AMERICAN DREAM IN THE AGE OF TRUMP
ANUBHAV PRADHAN feels that the US is no longer what it used to be, that the civilisational goals of progress and equality seem to have been superseded by sectarian interests favouring a carefully framed portion of the American population
Does the American Dream hold? Countless books, numerous songs, and movies have celebrated this ideal. Generations have grown up on it; hundreds of millions have flocked to the US of A in pursuit of this ultimate guarantor to success and happiness. The land of the free and brave has also been the land of milk and honey, the land of opportunities and possibilities. The aspiration to be in America, to breathe its free air, and to live the greatest of all dreams has vitally shaped American culture as much as American politics for more than a century now.
But does the American Dream continue to hold? Conservatism is on the rise. The gyres move, and slowly we are turning our backs to each other. We may be hyper-connected, but borders are becoming more rigid, neighbours more embittered. A near-nativist swerve to the right has occurred across continents, and shaken in its wake many of the givens of the global order. Suspicions and hostilities are now actively undoing the sacrifice and work of many millions in bringing a modicum of peace, liberty, and equality to the world after the devastations of empire and war. With inequity, tyranny, and terrorism rampant across both sides of the development divide, the great dreams of the 20th century — fervent gasps from an era of oppression and dictatorship — seem dim, forgotten memories of an impossible time and an impossible hope.
Is this too the fate of the American Dream in our age? Has the Donald Trump presidency put into motion forces which will alter the meaning of what it is to be American, to belong to America, and to claim a degree of Americanness? Is the American Dream finally crumbling, is America no longer the welcoming, migrants’ utopia it has apparently been?
There do seem to be indications of this happening. Almost a century after James Truslow Adams coined the term ‘the American Dream’ in his iconic, The Epic of America, the United States appears more divided than united. From questions of race to sexuality, ethics to politics, America is in fervour unseen in the past many decades. The consequences of almost half a century of ill-informed geopolitical machinations seem to have come home to roost, and mainstream America seems more militantly afraid of its enemies — perceived and otherwise — than ever before. Upward social mobility, the key watchword of the American Dream, seems increasingly available only to a narrowing minority of the rich and comfortable, while the remaining majority appears stuck in a vicious cycle of massive loans and crushing underemployment. The epic truth of frontier America may well have turned long back into the epic myth of America, but even that seems to be crumbling in our times.
Amongst these many blocs and divisions, the position of Indian Americans is peculiar. Indians first started migrating to North America in 1905, in the wake of enhancement of rates on irrigation water in the Punjab Canal Colonies. The ensuing Ghadar Revolution and the Hindu-German Conspiracy Case closed off America for Indians for almost half a century, putting in place a ban not too dissimilar from the one currently mooted by Trump. It was only in the mid-1960s that immigration norms were relaxed and Indians could again cross this frontier to the West. However, given the distance between India and America and the cost of travel, the first wave of immigrants, so to say, was highly educated and skilled. This comprised some of the best minds in the country, from predominantly engineering, medicine, and the sciences; it established a firm reputation abroad of the Indian diaspora being ingenious and industrious in equal measure. While later on, comparatively low skilled and low educated persons were allowed, and so were family members of already settled immigrants, this overarching perception of prowess and prosperity remains a hallmark of the Indian community in America. As Devesh Kapur, author of the recent, The Other One Percent: Indians in America, points out, Indians are amongst the richest ethnic communities in America because most of them reached it having the support of a considerably well-entrenched network in terms of education, caste, community, and class. The advantages accruing from this more or less privileged background allowed them to settle in more on their terms, unlike immigrants from other national and ethnic communities.
This leverage, however, seems to be producing a backlash. The prosperity of the Indian community in America, their educational accomplishments and entrepreneurial skills seem to be becoming flashpoints in a raging debate on Americanism, on the scope and horizon of what it is to be American. Trump’s election seems premised largely on the fears and frustrations of a wide swath of Americans. The narrative, all too familiar, repeated itself in the States with disturbing ease: Erosion of a traditional manufacturing base and hyper-concentration of wealth within an über privileged oligarchy causing widespread socio-economic distress, leading to frenetic calls for revival of national fortunes. Trump has been successful in consolidating this mass unease in his favour, in presenting himself as an autochthonic son of the soil despite the obvious racial and national plurality of even the white American legacy. This positioning is naturally against immigrants and foreigners, who are seen to take jobs and money outside the fold of what is seen as legitimately American. The doors of America are no longer as wide and welcoming as they were earlier.
Neelesh, an urban designer in the Bay Area, feels this acutely. As a highly skilled first generation migrant who went on to do a Masters from UCB, Neelesh is an asset to his firm as well as to the economy. He feels there are a lot of rumours and considerable confusion within the federal Government on what will be the most feasible policy to balance immigration with job creation. This, he feels, has been the cause of “major uncertainty” over his and his wife’s future prospects in the States. He also feels that subtle tweaks in the H1B norms will make it more difficult for not just employers to hire well-educated Indians like him, but also discourage fresh graduates below a certain income premium to successfully apply for the visa. While he does not see these reforms emerging from any palpable hostility towards migrants in California, he feels communities in many other States may well be glad to see drastic reduction in the number and variety of immigrants coming into America.
