In its own inside-out, upside-down way, it’s almost wondrous to behold. As befits our president’s wildest dreams, it may even prove to be a record for the ages, one for the history books. He was, after all, the candidate who sensed it first. When those he was running against, like the rest of Washington’s politicians, were still insisting that the United States remained at the top of its game, not an — but the — “indispensable nation,” the only truly “exceptional” one on the face of the Earth, he said nothing of the sort. He campaigned on America’s decline, on this country’s increasing lack of exceptionality, its potential dispensability. He ran on the single word “again” — as in “make America great again” — because (the implication was) it just isn’t anymore. And he swore that he and he alone was the best shot Americans, or at least non-immigrant white Americans, had at ever seeing the best of days again.
In that sense, he was our first declinist candidate for president and if that didn’t tell you something during the election season, it should have. No question about it, he hit a chord, rang a bell, because out in the heartland it was possible to sense a deepening reality that wasn’t evident in Washington. The wealthiest country on the planet, the most militarily powerful in the history of… well, anybody, anywhere, anytime (or so we were repeatedly told)… couldn’t win a war, not even with the investment of trillions of taxpayer dollars, couldn’t do anything but spread chaos by force of arms.
Meanwhile, at home, despite all that wealth, despite billionaires galore, including the one running for president, despite the transnational corporate heaven inhabited by Google and Facebook and Apple and the rest of the crew, parts of this country and its infrastructure were starting to feel distinctly (to use a word from another universe) Third Worldish. He sensed that, too. He regularly said things like this: “We spent six trillion dollars in the Middle East, we got nothing… And we have an obsolete plane system. We have obsolete airports. We have obsolete trains. We have bad roads. Airports.” And this: “Our airports are like from a third-world country.” And on the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, he couldn’t have been more on the mark.
In parts of the U.S., white working-class and middle-class Americans could sense that the future was no longer theirs, that their children would not have a shot at what they had had, that they themselves increasingly didn’t have a shot at what they had had. The American Dream seemed to be gaining an almost nightmarish sheen, given that the real value of the average wage of a worker hadn’t increased since the 1970s; that the cost of a college education had gone through the roof and the educational debt burden for children with dreams of getting ahead was now staggering; that unions were cratering; that income inequality was at a historic high; and… well, you know the story, really you do. In essence, for them the famed American Dream seemed ever more like someone else’s trademarked property.
Indispensable? Exceptional? This country? Not anymore. Not as they were experiencing it.
And because of that, Donald Trump won the lottery. He answered the $64,000 question. (If you’re not of a certain age, Google it, but believe me it’s a reference in our president’s memory book.) He entered the Oval Office with almost 50% of the vote and a fervent base of support for his promised program of doing it all over again, 1950s-style.
It had been one hell of a pitch from the businessman billionaire. He had promised a future of stratospheric terrificness, of greatness on an historic scale. He promised to keep the evil ones — the rapists, job thieves, and terrorists — away, to wall them out or toss them out or ban them from ever traveling here. He also promised to set incredible records, as only a mega-businessman like him could conceivably do, the sort of all-American records this country hadn’t seen in a long, long time.
And early as it is in the Trump era, it seems as if, on one score at least, he could deliver something for the record books going back to the times when those recording the acts of rulers were still scratching them out in clay or wax. At this point, there’s at least a chance that Donald Trump might preside over the most precipitous decline of a truly dominant power in history, one only recently considered at the height of its glory. It could prove to be a fall for the ages. Admittedly, that other superpower of the Cold War era, the Soviet Union, imploded in 1991, which was about the fastest way imaginable to leave the global stage. Still, despite the “evil empire” talk of that era, the USSR was always the secondary, the weaker of the two superpowers. It was never Rome, or Spain, or Great Britain.
When it comes to the United States, we’re talking about a country that not so long ago saw itself as the only great power left on planet Earth, “the lone superpower.” It was the one still standing, triumphant, at the end of a history of great power rivalry that went back to a time when the wooden warships of various European states first broke out into a larger world and began to conquer it. It stood by itself at, as its proponents liked to claim at the time, the end of history.
Applying Hard Power to a Failing World
As we watch, it seems almost possible to see President Trump, in real time, tweet by tweet, speech by speech, sword dance by sword dance, intervention by intervention, act by act, in the process of dismantling the system of global power — of “soft power,” in particular, and of alliances of every sort — by which the U.S. made its will felt, made itself a truly global hegemon. Whether his “America first” policies are aimed at creating a future order of autocrats, or petro-states, or are nothing more than the expression of his libidinous urges and secret hatreds, he may already be succeeding in taking down that world order in record fashion.
Despite the mainstream pieties of the moment about the nature of the system Donald Trump appears to be dismantling in Europe and elsewhere, it was anything but either terribly “liberal” or particularly peaceable. Wars, invasions, occupations, the undermining or overthrow of governments, brutal acts and conflicts of every sort succeeded one another in the years of American glory. Past administrations in Washington had a notorious weakness for autocrats, just as Donald Trump does today. They regularly had less than no respect for democracy if, from Iran to Guatemala to Chile, the will of the people seemed to stand in Washington’s way. (It is, as Vladimir Putin has been only too happy to point out of late, an irony of our moment that the country that has undermined or overthrown or meddled in more electoral systems than any other is in a total snit over the possibility that one of its own elections was meddled with.) To enforce their global system, Americans never shied away from torture, black sites, death squads, assassinations, and other grim practices. In those years, the U.S. planted its military on close to 1,000 overseas military bases, garrisoning the planet as no other country ever had.
Nonetheless, the cancelling of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, threats against NAFTA, the undermining of NATO, the promise of protective tariffs on foreign goods (and the possible trade wars that might go with them) could go a long way toward dismantling the American global system of soft power and economic dominance as it has existed in these last decades. If such acts and others like them prove effective in the months and years to come, they will leave only one kind of power in the American global quiver: hard military power, and its handmaiden, the kind of covert power Washington, through the CIA in particular, has long specialized in. If America’s alliances crack open and its soft power becomes too angry or edgy to pass for dominant power anymore, its massive machinery of destruction will still be left, including its vast nuclear arsenal. While, in the Trump era, a drive to cut domestic spending of every sort is evident, more money is still slated to go to the military, already funded at levels not reached by combinations of other major powers.
Given the last 15 years of history, it’s not hard to imagine what’s likely to result from the further elevation of military power: disaster. This is especially true because Donald Trump has appointed to key positions in his administration a crew of generals who spent the last decade and a half fighting America’s catastrophic wars across the Greater Middle East. They are not only notoriously incapable of thinking outside the box about the application of military power, but faced with the crisis of failed wars and failing states, of spreading terror movements and a growing refugee crisis across that crucial region, they can evidently only imagine one solution to just about any problem: more of the same. More troops, more mini-surges, more military trainers and advisers, more air strikes, more drone strikes… more.
After a decade and a half of such thinking we already know perfectly well where this ends — in further failure, more chaos and suffering, but above all in an inability of the U.S. to effectively apply its hard power anywhere in any way that doesn’t make matters worse. Since, in addition, the Trump administration is filled with Iranophobes, including a president who has only recently fused himself to the Saudi royal family in an attempt to further isolate and undermine Iran, the possibility that a military-first version of American foreign policy will spread further is only growing.
Such “more” thinking is typical as well of much of the rest of the cast of characters now in key positions in the Trump administration. Take the CIA, for instance. Under its new director, Mike Pompeo (distinctly a “more” kind of guy and an Iranophobe of the first order), two key positions have reportedly been filled: a new chief of counterterrorism and a new head of Iran operations (recently identified as Michael D’Andrea, an Agency hardliner with the nickname “the Dark Prince”). Here’s how Matthew Rosenberg and Adam Goldman of the New York Times recently described their similar approaches to their jobs (my emphasis added):
“Mr. D’Andrea’s new role is one of a number of moves inside the spy agency that signal a more muscular approach to covert operations under the leadership of Mike Pompeo, the conservative Republican and former congressman, the officials said. The agency also recently named a new chief of counterterrorism, who has begun pushing for greater latitude to strike militants.”
In other words, more!
Rest assured of one thing, whatever Donald Trump accomplishes in the way of dismantling America’s version of soft power, “his” generals and intelligence operatives will handle the hard-power part of the equation just as “ably.”
The First American Laster?
If a Trump presidency achieves a record for the ages when it comes to the precipitous decline of the American global system, little as The Donald ever cares to share credit for anything, he will undoubtedly have to share it for such an achievement. It’s true that kings, emperors, and autocrats, the top dogs of any moment, prefer to take all the credit for the “records” set in their time. When we look back, however, it’s likely that President Trump will be seen as having given a tottering system that necessary push. It will undoubtedly be clear enough by then that the U.S., seemingly at the height of any power’s power in 1991 when the Soviet Union disappeared, began heading for the exits soon thereafter, still enwreathed in self-congratulation and triumphalism.
Had this not been so, Donald Trump would never have won the 2016 election. It wasn’t he, after all, who gave the U.S. heartland an increasingly Third World feel. It wasn’t he who spent those trillions of dollars so disastrously on invasions and occupations, dead-end wars, drone strikes and special ops raids, reconstruction and deconstruction in a never-ending war on terror that today looks more like a war for the spread of terror. It wasn’t he who created the growing inequality gap in this country or produced all those billionaires amid a population that increasingly felt left in the lurch. It wasn’t he who hiked college tuitions or increased the debt levels of the young or set roads and bridges to crumbling and created the conditions for Third World-style airports.
If both the American global and domestic systems hadn’t been rotting out before Donald Trump arrived on the scene, that “again” of his wouldn’t have worked. Thought of another way, when the U.S. was truly at the height of its economic clout and power, American leaders felt no need to speak incessantly of how “indispensable” or “exceptional” the country was. It seemed too self-evident to mention. Someday, some historian may use those very words in the mouths of American presidents and other politicians (and their claims, for instance, that the U.S. military was “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known”) as a set of increasingly defensive markers for measuring the decline of American power.
So here’s the question: When the Trump years (months?) come to an end, will the U.S. be not the planet’s most exceptional land, but a pariah nation? Will that “again” still be the story of the year, the decade, the century? Will the last American Firster turn out to have been the first American Laster? Will it truly be one for the record books?
He’s huge. Outsized. He fills the news hole at any moment of any day. His over-tanned face glows unceasingly in living rooms across America. Never has a president been quite so big. So absolutely monstrous. Or quite so small.
He’s our Little Big Man.
I know, I know… he induces panic, fear, anxiety, insomnia. Shrinks in liberal America will tell you that, since November 2016, their patients are more heavily medicated and in worse shape. He’s a nightmare, a unique monster. It’s been almost two years since he first entered the presidential race and in all that time I doubt there’s been a moment when the cameras haven’t been trained on him, when he wasn’t “breaking news.” (By May 2016, he had already reportedly received the equivalent in “earned media” of nearly $3 billion in free advertising.) He and his endless controversial statements, flubs, tweets, lies, insults, boasts, tales from outer space, and over-the-moon adjectives are covered daily the way, once upon a time, only Pearl Harbor or the Kennedy assassination was.
Think of him as the end of the world as we, or maybe anyone, including Vladimir Putin, knew it. To me, that means one thing, even though most of you won’t agree: I think we owe Donald Trump a small bow of thanks and a genuine debt of gratitude. He’s teaching us something invaluable, something we probably wouldn’t have grasped without him. He’s teaching us just how deeply disturbed our American world actually is, or he wouldn’t be where he is.
A Quagmire Country
Think of him as a messenger from the gods, the deities of empire gone astray. They sent us a man without a center, undoubtedly because 17 years into the twenty-first century our country lacks a center, and a man without a fixed opinion or a single conviction, except about himself and his family, because this country is now a swirling mess of contradictory beliefs and groups at each other’s throats. They sent us our first billionaire president who left countless people holding the bag in his various, often failed, business dealings. He brings to mind that classic phrase “those that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind” just as we’re now reaping the results of the 1% politics that gained such traction in recent years; and of a kind of war-making, American style, that initially seemed aimed at global supremacy, but now seems to have no conceivable goal. We’re evidently destined to go on killing ever more people, producing ever more refugees, cracking open ever more nations, and spreading ever more terror movements until the end of time. They sent a man ready to build a vanity wall on the Mexican border and pour more money into the U.S. military at a time when it’s becoming harder for Americans to imagine investing in anything but an ever-more powerful national security state, even as the country’s infrastructure begins to crumble. They sent a billionaire who once deep-sixed a startling number of his businesses to save a country that couldn’t be more powerful and yet has proven incapable of building a single mile of high-speed rail.
Into this quagmire, the gods dispatched the man who loves MOAB, who drools over “my generals,” who wants to build a “big, fat, beautiful wall” on our southern border, but was beyond clueless about where power actually lay in Washington.
He’s a man with a history but without a sense of history, a man for whom anything is imaginable and everything is mutable, including the past. In this, too, he’s symptomatic of the nation he now “leads.” Who among us even remembers the set of Washington officials who, only a decade and a half ago, had such glorious dreams about establishing a global Pax Americana and who led us so unerringly into an unending hell in the Greater Middle East? Who remembers that those officials of the George W. Bush administration had another dream as well — of a Pax Republicana, a one-party imperial state that would stretch across the American South deep into the Midwest, Southwest, and parts of the West, kneecapping the Democratic Party for an eternity and leaving that artifact of a two-party past confined to the country’s coastal areas. Their dream — and it couldn’t have been more immodest — was to rule the world and its great remaining superpower for… well… more or less ever.
They were to dominate America and America was to dominate everything else in a way no country in history — not the Romans, not the British — had ever done. As they saw it, in the wake of the implosion of the Soviet Union, there would be no other superpower, nor even a bloc of great powers, capable of obstructing America’s destined future. They and their successors would see to that.
The United States would be the land of wealth and power in a previously unimaginable fashion. It would be the land that made everything that went bang in the night — and in that (and perhaps that alone) their dreams would be fulfilled. To this day, Hollywood and its action films dominate planetary screens, while American arms merchants have a near monopoly on selling the world their dangerous toys. As our new president recently put it, their energies and those of the U.S. government should remain focused on getting countries across the globe to engage in “the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment.” Indeed.
As for the rest of their dream of geopolitical dominance, it began to come a cropper remarkably quickly. As it turned out, the military that American presidents regularly hailed in these years as the “greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known” or “the finest fighting force in the history of the world” couldn’t even win wars against lightly armed insurgents or deal with enemies employing roadside bombs that could be built off the Internet for the price of a pizza. The U.S. military (and its allied warrior corporations) turned out not to be a force for eternal order and triumph but, at least across the Greater Middle East and Africa, for eternal chaos and the spread of terror movements. They were the whirlwind, which meant that neither that “pax” nor that “Americana” would come to pass.
While Rome Burned…
Meanwhile, back at home, a gerrymandered, near-one-party state did indeed come into existence as the Republicans swept most governorships, gained control of a significant majority of state legislatures, nailed down the House and the Senate, and finally, when Little Big Man entered the Oval Office, took it all. It was a feat for the history books — or so it briefly seemed. Instead, the result has been chaos, thanks in part to a Republican Party that is actually three or four parties and a president barely associated with it, as a war of all against all broke out. None of this should have been surprising, given a congressional party that had honed its skills not on ruling but on blocking rule. In the last months, it has largely proved incapable even of ruling itself, no less the wild man and his unpredictable team of advisers in the White House.
From his “big, fat, beautiful wall” to his “big league,” “phenomenal” tax plan to his “insurance for everybody” healthcare program, the president promises to be the living proof that the long dreamed of Pax Republicana is just another form of war without end on the domestic front.
His victory was, in a sense, a revelation that both political parties had been hollowed out, as every Republican presidential candidate except him was swept unceremoniously off stage and out of contention in a hail of insults. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party, by now a remarkably mindless (and spineless) political machine without much to underpin it, came to seem ever more like the domestic equivalent of those failed states the war on terror was creating in the Greater Middle East. In short, American politics was visibly faltering and, in the whirlwind that deposited Little Big Man in office, a far wider range of Americans seemed in danger of going down, too, including Medicaid users, Obamacare enrollees, meals-on-wheels seniors, and food stamp recipients in what could become a slow-motion collapse of livable lives amid a proliferation of billionaires. Think of us as a nation in the process of consuming itself, even as our president turns the White House into a private business. If this is imperial “decline,” it’s certainly a curious version of it.
It was into the growing hell that passed for the planet’s “sole superpower” that those gods dispatched Little Big Man — not a shape-shifting creature but a man without shape and lacking all fixed ideas (except about himself). He was perfectly capable of saying anything in any situation, and then, in altered circumstances, of saying the opposite without blinking or evidently even noticing. His recent trip to Saudi Arabia was a classic case of just that. Gone were the election campaign denunciations of the Saudis for their human rights record and for possibly being behind the 9/11 attacks, as well as of Islam as a religion that “hates us”; gone was his criticism of Michelle Obama for not wearing a headscarf on her visit to Riyadh (Melania and Ivanka did the same), and of Barack Obama for bowing to a Saudi king (he did, too). Out the window went his previous insistence that any self-respecting American politician must use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” which he carefully avoided. And none of this was different from, say, swearing on the campaign trail that he would never touch Medicaid and then, in his first budget, offering plans to slash $880 billion from that program over the next decade.
