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Thai Food, Donald Trump, and the American Dream

A few nights ago I got a valuable lesson about politics and economics in one of the last places I would have expected it. My wife and I were at a very nice Thai restaurant where we go perhaps two or three times a month. We were the first ones there this time, and the owner was sort of lingering around in the dining room making small talk. Then he asked how we felt about the presidential candidates. I was noncommittal, more interested in hearing what he had to say than expounding on my own views. And he had a lot to say.

He is a fascinating man, and his story is both inspiring and touching. He came to this country forty years ago, optimistic and focused on the American dream. For many years , he seemed to be living that dream. Not rags to riches, but a good, solid middle-class life based on hard work and faith that America is the land of opportunity. He built a business, raised a family, saved up for retirement, and set aside an impressive amount of money for his children’s education. Everything was adding up and falling into place. Until it wasn’t.

In the last eight years he has seen his retirement fund shrink dangerously, watched the cost of college education skyrocket past what he had saved, and staggered under the precipitous increase in the cost of health insurance under the “Affordable” Care Act. He feels that much of what he had achieved through decades of work and careful planning has disappeared. But none of this has soured him on America. He still thinks this is the best country on earth and is proud to call it his country. But he feels that it is somehow not what it used to be, and he wishes it still was.

Enter Donald Trump and his slogan, "Make America Great Again." Wow. It could have been written just for my disillusioned but still hopeful restaurateur friend. Trump is promising exactly what he wants. He does not know whether Trump could pull it off. Maybe it would work and maybe it would not. But it might, and that is more than he believes about any of the other candidates. And he thinks that Trump is the only one who will honestly try to deliver on what he promises.

I walked out of that restaurant with a new understanding of the Trump campaign. No, I have not become a believer. I still think he is more showman than statesman. I do not think his campaign promises are any more realistic than anyone else’s. I wish he would stick to hotels and casinos and reality shows and leave politics to people who have at least some experience at it. But I think I understand his appeal better now. It is not just based on racism, religious intolerance, ignorance, or xenophobia. Trump is not just appealing to people’s fear. He is also appealing to their hope. To their hope for a return of the American dream. If Trump is the only person who seems to be offering that, why? Where is everyone else? Why can’t the rest of us find some way to appeal to the hopes and dreams that every American should have? I think I may start focusing more on how to do that than on criticizing either Donald Trump or his supporters.

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