Trompe l’oiel: The Bright Shining Illusion of the American Dream

by: James Michael

Coming to a dictionary near you: Trompe l’oiel; an abstract, divisive illusion that results in a fervent belief in something that doesn’t exist. See: Donald Trump…


On November 9th, 2016, in Minnesota, it was sixty degrees and the sun was blazing in the blue sky. I crept into the kitchen, without the benefit of much sleep. My finger hesitated, but then clicked on the countertop radio, a movement perhaps shadowed by thousands of Americans at that moment. We would all find that it was true, that Donald Trump had prevailed, had won the presidency, but not by popular vote — a historical footnote some future Ken Rudin might recite. This was the second such windfall to the Republicans in the last five elections. Trump had even flipped our eastern neighbor, Wisconsin, by one percentage point. The state of Minnesota was now surrounded by red. Nationally, even though Democrats won two Senate seats, the party I affiliate with still only had forty-six seats versus the Republican’s fifty-one. Likewise with the national House elections, Democrats made a net gain of three seats, but were still only holding one hundred and ninety-three compared to the Republicans two hundred and thirty-eight.

Republicans, in the wake of their lawlessness in blockading an Obama appointment to the Supreme Court to replace Anthony Scalia who died last February, were poised to have their will subjugated upon the masses in tremendous fashion. For someone who wasn’t invited to the Republican table, Donald Trump came bearing the most gifts.

On this September day, a strangely beautiful one considering what was occurring, it took a great effort to greet the few passers by I encountered. I came upon an older gentleman waiting for his poodle to finish its business and I made eye contact with him. I forced out a “hello” but the greeting wasn’t returned. He seemed to be looking right through me as if I didn’t exist. The next two people I passed averted eye contact altogether. That morning, even in my beloved capital, St. Paul, we needed to parse our greetings for they would be too much to give to the enemy. We were strangers in a colder, more dangerous world. Tears began leaking from my eyes.

On November 22nd, 1963, in Minnesota, it was sixty degrees and the sun was blazing in the blue sky. I had returned from lunch to my 6th grade Catholic school desk. It was constructed with a sturdy, darkly stained wood with wrought iron sides and an inkwell left over from the previous generations. The voice of Sister Dorothea came over the wood box monitor near the doorway. Normally, I could see her materializing out of the ether by the window transom when she made her regular announcements, floating like a Hindu mystic in her full black and white Carondelet habit. This time her transcendent demeanor had failed her. I could hear the static indicating her office microphone was on, but there was no voice for a few long seconds. Then a quavering voice announced, “As many of you may know, our president was shot a short time ago. I am sad to give you all the news that President Kennedy has died.” My classmates and I looked at each other, then to our teacher at the head of class. She was crying. On that bright November day, the whole world was crying. No adult was able to tell us what it all meant. The Soviet leader Khrushchev had promised, ”We will bury you!”; Did the Russians kill Kennedy? Were they coming now, I wondered.

I looked up from my desk, my eyes following the contour of the painted concrete floor in the hallway to a yellow and black Civil Defense Fallout Shelter sign that pointed down the stairs. Those stairs led to the school’s lower level lunchroom and a tunnel that had been set aside to protect us from the radiation fallout from atomic bombs and missiles sent from Russia.

But the bombs and missiles didn’t come, and somehow Democracy staggered through the tumultuous decades to follow. But it wasn’t until I served in the Air Force in the 1970s that I really started to understand the precarious power structure that guards our Democracy.

In the armed services they assign you a job, and you do it or you face a Court Martial. I had been told this ad nauseam since childhood, but it apparently never penetrated my thick skull. My assigned job in the Air Force was to be a Security Policeman at a Strategic Air Command base (Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington) protecting the bunkers and B-52 bombers that housed the atomic weapons to be visited on the enemies of Democracy. The job of guarding a B-52 uploaded with atomic bombs was called “humping.” This term referred to the act of walking around a diamond shaped red line for eight hours. Inside the red line was a B-52 Bomber loaded to the teeth with thermonuclear bombs. Just outside of the red line was me, armed with just a .38 revolver to keep the Ruskies at bay should they penetrate the Alert Area.   