Admittedly, Donald Trump — and yes, that’s the first time I’ve used his name, but there was no need, was there? — has yet to appoint his horse (or perhaps his golf cart) as a senator or, as far as we know, commit acts of incest in the tradition of Caligula, the first mad Roman emperor. Yet in many ways, doesn’t he feel something like an updated version of that figure or perhaps of Nero who so famously fiddled — actually, according to historian Mary Beard in her book SPQR, played the lyre — while Rome burned?
Fortunately, unlike every psychiatrist in town, I’m not bound by the “Goldwater Rule,” which prohibits a diagnosis of a public figure you haven’t personally examined. While I have no expertise in whether Donald Trump has a “narcissistic personality disorder,” I see no reason not to say the obvious: he’s a distinctly disturbed individual. That he was nonetheless elected president tells us a good deal about where we are as a country today. As Tony Schwartz, who actually wrote his bestselling book The Art of the Deal, put it recently, “Trump was equally clear with me that he didn’t value — nor even necessarily recognize — the qualities that tend to emerge as people grow more secure, such as empathy, generosity, reflectiveness, the capacity to delay gratification or, above all, a conscience, an inner sense of right and wrong.”
Now, that should be frightening. After all, given who he is, given his fear of “losing,” of rejection, of not being loved (or more accurately, adulated), of in short being obliterated, who knows what such a man might do in a crisis, including obliterating the rest of us. After all, he already lives in a world without fixed boundaries, definitions, or history, which is why nothing he says has real meaning. And yet he couldn’t be more meaningful. He’s a message, a warning of the first order, and if that were all he were, he would just be an inadvertent teacher about the nature of our American world and we could indeed thank him and do our best to move on.
Unfortunately, there’s another factor to take into account. Humanity had, in the years before his arrival, come up with two quite different and devastating ways of doing ourselves in, one an instant Armageddon, the other a slow-motion trip to hell. Each of them threatens to cripple or destroy the very planet that has nurtured us these tens of thousands of years. It was not, of course, Donald Trump who put us in this peril. He’s just a particularly grim reminder of how dangerous our world has truly become.
After all, Little Big Man now has unparalleled access to the most “beautiful” weapons of all and he’s eager to update and expand an already vast U.S. arsenal of them. I’m talking, of course, about nuclear weapons. Any president we elect has, since the 1950s, had the power to take out the planet. Only once have we come truly close. Nonetheless, for the control over such weaponry to be in the hands of a deeply unpredictable and visibly disturbed president is obviously a danger to us all.
It could be assumed that the gods who sent him into the Oval Office at such a moment have a perverse sense of humor. Certainly, on the second of those deadly dangers, climate change, he’s already taken action based on another of his fantasies: that making America great again means taking it back to the fossil-fueled 1950s. His ignorance about, and actions to increase the effects of, climate change have already taken the U.S., the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet, out of the climate change sweepstakes and into uncharted territory. These acts and the desire to promote fossil fuels in every way imaginable will someday undoubtedly be seen as crimes against humanity. But by then they will already have done their dirty deed.
If luck doesn’t hold, Donald Trump may end up making Caligula and Nero look like statesmen. If luck doesn’t hold he may be the Littlest Big Man of all.
Little Big Man
The closest I ever got to Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, was 1,720.7 miles away — or so the Internet assures me. Although I’ve had a lifelong interest in history, I know next to nothing about Mosul’s, nor do I have more than a glancing sense of what it looks like, or more accurately what it looked like when all its buildings, including those in its “Old City,” were still standing. It has — or at least in better times had — a population of at least 1.8 million, not one of whom have I ever met and significant numbers of whom are now either dead, wounded, uprooted, or in desperate straits.
Consider what I never learned about Mosul my loss, a sign of my ignorance. Yet, in recent months, little as I know about the place, it’s been on my mind — in part because what’s now happening to that city will be the world’s loss as well as mine.
In mid-October 2016, the U.S.-backed Iraqi army first launched an offensive to retake Mosul from the militants of the Islamic State. Relatively small numbers of ISIS fighters had captured it in mid-2014 when the previous version of the Iraqi military (into which the U.S. had poured more than $25 billion) collapsed ignominiously and fled, abandoning weaponry and even uniforms along the way. It was in Mosul’s Great Mosque that the existence of the Islamic State was first triumphantly proclaimed by its “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi.
On the initial day of the offensive to recapture the city, the Pentagon was already congratulating the Iraqi military for being “ahead of schedule” in a campaign that was expected to “take weeks or even months.” Little did its planners — who had been announcing its prospective start for nearly a year — know. A week later, everything was still “proceeding according to our plan,” claimed then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. By the end of January 2017, after 100 days of fierce fighting, the eastern part of that city, divided by the Tigris River, was more or less back in government hands and it had, according to New York Times reporters on the scene, been “spared the wholesale destruction inflicted on other Iraqi cities” like Ramadi and Fallujah, even though those residents who hadn’t fled were reportedly “scratching out a primitive existence, deprived of electricity, running water and other essential city services.”
And that was the good news. More than 100 days later, Iraqi troops continue to edge their way through embattled western Mosul, with parts of it, including the treacherous warren of streets in its Old City, still in the hands of ISIS militants amid continuing bitter building-to-building fighting. The Iraqi government and its generals still insist, however, that everything will be over in mere weeks. An estimated thousand or so ISIS defenders (of the original 4,000-8,000 reportedly entrenched in the city) are still holding out and will assumedly fight to the death. U.S. air power has repeatedly been called in big time, with civilian deaths soaring, and hundreds of thousands of its increasingly desperate and hungry inhabitants still living in battle-scarred Mosul as Islamic State fighters employ countless bomb-laden suicide vehicles and even small drones.
After seven months of unending battle in that single city, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Mosul has receded from the news here, even as civilian casualties grow, at least half a million Iraqis have been displaced, and the Iraqi military has suffered grievous losses.
Though there’s been remarkably little writing about it, here’s what now seems obvious: when the fighting is finally over and the Islamic State defeated, the losses will be so much more widespread than that. Despite initial claims that the Iraqi military (and the U.S. Air Force) were taking great care to avoid as much destruction as possible in an urban landscape filled with civilians, the rules of engagement have since changed and it’s clear that, in the end, significant swathes of Iraq’s second largest city will be left in ruins. In this, it will resemble so many other cities and towns in Iraq and Syria, from Fallujah to Ramadi, Homs to Aleppo.
The Disappearance of Mosul
At a moment when Donald Trump makes headlines daily with almost any random thing he says, the fate of Mosul doesn’t even qualify as a major news story. What happens in that city, however, will be no minor thing. It will matter on this increasingly small planet of ours.
What’s to come is also, unfortunately, reasonably predictable. Eight, nine, or more months after this offensive was launched, the grim Islamic State in Mosul will undoubtedly be destroyed, but so will much of the city in a region that continues to be — to invent a word — rubblized.
When Mosul is officially retaken, if not “ahead of schedule,” then at least “according to plan,” the proud announcements of “victory” in the war against ISIS will make headlines. Soon after, however, Mosul will once again disappear from our American world and worries. Yet that will undoubtedly only be the beginning of the story in a world in crisis. Fourteen years have passed since the U.S. invaded Iraq and punched a hole in the oil heartlands of the Middle East. In the wake of that invasion, states have been crumbling or simply imploding and terror movements growing and spreading, while wars, ethnic slaughter, and all manner of atrocities have engulfed an ever-widening region. Millions of Iraqis, Syrians, Afghans, Yemenis, Libyans, and others have been uprooted, sent into exile in their own countries, or fled across borders to become refugees. In Mosul alone, untold numbers of people whose fathers, mothers, grandparents, children, friends, and relatives were slaughtered in the Iraqi Army’s offensive or simply murdered by ISIS will be left homeless, often without possessions, jobs, or communities in the midst of once familiar places that have been transformed into rubble.
Mosul now lacks an airport, a railroad station, and a university — all destroyed in the recent fighting. Initial estimates suggest that its rebuilding will cost billions of dollars over many years. And it’s just one of many cities in such a state. The question is: Where exactly will the money to rebuild come from? After all, the price of oil is at present below $50 a barrel, the Iraqi and Syrian governments lack resources of every sort, and who can imagine a new Marshall Plan for the region coming from Donald Trump’s America or, for that matter, anywhere else?
In other words, the Iraqis, the Syrians, the Yemenis, the Libyans, the Afghans, and others are likely, in the end, to find themselves alone in the ruins of their worlds with remarkably little recourse. With that in mind and given the record of those last 14 years, how exactly do you imagine that things will turn out for the inhabitants of Mosul, or Ramadi, or Fallujah, or cities yet to be destroyed? What new movements, ethnic struggles, and terror outfits will emerge from such a nightmare?
To put it another way, if you think that such a disaster will remain the possession of the Iraqis (Syrians, Yemenis, Libyans, and Afghans), then you haven’t been paying much attention to the history of the twenty-first century. You evidently haven’t noticed that Donald J. Trump won the last presidential election in the United States, in part by playing on fears of a deluge of refugees from the Middle East and of Islamic terrorism; that the British voted to leave the European Union in part based on similar fears; and that across Europe pressures over refugees and terror attacks have helped to alter the political landscape.
Where Is Globalization Now That We Need It?
To frame things slightly differently, let me ask another question entirely: In these last years, haven’t you wondered what ever happened to “globalization” and the endless media attention that was once paid to it? Not so very long ago we were being assured that this planet was binding itself into a remarkably tight knot of interconnectedness that was going to amaze us all. As Thomas Friedman of the New York Times put it in 1996, we were seeing “the integration of free markets, nation-states, and information technologies to a degree never before witnessed, in a way that is enabling individuals, corporations, and countries to reach around the world farther, faster, deeper, and cheaper than ever.” All of this was to be fed and led by the United States, the last superpower standing, and as a result, the global “playing field” would miraculously “be leveled” on a planet becoming a mosaic of Pizza Huts, iMacs, and Lexuses.
Who of a certain age doesn’t remember those years after the Soviet Union imploded when we all suddenly found ourselves in a single superpower world? It was a moment when, thanks to vaunted technological advances, it seemed blindingly clear to the cognoscenti that this was going to be a single-everything planet. We were all about to be absorbed into a “single market for goods, capital, and commercial services” from which, despite the worries of naysayers, “almost everyone” stood “to gain.” In a world not of multiple superpowers but of multiple “supermarkets,” we were likely to become both more democratic and more capitalistic by the year as an interlocking set of transnational corporate players, nations, and peoples, unified by a singularly interwoven set of communication systems (representing nothing short of an information revolution), triumphed, while poverty, that eternal plague of humanity, stood to lose out big time. Everything would be connected on what was, for the first time, to be a single, “flattened” planet.
It won’t surprise you, I’m sure, to be told that that’s not exactly the planet we’re now on. Instead, whatever processes were at work, the result has been record numbers of billionaires, record levels of inequality, and refugees in numbers not seen since much of the world was in a state of collapse after World War II.
Still, don’t you ever wonder where, conceptually speaking, globalization is now that we need it? I mean, did it really turn out that we weren’t living together on a single shrinking planet? Were the globalists of that moment inhabiting another planet entirely in another solar system? Or could it be that globalization is still the ruling paradigm here, but that what’s globalizing isn’t (or isn’t just) Pizza Huts, iMacs, and Lexuses, but pressure points for the fracturing of our world?
The globalization of misery doesn’t have the cachet of the globalization of plenty. It doesn’t make for the same uplifting reading, nor does skyrocketing global economic inequality seem quite as thrilling as a leveling playing field (unless, of course, you happen to be a billionaire). And thanks significantly to the military efforts of the last superpower standing, the disintegration of significant regions of the planet doesn’t quite add up to what the globalists had in mind for the twenty-first century. Failed states, spreading terror movements, all too many Mosuls, and the conditions for so much more of the same weren’t what globalization was supposed to be all about.
Perhaps, however, it’s time to begin reminding ourselves that we’re still on a globalizing planet, even if one experiencing pressures of an unexpected sort, including from the disastrous never-ending American war on terror. It’s so much more convenient, of course, to throw the idea of globalization overboard and imagine that Mosul is thousands of miles away in a universe that bears next to no relation to our own.
What It Really Means to Be on a “Flattening” Planet
It’s true that in France last week extremist presidential candidate Marine Le Pen was defeated by a young, little known former investment banker and government minister, Emmanuel Macron, and the European Union preserved. As with an earlier election in Holland in which a similar right-wing candidate lost, this is being presented as potentially the high-water mark of what’s now commonly called “populism” in Europe (or the Brexit-style fragmentation of that continent). But I’d take such reassurances with a grain of salt, given the pressures likely to come. After all, in both Holland and France, two extreme nationalist parties garnered record votes based on anti-Islamic, anti-refugee sentiment and will, after the coming parliamentary elections in France, both be represented, again in record numbers, in their legislatures.
The rise of such “populism” — think of it as the authoritarian fragmentation of the planet — is already a global trend. So just imagine the situation four or potentially even eight years from now after Donald Trump’s generals, already in the saddle, do their damnedest in the Greater Middle East and Africa. There’s no reason to believe that, under their direction, the smashing of key regions of the planet won’t continue. There’s no reason to doubt that, in an expanding world of Mosuls — the Syrian “capital” of the Islamic State, Raqqa, is undoubtedly the next city in line for such treatment — “victories” won’t produce a planet of greater ethnic savagery, religious extremism, military destruction, and chaos. This, in turn, ensures a further spread of terror groups and an even more staggering uprooting of peoples. (It’s worth noting, for instance, that since the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. Special Operations forces, al-Qaeda has grown, not shrunk, gaining yet more traction across the Greater Middle East.) So far, America’s permanent “war on terror” has helped produce a planet of fear, refugees on an almost unimaginable scale, and ever more terror. What else would you imagine could arise from the rubble of so many Mosuls?
If you don’t think that this is an ever-more connected planet still being “flattened” (even if in quite a different way than expected), and that sooner or later the destruction of Mosul will reverberate in our world, too, then you don’t get our world. It’s obvious, for instance, that future Mosuls will only produce more refugees, and you already know where that’s led, from Brexit to Donald Trump. Destroy enough Mosuls and, even in the heartland of the planet’s sole superpower, the fears of those who already feel they’ve been left in a ditch will only rise (and be fed further by demagogues ready to use that global flow of refugees for their own purposes).
Given the transformations of recent years, just think what it will mean to uproot ever vaster populations, to set the homeless, the desperate, the angry, the hurt, and the vengeful — millions of adults and children whose lives have been devastated or destroyed — in motion. Imagine, for instance, what those pressures will mean when it comes to Europe and its future politics.
Think about what’s to come on this small planet of ours — and that’s without even mentioning the force that has yet to fully reveal itself in all its fragmenting and globalizing and leveling power. We now call it, mildly enough, “climate change” or “global warming.” Just wait until, in the decades to come, rising sea levels and extreme weather events put human beings in motion in startling ways (particularly given that the planet’s sole superpower is now run by men in violent denial of the very existence of such a force or the human sources of its power).
You want a shrinking planet? You want terror? You want globalization? Think about that. And do you wonder why, these days, I have Mosul on my mind?
Mosul on My Mind
MOAB sounds more like an incestuous, war-torn biblical kingdom than the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, aka “the mother of all bombs.” Still, give Donald Trump credit. Only the really, really big bombs, whether North Korean nukes or those 21,600 pounds of MOAB, truly get his attention. He wasn’t even involved in the decision to drop the largest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal for the first time in war, but his beloved generals — “we have the best military people on Earth” — already know the man they work for, and the bigger, flashier, more explosive, and winninger, the better.
It was undoubtedly the awesome look of that first MOAB going off in grainy black and white on Fox News, rather than in Afghanistan, that appealed to the president. Just as he was visibly thrilled by all those picturesque Tomahawk cruise missiles, the equivalent of nearly three MOABS, whooshing from the decks of U.S. destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean and heading, like so many fabulous fireworks, toward a Syrian airfield — or was it actually an Iraqi one? “We’ve just fired 59 missiles,” he said, “all of which hit, by the way, unbelievable, from, you know, hundreds of miles away, all of which hit, amazing… It’s so incredible. It’s brilliant. It’s genius. Our technology, our equipment, is better than anybody by a factor of five.”
Call it thrilling. Call it a blast. Call it escalation. Or just call it the age of Trump. (“If you look at what’s happened over the last eight weeks and compare that really to what’s happened over the past eight years, you’ll see there’s a tremendous difference, tremendous difference,” he commented, adding about MOAB, “This was another very, very successful mission.”)
