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Arnold Bertram | Is the American dream becoming a nightmare? (Pt 1)

Published:Sunday | November 20, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Arnold Bertram
Students from several high schools rally after walking out of classes to protest the election of Donald Trump at City Hall in downtown Los Angeles on November 14.
Hillary Clinton could not shake the ghosts of her husband's past.

In what must be the most momentous US presidential elections, rural America led a path-breaking, working-class revolt against the neo-liberal policies introduced by Ronald Reagan and maintained, not only by both George H. and George W. Bush, but surprisingly by Bill Clinton as well. It was a revolt that put an end to the dynastic ambitions of both the Bush and Clinton families and opened the doors of the White House to Donald Trump, a brash, racist demagogic billionaire who the majority of Americans considered a "most unfit candidate for office".

The more perceptive Democrats quickly sensed that the election of Trump represented a clear and present danger, and took to the streets in widespread protests in Boston, New York, Atlanta, Austin, Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles and Washington.

Trump's supporters, led by the white supremacists, were quick to respond. The Ku Klux Klan planned a day of celebration, while vigilante groups in Texas threatened to "go arrest and torture those deviant university leaders spouting off all this diversity garbage", and immigrants began receiving letters under their doors threatening them with eviction.

For the first time, America will be led by a president whose campaign rhetoric has given licence to the racial violence, which is already putting Americans at each other's throats. The American dream could quickly become a nightmare.




The view that America should be a nation of 'northern European immigrants' only did not begin with Trump supporters. The Puritans, who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620 and settled in New England, also shared this view and lost no time in waging a war of genocide against the indigenous North American Indians.

In 1637, this devoutly religious group invaded an Indian settlement and demonstrated just how cruel and inhumane they could be.

"The two entrances to the stockade were guarded to prevent any escape and then a torch was applied. Five hundred men, women and children were burnt to death. The Puritan leader merely remarked that by the providence of God, there were 150 (Indians) more than usual at home that awful night." (Bertrand Russell).

Racial violence against African-Americans was not only a way of life in the South, but over time spread even to the industrial North. In July 1917, in East St Louis, "Mobs of heavily armed white men lugging cans of petrol descended on the black district and started firing at will at any black person in sight and setting fire to the district." Those who tried to outrun the white mobs were "shot down like rabbits and strung up to telegraph poles". "The most sickening incident of the evening came when they put a rope around the Negro's neck ... . One of the lynchers stuck his fingers inside the gaping scalp and lifted the Negro by it." (Colin Grant).

Ironically, neither the Mexicans nor the African-Americans against whom the present wave of racial violence is directed first came to America as immigrants. Africans were bound hand and foot and forcibly transported across the Atlantic to provide enslaved labour on US plantations. Texas was originally part of Mexico, and when the Mexicans abolished slavery, the Americans encouraged Texas to declare its independence of Mexico and reintroduce slavery. When Mexico protested, the US declared war in 1846, which ended with Mexico officially recognising Texas as part of the United States and ceding the territory - which today includes California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona, as well as parts of Wyoming and Colorado - for $15 million.




The descent of the working-class into poverty and the physical degradation of rural America, which drove millions of voters to Trump in the recent US elections, began during the Ronald Reagan presidency (1980-1988). It was in this period that the neo-liberal policies were introduced to maximise the role of the market, not only in the economy, but in social policy as well, and minimise the role of the State and reign in the power of the trade unions.

When Reagan took office, real wages in the United States were the highest in the industrial world. Since then, the purchasing power of the American working class has largely stagnated or declined while inequality soared, and American jobs were exported to China to take advantage of low wages.

By the end of Reagan's term of office, his neo-liberal policies had resulted in an unprecedented concentration of wealth at the top, crippling indebtedness among fixed-income earners, and the reduction of expenditure on social programmes. Increasing unemployment and high, absolute and relative poverty became the reality for millions of American workers, both white and black, as well as increased rates of incarceration.

Yet, for many Americans, the apex of US prosperity and power was built during Reagan's presidency with the success of Star Wars, the biggest and most ominous escalation of arms spending in American history. The Soviets were induced into an arms race which their economy could not sustain, and by the end of Reagan's term of office, the country was on the road to bankruptcy. The disintegration of world communism followed. However, Star Wars was financed by raising the national debt from US$700 billion to US$2 trillion, imposing increased burdens on the backs of the working class.

Interestingly, in the 1984 presidential campaign, the only real challenge to Ronald Reagan's policies came from Jessie Jackson, the candidate of the Rainbow Coalition, who sought to unite progressives both inside and outside the Democratic Party around a programme to demand "a 25 per cent reduction in the defence budget and a bilateral nuclear weapons freeze, and the billions of dollars saved ... to be reallocated to human needs."

George W. Bush succeeded Reagan and predictably maintained his policies and increased social and economic disparities. While Bush was in office, when the formal dissolution of the USSR took place in 1992, leaving the United States as the world's only superpower, it was Reagan who was recognised as the winner of the Cold War, and the Americans rewarded him with an unprecedented approval rate of more than 80 per cent.




Whatever hopes the American working class had that Bill Clinton's presidency (1992-2000) would roll back Reagan's neo-liberalism were quickly dashed.

"From 1983 to 1998, average wealth of the top one per cent rose 42 per cent, while the poorest 40 per cent lost 76 per cent of their wealth." (Chomsky). However, Clinton's landmark contribution to the accumulation of wealth at the top was the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, which permitted the merger of commercial banks with investment banks, brokerages and insurance companies.

George W. Bush, who succeeded Clinton, lost no time in expanding neo-liberal policies that led to a surge in corporate profits, professionals' incomes, gains from investments, and executive compensation, even as the Labour Department reported a decline in real wages for most workers in 2004.

By October 2005, the economy had been through its longest period of job loss since the Great Depression. Finally, on October 19, 2008, the US stock market crashed by 508 points - the biggest one-day loss in history. "The destruction of approximately US$50 trillion in assets in the global economy, the largest bankruptcy in history (Lehman Brothers) and the worst global economic slowdown" followed (Fareed Zakaria). For many, the American dream was becoming a nightmare. It was in these circumstances that Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton to become the Democratic candidate for the presidency of the United States.

- Arnold Bertram is a historian and former Cabinet minister. His most recent book is Norman Manley and The Making of Modern Jamaica. Email feedback to and