In Trump’s State of the Union he tried to take back the “dreamers” language from recent immigrants, saying, “We have dreamers in this country, too. You can’t forget our dreamers.” He went on to say:
I am extending an open hand to work with the members of both parties — Democrats and Republicans — to protect our citizens of every background, color, religion and creed. My duty and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber is to defend Americans, to protect their safety, their families, their communities and their right to the American dream.
Trump restricts the American dream for citizens and restricts the duty of those in office to citizens, forgetting the immigrant history of those citizens. The American dream language works almost identically to the America First language as I map out here. It makes those who have been left out of the promise of prosperity feel none the less that the dream is for them if only the work hard enough. And it makes them understand their poverty as a result of lack of hard work, not as a result of structural barriers to economic mobility. It makes them think the Dream is possible, if only they can get there.
Immigrants who came to the United State as children and are appealing for a road to citizenship seized on the language of the dream and contend that the dream should be accessible to everyone. By taking up this language, these immigrants have also reminded us that the American dream functions to exclude. When Trump said, “We have dreamers in this country, too,” he ignores that those immigrants are in this country and divides the country between those who are supposedly “rightfully” a part and those who are not. Such a move reminded me of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ description of the United States as “a country lost in the Dream,” in Between the World and Me (12). Lost in the Dream, America cannot see itself. Coates describes America’s investment in the Dream as undergirded by fear (34), and that seems precisely what is played on in the #AllLivesMatter kind of turn to “We have dreamers too.” The way Trump’s appeal works is to trump those forgotten and excluded by being denied citizenship by foregrounding those forgotten and excluded who are already citizens but find the country no less invested in them. Attesting to the investment in the forgotten poor produces the sense that they are the concern of the country’s elected officials even as a new tax law is passed that will put more of the tax burden on them than on those who are living the Dream. Recognizing their fear of exclusion and acknowledging their rightful place in relation to the aspiration to the Dream while denying them any path toward the dream pits them against those made to appear unworthy of the Dream. But neither are given access to the Dream.
Coates argues that Dream is oppressive to those for whom it is never even held out as a promise. That oppression is of a whole different order than the oppression of those for whom it is held out as a promise (106). The oppression for those for whom it is denied functions in the active forgetting of those to whom the Dream is denied, which it is why it is striking to see Trump so boldly assert that “our dreamers” can’t be forgotten, when everyone knows who the “our” is and who it is not. As Coates writes in reference to the discussion he has with the mother of Prince Jones, a young Black man who was killed by police:
When it came to her son, Dr. Jones’s country did what it does best–it forgot him. The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free (143).
When Trump asks that we not forget our Dreamers, he invites us to continue to forget the conditions upon which that dream thrives, and he invites people to be more invested in their whiteness than their freedom.