We must reject Trump's coup on the American dream

We must reject Trump's coup on the American dream
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In June 2015, from a podium inside Trump Tower in Manhattan, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden campaign: Trump and former vice president will have phone call about coronavirus Esper: Military personnel could help treat coronavirus patients 'if push comes to shove' Schumer calls for military official to act as medical equipment czar MORE kicked off his presidential campaign by declaring the American dream dead. It was more xenophobia-tinged fearmongering from a man who had spent the previous years questioning President Obama’s place of birth. But he was dead wrong: Obama had rescued the country from the grips of economic upheaval and put America back on course for sustainable growth.  

Invoking the ideal of the American dream as a political ploy is not new. But weaponizing it to convince Americans that the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness can only be revived by a single man is unprecedented in our country. 

That is what Trump did in declaring his candidacy for president, and that is exactly what he has done throughout his first term. He has doubled down on the deeply cynical lie that America’s greatness is contingent upon his grip on power — that the institutions meant to protect our liberty and prosperity are disposable.     

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We must reject this coup on the ideal of the American dream, which is much bigger than any one public figure or presidential administration. 

The phrase “American dream” was first penned by James Truslow Adams, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, in his 1931 book “The Epic of America.” Adams described the American dream as a “religious emotion, a courageous leap in to the dark unknown,” and he ascribed to it the desires of everyday Americans and citizens elsewhere to be “freer, richer and more independent.”

“The American dream that lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that doubtless counted heavily,” Adams wrote. Rather, “it has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had been erected in older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had been developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being in any and every class.”  

While his “The Epic of America” became an instant bestseller, Adams’ phrase only slowly gained traction with American presidents. His contemporaries – Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy – used it rarely. It was not until the late 1960s that the “American dream” appeared in dozens of speeches by Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. 

But it took Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and William Jefferson Clinton to turn the phrase into an all-American brand, one that at once could be both incredibly partisan and uniquely unifying. And then George W. Bush and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaPoll: More Republican voters think party is more united than Democratic voters Can you kill a virus with a gun? Biden's pick for vice president doesn't matter much MORE burnished that global brand with their own courage on incredibly divisive issues like immigration reform and health care reform. 

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What strikes us is how each later president built on his predecessors’ use of the phrase and expanded it to address ever more difficult issues. The phrase was often used as a political cudgel against opponents. But it was also used as a lever to move a recalcitrant Congress to act nobly.

A president’s commitment to the “dream” became a catalyst for action — tenant farmers (Roosevelt), a better life for the next generation (Truman), medical care and hospitals (Eisenhower), civil rights (Johnson), college education (Nixon), home ownership (Ford), environmental protection (Carter), a beacon of freedom (Reagan), immigration reform (Bush and Bush), small businesses (Clinton) and jobs (Obama).

And Sisyphus-like, Republican and Democratic presidents alike have pushed the American dream up Capitol Hill, taking turns at expanding upon the original clarion calls to become a “freer, richer more independent” nation.

It was Gerald Ford, who governed during our nation’s bicentennial celebration, who best captured what the phrase should mean to all of us. “No, the Nation has not been torn with irresponsible reaction. Rather, we are blessed with patience, common sense, and a willingness to work things out. The ‘American dream’ is not dead. It simply has yet to be fulfilled … has yet to realize its greatest contribution to civilization.”

With impeachment behind us, we cannot ignore the American nightmare that now keeps us awake at night. 

After three years of attacks by Trump and his administration on the federal institutions that help ensure our liberty and prosperity, the American dream and America’s very democracy are being challenged like never before.

And across the whole of the developed world only Russia is being deinstitutionalized to the same degree that the Trump administration is hollowing out America’s federal underpinnings.

Instead, as 13 former presidents have shown us, it’s time for each of us to use the inherent power of the American dream to unify our country, come together to meet its challenges here and abroad and work as one to secure for future generations an American dream that never dies. 

Leo Hindery Jr. is co-chair of the Task Force on Job Creation and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Formerly the CEO of AT&T Broadband and its predecessor, Tele-Communications Inc., he is an investor in media properties. Rick Sloan led the Union of Unemployed during the Great Recession and is the author of “A Novel Approach to the American Dream.”