Vilsan ’19: Trumping the American Dream

Staff Columnist
Wednesday, March 2, 2016

There is no European Dream, at least not in the literary sense. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby never threw a glamorous party in Southern France, not because he couldn’t afford the catering, but because there was no green glimmer of hope on the dock across the water. Eternal optimism and an ingrained belief that hard work leads to prosperity simply aren’t embedded within the European ethos. But in the United States, everyone from Hollywood to suburbia recognizes some version of the American Dream — whether it’s because they’re living it or reading about someone who is.

Perhaps this is why so many wide-eyed students (myself included) travel halfway across the world for a shot at the green glimmer of the American dream. Particularly in countries where corruption is more prevalent, the idea of American meritocracy is appealing. When I came to Brown, I chose to hop on a plane, hopeful that the destination would live up to its narrative.  Yet, as Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-VT, preaches, the American Dream is looking more like a nightmare nowadays , and the Gatsbys of the world are looking an awful lot like Trump. Both idealize the past in hopes that, if they pour their hearts and wallets into it, it will materialize before them.

In the eyes of a trusting foreigner, America’s modern interpretation of imperialism can look like a benevolent mission to spread the illusive Dream across the globe. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt told the American public that they had “nothing to fear but fear itself,” he seemed to be speaking to a much larger population, convincing the world at large that, as long as America is strong, everything else will fall into place. So what happens when the White House no longer champions equal opportunity? How hypocritical would it be of the United States to pat itself on the back for its democratic values while the President explicitly denies democratic freedoms? Would Trump’s administration be the tipping point in Gatsby’s idealistic dreaming?

Trump’s presidential campaign seemed like a joke at first — something to watch so you could banter at the water cooler the next day. But as months passed, despite every misogynistic comment and racist tirade, the votes keep pouring in, and Trump still stands in the center of the debate stage. Even if Trump doesn’t become president, can we really celebrate knowing he came so close? Yes, this year’s election made great television. But when the race is over and the dust has cleared, we might have to come to terms with the fact that the American public image has regressed. To be fair, the American image overseas has been tarnished by controversial policy choices before Trump was even on the radar. From relations with Cuba to interventions in Iraq to scandalous rumors emerging from the White House, the American reputation is far from clean.

However disillusioned foreign observers may have become over the past decades, Trump’s ascension to political fame seems to be the final proof that the United States isn’t the political powerhouse it used to be. But, despite questionable policy choices of the past, from race relations to nuclear weapons, the United States has been able to maintain the image of a nation that takes responsibility for global peace and champions democracy. American foreign and domestic policy has been criticized by the nation’s allies in the past, but largely behind closed doors. In January, the English parliament held a debate to mock Trump’s candidacy. Sure, U.S. presidents have experienced their share of international criticism, but none have brought this degree of humiliation to their people.

With each primary, it’s becoming more of a possibility that the 2017 inaugural speech will end with a red-faced promise to “make America great again.” A quarter of a century ago, the United States stood on a pedestal, wagging the finger of democracy at the Berlin Wall. Today, a percentage of the American population that is too large to overlook supports a wall keeping Mexicans and Muslims  out of the country. No matter the outcome of the presidential election, the American Dream no longer has the meaning it used to evoke. The New York skyline is no longer a symbol for towering hope and opportunity, but a representation of Trump’s ability to turn economic success into political power.

Though I’ve been speaking in hypotheticals so far, there’s a need to consider the possibility that Trump will suffer a terrible defeat, that the nation will uphold the values in its Constitution, that immigrants will be welcomed from every corner of the world, that the green light across the water will shine once more and that our grandchildren will be shocked to hear that The Donald was ever a frontrunner. After all, we do live in the land of possibility.

Fabiana Vilsan ’19 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to