These are dark times for American politics. The Democratic Party has fielded a historically unpopular candidate embroiled in scandals rigging democracy, mishandling, and lying about, classified information, and selling weapons to terrorists. The Republican Party has seized this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by anointing a chosen one so revolting that his promise of villainy makes his opponent’s real-world evildoing seem tame by comparison. And yet, so many GOP voters were entranced by Donald Trump that he may have a very real shot at the presidency. Does this mean American voters are crazy? Maybe. Does it mean they have lost hope in a bright future? Definitely. Trump’s successful candidacy was only made possible by the passing of the American Dream.
The death of the rags-to-riches entrepreneur mythos
Trump’s ascendance to the role of champion of a noteworthy chunk of America represents the death of the rags-to-riches entrepreneur mythos. In a country that still believed in the determined immigrant fighting his way to the top, no one would care about a trust fund kid who managed to increase his considerable wealth by unimpressive margins while building an empire centered solely around name recognition. Unfortunately, based on the outcome of the Republican primary in 2016, it would seem that the country has lost faith. In short, Trump has only risen because the American Dream is dying.
Acquisition instead of creation
The original entrepreneur legend glorified creators. These ingenious, scrappy, and relentlessly hardworking men and women earned their credit by building an enterprise (or series of enterprises) from the ground up. The entrepreneur made millions as a reward for making something of value for the world. Steve Jobs revolutionized and personalized mobile technology. Colonel Sanders gained fame and fortune during his twilight years for crafting a perfect fried chicken recipe that ostensibly lives on to this day. Elon Musk helped give us PayPal, a payment service a great many of us use regularly, revolutionized both the electric and self-driven automobile (to say nothing of upending the car distribution industry), and is busy trying to bring his mad scientist futurism to space as well. All these heroes of the business world reached glory because of some invention or company that has earned its mention in the history books. The attached name is incidental.
Contrast that with the acquisition-based mindset of Donald Trump. The man’s products and businesses are a relative mystery to most; the man himself, on the other hand, is known to all. Did he revolutionize the hotel industry? Redefine the way we approach apparel? Evolve the casino game? Not at all. Instead, Trump has simply used his considerable inheritance to acquire real estate and companies and brand them with his name. This is even reflected in his braggadocio. Instead of “Look at what I built,” the boast is “Look at how much I have.”
Manipulating the corrupt system instead of succeeding in spite of it
The linchpin of the American dream, what made it so uniquely American, was the free-market environment that allowed anyone to succeed. A peasant resigned to a life of poverty, barely feeding his family in his home country, could move to America, learn the language, and succeed in building a small fortune through relentless hard work and determination. This was because of a basic legal structure that protected property rights, while by and large letting people do what they wanted and keep what they earned. The entrepreneur of old hustled to find ways of providing value to all parties involved, and when faced with an obstacle simply worked harder.
The vaunted business acumen of Donald Trump is far different. Instead of playing fair and making it big by serving customers with a smile on his face, the real estate mogul clawed his way to the top through “making great deals,” crafting one-sided business agreements that leave him richer but hurt his partners and competition. His oft-discussed four bankruptcies are held as a badge of honor for losing other people’s money without incurring any personal loss, using laws established to protect the unfortunate to hack the system. This era’s entrepreneurial heroism does not aspire to success through playing fair, but through playing dirty. Winning fair and square is no longer an option, so we must cheat to win, as Trump has shown us.
Freedom to be vulgar, not spread dangerous ideas
Finally, Trump’s much-vaunted propensity to “speak his mind” is touted as a desperately needed pushback against political correctness in the name of free speech. In reality, it represents a nation’s abandonment of hope for truly free expression. The First Amendment-protected right to free speech was put in place by our forefathers to protect citizens against repercussions for spreading dangerous ideas. The American Revolution itself was sparked from the kindling of pamphlets and publications such as Common Sense extolling the merits of liberty from a tyrannical monarchy. Free speech was put in place to allow the spread of subversive ideas such as resistance to unjust taxation and the right for free Americans to govern themselves.
Now, in the age of terror watch lists, warrantless wiretapping, and mass collection of metadata, gone is the notion of unrestricted free speech. When the people watch what they say publicly to the point where they joke about being hauled away in cuffs for the errant Facebook post, all meaningful dissent is gone. All that remains is the cheap thrill of so-called political incorrectness, or the ability to offend sensibilities without bringing forth any worthwhile or dangerous ideas. Donald Trump’s vulgar and insulting tirades that hurt feelings are but a pathetic shadow of truly free speech that hurts empires.
America used to be the nirvana of opportunity. Paradise for the ambitious. The land of the free and the home of the brave, a realm of possibility. A place where dreams can come true. Now, all that potential is fast fading. As the light side of the American dream, characterized by hard work, innovation, and value creation is slowly choked out by taxes and regulations, only the dark side remains. And now it’s running for president.