Sadly, the American Dream is dead. But if I get elected I will bring it back bigger and better and stronger than ever before, and we will make America great again.
–Donald Trump, announcing his bid for president of the U.S. (June 16, 2015)
We have by now heard a litany of reasons why so many voters chose Donald Trump for president. Without discounting any of these helpful explanations (racism, sexism, economic disenfranchisement, anti-elitism, etc.), I would like to suggest another factor that accounts for Trump’s appeal to so many U.S. voters. Trump succeeded, in part, because he tapped into the most dominant thread of American religion.
The most powerful religion in America is America itself. America’s status as a religion is evident if one considers that typical ingredients of many religions fit America quite well. Our nation has sacred texts (the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence), a sacred symbol (flag), sacred hymns (the national anthem, “God Bless America”), holy days (Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, President’s Day), and a sacred myth of origins (pilgrims seeking religious freedom). We may lack a messiah, but that does not stop us from seeking one every four years.
The sacred ethos of our national religion is the American Dream. At the core of this Dream is a gospel of unlimited and unending success. James Truslow Adams, who coined the term in his 1931 book “The Epic of America,” defines the American Dream as an unfettered optimism about accomplishment: “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement…” America’s worship of success has zero tolerance for failure of any sort. In elevating success as the highest good, our cultural religion offers no healthy coping strategies for tragedy. There is no room at the inn for the tragic. Loss is an unacceptable and unforgivable heresy.
It is not a coincidence that losing is the one thing Donald Trump detests more than anything else. His commitment to winning is so complete that any hint of criticism must be responded to with a full throttled attack (e.g., Meryl Streep and John Lewis). Any trace of failure must be blamed on anyone and anything other than himself. His inability to cope with failure is part of a cultural pathology that lies at the root of the American Dream. Mr. Trump is not strong enough to be weak.
Donald Trump incarnates America’s gospel of success. Mr. Trump epitomizes—at least in his appearance—our nation’s religious ideology of personal, professional, and financial success. He embodies a certain kind—and veneer—of triumph that can be especially alluring to the economically disadvantaged.
In America’s gospel of success, the ultimate failure is death. It may be that every failure is in some way a reminder of that inevitable end which we are so desperate to deny. In his groundbreaking 1973 book “Denial of Death,” Ernest Becker argues that people are principally motivated by their terror of death. “It is the basic fear,” he maintains, “that influences all others, a fear from which no one is immune, no matter how disguised it may be.” “It is,” he writes, “the terror that we carry around in our secret heart.”
A study one year later by Philippe Ariès corroborated Becker’s thesis, and argued that in 20th century western civilization, death was gradually erased. Ariès identified the United States as the epicenter and origin of this revolution in banishing death. The trend toward denying death accelerated markedly between 1930-1950 when the locus of death shifted from home to the hospital.
Ariès argues that practical changes in the funeral ceremony facilitated this cultural exile of death. The family reception line was removed, dark clothing was no longer mandatory attire, the coffin became the “casket,” funeral homes were privatized, and with cremation the corpse disappeared. If the corpse was kept, embalming ensured that its deathly pallor was made tolerable.
The American Dream is a sacred cultural vehicle of the denial of death. In Becker’s terms, the American Dream is a vehicle of immortality for it enables us to imagine that we are part of a grander purpose that frees us from facing our future demise. In the American Dream death is sanitized and banished; success becomes our salvation. It is no accident that this fear and displacement of death would be so acute in the country that enshrined the pursuit of happiness as holy and inviolable. The American Dream is perhaps too big, and too happy, to fail. As a nation we are far closer to embracing the ethos of Voldemort (note the etymology) and his Death Eaters than we are to Rowling’s heroes who share in common a willingness to face death.
We already hear the predictable post-election talk of our national need to unify. Yet essential to our national spiritual and religious maturation will be finding ways of facing and embracing weakness, failure, and even death. We must end the charade that our national salvation lies in success. Winning is not the answer. Our religious vitality is dependent on embracing weakness and dwelling in the tragic. We must be strong enough to be weak. Our very humanity may depend upon it.
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- Donald Trump’s Victory and America’s Gospel of Success - January 17, 2017
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- Understanding the faith of Cathy McMorris Rodgers - January 30, 2014
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