In Grayson Perry’s documentary ‘Big American Road Trip’, he interviews an affluent woman in New York with a big house and a swimming pool. On the face of it, she holds all the relevant liberal views that one would expect from someone of her social status. But when Perry asks her if she considers herself a socialist, she replies ‘no’, adding; ‘I wish I was’. And this lies at the very heart of why the American Dream is so contradictory and divisive in today’s America


Debunking the American Dream

This woman was more honest than others like her. When Perry had dinner with another group of well-to-do east-coasters in Martha’s Vineyard, he suggested to them that they were part of a liberal elite, whose detachment from millions of ordinary Americans meant they were partly responsible for Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. This has become a rather tired cliché. After all, is Donald Trump not a member of the elite? And didn’t millions of Americans who are not wealthy (in particular African Americans), vote for Hillary Clinton? However, their response did rather prove Perry’s point. These people, who clearly pride themselves on being empathetic and on the right side of history, were extremely hostile to his suggestion that they might be anything else.

Interestingly, these people have much of what Americans, for generations, have been told they should aspire to. The myth of the American Dream tells people that if they work hard, they’ll do well, whatever their background. It was the dream of many generations of immigrants who saw America as the ‘Land of Opportunity’. But this story was never quite true. Even after the abolition of slavery, measures such as the racist Jim Crow Laws prevented millions of Black Americans for decades from enjoying any of the opportunities available to White Americans. Still, that American Dream was a compelling myth.

It’s clear that the people interviewed by Perry, and plenty of others like them, are not too keen on showing off their success. In fact, they even seem a little ashamed of it, which is evident from the New York woman’s reply about wishing she were a socialist. These people enjoy the fruits of American capitalism, but they would not necessarily take kindly to being held up as examples of what the American Dream should be all about.

Scepticism about the American Dream was evident in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 bitter romance, The Great Gatsby. Set in the ‘Roaring Twenties’, the novel’s central character is Jay Gatsby, a self-made millionaire. But Gatsby is not fulfilled. His dream is to be reunited with Daisy, a woman he met as a poor soldier. In order to win her back, he throws a huge party, in the hope that she will be there. She does turn up, and he tells her that he loves her. But she refuses to leave her husband. She loved him when he was poor but still refuses to be with him despite his extraordinary wealth. Later, we find out that Gatsby earned his millions from bootlegging alcohol. Fitzgerald’s novel reflects the greed and emptiness of the rich. The book can be read as a critique of the American Dream itself, where the dream does not buy you love or happiness. Too often, this dream is is not achieved through honest hard work.

Trump’s appealing frankness

In the same way, it could be said that the American elite of the twenty-first century is not so different from the one of Fitzgerald’s time. They are just more self-conscious.

But is this how most Americans view the American Dream? It’s no secret that Donald Trump is a rich businessman, and by any measure, part of the ‘elite’. But Trump doesn’t try to conceal his wealth. This is evident in the extravagance of the Trump Tower, with its gold-plated doors and chandeliers. Liberals might therefore be confused as to why voters in the so-called ‘rust-belt’ and the South resent them for being ‘out-of-touch’, but do not accuse Trump of the same aloofness.

It is true that his crude populism and bigotry appealed to some voters. This might be partly because, not despite the fact, that he is unashamed of his money. His honesty appeals to people, whereas the coyness of those in Perry’s documentary feels rather hypocritical. These Americans are themselves aspirational and believe that the American Dream is a core part of the nation’s identity. For them, the word ‘socialism’ is toxic. But despite their antipathy to socialism, they also view rampant globalisation as a hindrance to their ambitions, as it creates unfair competition. This is largely why Trump’s message on protectionism was so effective.

Interestingly, Trump slightly increased his share of the vote among Black and Hispanic voters in this year’s election. Although they loathe his nativism, many of these voters are also very driven and aspirational. Many own small businesses, and felt that (pre-Covid), they benefited from economic growth under Trump. And like many middle-class whites, they were probably anxious about the effect that lockdowns might have. For Cuban Americans ‘socialism’ is a particularly dirty word, as they have seen what it has done to Cuba.

One must therefore conclude that, while Trump lost, Trumpism is not dead. A Trumpian candidate, who is less openly bigoted and a bit more predictable, could easily win in 2024. Whoever that might be, the Democrats will have to start making aspiration and the American Dream central to their message once again.