Anyway, here we are and, as so many of his critics have pointed out, the plaudits have been pouring in from all the usual media and political suspects for a president with big enough… well, hands, to make war impressively. In our world, this is what now passes for “presidential.” Consider that praise the media version of so many Tomahawk missiles pointing us toward what the escalation of America’s never-ending wars will mean to Trump’s presidency.
These days, from Syria to Afghanistan, the Koreas to Somalia, Yemen to Iraq, it’s easy enough to see Commander-in-Chief Donald Trump as something new under the sun. (It has a different ring to it when the commander in chief says, “You’re fired!”) That missile strike in Syria was a first (Obama didn’t dare); the MOAB in Afghanistan was a breakthrough; the drone strikes in Yemen soon after he took office were an absolute record! As for those regular Army troops heading for Somalia, that hasn’t happened in 24 years! Civilian casualties in the region: rising impressively!
Call it mission creep on steroids. At the very least, it seems like evidence that the man who, as a presidential candidate, swore he’d “bomb the shit” out of ISIS and let the U.S. military win again is doing just that. (As he also said on the campaign trail with appropriately placed air punches, “You gotta knock the hell out of them! Boom! Boom! Boom!”)
He’s appointed generals to crucial posts in his administration, lifted restraints on how his commanders in the field can act (hence those soaring civilian casualty figures), let them send more military personnel into Iraq, Syria, and the region generally, taken the constraints off the CIA’s drone assassination campaigns, and dispatched an aircraft carrier strike group somewhat indirectly to the waters off the Koreas (with a strike force of tweets and threats accompanying it).
And there’s obviously more to come: potentially many more troops, even an army of them, for Syria; a possible mini-surge of troops into Afghanistan (that MOAB strike may have been a canny signal from a U.S. commander “seeking to showcase Afghanistan’s myriad threats” to a president paying no attention); a heightened air campaign in Somalia; and that’s just to start what will surely be a far longer list in a presidency in which, whether or not infrastructure is ever successfully rebuilt in America, the infrastructure of the military-industrial complex will continue to expand.
Institutionalizing War and Its Generals
Above all, President Trump did one thing decisively. He empowered a set of generals or retired generals — James “Mad Dog” Mattis as secretary of defense, H.R. McMaster as national security adviser, and John Kelly as secretary of homeland security — men already deeply implicated in America’s failing wars across the Greater Middle East. Not being a details guy himself, he’s then left them to do their damnedest. “What I do is I authorize my military,” he told reporters recently. “We have given them total authorization and that’s what they’re doing and, frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful lately.”
As the 100-day mark of his presidency approaches, there’s been no serious reassessment of America’s endless wars or how to fight them (no less end them). Instead, there’s been a recommitment to doing more of the familiar, more of what hasn’t worked over the last decade and a half. No one should be surprised by this, given the cast of characters — men who held command posts in those unsuccessful wars and are clearly incapable of thinking about them in other terms than the ones that have been indelibly engrained in the brains of the U.S. military high command since soon after 9/11.
That new ruling reality of our American world should, in turn, offer a hint about the nature of Donald Trump’s presidency. It should be a reminder that as strange… okay, bizarre… as his statements, tweets, and acts may have been, as chaotic as his all-in-the-family administration is proving to be, as little as he may resemble anyone we’ve ever seen in the White House before, he’s anything but an anomaly of history. Quite the opposite. Like those generals, he’s a logical endpoint to a grim process, whether you’re talking about the growth of inequality in America and the rise of plutocracy — without which a billionaire president and his billionaire cabinet would have been inconceivable — or the form that American war-making is taking under him.
When it comes to war and the U.S. military, none of what’s happened would have been conceivable without the two previous presidencies. None of it would have been possible without Congress’s willingness to pump endless piles of money into the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex in the post-9/11 years; without the building up of the national security state and its 17 (yes, 17!) major intelligence outfits into an unofficial fourth branch of government; without the institutionalization of war as a permanent (yet strangely distant) feature of American life and of wars across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa that evidently can’t be won or lost but only carried on into eternity. None of this would have been possible without the growing militarization of this country, including of police forces increasingly equipped with weaponry off America’s distant battlefields and filled with veterans of those same wars; without a media rife with retired generals and other former commanders narrating and commenting on the acts of their successors and protégés; and without a political class of Washington pundits and politicians taught to revere that military.
In other words, however original Donald Trump may look, he’s the curious culmination of old news and a changing country. Given his bravado and braggadocio, it’s easy to forget the kinds of militarized extremity that preceded him.
After all, it wasn’t Donald Trump who had the hubris, in the wake of 9/11, to declare a “Global War on Terror” against 60 countries (the “swamp” of that moment). It wasn’t Donald Trump who manufactured false intelligence on the weapons of mass destruction Iraq’s Saddam Hussein supposedly possessed or produced bogus claims about that autocrat’s connections to al-Qaeda, and then used both to lead the United States into a war on and occupation of that country. It wasn’t Donald Trump who invaded Iraq (whether he was for or against tht invasion at the time). It wasn’t Donald Trump who donned a flight suit and landed on an aircraft carrier off the coast of San Diego to personally declare that hostilities were at an end in Iraq just as they were truly beginning, and to do so under an inane “Mission Accomplished” banner prepared by the White House.
It wasn’t Donald Trump who ordered the CIA to kidnap terror suspects (including totally innocent individuals) off the streets of global cities as well as from the backlands of the planet and transport them to foreign prisons or CIA “black sites” where they could be tortured. It wasn’t Donald Trump who caused one terror suspect to experience the sensation of drowning 83 times in a single month (even if he was inspired by such reports to claim that he would bring torture back as president).
It wasn’t Donald Trump who spent eight years in the Oval Office presiding over a global “kill list,” running “Terror Tuesday” meetings, and personally helping choose individuals around the world for the CIA to assassinate using what, in essence, was the president’s own private drone force, while being praised (or criticized) for his “caution.”
It wasn’t Donald Trump who presided over the creation of a secret military of 70,000 elite troops cossetted inside the larger military, special-ops personnel who, in recent years, have been dispatched on missions to a large majority of the countries on the planet without the knowledge, no less the consent, of the American people. Nor was it Donald Trump who managed to lift the Pentagon budget to $600 billion and the overall national security budget to something like a trillion dollars or more, even as America’s civilian infrastructure aged and buckled.
It wasn’t Donald Trump who lost an estimated $60 billion to fraud and waste in the American “reconstruction” of Iraq and Afghanistan, or who decided to build highways to nowhere and a gas station in the middle of nowhere in Afghanistan. It wasn’t Donald Trump who sent in the warrior corporations to squander more in that single country than was spent on the post-World War II Marshall Plan to put all of Western Europe back on its feet. Nor did he instruct the U.S. military to dump at least $25 billion into rebuilding, retraining, and rearming an Iraqi army that would collapse in 2014 in the face of a relatively small number of ISIS militants, or at least $65 billion into an Afghan army that would turn out to be filled with ghost soldiers.
In its history, the United States has engaged in quite a remarkable range of wars and conflicts. Nonetheless, in the last 15 years, forever war has been institutionalized as a feature of everyday life in Washington, which, in turn, has been transformed into a permanent war capital. When Donald Trump won the presidency and inherited those wars and that capital, there was, in a sense, no one left in the remarkably bankrupt political universe of Washington but those generals.
As the chameleon he is, he promptly took on the coloration of the militarized world he had entered and appointed “his” three generals to key security posts. Anything but the norm historically, such a decision may have seemed anomalous and out of the American tradition. That, however, was only because, unlike Donald Trump, most of the rest of us hadn’t caught up with where that “tradition” had actually taken us.
The previous two presidents had played the warrior regularly, donning military outfits — in his presidential years, George W. Bush often looked like a G.I. Joe doll — and saluting the troops, while praising them to the skies, as the American people were also trained to do. In the Trump era, however, it’s the warriors (if you’ll excuse the pun) who are playing the president.
It’s hardly news that Donald Trump is a man in love with what works. Hence, Steve Bannon, his dream strategist while on the campaign trail, is now reportedly on the ropes as his White House counselor because nothing he’s done in the first nearly 100 days of the new presidency has worked (except promoting himself).
Think of Trump as a chameleon among presidents and much of this makes more sense. A Republican who had been a Democrat for significant periods of his life, he conceivably could have run for president as a more nativist version of Bernie Sanders on the Democratic ticket had the political cards been dealt just a little differently. He’s a man who has changed himself repeatedly to fit his circumstances and he’s doing so again in the Oval Office.
In the world of the media, it’s stylish to be shocked, shocked that the president who campaigned on one set of issues and came into office still championing them is now supporting quite a different set — from China to taxes, NATO to the Export-Import Bank. But this isn’t faintly strange. Donald Trump isn’t either a politician or a trendsetter. If anything, he’s a trend-senser. (In a similar fashion, he didn’t create reality TV, nor was he at its origins. He simply perfected a form that was already in development.)
If you want to know just where we are in an America that has been on the march toward a different sort of society and governing system for a long time now, look at him. He’s the originator of nothing, but he tells you all you need to know. On war, too, think of him as a chameleon. Right now, war is working for him domestically, whatever it may be doing in the actual world, so he loves it. For the moment, those generals are indeed “his” and their wars his to embrace.
Honeymoon of the Generals
Normally, on entering the Oval Office, presidents receive what the media calls a “honeymoon” period. Things go well. Praise is forthcoming. Approval ratings are heart-warming.
Donald Trump got none of this. His approval ratings quickly headed for the honeymoon cellar or maybe the honeymoon fallout shelter; the media and he went to war; and one attempt after another to fulfill his promises — from executive orders on deportation to repealing Obamacare and building his wall — have come a cropper. His administration seems to be in eternal chaos, the cast of characters changing by the week or tweet, and few key secondary posts being filled.
In only one area has Donald Trump experienced that promised honeymoon. Think of it as the honeymoon of the generals. He gave them that “total authorization,” and the missiles left the ships, the drones flew, and the giant bomb dropped. Even when the results were disappointing, if not disastrous (as in a raid on Yemen in which a U.S. special operator was killed, children slaughtered, and nothing of value recovered), he still somehow stumbled into highly praised “presidential” moments.
So far, in other words, the generals are the only ones who have delivered for him, big-league. As a result, he’s given them yet more authority to do whatever they want, while hugging them tighter yet.
Here’s the problem, though: there’s a predictable element to all of this and it doesn’t work in Donald Trump’s favor. America’s forever wars have now been pursued by these generals and others like them for more than 15 years across a vast swath of the planet — from Pakistan to Libya (and ever deeper into Africa) — and the chaos of failing states, growing conflicts, and spreading terror movements has been the result. There’s no reason to believe that further military action will, a decade and a half later, produce more positive results.
What happens, then? What happens when the war honeymoon is over and the generals keep right on fighting their way? The last two presidents put up with permanent failing war, making the best they could of it. That’s unlikely for Donald Trump. When the praise begins to die down, the criticism starts to rise, and questions are asked, watch out.
What then? In a world of plutocrats and generals, what coloration will Donald Trump take on next? Who will be left, except Jared and Ivanka?
The Honeymoon of the Generals
On successive days recently, I saw two museum shows that caught something of a lost American world and seemed eerily relevant in the Age of Trump. The first, “Hippie Modernism,” an exploration of the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s (heavy on psychedelic posters), was appropriately enough at the Berkeley Art Museum. To my surprise, it also included a few artifacts from a movement crucial to my own not-especially-countercultural version of those years: the vast antiwar protests that took to the streets in the mid-1960s, shook the country, and never really went away until the last American combat troops were finally withdrawn from Vietnam in 1973. Included was a poster of the American flag, upside down, its stripes redrawn as red rifles, its stars as blue fighter planes, and another showing an American soldier, a rifle casually slung over his shoulder. Its caption still seems relevant as our never-ending wars continue to head for “the homeland.”
“Violence abroad,” it said, “breeds violence at home.” Amen, brother.
The next day, I went to a small Rosie the Riveter Memorial museum-cum-visitor’s center in a national park in Richmond, California, on the shores of San Francisco Bay. There, during World War II, workers at a giant Ford plant assembled tanks, while Henry Kaiser’s nearby shipyard complex was, at one point, launching a Liberty or Victory ship every single day. Let me repeat that: on average, one ship a day. Almost three-quarters of a century later, that remains mindboggling. In fact, those yards, as I learned from a documentary at the visitor’s center, set a record by constructing a single cargo ship, stem to stern, in just under five days.
And what made such records and that kind of 24/7 productiveness possible in wartime America? All of it happened largely because the gates to the American workforce were suddenly thrown open not just to Rosie, the famed riveter, and so many other women whose opportunities had previously been limited largely to gender-stereotyped jobs, but to African Americans, Chinese Americans, the aged, the disabled, just about everyone in town (except incarcerated Japanese Americans) who had previously been left out or sold short, the sort of cross-section of a country that wouldn’t rub elbows again for decades.
Similarly, the vast antiwar movement of the 1960s and early 1970s was filled with an unexpected cross-section of the country, including middle-class students and largely working-class vets directly off the battlefields of Southeast Asia. Both the work force of those World War II years and the protest movement of their children were, in their own fashion, citizen wonders of their American moments. They were artifacts of a country in which the public was still believed to play a crucial role and in which government of the people, by the people, and for the people didn’t yet sound like a late-night laugh line. Having seen in those museum exhibits traces of two surges of civic duty — if you don’t mind my repurposing the word “surge,” now used only for U.S. military operations leading nowhere — I suddenly realized that my family (like so many other American families) had been deeply affected by each of those mobilizing moments, one in support of a war and the other in opposition to it.
My father joined the U.S. Army Air Corps immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He would be operations officer for the First Air Commandos in Burma. My mother joined the mobilization back home, becoming chairman of the Artist’s Committee of the American Theatre Wing, which, among other things, planned entertainment for servicemen and women. In every sense, theirs was a war of citizens’ mobilization — from those rivets pounded in by Rosie to the backyard “victory gardens” (more than 20 million of them) that sprang up nationwide and played a significant role in feeding the country in a time of global crisis. And then there were the war bond drives for one of which my mother, described in an ad as a “well known caricaturist of stage and screen stars,” agreed to do “a caricature of those who purchase a $500 war bond or more.”
World War II was distinctly a citizen’s war. I was born in 1944 just as it was reaching its crescendo. My own version of such a mobilization, two decades later, took me by surprise. In my youth, I had dreamed of serving my country by becoming a State Department official and representing it abroad. In a land that still had a citizen’s army and a draft, it never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t also be in the military at some point, doing my duty. That my “duty” in those years would instead turn out to involve joining in a mobilization against war was unexpected. But that an American citizen should care about the wars that his (or her) country fought and why it fought them was second nature. Those wars — both against fascism globally and against rebellious peasants across much of Southeast Asia — were distinctly American projects. That meant they were our responsibility.
If my country fought the war from hell in a distant land, killing peasants by the endless thousands, it seemed only natural, a duty in fact, to react to it as so many Americans drafted into that military did — even wearing peace symbols into battle, creating antiwar newspapers on their military bases, and essentially going into opposition while still in that citizen’s army. The horror of that war mobilized me, too, just not in the military itself. And yet I can still remember that when I marched on Washington, along with hundreds of thousands of other protesters, it never occurred to me — not even when Richard Nixon was in the White House — that an American president wouldn’t have to listen to the voices of a mobilized citizenry.
Add in one more thing. Each of those mobilizing moments, in its own curious fashion, proved to be a distinctly American tale of triumph: the victory of World War II that left fascism in its German, Italian, and Japanese forms in literal ruins, while turning the U.S. into a global superpower; and the defeat in Vietnam, which checked that superpower’s capacity to destroy, thanks at least in part to the actions of both a citizen’s army in revolt and an army of citizens.
The Teflon Objects of Our American World
Since then, in every sense, victory has gone missing in action and so, for decades (with a single brief moment of respite), has the very idea that Americans have a duty of any sort when it comes to the wars their country chooses to fight. In our era, war, like the Pentagon budget and the growing powers of the national security state, has been inoculated against the virus of citizen involvement, and so against any significant form of criticism or resistance. It’s a process worth contemplating since it reminds us that we’re truly in a new American age, whether of the plutocrats, by the plutocrats, and for the plutocrats or of the generals, by the generals, and for the generals — but most distinctly not of the people, by the people, and for the people.
After all, for more than 15 years, the U.S. military has been fighting essentially failed or failing wars — conflicts that only seem to spread the phenomenon (terrorism) they’re supposed to eradicate — in Afghanistan, Iraq, more recently Syria, intermittently Yemen, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa. In recent weeks, civilians in those distant lands have been dying in rising numbers (as, to little attention here, has been true periodically for years now). Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s generals have been quietly escalating those wars. Hundreds, possibly thousands, more American soldiers and special ops forces are being sent into Syria, Iraq, and neighboring Kuwait (about which the Pentagon will no longer provide even inaccurate numbers); U.S. air strikes have been on the rise throughout the region; the U.S. commander in Afghanistan is calling for reinforcements; U.S. drone strikes recently set a new record for intensity in Yemen; Somalia may be the next target of mission creep and escalation; and it looks as if Iran is now in Washington’s sniper scopes. In this context, it’s worth noting that, even with a significant set of anti-Trump groups now taking to the streets in protest, none are focused on America’s wars.
