political rhetoric that is “a cruel and sentimental myth,” to return to Gardner.
If we set aside reality TV Trump and his distracting Twitter rants, we find threads of enduring, and flawed, politics regularly in the Republican agenda, but also in Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
The Trump administration has already called for choice and individual responsibility in education and health care. Domestic and international policy is grounded in traditional fear mongering about “bad dudes” — misleading code for those who we should fear as we walk our streets and those who we should be afraid of from afar.
Trump in essence, although not in manner, and his administration are mainstream politics beneath the veneer of reality TV, his outrageous hair, and more lies than we can count.
The evidence that Trumplandia is about us and not Trump himself has already arrived with the bombing of Syria, which prompted national and media claims that Trump has finally acted presidential.
Sword rattling and glamourizing war are the echoes of hundreds of films from Hollywood drowning out Trump’s campaign trail attacks on veterans.
If you wish to point a finger at Trump, be my guest, but remember the cliché about more fingers pointing back at you.
Welcome to Trumplandia, where “the rockets’ red glare” announces exactly who we are regardless of what we say.
P.L. Thomas, former high school English teacher and current professor of education at Furman University, has most recently published “Trumplandia: Unmasking Post-Truth America” (Garn Press, 2017), blogs at radical eyes for equity, and tweets under @plthomasEdD.