“Manhattan is a tough place,” says Donald Trump in the voiceover to the opening credits of The Apprentice. “If you’re not careful, it can chew you up and spit you out.” The camera cuts to a homeless man lying prostrate on a bench, presumably to underscore The Donald’s message that the man really should have been more careful. “But if you work real hard, you can really hit it big, and I mean really big,” he continues. Cue montage of Trumpian bigness- private planes, fancy parties and a series of objects emblazoned with the word TRUMP in gold letters.
This short sequence is essentially the Cliffs Notes for the American Dream. Hard work will lead seamlessly to stratospheric success, while homelessness is essentially just another word for carelessness.
This story, or some version of it, is the mighty engine that propels the American experiment. Greatness is within all of our grasp, and there are no problems, just “opportunities.” (The filthy bathroom in my local supermarket actually displays a sign saying: “If this restroom fails to meet your expectations, please inform us of the opportunity”—as if reeking puddles of urine are merely an inspirational occasion for personal growth.)
It’s the basic trope of every inspirational meme, every graduation speech. Reach for the stars. Never give up. Be the hero of your own life. Little by little, the American Dream has become the American Basic Expectation.
This is my new piece for Time.com. Read the rest here and please share on Facebook/ Twitter etc. Thank you!
And if you are interested to read more about happiness and anxiety in America, why not pre-order my book, America the Anxious, How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks (out October 2016.) UK readers can order here, under the title The Pursuit of Happiness and Why It’s Making us Anxious (Hutchinson, Penguin) Thank you!