American Dream in the age of Trump
Similarly, Aditi, whose husband is a mechanical engineer in the Midwest, feels that uncertainty over the scope of the Employment Authorization Document (EAD) prevents her family from cogently planning their future. She feels that most couples like her — who are in their late twenties or early thirties and have been in the States for around five years — are in “a confused state of mind” and do not know if their future lies in the US or back in India. She rues the fact that she had to wait for two years before she could start working, and even then, she cannot be more than a substitute teacher despite being a postgraduate from one of the best universities in India. For her, “women who are here on spouse visa” face greater challenges than men because the legality of their stay is even more tenuous than their husbands’.
Others like Bedatri locate these challenges in the growing hostility towards foreigners in mainstream America. A versatile scholar of ancient South Asian history, Ruby has been in the States on a similar spouse visa. She feels that “the present political regime has certainly fanned prejudices, which were perhaps latent earlier”, and that “there seems to be a general distrust of all resident aliens, even legal ones, and this manifests in almost all spheres of life”. Likewise, Seema, a finance graduate from UCL, shares this anxiety. Seema moved to San Diego when her father, a public sector banker, was transferred there more than a decade ago from Mumbai. She feels that over the years, people have become “more racist”, and that though “California is pretty good, there are definitely parts of the country I’m afraid of going to”. For her, Trump’s presidency has definitely changed the environment and made it harder for even legal immigrants to be in America.
This deterioration in the atmosphere is palpable to someone like Rajeshwari, who came to Louisiana in the late 1980s for a Masters in industrial engineering. Linking hyper-nationalism to closet racism, she suggests that the re-surfacing of the Ku Klux Clan — “which was in hiding all these years” — reflects the tangible threat to all immigrants, including Indians, under Trump’s presidency. It is only under the present regime that these so-called fringe groups now feel “emboldened enough to hold parades and rallies”, and what seems to be at stake, as the incidence of these events increases, is the very nature of American democracy.
In a similar manner, Varun, who came to South Carolina in 2005 for a Bachelor’s degree in computer science, feels that “the American Dream has crumbled under Trump, especially for immigrants, and that deportations are at an all time high”. He sees this as a consequence of the parochial nationalism espoused by Trump, who is “a racist”. Nonetheless, he feels that the majority of America doesn’t share his views, and that the economy has done well so far under his presidency, adding that, “things are not so bad as long as you are a white American”.
That America seems to be becoming more colour conscious is also apparent to Jacqueline, a white American working as a physician’s assistant in the Triangle. She believes that “the small portion of the population whose anti-immigration ideas are motivated by racist feelings are much more vociferous than they were before because they feel supported”. She asserts that “immigrants have always been the life force and strength of the US, and seeing Trump and his anti-immigrant cronies in power is very frustrating”.
This unease is also shared by Deepika, a professor who studied and taught English literature in Tennessee for close to a decade before moving back to India in 2008. For her, hierarchy and class-consciousness are a part of American life, the way in which the American Dream is structured. She feels that the blind materialism of the American Dream, focused on social mobility at any cost, has brought intense ghettoisation of America’s diverse racial, national, and ethnic communities even as it has brought prosperity and comfort to many.
However, even as a cross-section of Indians seem to perceive radical changes in policy and public attitudes towards immigrants, some also feel that the present political dispensation is only working to discourage illegal immigration so as to protect its legitimate national interests. Vimlesh, an engineer with the federal Government, contends that the US is still more open and inviting than most European countries, and that ongoing policy recalibrations are oriented towards ensuring that “people don’t take shortcuts into the system”. Having moved to America more than three decades ago as an alumna of IIT-Delhi, Vimlesh feels that the US is “still a land of opportunity even as attempts are being made to ensure opportunistic people do not get in”. Her view is also shared by Agatha, a white American homemaker in North Carolina, who feels that the changes in immigration policy initiated by the Trump presidency were “needed for some time to crack down on those entering the country illegally, and we needed policies in place to slow the flow”. Even as she clarifies that she wants people from all countries to come here, she asserts that they must do so legally in order to “strive for their version of the American Dream”.
Is the American Dream crumbling then? Does it seem to no longer exercise that intoxicating tenacity which fills millions with hope of a better, more fulfilling life? The evidence collected for this article seems to suggest as much: That America is no longer what it used to be, that the civilisational goals of progress and equality seem to have been superseded by sectarian interests favouring a carefully framed portion of the American population. This framing is informed by considerations of race and class; though it is often generalised that these are wholly white, it would be mistaken to not consider the intersectionality of Trump’s appeal as he attempts to alter American politics and polity. Equivalently, it will be mistaken to also attribute this simply to the Trump presidency, for his support seems to emerge from deep channels of fear and mistrust. Indians in America, or those planning to settle in America, will have to be acutely cognisant of these altered realities: That this land may well not be theirs to call home in the future.
The writer is a Doctoral Candidate with the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia. The views expressed are his own
The article first appeared in The Sunday Pioneer
Image Courtesy: ellie-foreman-peck-trump-political-illustration-itsnicethat-2