The winter of 1971 into 1972 was particularly cold and snowy out on the flight line, but the fur-lined Air Force parka I wore was heavy and insulated me completely from the cold. There was an extra collar of fur around the face that could be turned out so that when I completely zippered the hood, I saw the world through a small tunnel of fur. From a womb of fur, I looked out at the sidelong snow borne on the wind, racing by the floodlights and the bombers in the Alert Area. I began to see my complicity in my chapter of American history.

For a time I became withdrawn and confused, but kept on humping my way through each shift. One morning, at the end of my eight hours, a truck picked up all the airmen assigned to the same Alert Area. The guy who had been on the post next to mine said “Hey man, I called out to you a bunch of times and you didn’t answer me. You looked like the Ghost from Christmas Past, your hood covered with snow, looking straight forward and shuffling like a zombie.And he was right. During my shifts protecting the bombers, I was physically present, but mentally, I was miles away.

My inner dialogue continued unabated as the days blurred past. I began to visit the base library and revisited our American history. I soon came to the conclusion that most everything maintaining the American way of life has been earned by way of plunder, but it wasn’t as if others wouldn’t have done the same things had they been giving the opportunity. I felt that the human race had evolved intellectually, but apparently, not much ethically or spiritually. From the books I read, I learned that religion was created as a way to explain the unknown which we fear, but then cynically, in parallel, I began to wonder if it hadn’t been created also to subjugate people, using this fear to make them comply. History and Religion tells us that Christianity dovetails so nicely with Manifest Destiny, doesn’t it? We were only doing God’s work by converting the Native Americans. And slavery was okay as long as the slave had been deemed subhuman and labeled as “property.” These concepts paved the way for our Constitution and a Bill of Rights that protected us and our “property. And that was good news for the Modern Man, for no matter how miserable your life is under the system, if you play by the rules, yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Inside my fur lined parka, I also began to wonder if low self-esteem, the root of the majority of humanity’s problems, wasn’t part of the reason organized religion flourishes. Man does not accept or trust himself, so he has to believe a “higher power” will take care of everything.

As the United States of America has aged, we have tried to see ourselves as a beacon of light to the world. But our history shows a slightly more Jekyll and Hyde duplicity, one that we Americans have learned to tolerate. Mr. Hyde is the monster inside all of us and from time to time perpetrates injustice, insensitivity and cruelty to the world. The benefit however is that the monster offers us a share of the spoils. There’s a reason why we only pay $2.50 for a gallon of gas and can buy a pair of Levis blue jeans for less than $50. All we need to do is pull the lever in the private voting booth to make it happen. Our well-established political system – and the Capitalism it is beholden to – does all the dirty work and we get the benefits of cheaper goods and labor.

After the Civil War, during Reconstruction, our two party system instituted the Jim Crow laws that helped keep African Americans as a servant class until 1965. The voting levers literally clicked that blatantly racist legislation into action. Then came the call to support the overthrow of other countries, driven via a few powerful Capitalists who needed an easy road to get the goods. The political pretext was the easy part. Click went the levers to support the overthrow of Hawaii and Cuba in the 1890’s. Click went the levers to elect Teddy Roosevelt, who arranged a military flotilla of sixteen battleships to make a world tour show of power in 1907. Click went the levers to overthrow the governments of Nicaragua, Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam, and Chile. By the time I left the Air Force and my fur lined parka behind, I was ashamed and humbled to have played an active part in such a toxic system. But I emerged from my years of service with my eyes wide open, much more aware of the cause and effect rhetoric that drives modern Democracy.