Many of these developments were reasonably predictable once Donald Trump — a man unconcerned with the details of anything from healthcare to bombing campaigns — appointed generals already deeply implicated in America’s disastrous wars to plan and oversee his version of them, as well as foreign policy generally. (Rex Tillerson’s State Department has, by now, been relegated to near nonentity-hood.) In response, many in the media and elsewhere began treating those generals as if they were the only “adults” in the Trumpian room. If so, they are distinctly deluded ones. Otherwise why would they be ramping up their wars in a fashion familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention for the last decade and a half, clearly resorting to more of what hasn’t worked in all these years? Who shouldn’t, for instance, feel a little chill when the word “surge” starts to be associated again with the possibility of sending thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan? After all, we already know how this story ends, having had more than 15 years of grim lessons on the subject. The question is: Why don’t the generals?
And here’s another question that should (but doesn’t) come to mind in twenty-first-century America: Why does a war effort that has already cost U.S. taxpayers trillions of dollars not involve the slightest mobilization of the American people? No war taxes, war bonds, war drives, victory gardens, sacrifice of any sort, or for that matter serious criticism, protest, or resistance? As has been true since Vietnam, war and American national security are to be left to the pros, even if those pros have proven a distinctly amateurish lot.
And here’s one more question: With an oppositional movement gearing up on domestic issues, will our wars, the military, and the national security state continue to be the Teflon objects of our American world? Why, with the sole exception of President Trump (and in his case only when it comes to the way the country’s intelligence agencies have dealt with him) is no one — with the exception of small groups of antiwar vets and a tiny number of similarly determined activists — going after the national security state, even as its wars threaten to create a vast arc of failed states and a hell of terror movements and unmoored populations?
The Age of Demobilization
In the case of America’s wars, there’s a history that helps explain how we ended up in such a situation. It would undoubtedly begin with an American high command facing a military in near revolt in the later Vietnam years and deciding that the draft should be tossed out the window. What was needed, they came to believe, was an “all-volunteer” force (which, to them, meant a no-protest one).
In 1973, President Nixon obliged and ended the draft, the first step in bringing a rebellious citizen’s army and a rebellious populace back under control. In the decades to come, the military would be transformed — though few here would say such a thing — into something closer to an American foreign legion. In addition, in the post-9/11 years, that all-volunteer force came to shelter within it a second, far more secretive military, 70,000 strong: the Special Operations Command. Members of that elite crew, which might be thought of as the president’s private army, are now regularly dispatched around the globe to train literal foreign legions and to commit deeds that are, at best, only half-known to the American people.
In these years, Americans have largely been convinced that secrecy is the single most crucial factor in national security; that what we do know will hurt us; and that ignorance of the workings of our own government, now enswathed in a penumbra of secrecy, will help keep us safe from “terror.” In other words, knowledge is danger and ignorance, safety. However Orwellian that may sound, it has become the norm of twenty-first-century America.
That the government must have the power to surveil you is by now a given; that you should have the power to surveil (or simply survey) your own government is a luxury from another time. And that has proven an effective formula for the kind of demobilization that has come to define this era, even if it fits poorly with any normal definition of how a democracy should function or with the now exceedingly old-fashioned belief that an informed public (as opposed to an uninformed or even misinformed one) is crucial to the workings of such a government.
In addition, as they launched their Global War on Terror after 9/11, top Bush administration officials remained obsessed with memories of the Vietnam mobilization. They were eager for wars in which there would be no prying journalists, no ugly body counts, and no body bags heading home to protesting citizens. In their minds, there were to be only two roles available for the American public. The first was, in President George W. Bush’s classic formulation, to “go down to Disney World in Florida, take your families, and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed” — in other words, go shopping. The second was to eternally thank and praise America’s “warriors” for their deeds and efforts. Their wars for better or worse (and it would invariably turn out to be for worse) were to be people-less ones in distant lands that would in no way disturb American life — another fantasy of our age.
Coverage of the resulting wars would be carefully controlled; journalists “embedded” in the military; (American) casualties kept as low as possible; and warfare itself made secretive, “smart,” and increasingly robotic (think: drones) with death a one-way street for the enemy. American-style war was, in short, to become unimaginably antiseptic and distant (if, that is, you were living thousands of miles away and shopping your heart out). In addition, the memory of the attacks of 9/11 helped sanitize whatever the U.S. did thereafter.
In those years, the result at home would be an age of demobilization. The single exception — and it’s one that historians will perhaps someday puzzle over — would be the few months before the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in which hundreds of thousands of Americans (millions globally) suddenly took to the streets in repeated protests. That, however, largely ended with the actual invasion and in the face of a government determined not to listen.
It remains to be seen whether, in Donald Trump’s America, with that sense of demobilization fading, America’s wars and military-first policies will once again become the target of a mobilizing public. Or will Donald Trump and his Teflon generals have a free hand to do as they want abroad, whatever happens at home?
In many ways, from its founding the United States has been a nation made by wars. The question in this century is: Will its citizenry and its form of government be unmade by them?
If you want to know where President Donald Trump came from, if you want to trace the long winding road (or escalator) that brought him to the Oval Office, don’t look to reality TV or Twitter or even the rise of the alt-right. Look someplace far more improbable: Iraq.
Donald Trump may have been born in New York City. He may have grown to manhood amid his hometown’s real estate wars. He may have gone no further than Atlantic City, New Jersey, to casino-ize the world and create those magical golden letters that would become the essence of his brand. He may have made an even more magical leap to television without leaving home, turning “You’re fired!” into a household phrase. Still, his presidency is another matter entirely. It’s an immigrant. It arrived, fully radicalized, with its bouffant over-comb and eternal tan, from Iraq.
Despite his denials that he was ever in favor of the 2003 invasion of that country, Donald Trump is a president made by war. His elevation to the highest office in the land is inconceivable without that invasion, which began in glory and ended (if ended it ever did) in infamy. He’s the president of a land remade by war in ways its people have yet to absorb. Admittedly, he avoided war in his personal life entirely. He was, after all, a Vietnam no-show. And yet he’s the president that war brought home. Think of him not as President Blowhard but as President Blowback.
“Go Massive. Sweep It All Up”
To grasp this, a little escalator ride down memory lane is necessary — all the way back to 9/11; to, that is, the grimmest day in our recent history. There’s no other way to recall just how gloriously it all began than amid the rubble. You could, if you wanted, choose the moment three days after the World Trade Center towers collapsed when, bullhorn in hand, President George W. Bush ascended part of that rubble pile in downtown Manhattan, put his arm around a firefighter, and shouted into a bullhorn, “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you!… And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
If I were to pick the genesis of Donald Trump’s presidency, however, I think I would choose an even earlier moment — at a Pentagon partially in ruins thanks to hijacked American Airlines flight 77. There, only five hours after the attack, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, already aware that the destruction around him was probably Osama bin Laden’s responsibility, ordered his aides (according to notes one of them took) to begin planning for a retaliatory strike against… yes, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. His exact words: “Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.” And swept almost instantly into the giant dust bin of what would become the Global War on Terror (or GWOT), as ordered, would be something completely unrelated to 9/11 (not that the Bush administration ever admitted that). It was, however, intimately related to the deepest dreams of the men (and woman) who oversaw foreign policy in the Bush years: the elimination of Iraq’s autocratic ruler, Saddam Hussein.
Yes, there was bin Laden to deal with and the Taliban and Afghanistan, too, but that was small change, almost instantly taken care of with some air power, CIA dollars delivered to Afghan warlords, and a modest number of American troops. Within months, Afghanistan had been “liberated,” bin Laden had fled the country, the Taliban had laid down their arms, and that was that. (Who in Washington then imagined that 15 years later a new administration would be dealing with a request from the 12th U.S. military commander in that country for yet more troops to shore up a failing war there?)
Within months, in other words, the decks were clear to pursue what George W. Bush, Dick Cheney & Co. saw as their destiny, as the key to America’s future imperial glory: the taking down of the Iraqi dictator. That, as Rumsfeld indicated at the Pentagon that day, was always where they were truly focused. It was what some of them had dreamed of since the moment, in the first Gulf War of 1990-1991, when President George H.W. Bush stopped the troops short of a march on Baghdad and left Hussein, America’s former ally and later Hitlerian nemesis, in power.
The invasion of March 2003 was, they had no doubt, to be an unforgettable moment in America’s history as a global power (as it would indeed turn out to be, even if not in the way they imagined). The U.S. military that George W. Bush would call “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known” was slated to liberate Iraq via a miraculous, high-tech, shock-and-awe campaign that the world would never forget. This time, unlike in 1991, its troops would enter Baghdad, Saddam would go down in flames, and it would all happen without the help of the militaries of 28 other countries.
It would instead be an act of imperial loneliness befitting the last superpower on planet Earth. The Iraqis would, of course, greet us as liberators and we would set up a long-term garrison state in the oil heartlands of the Middle East. At the moment the invasion was launched, in fact, the Pentagon already had plans on the drawing boards for the building of four permanent U.S. mega-bases (initially endearingly labeled “enduring camps”) in Iraq on which thousands of U.S. troops could hunker down for an eternity. At the peak of the occupation, there would be more than 500 bases, ranging from tiny combat outposts to ones the size of small American towns — many transformed after 2011 into the ghost towns of a dream gone mad until a few were recently reoccupied by U.S. troops in the battle against the Islamic State.
In the wake of the friendly occupation of now-democratic (and grateful) Iraq, the hostile Syria of the al-Assad family would naturally be between a hammer and an anvil (American-garrisoned Iraq and Israel), while the fundamentalist Iranian regime, after more than two decades of implacable anti-American hostility, would be done for. The neocon quip of that moment was: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.” Soon enough — it was inevitable — Washington would dominate the Greater Middle East from Pakistan to North Africa in a way no great power ever had. It would be the beginning of a Pax Americana moment on planet Earth that would stretch on for generations to come.
Such was the dream. You, of course, remember the reality, the one that led to a looted capital; Saddam’s army tossed out on the streets jobless to join the uprisings to come; a bitter set of insurgencies (Sunni and Shia); civil war (and local ethnic cleansing); a society-wide reconstruction program overseen by American warrior corporations linked to the Pentagon that resulted in vast boondoggle projects that achieved little and reconstructed nothing; prisons from hell (including Abu Ghraib) that bred yet more insurgents; and finally, years down the line, the Islamic State and the present version of American war, now taking place in Syria as well as Iraq and slated to ramp up further in the early days of the Trump era.
Meanwhile, as our new president reminded us recently in a speech to Congress, literally trillions of dollars that might have been spent on actual American security (broadly understood) were squandered on a failed military project that left this country’s infrastructure in disarray. All in all, it was quite a record. Thought of a certain way, in return for the destruction of part of the Pentagon and a section of downtown Manhattan that was turned to rubble, the U.S. would set off a series of wars, conflicts, insurgencies, and burgeoning terror movements that would transform significant parts of the Greater Middle East into failed or failing states, and their cities and towns, startling numbers of them, into so much rubble.
Once upon a time, all of this seemed so distant to Americans in a Global War on Terror in which President Bush quickly urged citizens to show their patriotism not by sacrificing or mobilizing or even joining the military, but by visiting Disney World and reestablishing patterns of pre-9/11 consumption as if nothing had happened. (“Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”) And indeed, personal consumption would rise significantly that October 2001. The other side of the glory-to-come in those years of remarkable peace in the United States was to be the passivity of a demobilized populace that (except for periodic thank-yous to its military) would have next to nothing to do with distant wars, which were to be left to the pros, even if fought to victory in their name.
That, of course, was the dream. Reality proved to be another matter entirely.
In the end, a victory-less permanent war across the Greater Middle East did indeed come home. There was all the new hardware of war — the stingrays, the MRAPs, the drones, and so on — that began migrating homewards, and that was the least of it. There was the militarization of America’s police forces, not to speak of the rise of the national security state to the status of an unofficial fourth branch of government. Home, too, came the post-9/11 fears, the vague but unnerving sense that somewhere in the world strange and incomprehensible aliens practicing an eerie religion were out to get us, that some of them had near-super powers that even the world’s greatest military couldn’t crush, and that their potential acts of terror were Topeka’s greatest danger. (It mattered little that actual Islamic terror was perhaps the least of the dangers Americans faced in their daily lives.)
All of this reached its crescendo (at least thus far) in Donald Trump. Think of the Trump phenomenon, in its own strange way, as the culmination of the invasion of 2003 brought home bigly. His would be a shock-and-awe election campaign in which he would “decapitate” his rivals one by one. The New York real estate, hotel, and casino magnate who had long swum comfortably in the waters of the liberal elite when he needed to and had next to nothing to do with America’s heartland would be as alien to its inhabitants as the U.S. military was to Iraqis when it invaded. And yet he would indeed launch his own invasion of that heartland on his private jet with its gold-plated bathroom fixtures, sweeping up all the fears that had been gathering in this country since 9/11 (nurtured by both politicians and national security state officials for their own benefit). And those fears would ring a bell so loud in that heartland that it would sweep him into the White House. In November 2016, he took Baghdad, USA, in high style.
In this context, let’s think for a moment about how strangely the invasion of Iraq, in some pretzeled form, blew back on America.
Like the neocons of the Bush administration, Donald Trump had long dreamed of his moment of imperial glory, and as in Afghanistan and again in Iraq in 2001 and 2003, when it arrived on November 8, 2016, it couldn’t have seemed more glorious. We know of those dreams of his because, for one thing, only six days after Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama in the 2012 election campaign, The Donald first tried to trademark the old Reagan-inspired slogan, “Make America great again.”
Like George W. and Dick Cheney, he was intent on invading and occupying the oil heartlands of the planet which, in 2003, had indeed been Iraq. By 2015-2016, however, the U.S. had entered the energy heartlands sweepstakes, thanks to fracking and other advanced methods of extracting fossil fuels that seemed to be turning the country into “Saudi America.” Add to this Trump’s plans to further fossil-fuelize the continent and you certainly have a competitor to the Middle East. In a sense, you might say, adapting his description of what he would have preferred to do in Iraq, that Donald Trump wants to “keep” our oil.
Like the U.S. military in 2003, he, too, arrived on the scene with plans to turn his country of choice into a garrison state. Almost the first words out of his mouth on riding that escalator into the presidential race in June 2015 involved a promise to protect Americans from Mexican “rapists” by building an unforgettably impregnable “great wall” on the country’s southern border. From this he never varied even when, in funding terms, it became apparent that, from the Coast Guard to airport security to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as president he would be cutting into genuine security measures to build his “big, fat, beautiful wall.”
It’s clear, however, that his urge to create a garrison state went far beyond a literal wall. It included the build-up of the U.S. military to unprecedented heights, as well as the bolstering of the regular police, and above all of the border police. Beyond that lay the urge to wall Americans off in every way possible. His fervently publicized immigration policies (less new, in reality, than they seemed) should be thought of as part of a project to construct another kind of “great wall,” a conceptual one whose message to the rest of the world was striking: You are not welcome or wanted here. Don’t come. Don’t visit.
All this was, in turn, fused at the hip to the many irrational fears that had been gathering like storm clouds for so many years, and that Trump (and his alt-right companions) swept into the already looted heartland of the country. In the process, he loosed a brand of hate (including shootings, mosque burnings, a raft of bomb threats, and a rise in hate groups, especially anti-Muslim ones) that, historically speaking, was all-American, but was nonetheless striking in its intensity in our present moment.
Combined with his highly publicized “Muslim bans” and prominently publicized acts of hate, the Trump walling-in of America quickly hit home. A drop in foreigners who wanted to visit this country was almost instantly apparent as the warning signs of a tourism “Trump slump” registered, business travel bookings took an instant $185 million hit, and the travel industry predicted worse to come.
This is evidently what “America First” actually means: a country walled off and walled in. Think of the road traveled from 2003 to 2017 as being from sole global superpower to potential super-pariah. Thought of another way, Donald Trump is giving the hubristic imperial isolation of the invasion of Iraq a new meaning here in the homeland.
And don’t forget “reconstruction,” as it was called after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In relation to the United States, the bedraggled land now in question whose infrastructure recently was given a D+ grade on a “report card” issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers, Donald Trump promises a trillion-dollar infrastructure program to rebuild America’s highways, tunnels, bridges, airports, and the like. If it actually comes about, count on one thing: it will be handed over to some of the same warrior corporations that reconstructed Iraq (and other corporate entities like them), functionally guaranteeing an American version of the budget-draining boondoggle that was Iraq.
