The prospect, and the imminent reality of Donald Trump's presidency strike many Americans as the worst political nightmare that could have ever happened. Racism, misogyny, demagoguery - all duly confirmed during Trump's first two weeks as President-elect - are the main monsters ushering the new American era. The nightmare seems endless. Can we ever wake up?
Yes, we can, but not without a severe hangover that will annihilate our ability to dream altogether. And that is a good thing, because the Trump Nightmare and the American Dream are siblings, born of the same mother. They have suckled the same milk, and made their first steps together.
Two writers, born in different times yet struggling with similar demons, can help us understand the intrinsic connection between Trump Nightmare and the American Dream. The first one is Hannah Arendt, and the second one is Ta-Nehisi Coates.
In philosophical and non-philosophical circles Hannah Arendt is most known for her work on totalitarianism and the nature of evil. With The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem she has acquired a fame that transcends university halls and academic journals. Her phrase 'the banality of evil' has entered mainstream vocabulary and is shared widely whenever there is need to describe meaningless wrongdoing.
However, one of her most underappreciated works is The Life of the Mind, published posthumously in 1978, three years after her death. It was her last work, which she started in 1971 as a series of lectures and never managed to finish.
In this book Arendt offers her philosophy of mind and argues for a compelling thesis that the human faculty of thinking is one of the conditions that make individuals abstain from evil-doing. This is because a thinking person, as she says, is not a passive object of time or of prevailing social norms. A thinking person is a 'fighter who defends his own presence and thus defines what otherwise might be indifferent to him as "his" antagonists: the past, which he can fight with the help of the future, and the future, which he fights supported by the past.'
In other words, thinking represents a person's insertion in and mastering of time itself. History is made by reflection. Thinking is a quintessential ability that defines what humans are, and can be. It is the equivalent of being - only a thinking person is fully alive. 'Unthinking men are like sleepwalkers', she says. When people don't think they 'hold fast to whatever the prescribed rules of conduct may be at a given time in a given society.' If the rules of conduct are bad, people will be bad too. Non-thinking is the root cause of evil, and Adolf Eichmann, a non-thinking object of time and Nazi norms, is the perfect example of that.
Arendt's idea of thinking rests on a difference between thinking-as-being and thinking-as-knowing. Knowing is always driven toward a pragmatic goal, which is finding the truth. Contrary to that, Arendt argues that the purpose of thinking is not only to find out the truth. She takes over Kant's distinction between Vernunft (reason) and Verstand (intellect) to argue that while the latter desires to grasp what is available to the senses, the former wishes to understand the meaning. That is why the practice of thinking never stops. No matter how much we know, or think we know, we must never cease to think, lest we want to live without meaning.
Between the World and Me by American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates (published in 2015) is not a philosophy book, and it doesn't aim at addressing any philosophical issues, at least not in the formal sense. It discusses racism in America, and it is not written as a sociological or philosophical treatise, but as a letter from a father to a son. On the surface of things it has nothing to do with Hannah Arendt. However, if one digs deeper the common threads start to appear.
Coates writes about the American Dream, a set of culturally shared and reproduced ideas about American exception, excellence and well-being. The Dream is 'perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations and driveways ... treehouses and the cub scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.'
But, as Coates argues, that Dream is a lie, conjured by historians and Hollywood. It is not the dream of America, it is the dream of white America, built on the sweat and bones of African slaves, and made to 'control, exploit, and break black bodies'. Hundreds and thousands of black, red and brown Americans have never been part of the Dream. They have always been rejects, an unwanted nightmare. In the book Coates warns his son to be wary of the Dream, not to give in to its alluring muses, and to recognize its sinister effects.
Coates' description of the Dream fits well with Arendt's portrayal of the inert flow of time and the social norms we unreflectively inherit. When we apply Arendt's lessons to Coates' thoughts, we realize that to believe the American Dream means not to think, not to insert oneself in time and reflect on its direction. Fittingly, to believe the Dream is to be a sleepwalker, a half-living being, a zombie of time and history.
But, believing the Dream is not merely to be delusional about reality. It is to be oblivious about the constitutive link between the Dream and evil-doing. Coates' idea of the Dream as the flipside of racial exploitation reveals this link, because without it, as he writes, the Dreamers would 'have to determine how to build their suburbs on something other than human bones, how to angle their jails toward something other than a human stockyard, how to erect a democracy independent of cannibalism.'
Donald Trump's 'Make America Great Again' campaign is a variant of the American Dream, and this in part, probably, explains its success. It generates a fantasy of a genuine American social and economic success based on ignoring the plight, or in some cases on pure hatred of non-white minorities. The fact that Trump's message about restoring American greatness has always been adjoined by explicit and implicit disgust of Mexicans, Muslims, African-Americans, and others, best confirms the common grounds the Dream shares with the Nightmare. The more America is 'great', in Trump's ideology, the more it will be discriminatory, exclusive, and xenophobic.
Arendt's thesis that evil is conditioned by non-thinking best corroborates Coates' connection between the American Dream and the racist and exploitative nightmare that serves as its evil, but necessary, twin. Dreaming is by definition non-thinking, flowing through time and history as driftwood, existing only as a sleeping body. With Trump's victory America dove deeper into the dream, like an ignorant sleepwalker, immersed in fantasy and oblivious of the dangers ahead.
In order to wake up from Trump Nightmare, Americans must first wake up from the American Dream. This requires reflection and re-examination of American foundational myths, such as historical exceptionalism, intrinsic goodness, and the value of greatness. It requires rejecting the mental monopoly the mainstream media and social network bubbles have imposed upon us, and focusing on practical issues that matter, such as concrete, physical, and fragile lives of many Americans, from poor Appalachians in West Virginia to Native Americans in North Dakota. It requires incessant daily work of each and every one of us in making this society better, inch by inch, act by act, deed by deed. It perhaps requires rekindling pragmatism, the most American philosophy of all, and asking not what kind of an idea best describes what America truly is, but asking what kind of practice will bring us to a better place.
It's not going to be easy. But, it's the only way to step out of the fantasy and enter reality.