Then came the 1980’s and things took on a surreal edge. President Reagan became an avatar of the new conservative movement. I remember laughing out loud at his tawdry comparison of grocery carts before Carter and after the Carter Administration (This still didn’t prepare me for the 2016 elections!). He called out for America to be openly proud of its efforts of greed and plunder. There would be no more grey area when it came to politics. One issue voting, usually concerning abortion, would morally or fiscally oblige someone to vote for a person they might not like or trust. It was just like the old days…

In the 80’s, long black limousines – those traveling poster boards for conspicuous consumption – lined the glistening marques of the better theaters and restaurants in the Twin Cities. The doors were held open for the nouveau riche; real estate developers bankers and lobbyists. Just off to the sides of the cordons stood the freshly vanquished enemies of the state; street people pushing grocery carts between the soup kitchens, the library and their dirty bedrolls under freeway overpasses. Under President Reagan’s smiling visage and friendly wave, a class war had emerged. Sixty two hostile corporate takeovers happened between 1984 and 1986. When the profitable divisions were sold out of state and overseas, mass firings and lays-off followed. Reagan mortally wounded our trade unions. He would leave the nation with a 2.7 trillion dollar trade deficit. Hostilities from that moment forward would evolve from overthrows to outright invasions. See Granada, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc…

Click, Click, Click…

On some level, middle class citizens realized that there wasn’t much of a trade-off left for them and they clicked, clicked for a conservative Democrat named Bill Clinton. President Clinton pushed the United States forward in many ways, like lowering the national debt and trying to enact a national Health Care Bill. But President Clinton also coddled to Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. He advocated for limiting welfare, lowering the Capital Gains Tax and he helped plant the time bomb that brought on the Subprime Mortgage Crises in 2008, which made the bed for the death knell of America’s middle class. The new law was called the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which repealed the part of the 1933 Glass–Steagall Act that was meant to help prevent another Depression. It was intended to keep banking, securities and insurance companies separate. The Democratic Party’s fingerprints’ and signatures’ were all over this document. When the bottom dropped out in 2008, Democrats couldn’t look America in the eye, they just looked at their shoes and it seems they are still doing that to this day, because the laws for bank minimum reserves are still precariously low.

Fast forward to the 2016 election and understand why even dyed-in-the-wool Democrats wouldn’t put a Hillary sign in their yard. The news of Hillary’s twenty-two million in speaker’s fees from various sectors, including the Financial Industry, brought home a bitter cynicism that played out in click, and clicks.

That brings us to today. It seems Donald Trump was able to make a personal pact with voters to defy the due process of Democracy, to participate in an act of political terrorism. To make his telegenic persona – that P.T. Barnum on steroids – the only circus they wanted to come to town and by god, so many click, click, clicked.

Republicans should be nervous. In their clown suits, they will be gathered in the center ring under President Trump’s baton, jumping through flaming hoops, and performing high wire stunts without nets. Shot from cannons even.

In the weeks before Donald Trump’s inauguration, he has been very busy. He has given no quarter to our nation’s sentiment and he plans the greatest defunding and deregulating party on Earth. But interestingly, something unexpected has happened inside me. With each new preposterous appointment and outlandish statement President-elect Trump has made, there has been a growing sense that the pieces of his cruel and vacuous vision for America could never take hold; he’s already at war with the government’s intelligence community, the press and other high-ranking Republicans. He seems bereft of a real belief system, morals or even ethics to guide him. And in the final analysis, contrary to President-elect Donald Trump’s belief, he didn’t take power; people gave him power and it will be taken away when we realize they have a full-blown Caligula on their hands.


2 replies on “Trompe l’oiel: The Bright Shining Illusion of the American Dream”
  1. says: Brian Barnes

    Absolutely right on the money. There is the myth of America’s past and what it means, a myth full of heroics and devoid of the wrongs wrought by this country upon its own citizens and those of other countries. The misguided dogmas of American exceptionalism, Christian “righteousness”, corporate privatization / unlimited free markets, and violence as the best solution are undermining a future that looks like the 21st century. Instead, it looks like the 19th century. Or the 11th.

Comments are closed.