As with that invasion in the spring of 2003, in 2017 we are still in the (relative) sunshine days of the Trump era. But as in Iraq, so here 14 years later, the first cracks are already appearing, as this country grows increasingly riven. (Think Sunni vs. Shia.)
And one more thing as you consider the future: the blowback wars out of which Donald Trump and the present fear-gripped garrison state of America arose have never ended. In fact, just as under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, so under Donald Trump, it seems they never will. Already the Trump administration is revving up American military power in Yemen, Syria, and potentially Afghanistan. So whatever the blowback may have been, you’ve only seen its beginning. It’s bound to last for years to come.
There’s just one phrase that could adequately sum all this up: Mission accomplished!
It’s been epic! A cast of thousands! (Hundreds? Tens?) A spectacular production that, five weeks after opening on every screen of any sort in America (and possibly the world), shows no sign of ending. What a hit it’s been! It’s driving people back to newspapers (online, if not in print) and ensuring that our everyday companions, the 24/7 cable news shows, never lack for “breaking news” or audiences. It’s a smash in both the Hollywood and car accident sense of the term, a phenomenon the likes of which we’ve simply never experienced. Think of Nero fiddling while Rome burned and the cameras rolled. It’s proved, in every way, to be a giant leak. A faucet. A spigot. An absolute flood of non-news, quarter-news, half-news, crazed news, fake news, and over-the-top actual news.
And you know exactly what — and whom — I’m talking about. No need to explain. I mean, you tell me: What doesn’t it have? Its lead actor is the closest we’ve come in our nation’s capital to an action figure. Think of him as the Mar-a-Lego version of Batman and the Joker rolled into one, a president who, as he told us at a news conference recently, is “the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life” and the “least racist person” as well. As report after report indicates, he attacks, lashes out, mocks, tweets, pummels, charges, and complains, showering calumny on others even as he praises his achievements without surcease. Think of him as the towering inferno of twenty-first-century American politics or a modern Godzilla eternally emerging from New York harbor.
As for his supporting cast? Islamophobes, Iranophobes, white nationalists; bevies of billionaires and multimillionaires; a resurgent stock market gone wild; the complete fossil fuel industry and every crackpot climate change “skeptic” in town; a press spokesman immortalized by Saturday Night Live whose afternoon briefings are already beating the soap opera General Hospital in the ratings; a White House counselor whose expertise is in “alternative facts”; a national security adviser who (with a tenure of 24 days) seemed to sum up the concept of “insecurity”; a White House chief of staff and liaison with the Republicans in Congress who’s already being sized up for extinction, as well as a couple of appointees who were “dismissed” or even frog-marched out of their offices and jobs for having criticized The Donald and not fessed up… honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up, or rather only Trump himself can do so. And by the way, just so you know, based on the last weeks of “news” I could keep this paragraph going more or less forever without even breaking into a sweat.
Among so many subjects I haven’t even mentioned, including Melania and former wife Ivana — is it even possible that she could become the U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic? — there are, of course, the Trump kids and their businesses and the instantly broken promises on (such an old-fashioned phrase) their conflicts of interest and the conflicts about those conflicts and the presidential tweets, threats, and bluster that have gone with them, not to speak of the issue of for-pay access to the new president. And how about Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner (another walking conflict of you-know-what), who reputedly had a role in the appointment of the new ambassador to Israel, a New York bankruptcy lawyer known for raising millions of dollars to fund a West Bank Jewish settlement and for calling supporters of the liberal Jewish group J Street “far worse than kapos” (Jews who aided the Nazis in their concentration camps). Kushner has now been ordained America’s ultimate peacemaker in the Middle East. And don’t forget that sons Donald and Eric are already saving memorabilia for the future Trump presidential library, a concept that should take your breath away. (Just imagine a library with those giant golden letters over its entrance to honor a man who proudly doesn’t read books and, as with presidential executive orders and possibly even volumes he’s “written,” signs off on things he’s barely bothered to check out.)
And speaking of Rome (remember Nero fiddling?), have you noticed that these days all news roads lead back to… well, Donald Trump? Take my word for it: nothing happens in our world any longer that doesn’t relate to him and his people (or, by definition, it simply didn’t happen). Since he rode that Trump Tower escalator into the presidential race in June 2015, his greatest skill has, without any doubt, been his ability to suck up all the media air in any room, whether that “room” is the Oval Office, Washington, or the world at large. He speaks at a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, amid angry outbursts on leaks from the intelligence community and attacks on “the dishonest media” for essentially firing his national security adviser, he suddenly turns his attention to the Israeli-Palestinian issue and says, “So, I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one. I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two but honestly, if Bibi and if the Palestinians — if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.” And the world as we’ve known it in the Middle East is suddenly turned upside down and inside out.
In its way, even 20 months after it began, it’s all still so remarkable and new, and if it isn’t like being in the path of a tornado, you tell me what it’s like. So no one should be surprised at just how difficult it is to step outside the storm of this never-ending moment, to find some — any — vantage point offering the slightest perspective on the Trumpaclysm that’s hit our world.
Still, odd as it may seem under the circumstances, Trump’s presidency came from somewhere, developed out of something. To think of it (as many of those resisting Trump now seem inclined to do) as uniquely new, the presidential version of a virgin birth, is to defy both history and reality.
Donald Trump, whatever else he may be, is most distinctly a creature of history. He’s unimaginable without it. This, in turn, means that the radical nature of his new presidency should serve as a reminder of just how radical the 15 years after 9/11 actually were in shaping American life, politics, and governance. In that sense, to generalize (if you’ll excuse the pun), his presidency already offers a strikingly vivid and accurate portrait of the America we’ve been living in for some years now, even if we’d prefer to pretend otherwise.
After all, it’s clearly a government of, by, and evidently for the billionaires and the generals, which pretty much sums up where we’ve been heading for the last decade and a half anyway. Let’s start with those generals. In the 15 years before Trump entered the Oval Office, Washington became a permanent war capital; war, a permanent feature of our American world; and the military, the most admired institution of American life, the one in which we have the most confidence among an otherwise fading crew, including the presidency, the Supreme Court, public schools, banks, television news, newspapers, big business, and Congress (in that descending order).
Support for that military in the form of staggering sums of taxpayer dollars (which are about to soar yet again) is one of the few things congressional Democrats and Republicans can still agree on. The military-industrial complex rides ever higher (despite Trumpian tweets about the price of F-35s); police across the country have been armed like so many military forces, while the technology of war on America’s distant battlefields — from Stingrays to MRAPs to military surveillance drones — has come home big time, and we’ve been SWATified.
This country has, in other words, been militarized in all sorts of ways, both obvious and less so, in a fashion that Americans once might not have imagined possible. In the process, declaring and making war has increasingly become — the Constitution be damned — the sole preoccupation of the White House without significant reference to Congress. Meanwhile, thanks to the drone assassination program run directly out of the Oval Office, the president, in these years, has become an assassin-in-chief as well as commander-in-chief.
Under the circumstances, no one should have been surprised when Donald Trump turned to the very generals he criticized in the election campaign, men who fought 15 years of losing wars that they bitterly feel should have been won. In his government, they have, of course, now taken over — a historic first — what had largely been the civilian posts of secretary of defense, secretary of homeland security, national security adviser, and National Security Council chief of staff. Think of it as a junta light and little more than the next logical step in the further militarization of this country.
It’s striking, for instance, that when the president finally fired his national security adviser, 24 days into his presidency, all but one of the other figures that he reportedly considered for a post often occupied by a civilian were retired generals (and an admiral), or in the case of the person he actually tapped to be his second national security adviser, a still-active Army general. This reflects a distinct American reality of the twenty-first century that The Donald has simply absorbed like the human sponge he is. As a result, America’s permanent wars, all relative disasters of one sort or another, will now be overseen by men who were, for the last decade and a half, deeply implicated in them. It’s a formula for further disaster, of course, but no matter.
Other future Trumpian steps — like the possible mobilization of the National Guard, more than half a century after guardsmen helped desegregate the University of Alabama, to carry out the mass deportation of illegal immigrants — will undoubtedly be in the same mold (though the administration has denied that such a mobilization is under serious consideration yet). In short, we now live in an America of the generals and that would be the case even if Donald Trump had never been elected president.
Add in one more factor of our moment: we have the first signs that members of the military high command may no longer feel completely bound by the classic American prohibition from taking any part in politics. General Raymond “Tony” Thomas, head of the elite U.S. Special Operations Command, speaking recently at a conference, essentially warned the president that we are “at war” and that chaos in the White House is not good for the warriors. That’s as close as we’ve come in our time to direct public military criticism of the White House.
The Ascendancy of the Billionaires
As for those billionaires, let’s start this way: a billionaire is now president of the United States, something that, until this country was transformed into a 1% society with 1% politics, would have been inconceivable. (The closest we came in modern times was Nelson Rockefeller as vice president, and he was appointed by President Gerald Ford in 1974, not elected.) In addition, never have there been so many billionaires and multimillionaires in a cabinet — and that, in turn, was only possible because there are now so staggeringly many billionaires and multimillionaires in this country to choose from. In 1987, there were 41 billionaires in the United States; in 2015, 536. What else do you need to know about the intervening years, which featured growing inequality and the worst economic meltdown since 1929 that only helped strengthen the new version of the American system?
In swift order in these years, we moved from billionaires funding the political system (after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision opened the financial floodgates) to actually heading and running the government. As a result, count on a country even friendlier to the already fantastically wealthy — thanks in part to whatever Trump-style “tax cuts” are put in place — and so the possible establishment of a new “era of dynastic wealth.” From the crew of rich dismantlers and destroyers Donald Trump has appointed to his cabinet, expect, among other things, that the privatization of the U.S. government — a process until now largely focused on melding warrior corporations with various parts of the national security state — will proceed apace in the rest of the governing apparatus.
We were, in other words, already living in a different America before November 8, 2016. Donald Trump has merely shoved that reality directly in all our faces. And keep in mind that if it weren’t for the one-percentification of this country and the surge of automation (as well as globalization) that destroyed so many jobs and only helped inequality flourish, white working class Americans in particular would not have felt so left behind in the heartland of their own country or so ready to send such an explosive figure into the White House as a visible form of screw-you-style protest.
Finally, consider one other hallmark of the first month of the Trump presidency: the “feud” between the new president and the intelligence sector of the national security state. In these post-9/11 years, that state within a state — sometimes referred to by its critics as the “deep state,” though given the secrecy that envelops it, “dark state” might be a more accurate term — grew by leaps and bounds. In that period, for instance, the U.S. gained a second Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security with its own security-industrial complex, while the intelligence agencies, all 17 of them, expanded in just about every way imaginable. In those years, they gained a previously inconceivable kind of clout, as well as the ability to essentially listen in on and monitor the communications of just about anyone on the planet (including Americans). Fed copiously by taxpayer dollars, swollen by hundreds of thousands of private contractors from warrior corporations, largely free of the controlling hand of either Congress or the courts, and operating under the kind of blanket secrecy that left most Americans in the dark about its activities (except when whistle-blowers revealed its workings), the national security state gained an ascendancy in Washington as the de facto fourth branch of government.
Now, key people within its shadowy precincts find Donald Trump, the president who is in so many ways a product of the same processes that elevated them, not to their liking — even less so once he compared their activities to those of the Nazi era — and they seem to have gone to war with him and his administration via a remarkable stream of leaks of damaging information, especially about now-departed National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. As Amanda Taub and Max Fisher of the New York Times wrote, “For concerned government officials, leaks may have become one of the few remaining means by which to influence not just Mr. Flynn’s policy initiatives but the threat he seemed to pose to their place in democracy.”
This, of course, represented a version of whistle-blowing that, when directed at them in the pre-Trump era, they found appalling. Like General Thomas’s comments, that flood of leaks, while discomfiting Donald Trump, also represented a potential challenge to the American political system as it once was known. When the fiercest defenders of that system begin to be seen as being inside the intelligence community and the military you know that you’re in a different and far more perilous world.
So much of what’s now happening may seem startlingly new and overwhelming. In truth, however, it’s been in development for years, even if the specifics of a Trump presidency were not so long ago unimaginable. In March of 2015, for instance, two months before The Donald tossed his hair into the presidential ring, in a post at TomDispatch I asked if “a new political system” was emerging in America and summed the situation up this way:
“Still, don’t for a second think that the American political system isn’t being rewritten on the run by interested parties in Congress, our present crop of billionaires, corporate interests, lobbyists, the Pentagon, and the officials of the national security state. Out of the chaos of this prolonged moment and inside the shell of the old system, a new culture, a new kind of politics, a new kind of governance is being born right before our eyes. Call it what you want. But call it something. Stop pretending it’s not happening.”
We’re now living in Donald Trump’s America (which I certainly didn’t either predict or imagine in March 2015); we’re living, that is, in an ever more chaotic and aberrant land run (to the extent it’s run at all) by billionaires and retired generals, and overseen by a distinctly aberrant president at war with aberrant parts of the national security state. That, in a nutshell, is the America created in the post-9/11 years. Put another way, the U.S. may have failed dismally in its efforts to invade, occupy, and remake Iraq in its own image, but it seems to have invaded, occupied, and remade itself with remarkable success. And don’t blame this one on the Russians.
No one said it better than French King Louis XV: Après moi, le Trump.
The Art of the Trumpaclysm
It started in June 2015 with that Trump Tower escalator ride into the presidential race to the tune of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” (“But there’s a warnin’ sign on the road ahead, there’s a lot of people sayin’ we’d be better off dead, don’t feel like Satan, but I am to them…”) In a sense the rockin’ has never stopped and by now the world, free or not, has been rocked indeed. No one, from Beijing to Mexico City, Baghdad to Berlin, London to Washington could question that.
Who today remembers that, in those initial moments of his campaign, Donald Trump was already focused on the size of his first (partially hired) crowd? (“This is beyond anybody’s expectations. There’s been no crowd like this…”) And he’s been consistently himself ever since — less a strong man than a bizarrely high-strung one. In the process, while becoming president, he emerged as a media phenomenon of a sort we’ve never seen before.
First, it was those billions of dollars in advertising the media forked over gratis during the race for the Republican nomination by focusing on whatever he did, said, or tweeted, day after day, in a way that was new in our world. By the time he hit the campaign trail against Hillary Clinton, he was the ultimate audience magnet and the cameras and reporters were fused to him, so coverage only ballooned, as it did again during the transition months. Now, of course, his presidency is the story of the second — each second of every day — giving us two-plus weeks of coverage the likes of which are historically unique.
Think of it as the 25/8 news cycle. From that distant June to now, though it’s never stopped, somehow we have yet to truly come to grips with it. Never in the history of the media has a single figure — one human being — been able to focus the “news” in this way, making himself the essence of all reporting. He’s only been banished from the headlines and the screen for relatively brief periods, usually when Islamic terrorist groups or domestic “lone wolves” struck, as in San Bernardino, Paris, or Orlando, and, given his campaign, that worked no less well for his purposes than being the center of attention, as it will for his presidency.
The Never-Ending Presidency of Donald Trump (Has Barely Begun)
Nineteen months later, Trump’s personality, statements, tweets, speeches, random thoughts, passing comments, complaints, gripes, and of course, actions are the center of everything. One man’s narcissism gains new meaning when inflated to a societal level. Yes, at certain moments — the assassination of John F. Kennedy, O.J. Simpson’s white Bronco chase, the 9/11 attacks — a single event or personality has overwhelmed everything else and taken the news by storm. But never has one person been able to do this through thick and thicker, through moments of actual news and moments when nothing whatsoever is happening to him.
As an example, consider the New York Times, the newspaper that both Donald Trump’s ascendant adviser Steve Bannon and I have been reading faithfully all these years. At the moment, Trump or people and events related to him monopolize its front page in a way that’s beyond rare. He now regularly sweeps up four or five of its six or so top headlines daily, and a staggering six to ten full, often six-column pages of news coverage inside — and that’s not even counting the editorial and op-ed pages, which these days are a riot of Trumpery.
From early morning till late at night, wherever you look in the American media and undoubtedly globally, the last couple of weeks have been nothing but an avalanche of Trumpified news and features, whether focused on arguments, disputes, and protests over the Muslim ban that the new president and his people insist is not a Muslim ban; or the size of his inaugural crowds; or Sean Spicer’s ill-fitting suit jacket; or the signing of an executive order to begin the process of building that “big, fat, beautiful wall” on our southern border; or the cancelled Mexican presidential visit, and the angry or conciliatory tweets, phone calls, and boycotts that followed, not to speak of the 20% tax on imports proposed by the Trump administration (then half-withdrawn) to get the Mexican president to pay for the wall, which would actually force American consumers to cough up most of the money (making us all Mexicans, it seems); or the unprecedented seating of white nationalist Steve Bannon on the National Security Council (and the unseating of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff); or the firing of the acting director of the Justice Department after she ordered its lawyers not to defend the president’s travel ban; or the brouhaha over the new Supreme Court pick, introduced in an Apprentice-like primetime presidential special; or those confirmation hearing boycotts by Democratic senators; or the threats against Iran or the threat to send U.S. troops into Mexico to take out the “bad hombres down there”… but why go on? You saw it all. (You couldn’t help yourself, could you?) And tell me it hasn’t seemed like at least two months, if not two years worth of spiraling events (and nonevents).
In those never-ending month-like weeks, Donald Trump did the seemingly impossible: he stirred protest on a global scale; sparked animosity, if not enmity, and nationalism from Mexico to Iraq, England to China; briefly united Mexico behind one of the least popular presidents in its history; sparked a spontaneous domestic protest movement of a sort unseen since the Vietnam War half a century ago that shows every sign of growing; insulted the Australian prime minister, alienating America’s closest ally in Asia; and that’s just to begin a list of the new president’s “accomplishments” in essentially no time at all.
So here’s the question of the day: How can we put any of this in context while drowning in the moment? Perhaps one way to start would be by trying to look past the all-enveloping “news” of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Were you to do that, you might, I think, conclude that, despite the sound and the fury of the last two weeks, almost nothing has yet actually happened. I know that’s hard to believe under the circumstances, but the age of Trump — or if you prefer, the damage of Trump — has essentially yet to begin (though tell that to the Iraqis, Iranians, and others caught in mid-air, cuffed on mid-ground, and in some cases sent back into a hell on Earth). Still, crises? The media is already talking about constitutional ones, but believe me, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Conflicts of interest? So far, grim as the news may look, there’s hardly been a hint of what’s sure to come. And crimes against the country? They’ve hardly begun.
It’s true that Trump’s national-security appointments, from the Pentagon and the CIA to the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Council, are largely in place, even if reportedly already in a state of flux as National Security Adviser Michael Flynn seems to be losing his grip on the new president and Steve Bannon, not previously thought about in national security terms, is riding high. Otherwise, few of his cabinet appointments are truly functional yet. That set of billionaires and multimillionaires are either barely confirmed or not yet so. They haven’t even begun to preside over departments filled with staffs that instantly seem to be in chaos, living in fear, or moving into a mood of resistance.
This means that what Bill Moyers has already termed the “demolition derby” of the Trump era hasn’t yet really begun, despite a hiring freeze on the non-national-security-state part of the government. Or put another way, if you think the last two weeks were news, just wait for the wealthiest cabinet in our history to settle in, a true crew of predatory capitalists, including a commerce secretary nicknamed “the king of bankruptcy” for his skills in buying up wrecked companies at staggering profits; a Treasury secretary dubbed the “foreclosure king” of California for evicting thousands of homeowners (including active-duty military families) from distressed properties he and his partners picked up in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown; and the head of the State Department who only recently led ExxonMobil in its global depredations. As a crew, they and their compatriots are primed to either dismantle the agencies they’ll run or shred their missions. That includes likely head of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt, a man long in the pay of big energy, who seems determined to reduce the EPA to a place that protects us from nothing; and a fast-food king who, as the new labor secretary, is against the minimum wage and would love to replace workers with machines. News? You think you know what it is two weeks into this administration? Not a chance.
And don’t forget the White House, now that it’s a family operation — a combination of a real-estate-based global branding outfit (the Trumps) and a real estate empire (son-in-law Jared Kushner). It’s obvious that decisions made in the White House, but also in government offices in foreign capitals, on the streets of foreign cities, and even among jihadists will affect the fortunes of those two families. I’m not exactly the first person to point out that the seven Muslim lands included in Trump’s immigration ban included not one in which he has business dealings. As patriarch, Donald J. will, of course, rule the Oval Office; his son-in-law will be down the hall somewhere, with constant access to him; and his daughter Ivanka is to have an as-yet-unannounced (possibly still undecided) role in her father’s administration. If we lived in the Arab world right now, this would all seem as familiar as apple pie, or perhaps I mean hummus: a family-oriented government ruled by a man with an authoritarian turn of mind around whom are gathered the crème de la crème of the country’s predatory capitalists, many of them with their own severe conflicts of interest.
Thought about a certain way, you could say welcome to Saudi Arabia or Bashar al-Assad’s Syria before the catastrophe, or… well, so many other countries of the less developed and increasingly chaotic world.
A Government of Looters
From health care and tax policy to environmental protections, this will undoubtedly be a government of the looters, by the looters, and for the looters, and a Congress of the same. As of yet, however, we’ve seen only the smallest hints of what is to come.
In such a leave-no-billionaires-behind era, forget the past swamps of Washington (which wasn’t really built on swampland). The government of Donald J. Trump seems slated to produce an American swamp of swamps and, somewhere down the line, will surely give new meaning to the phrase conflict of interest. Yet these processes, too, are barely underway.
From a government of 1% looters, what can you expect but to be looted and to experience crimes of every sort? (Ask the citizens of most Arab lands.) Still, whatever those may turn out to be, in the end they will just be the usual crimes of human history. In them, there will be little new, except perhaps in their extremity in the United States. They will cause pain, of course — as well as gain for the few — but sooner or later such crimes and those who commit them will pass from the scene and in the course of history be largely forgotten.
Of only one future crime will that not be true. As a result, it’s likely to prove the most unforgiveable of them all and those who help in its commission will, without a doubt, be the greatest criminals of all time. Think of them as “terrarists” and their set of acts as, in sum, terracide. If there’s a single figure in the Trump administration who catches the essence of this, it is, of course, former ExxonMobil CEO and present Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. His former company has a grim history not just of exploiting fossil fuels come (literally) hell or high water, but of suppressing information about the harm they’ve done, via greenhouse gas emissions that heat the atmosphere and the Earth’s waters, while funding climate denialism; of, in short, destroying the planet in an eternal search for record profits.
Now, he joins an administration whose president once termed climate change a “Chinese hoax,” and who has, with a striking determination, appointed first to his transition team and then to his government an unparallelled crew of climate change deniers and so-called climate skeptics. They, and largely only they, are taking crucial positions in every department or agency of government in any way connected with fossil fuels or the environment. Among his first acts was to green-light two much-disputed pipelines, one slated to bring the carbon-dirtiest of oil products, Canadian tar sands, from Alberta to the Gulf Coast; the other to encourage the frackers of the Bakken shale oil fields of North Dakota to keep up the good work. In his yearning to return to a 1950s America, President Trump has promised a new age of fossil-fuel exploitation. He’s evidently ready to leave the Paris climate agreement in the trash heap of history and toss aside support for the development of alternative energy systems as well. (In the process — and irony is too weak a word for this — he will potentially cede a monster job-creation machine to the Chinese, the Germans, and others.)
Call it perfect scheduling, but just two days before his inauguration — two days, that is, before the White House website would be scrubbed of all reference to climate change — both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) — each undoubtedly soon to be scrubbed clean by Trump’s climate deniers — announced that, in 2016, the planet’s temperature had broken all heat records for an unprecedented third year in a row. (This means that 16 out of the top 17 hottest years occurred in the twenty-first century.) From 2013 to 2016, according to NASA, the planet warmed by well over a half-degree Fahrenheit, “the largest temperature increase over a three-year period in the NASA record.”
Last year, as the Guardian reported, “North America saw its highest number of storms and floods in over four decades. Globally, we saw over 1.5 times more extreme weather catastrophes in 2016 than the average over the past 30 years. Global sea ice cover plunged to a record low as well.” And that’s just to start a list. This is no longer terribly complicated. It’s not debatable science. It’s our reality and there can be no question that a world of ever more extreme weather events, rising sea levels, lengthening mega-droughts (as well as massive rainfalls), along with heat and more heat, is what the future holds for our children and grandchildren.
Barring stunning advances in alternative energy technologies or other surprises, this again is too obvious to doubt. So those, including our new president and his administration who are focused on suppressing both scientific knowledge about climate change and any attempt to mitigate the phenomenon, and who, like Rex Tillerson’s former colleagues at the big energy companies, prefer to suppress basic information about all of this in the name of fossil fuels and personal enrichment, will be committing the most basic of crimes against humanity.
As a group, they will be taking the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter out of the climate change sweepstakes for years to come and helping ensure that the welcoming planet on which humanity has so long existed will be something so much grimmer in the future. In this moment’s endless flurries of “news” about Donald Trump, this — the most basic news of all — has, of course, been lost in the hubbub. And yet, unlike any other set of actions they could engage in (except perhaps nuclear war), this is truly the definition of forever news. Climate change, after all, operates on a different time scale than we do, being part of planetary history, and so may prove human history’s deal-breaker.
Crimes of the Trump Era (a Preview)
They call themselves the U.S. “Intelligence Community,” or the IC. If you include the office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which in 2005 began as a crew of 12 people, including its director, and by 2008 had already grown to a staff of 1,750, there are 17 members (adding up to an alphabet soup of acronyms including the CIA, the NSA, and the DIA). The IC spends something like $70 billion of your taxpayer dollars annually, mostly in secret, hires staggering numbers of private contractors from various warrior corporations to lend a hand, sucks up communications of every sort across the planet, runs a drone air force, monitors satellites galore, builds its agencies multi-billion-dollar headquarters and storage facilities, and does all of this, ostensibly, to provide the president and the rest of the government with the best information imaginable on what’s happening in the world and what dangers the United States faces.
Since 9/11, expansion has been the name of its game, as the leading intelligence agencies gained ever more power, prestige, and the big bucks, while wrapping themselves in an unprecedented blanket of secrecy. Typically, in the final days of the Obama administration, the National Security Agency was given yet more leeway to share the warrantless data it scoops up worldwide (including from American citizens) with ever more members of the IC.
And oh yes, in the weeks leading up to the inauguration of Donald Trump, several of those intelligence outfits found themselves in a knock-down, drag-out barroom brawl with our new tweeter-in-chief (who has begun threatening to downsize parts of the IC) over the possible Russian hacking of an American election and his relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the process, they have received regular media plaudits for their crucial importance to all of us, our security and safety, along with tweeted curses from the then-president-elect.
Let me lay my own cards on the table here. Based on the relatively little we can know about the information the Intelligence Community has been delivering to the president and his people in these years, I’ve never been particularly impressed with its work. Again, given what’s available to judge from, it seems as if, despite its size, reach, money, and power, the IC has been caught “off-guard” by developments in our world with startling regularity and might be thought of as something closer to an “un-intelligence machine.” It’s always been my suspicion that, if a group of smart, out-of-the-box thinkers were let loose on purely open-source material, the U.S. government might actually end up with a far more accurate view of our world and how it works, not to speak of what dangers lie in store for us.
There’s just one problem in saying such things. In an era when the secrecy around the Intelligence Community has only grown and those leaking information from it have been prosecuted with a fierceness unprecedented in our history, we out here in what passes for the world don’t have much of a way to judge the value of the “product” it produces.
There is, however, one modest exception to this rule. Every four years, before a newly elected president enters the Oval Office, the National Intelligence Council, or NIC, which bills itself as “the IC’s center for long-term strategic analysis,” produces just such a document. The NIC is largely staffed from the IC (evidently in significant measure from the CIA), presents “senior policymakers with coordinated views of the entire Intelligence Community, including National Intelligence Estimates,” and does other classified work of various sorts.
Still, proudly and with some fanfare, it makes public one lengthy document quadrennially for any of us to read. Until now, that report has gone by the name of Global Trends with a futuristic year attached. The previous one, its fifth, made public just before Barack Obama’s second term in office, was Global Trends 2030. This one would have been the 2035 edition, had the NIC not decided to drop that futuristic year for what it calls fear of “false precision” (though projections of developments to 2035 are still part of the text). Instead, the sixth edition arrives as Global Trends: The Paradox of Progress, an anodyne phrase whose meaning is summarized this way: “The achievements of the industrial and information ages are shaping a world to come that is both more dangerous and richer with opportunity than ever before. Whether promise or peril prevails will turn on the choices of humankind.” According to the NIC, in producing such documents its role is to identify “key drivers and developments likely to shape world events a couple of decades into the future” for the incoming president and his people.
Think of Global Trends as another example of how the American world of intelligence has expanded in these years. Starting relatively modestly in 1997, the IC decided to go where no intelligence outfit had previously gone and plant its flag in the future. Chalk that up as a bold decision, since the future might be thought of as the most democratic as well as least penetrable of time frames. After all, any one of us is free to venture there any time we choose without either financing or staff. It’s also a place where you can’t embed spies, you can’t gather communications from across the planet, you can’t bug the phones or hack into the emails of world leaders, no drones can fly, and there are no satellite images to study or interpret. Historically, until the NIC decided to make the future its property, it had largely been left to visionaries and kooks, dreamers and sci-fi writers — people, in short, with a penchant for thinking outside the box.
In these years, however, in the heartland of the world’s “sole superpower,” the urge to control and surveil everything grew to monumental proportions leading the IC directly into the future in the only way it knew how to do anything: monumentally. As a result, the new Global Trends boasts about the size and reach of the operation that produced it. Its team “visited more than 35 countries and one territory, soliciting ideas and feedback from over 2,500 people around the world from all walks of life.”
As its massive acknowledgements section makes clear, along with all the unnamed officials and staff who did the basic work and many people who were consulted but could not be identified, the staff talked to everyone from a former prime minister and two foreign ministers to an ambassador and a sci-fi writer, not to mention “senior officials and strategists worldwide… hundreds of natural and social scientists, thought leaders, religious figures, business and industry representatives, diplomats, development experts, and women, youth, and civil society organizations around the world.”
The NIC’s two-year intelligence voyage into a universe that, by definition, must remain unknown to us all, even made “extensive use of analytic simulations — employing teams of experts to represent key international actors — to explore the future trajectories for regions of the world, the international order, the security environment, and the global economy.” In other words, to produce this unclassified report on how, according to NIC Chairman Gregory Treverton, “the NIC is thinking about the future,” it mounted a major intelligence operation that — though no figures are offered — must have cost millions of dollars. In the hands of the IC, the future like the present is, it seems, an endlessly expensive proposition.
A Grim Future Offset By Cheer
If you’re now thinking about tossing your Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, and Octavia Butler novels into the trash bin of history and diving into the newest Global Trends, then I’ve done you an enormous favor. I’ve already read it for you. And let me assure you that, unlike William Gibson’s “discovery” of cyberspace in his futuristic novel Neuromancer, the NIC’s document uncovers nothing in the future that hasn’t already been clearly identified in the present and isn’t obvious to you and just about everyone else on the planet. Perhaps Global Trends’ greatest achievement is to transform that future into a reading experience so mind-numbing that it was my own vale of tears. A completely typical sentence: “The most powerful actors of the future will be states, groups, and individuals who can leverage material capabilities, relationships, and information in a more rapid, integrated, and adaptive mode than in generations past.”
Admittedly, every now and then you stumble across a genuinely interesting stat or fact that catches your attention (“one in every 112 persons in the world is a refugee, an internally displaced person, or an asylum seeker”) and, on rare occasions, the odd thought stops you momentarily. Generally, though, the future as imagined by the wordsmiths of the IC is a slog, a kind of living nightmare of groupthink.
Whatever quirky and original brains may be hidden in the depths of the IC, on the basis of Global Trends you would have to conclude that its collective brain, the one it assumedly offers to presidents and other officials, couldn’t be more mundane. Start with this: published on the eve of the Trumpian accession, it can’t seem to imagine anything truly new under the sun, including Donald J. Trump (who goes unmentioned in this glimpse of our future). Even as we watch our present world being upended daily, the authors of Global Trends can’t conceive of the genuine upending of much on this planet.
Perhaps that helps explain why its leadership felt so caught off-guard and discombobulated by our new president. In him, after all, the American future is already becoming the unimaginable American present, tweet by tweet. (And let me here express a bit of sympathy for President Trump. If Global Trends is typical of the kind of thinking and presentation that goes into the President’s Daily Brief from the Intelligence Community, then I’m not surprised that he chose to start skipping those sessions for almost anything else, including Fox and Friends and spitball fights with Meryl Streep and John Lewis.)
As the IC imagines it, the near-future offers a relatively grim set of prospects, all transposed from obvious developments in our present moment, but each of them almost mechanistically offset by a hopeful conclusion: terrorism will undoubtedly spread and worsen (before it gets better); inequality will increase in a distinctly 1% world as anti-globalist sentiments sweep the planet and “populism,” along with more authoritarian ways of thinking, will continue to spread along with isolationist sentiments in the West (before other trends take hold); the risk of interstate conflict will increase thanks to China and Russia (even if the world will not be devastated by it); governing will grow harder globally and technology more potentially disruptive (though hope lurks close at hand); and the pressures of climate change are likely to create a more tenuous planet, short on food and especially water, and filled with the desperate and migrationally inclined (but is also likely to foster “a twenty-first-century set of common principles”). In essence, in the view of the National Intelligence Council, for every potentially lousy news trend of the present moment projected into the future, there’s invariably a saving grace, a sense that, as the report puts it, “the same trends generating near-term risks also can create opportunities for better outcomes over the long term.” In fact, by 2028 according to one of its scenarios, we could be “entering a new era of economic growth and prosperity.”
In truth, even the grimmest version of the IC’s future seems eerily mild, given the onrushing present — from a Trumpian presidency to the recently reported reality that eight billionaires now control the same amount of wealth as the bottom 50% of the planet’s population. (Only a year ago, it took 62 billionaires to hit that mark.) According to the Engelhardt Intelligence Council, the likelihood is that we’re already entering a future far more extreme than anything the NIC and its 2,500-plus outside experts can imagine.
The Global Trends crew seems incapable of imagining futures in which some version of the present doesn’t rule all. Despite the global wars of the last century that leveled significant parts of the planet, the arrival of climate change as history’s possible deal-breaker, and the 9/11 attacks, disjunctures are simply not in their playbook. As a result, their idea of futuristic extremes couldn’t be milder. In one of the report’s three scenarios, even the surprise use of a nuclear weapon for the first time since August 9, 1945 — in a 2028 confrontation between India and Pakistan — is relieved of most of its potential punch. The bomb goes off not over a major city, killing hundreds of thousands, but in a desert area. And at what seems to be remarkably little cost, the shock of that single explosion miraculously brings a world of hostile powers, including the United States, China, and Russia, together in a strikingly upbeat fashion. (By 2028, it seems that Mr. Smith has indeed gone to Washington and so, in Global Trends, “President Smith” heartwarmingly shares a Nobel Peace Prize with China’s president for the “series of confidence-building measures and arms control agreements” that followed the nuclear incident.)
I, of course, don’t have thousands of experts to consult in thinking about the future, but based on scientific work already on the record, I could still create a very different South Asian scenario, which wouldn’t exactly be a formula for uniting the planet behind a better security future. Just imagine that one of the “tactical” nuclear weapons the Pakistani military is already evidently beginning to store at its forward military bases was put to use in response to an Indian military challenge. Imagine, then, that it triggered not world peace, but an ongoing nuclear exchange between the two powers, each with significant arsenals of such weaponry. The results in South Asia could be mindboggling — up to 21 million direct deaths by one estimate. Scientists speculate, however, that the effects of such a nuclear war would not be restricted to the region, but would spark a nuclear-winter scenario globally, destroying crops across the planet and possibly leading to up to a billion deaths.
Living in an All-American World
Such grim futures are, however, not for the NIC. Think of them as American imperial optimists and dreamers only masquerading as realists. If you want proof of this, it’s easy enough to find in Global Trends. Here, in fact, is the most curious aspect of that document: the members of the U.S. Intelligence Community evidently can’t bear to look at the last 15 years of their own imperial history. Instead, in taking possession of the future, they simply leave the post-9/11 American past in a roadside ditch and move on. In the future they imagine, much of that past is missing in action, including, of course, Donald J. Trump. (As a group, they must be Clintonistas. At least I can imagine Hillary wonkishly making her way through their document, but The Donald? Don’t make me laugh.)
Give them credit at least for accepting the obvious: that we will no longer be on a “unipolar planet” dominated by a single superpower, but in a world of “spheres of influence.” (“For better and worse, the emerging global landscape is drawing to a close an era of American dominance following the Cold War…”) But you can search their document in vain for the word “decline.” Forget that they were putting together their report at the very moment that the first openly declinist candidate for president was wowing crowds — who sensed that their country and their own lives were on the downhill slope — with the slogan “Make America Great Again.”
Nor were they about to take striking aspects of present-day America and project them into a truly grim future. Take, for example, something that amused me greatly: you can search Global Trends in vain for all but the most passing reference to the U.S. military. You know, the outfit that our recent presidents keep praising as the “finest fighting force” in world history. Search their document top to bottom and you still won’t have the faintest idea that the U.S. military has been fighting ceaselessly in victory-less conflicts for the past 15 years, and that its “war on terror” efforts have somehow only fueled the spread of terrorist movements, while leaving behind a series of failed or failing states across the Greater Middle East and northern Africa. None of that is projected into the future, nor is the militarization of this country (or its police), even though the retired generals now populating the new Trump administration speak directly to this very point.
Or to pick another example, how about the fact that, in a world in which a single country — the very one to which the IC belongs — garrisons the planet with hundreds of military bases from Europe to Japan, Bahrain to Afghanistan, there is but a single futuristic mention of a military base, and it’s a Chinese one to be built on a Fijian Island deep in the Pacific. (A running gag of Global Trends involves future newspaper headlines like this one from 2019: “China Buys Uninhabited Fijian Island To Build Military Base.”) What will happen to the present U.S. military framework for dominating the planet? You certainly won’t find out here.
But don’t think that the United States itself isn’t on the mind of those who produced this document. After all, among all the stresses of the decades to come, as the IC’s futurologists imagine them, there’s one key to positive national survival in 2035 and that’s what they call “resilience.” (“[T]he very same trends heightening risks in the near term can enable better outcomes over the longer term if the proliferation of power and players builds resilience to manage greater disruptions and uncertainty.”)
And which country is the most obviously resilient on Planet Earth? That’s the $100 (but not the 100 ruble or 100 yuan) question. So go ahead, guess — and if you don’t get the answer right, you’re not the reader I think you are.
Still, just in case you’re not sure, here’s how Global Trends sums the matter up:
“For example, by traditional measures of power, such as GDP, military spending, and population size, China’s share of global power is increasing. China, however, also exhibits several characteristics, such as a centralized government, political corruption, and an economy overly reliant on investment and net exports for growth — which suggest vulnerability to future shocks.
“Alternatively, the United States exhibits many of the factors associated with resilience, including decentralized governance, a diversified economy, inclusive society, large land mass, biodiversity, secure energy supplies, and global military power projection capabilities and alliances.”
So if there’s one conclusion to be drawn from the NIC’s mighty two-year dive into possible futures on a planet we still garrison and that’s wracked by wars we’re still fighting, it might be summed up this way: don’t be China, be us.
Of course, no one should be surprised by such a conclusion, since you don’t rise in the government by contrarian thinking but by going with the herd. This isn’t the sort of document you read expecting to be surprised, not when the nightmare of every bureaucracy is just that: the unexpected and unpredicted. The Washington bubble is evidently too comfortable and the world far too frightening a place to imagine a fuller range of what might be coming at us. The spooks of the NIC may be living off the money our fear sends their way, but don’t kid yourself for a second, they’re afraid too, or they could never produce a document like Global Trends: The Paradox of Progress.
As a portrait not of the future but of the anxieties of American power in a world it can’t control, this document provides the rest of us with a vivid portrait of the group of people least likely to offer us long-term security.
The last laugh here belongs to Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, and other authors of their ilk. If you want to be freed to think about the many possible futures that face us, futures that we will help create, then skip Global Trends and head for the kinds of books that might free your mind to think afresh, not bind it to a world growing more dismal by the day.
The Future by Committee
Know thyself. It was what came to mind in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory and my own puzzling reaction to it. And while that familiar phrase just popped into my head, I had no idea it was so ancient, or Greek, or for that matter a Delphic maxim inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo according to the Greek writer Pausanias (whom I’d never heard of until I read his name in Wikipedia). Think of that as my own triple helix of ignorance extending back to… well, my birth in a very different America 72 years ago.
Anyway, the simple point is that I didn’t know myself half as well as I imagined. And I can thank Donald Trump for reminding me of that essential truth. Of course, we can never know what’s really going on inside the heads of all those other people out there on this curious planet of ours, but ourselves as strangers? I guess if I were inscribing something in the forecourt of my own Delphic temple right now, it might be: Who knows me? (Not me.)
Consider this my little introduction to a mystery I stumbled upon in the early morning hours of our recent election night that hasn’t left my mind since. I simply couldn’t accept that Donald Trump had won. Not him. Not in this country. Not possible. Not in a million years.
Mind you, during the campaign I had written about Trump repeatedly, always leaving open the possibility that, in the disturbed (and disturbing) America of 2016, he could indeed beat Hillary Clinton. That was a conclusion I lost when, in the final few weeks of the campaign, like so many others, I got hooked on the polls and the pundits who went with them. (Doh!)
In the wake of the election, however, it wasn’t shock based on pollsters’ errors that got to me. It was something else that only slowly dawned on me. Somewhere deep inside, I simply didn’t believe that, of all countries on this planet, the United States could elect a narcissistic, celeb billionaire who was also, in the style of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, a right-wing “populist” and incipient autocrat.
Plenty of irony lurked in that conviction, which outlasted the election and so reality itself. In these years, I’ve written critically of the way just about every American politician but Donald Trump has felt obligated to insist that this is an “exceptional” or “indispensable” nation, “the greatest country” on the planet, not to speak of in history. (And throw in as well the claim of recent presidents and so many others that the U.S. military represents the “greatest fighting force” in that history.) President Obama, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John McCain — it didn’t matter. Every one of them was a dutiful or enthusiastic American exceptionalist. As for Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, she hit the trifecta plus one in a speech she gave to the American Legion’s national convention during the campaign. In it, she referred to the United States as “the greatest country on Earth,” “an exceptional nation,” and “the indispensable nation” that, of course, possessed “the greatest military” ever. (“My friends, we are so lucky to be Americans. It is an extraordinary blessing.”) Only Trump, with his “make America great again,” slogan seemed to admit to something else, something like American decline.
Post-election, here was the shock for me: it turned out that I, too, was an American exceptionalist. I deeply believed that our country was simply too special for The Donald, and so his victory sent me on an unexpected journey back into the world of my childhood and youth, back into the 1950s and early 1960s when (despite the Soviet Union) the U.S. really did stand alone on the planet in so many ways. Of course, in those years, no one had to say such things. All those greatests, exceptionals, and indispensables were then dispensable and the recent political tic of insisting on them so publicly undoubtedly reflects a defensiveness that’s a sign of something slipping.
Obviously, in those bedrock years of American power and strength and wealth and drive and dynamism (and McCarthyism, and segregation, and racism, and smog, and…), the very years that Donald Trump now yearns to bring back, I took in that feeling of American specialness in ways too deep to grasp. Which was why, decades later, when I least expected it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it couldn’t happen here. In actuality, the rise to power of Trumpian figures — Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Vladimir Putin in Russia — has been a dime-a-dozen event elsewhere and now looks to be a global trend. It’s just that I associated such rises with unexceptional, largely tinpot countries or ones truly down on their luck.
So it’s taken me a few hard weeks to come to grips with my own exceptionalist soul and face just how Donald Trump could — indeed did — happen here.
It Can Happen Here
So how did it happen here?
Let’s face it: Donald Trump was no freak of nature. He only arrived on the scene and took the Electoral College (if not the popular vote) because our American world had been prepared for him in so many ways. As I see it, at least five major shifts in American life and politics helped lay the groundwork for the rise of Trumpism:
* The Coming of a 1% Economy and the 1% Politics That Goes With It: A singular reality of this century has been the way inequality became embedded in American life, and how so much money was swept ever upwards into the coffers of 1% profiteers. Meanwhile, a yawning gap grew between the basic salaries of CEOs and those of ordinary workers. In these years, as I’m hardly the first to point out, the country entered a new gilded age. In other words, it was already a Mar-a-Lago moment before The Donald threw his hair into the ring.
Without the arrival of casino capitalism on a massive scale (at which The Donald himself proved something of a bust), Trumpism would have been inconceivable. And if, in its Citizens United decision of 2010, the Supreme Court hadn’t thrown open the political doors quite so welcomingly to that 1% crew, how likely was it that a billionaire celebrity would have run for president or become a favorite among the white working class?
Looked at a certain way, Donald Trump deserves credit for stamping the true face of twenty-first-century American plutocracy on Washington by selecting mainly billionaires and multimillionaires to head the various departments and agencies of his future government. After all, doesn’t it seem reasonable that a 1% economy, a 1% society, and a 1% politics should produce a 1% government? Think of what Trump has so visibly done as American democracy’s version of truth in advertising. And of course, if billionaires hadn’t multiplied like rabbits in this era, he wouldn’t have had the necessary pool of plutocrats to choose from.
Something similar might be said of his choice of so many retired generals and other figures with significant military backgrounds (ranging from West Point graduates to a former Navy SEAL) for key “civilian” positions in his government. Think of that, too, as a truth-in-advertising moment leading directly to the second shift in American society.
* The Coming of Permanent War and an Ever More Militarized State and Society: Can there be any question that, in the 15-plus years since 9/11, what was originally called the “Global War on Terror” has become a permanent war across the Greater Middle East and Africa (with collateral damage from Europe to the Philippines)? In those years, staggering sums of money — beyond what any other country or even collection of countries could imagine spending — has poured into the U.S. military and the arms industry that undergirds it and monopolizes the global trade in weaponry. In the process, Washington became a war capital and the president, as Michelle Obama indicated recently when talking about Trump’s victory with Oprah Winfrey, became, above all, the commander in chief. (“It is important for the health of this nation,” she told Winfrey, “that we support the commander in chief.”) The president’s role in wartime had, of course, always been as commander in chief, but now that’s the position many of us vote for (and even newspapers endorse), and since war is so permanently embedded in the American way of life, Donald Trump is guaranteed to remain that for his full term.
And the role has expanded strikingly in these years, as the White House gained the power to make war in just about any fashion it chose without significant reference to Congress. The president now has his own air force of drone assassins to dispatch more or less anywhere on the planet to take out more or less anyone. At the same time, cocooned inside the U.S. military, an elite, secretive second military, the Special Operations forces, has been expanding its personnel, budget, and operations endlessly and its most secretive element, the Joint Special Operations Command, might even be thought of as the president’s private army.
Meanwhile, the weaponry and advanced technology with which this country has been fighting its never-ending (and remarkably unsuccessful) conflicts abroad — from Predator drones to the Stingray that mimics a cell phone tower and so gets nearby phones to connect to it — began migrating home, as America’s borders and police forces were militarized. The police have been supplied with weaponry and other equipment directly off the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, while veterans from those wars have joined the growing set of SWAT teams, the domestic version of special-ops teams, that are now a must-have for police departments nationwide.
It’s no coincidence that Trump and his generals are eager to pump up a supposedly “depleted” U.S. military with yet more funds or, given the history of these years, that he appointed so many retired generals from our losing wars to key “civilian” positions atop that military and the national security state. As with his billionaires, in a decisive fashion, Trump is stamping the real face of twenty-first-century America on Washington.
* The Rise of the National Security State: In these years, a similar process has been underway in relation to the national security state. Vast sums of money have flowed into the country’s 17 intelligence outfits (and their secret black budgets), into the Department of Homeland Security, and the like. (Before 9/11, Americans might have associated that word “homeland” with Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, but never with this country.) In these years, new agencies were launched and elaborate headquarters and other complexes built for parts of that state within a state to the tune of billions of dollars. At the same time, it was “privatized,” its doors thrown open to the contract employees of a parade of warrior corporations. And, of course, the National Security Agency created a global surveillance apparatus so all-encompassing that it left the fantasies of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century in the dust.
As the national security state rose in Washington amid an enveloping shroud of secrecy (and the fierce hounding or prosecution of any whistleblower), it became the de facto fourth branch of government. Under the circumstances, don’t think of it as a happenstance that the 2016 election might have been settled 11 days early thanks to FBI Director James Comey’s intervention in the race, which represented a historical first for the national security state. Argue as you will over how crucial Comey’s interference was to the final vote tallies, it certainly caught the mood of the new era that had been birthed in Washington long before Donald Trump’s victory. Nor should you consider it a happenstance that possibly the closest military figure to the new commander in chief is his national security adviser, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who ran the Defense Intelligence Agency until forced out by the Obama administration. No matter the arguments Trump may have with the CIA or other agencies, they will be crucial to his rule (once brought to heel by his appointees).
Those billionaires, generals, and national security chieftains had already been deeply embedded in our American world before Trump made his run. They will now be part and parcel of his world going forward. The fourth shift in the landscape is ongoing, not yet fully institutionalized, and harder to pin down.
* The Coming of the One-Party State: Thanks to the political developments of these years, and a man with obvious autocratic tendencies entering the Oval Office, it’s possible to begin to imagine an American version of a one-party state emerging from the shell of our former democratic system. After all, the Republicans already control the House of Representatives (in more or less perpetuity, thanks to gerrymandering), the Senate, the White House, and assumedly in the years to come the Supreme Court. They also control a record 33 out of 50 governorships, have tied a record by taking 68 out of the 98 state legislative chambers, and have broken another by gaining control of 33 out of 50 full legislatures. In addition, as the North Carolina legislature has recently shown, the urge among state Republicans to give themselves new, extra-democratic, extra-legal powers (as well as a longer term Republican drive to restrict the ballot in various ways, claiming nonexistent voter fraud) should be considered a sign of the direction in which we could be headed in a future embattled Trumpist country.
In addition, for years the Democratic Party saw its various traditional bases of support weaken, wither, or in the recent election simply opt for a candidate competing for the party’s nomination who wasn’t even a Democrat. Until the recent election loss, however, it was at least a large, functioning political bureaucracy. Today, no one knows quite what it is. It’s clear, however, that one of America’s two dominant political parties is in a state of disarray and remarkable weakness. Meanwhile, the other, the Republican Party, assumedly the future base for that Trumpian one-party state, is in its own disheveled condition, a party of apparatchiks and ideologues in Washington and embattled factions in the provinces.
In many ways, the incipient collapse of the two-party system in a flood of 1% money cleared the path for Trump’s victory. Unlike the previous three shifts in American life, however, this one is hardly in place yet. Instead, the sense of party chaos and weakness so crucial to the rise of Donald Trump still holds, and the same sense of chaos might be said to apply to the fifth shift I want to mention.
* The Coming of the New Media Moment: Among the things that prepared the way for Trump, who could leave out the crumbling of the classic newspaper/TV world of news? In these years, it lost much of its traditional advertising base, was bypassed by social media, and the TV part of it found itself in an endless hunt for eyeballs to glue, normally via 24/7 “news” events, eternally blown out of proportion but easy to cover in a nonstop way by shrinking news staffs. As an alternative, there was the search for anything or anyone (preferably of the celebrity variety) that the public couldn’t help staring at, including a celebrity-turned-politician-turned-provocateur with the world’s canniest sense of what the media so desperately needed: him. It may have seemed that Trump inaugurated our new media moment by becoming the first meister-elect of tweet and the shout-out master of that universe, but in reality he merely grasped the nature of our new, chaotic media moment and ran with it.
Unexceptional Billionaires and Dispensable Generals
Let’s add a final point to the other five: Donald Trump will inherit a country that has been hollowed out by the new realities that made him a success and allowed him to sweep to what, to many experts, looked like an improbable victory. He will inherit a country that is ever less special, a nation that, as Trump himself has pointed out, has an increasingly third-worldish transportation system (not a single mile of high-speed rail and airports that have seen better days), an infrastructure that has been drastically debased, and an everyday economy that offers lesser jobs to ever more of his countrymen. It will be an America whose destructive power only grows but whose ability to translate that into anything approaching victory eternally recedes.
With its unexceptional billionaires, its dispensable generals, its less than great national security officials, its dreary politicians, and its media moguls in search of the passing buck, it’s likely to be a combustible country in ways that will seem increasingly familiar to so many elsewhere on this planet, and increasingly strange to the young Tom Engelhardt who still lives inside me.
It’s this America that will tumble into the debatably small but none-too-gentle hands of Donald Trump on January 20th.
The Real Face of Washington (and America)
Can you doubt that we’re in a dystopian age, even if we’re still four weeks from Donald Trump entering the Oval Office? Never in our lifetimes have we experienced such vivid previews of what unfettered capitalism is likely to mean in an ever more unequal country, now that its version of 1% politics has elevated to the pinnacle of power a bizarre billionaire and his “basket of deplorables.” I’m referring, of course, not to his followers but to his picks for the highest posts in the land. These include a series of generals ready to lead us into a new set of crusades and a crew of billionaires and multimillionaires prepared to make America theirs again.
It’s already a stunningly depressing moment — and it hasn’t even begun. At the very least, it calls upon the rest of us to rise to the occasion. That means mustering a dystopian imagination that matches the era to come.
I have no doubt that you’re as capable as I am of creating bleak scenarios for the future of this country (not to speak of the planet). But just to get the ball rolling on the eve of the holidays, let me offer you a couple of my own dystopian fantasies, focused on the potential actions of President Donald Trump.
There is already an enormous literature — practically a library — of writings on our unique president-elect’s potential conflicts of interests. He does, after all, own, or lease his name to, various towers, elite golf courses, clubs, hotels, condos, residences, and who knows what else in at least 18 to 20 countries. That name of his, invariably in impressive gold lettering, soars to striking heights in foreign skies across the planet. These days, in fact, the Trump brand and its conflicts are hard to escape, from Bali, the Philippines, and Dubai to Scotland, India, and the very heart of Manhattan Island. There, in my own hometown, at a cost to local taxpayers like me of more than a million bucks a day, the police are protecting him big time, while the Secret Service and the military add their heft to the growing armed camp in mid-Manhattan. They are, of course, defending the Trump Tower — the very one in which, in June 2015, to Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” he rode that escalator directly into the presidential campaign, promising to build a “great wall,” lock out all Mexican “rapists,” and “make America great again.”
That tower on busy Fifth Avenue is now fronted by dump trucks filled with sand (“to help protect the Republican presidential nominee from potentially explosive attacks”) and, with the safety of the president and his family in mind, the Secret Service is reportedly considering renting out a couple of floors of the building at a cost to the American taxpayer of $3 million annually, which would, of course, go directly into the coffers of a Trump company. (Hey, no conflict of interest there and don’t even mention the word “kleptocracy”!) All of this will undoubtedly ensure that New York’s most Trump-worthy building, aka the White House North, will be kept reasonably safe from intruders, attackers, suicide bombers, and the like. But much of the imperial Trump brand around the world may not be quite so lucky. Elsewhere, guards will generally be private hires, not government employees, and the money available for any security plans will, as a result, be far more modest.
With rare exceptions, the attention of the media has focused on only one aspect of Donald Trump’s conflict-of-interest issues (and they are rampant), not to speak of his urge to duck what he might do about them, or dodge and weave to avoid a promised news conference to discuss them and the role of his children in his presidency and his businesses. The emphasis has generally been on the kinds of problems that would arise from a businessman with a branded name coming to power and profiting from, or making decisions based on the money to be made off of, his presidency. Media reports have generally zeroed in, for instance, on how foreign leaders and others might affect national policy by essentially promising to enrich Trump or his children. They report on diplomats who feel obliged to stay at his new hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue just down the street from the White House; or foreign heads of state reaching out to him via his business partners in their lands; or Trump brand deals that are now going through in various countries thanks to his election victory.
The focus is almost invariably on how to cope with a president who, for at least the next four years, could stand to profit in mind-boggling ways from his various acts in office (or simply from the position he holds, even if he does nothing). And make no mistake, that issue might indeed edge Trump’s presidency into the truly dodgy, not to say paradigm breaking, when it comes to the history of the White House. But don’t call that dystopian.
What few people (the Secret Service aside) are thinking about is the ways in which conflicts of interest could consume the new president by threatening not to enrich, but impoverish him (and his children). Head down that path and believe me you’re instantly in dystopian territory.
Here’s a scenario for you:
It’s April 1, 2017. Donald J. Trump has been in office for less than two and a half months when a nattily dressed “businessman” manages to enter Trump Towers Istanbul, which soars into the skyline of the Turkish capital with the name of the new American president impressively done up in gold letters atop one of its towers. Once in the lobby, that man, a messenger from the Islamic State who made it through the complex’s private security screening with a suicide vest strapped to his body, blows himself up, killing a doorman, a security screener, and a number of residents, while wounding a dozen others.
Of course, I’ve never been to Trump Towers Istanbul, so I don’t really know what security measures are in place there in the heart of that already explosive capital, but given the Trump projects scattered around the world, feel free to pick your own branded building, resort, or hotel. And that initial explosion would just be a start. Don’t forget that it only cost Osama bin Laden a reported $400,000 to stage the 9/11 attacks and lure the Bush administration into a set of trillion-dollar failed wars that would help spread terror movements across the Greater Middle East and Africa. So don’t for a second imagine that the leadership of ISIS (or similar groups) won’t see the advantages of sending such messengers on the cheap to get under the oh-so-thin-skin of the new American president and embroil him in god knows what.
Imagine this as well: it’s 2018. China and the U.S. are at loggerheads across the Taiwan strait, pressures and emotions are rising again in northern Africa, where continuing American military assaults in Libya and Somalia have only increased the pre-Trumpian chaos, as well as in the heartlands of the Middle East where, despite massive American bombing campaigns, ISIS, once again a guerilla group without territory, is causing chaos. In addition, in Afghanistan, 17 years after America’s second Afghan War began, the U.S.-backed government in Kabul is tottering in the face of new Taliban, ISIS, and al-Qaeda offensives. Massive waves of immigrants from all these unsettled lands continue to endanger an angry Europe, and everywhere anti-Americanism is on the rise, not in a generalized sense, but focused in fury on the American president and his much-beloved brand.
Imagine as well for a moment growing demonstrations, protests, and the like, all aimed at various towers, clubs, resorts, and condominiums in the Trump stable. And consider just what a combination of threatened terror attacks and roiling demonstrations, as well as increasing anger over the Trump name across the Islamic world and elsewhere, might mean to the profitability of the president’s brand. Now, think about the Trump towers in Pune, India, or the 75-story tower in Mumbai, or the “six-star” luxury resort in Bali, or the tower going up in Manila’s Century City (each a high-end Trump-labeled project expected to come online in the near future and all at past sites of devastating terror bombings). What will their owners do if prospective buyers, fearing for their comfort, health, or even lives, begin to flee? What happens when the hotels can’t keep their rooms filled, the condominiums lose their bidders, and the Trump brand suddenly begins to empty out?
There is, of course, no guarantee that such a thing will happen, but if you stop to consider the possibility, it’s not hard to imagine. Next, take into account what you already know about Donald Trump, a man inordinately proud of his brand and hypersensitive beyond belief. Now, try to imagine — and in Trumpian terms we’re talking about a truly dystopian world here — what American foreign policy might look like if, amid the fears of resort-goers, golfers, business types, and the like, that brand began to tank internationally, if raising those giant gold letters over any city immediately ensured either mind-boggling problems or staggering security costs (and, at a minimum, a life of TSA-style lines for consumers).
Don’t for a second doubt that, under such circumstances, American foreign and military policy would end up being focused on saving the Trump brand, which, in turn, would be a nightmare to behold. Speaking of past controversies over presidential appointments — okay, I know we weren’t, but humor me here — in 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower had his own Rex Tillerson-style moment and picked Charles Wilson, the CEO of industrial giant General Motors, to be his secretary of defense. At his confirmation hearings, Wilson infamously offered this formula for success, “I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa.” If the State Department and the military were indeed tasked with digging out the Trump brand, you would need to turn that comment upside down and inside out: “I thought what was bad for the Trump brand was bad for America, and vice versa.”
Indeed, if the Trump brand starts to go belly up, knowing what we do about the president-elect, we would be almost certain to see a foreign policy increasingly devoted to saving his brand and under those circumstances — in the words of former State Department official Peter Van Buren — what could possibly go wrong?
Now, that is dystopian territory.
Let me add another dystopian fantasy to what obviously could be an endless string of them. For a moment, let’s think about the topic of presidential assassinations. By that I don’t mean assassinated presidents like Lincoln, McKinley, or Kennedy. What I have in mind is the modern presidential urge to assassinate others.
Since at least Dwight Eisenhower, American presidents have been in the camp of the assassins. With Eisenhower, it was the CIA’s plot against Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba; with John Kennedy (and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy), it was Cuba’s Fidel Castro; with Richard Nixon (and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger), it was the killing of Chilean President Salvador Allende in a U.S.-backed military coup, which was also the first 9/11 attack (September 11, 1973).
In 1976, in the wake of Watergate, President Gerald Ford would outlaw political assassination by executive order, a ban reaffirmed by subsequent presidents (although Ronald Reagan did direct U.S. Air Force planes to bomb Libyan autocrat Muammar Gaddafi’s home). As this new century began, however, the sexiest high-tech killer around, the appropriately named Predator drone, would be armed with Hellfire missiles and sent into action in the war on terror, creating the possibility of presidential assassinations on a scale never before imagined. Its subsequent missions threatened to create a Terminator version of our world.
At the behest of two presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, a fleet of such robotic assassins would enter historically unique terrain as global hunter-killers outside official American war zones. They and their successors, Reaper drones (as in the Grim Reaper), would be dispatched on mass assassination sprees that have yet to end and that were largely organized in the White House itself based on a regularly updated, presidentially approved “kill list.”
In this way, the president, his aides, and his advisers became judge, jury, and executioner for “terror suspects” (though often enough any man, woman, or child who happened to be in the vicinity) halfway around the world. As I wrote back in 2012, in the process, the commander-in-chief became a permanent assassin-in-chief. Now, presidents were tasked with overseeing the elimination of hundreds of people in other lands with a sense of “legality” granted them in secret memos by the lawyers of their own Justice Department. Talk about dystopian! George Orwell would have been awed.
So when it comes to assassinations, we were already on dark terrain before Donald Trump ever thought about running for president. But give the man his due. Little noticed by anyone, he may already be developing the potential for a new style of presidential assassination — not in distant lands but right here at home. Start with his remarkable tweeting skills and the staggering 17.2 million followers of whatever he tweets, including numerous members of what’s politely referred to as the alt-right. And believe me, that’s one hell of an audience to stir up, something The Donald has shown that he can do with alacrity.
In a sense, you could already think of him as a kind of Twitter hit man. Certainly, his power to lash out in 140 characters is no small thing. Recently, for instance, he suddenly tweeted a criticism of arms-maker Lockheed-Martin for producing the most expensive weapons system in history, the F-35 fighter jet. (“The F-35 program and cost is out of control. Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military [and other] purchases after January 20th.”) The company’s stock value promptly took a $4 billion hit — which, I must admit, I found amusing, not dystopian.
He also seems to have been irritated by a Chicago Tribune column that focused on Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg’s criticisms of his comments on international trade and China, where that company does significant business. Muilenburg suggested, mildly enough, that he “back off from the 2016 anti-trade rhetoric and perceived threats to punish other countries with higher tariffs or fees.” In response, The Donald promptly took out after the company, calling for the cancellation of a Boeing contract for a new high-tech version of Air Force One, the president’s plane. (“Boeing is building a brand new 747 Air Force One for future presidents, but costs are out of control, more than $4 billion. Cancel order!”) That company’s stock similarly took a hit.
But giant military-industrial corporations can, of course, defend themselves. So no pity there. When it comes to regular citizens, however, it’s another matter. Take Chuck Jones, president of an Indiana United Steelworkers local. He disputed Trump on how many jobs the president-elect had recently saved at Carrier Corporation. Significantly less, he insisted (quite accurately), than Trump claimed. That clearly bruised the president-elect’s giant but remarkably fragile ego. Before he knew what hit him, Jones found himself the object of a typical Trumpian twitter barrage. (“Chuck Jones, who is President of United Steelworkers 1999, has done a terrible job representing workers. No wonder companies flee country!”) The next thing he knew, abusive and threatening calls were pouring in — things like “we’re coming for you” or, as Jones explained it, “Nothing that says they’re gonna kill me, but, you know, you better keep your eye on your kids. We know what car you drive. Things along those lines.”
A year ago, an 18-year-old college student had a similar experience after getting up at a campaign event and telling Trump that he was no “friend to women.” The candidate promptly went on the Twitter attack, labelling her “arrogant,” and the next thing she knew, as the Washington Post described it, “her phone began ringing with callers leaving threatening messages that were often sexual in nature. Her Facebook and email inboxes filled with similar messages. As her addresses circulated on social media and her photo flashed on the news, she fled home to hide.”
On this basis, it’s not hard to make a prediction. One of these days in Trump’s presidency, he will strike out by tweet at a private citizen (“Sad!”) who got under his skin. In response, some unhinged member of what might be thought of as his future alt-drone force will pick up a gun (of which so many more will be so much closer at hand in the NRA-ascendant age of Trump). Then, in the fashion of the fellow who decided to “self-investigate” the pizza shop in Washington that — thank you, “fake news” — was supposed to be the center of a Hillary Clinton child-sex-slave ring, he will go self-investigate in person and armed. In “Pizzagate,” the fellow, now under arrest, fired his assault rifle harmlessly in that restaurant, whose owner had already received more than his share of abusive phone messages and death threats. It’s easy enough to imagine, however, quite another result of such an event. In that case, Donald Trump will have given assassination by drone a new meaning. And should that happen, what will be the consequences of the first presidential Twitter “hit” job in our history?
Don’t forget, of course, that, thanks to George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Trump will also have all those CIA drones to use as he wishes to knock off whomever he chooses in distant lands. But as a potential Twitter assassin, rousing his alt-drones to the attack, he would achieve quite another kind of American first.
A Message for Planet Earth
And that’s just to edge my way into the future universe of Donald Trump, which is, of course, about to become all our universes. I suspect that his will turn out to be the screw-you presidency of all time. And believe me, that will prove to be dystopian beyond compare — or do I mean beyond despair?
Take the most dystopian issue of all: climate change. In recent weeks, Trump has mumbled sweet nothings to the assembled New York Times staff, swearing that he’s keeping an “open mind” when it comes to the link between humanity and a warming planet. He’s also sweet-talked Al Gore right in the heart of Trump Tower. (“I had a lengthy and very productive session with the president-elect,” said Gore afterward. “It was a sincere search for areas of common ground… I found it an extremely interesting conversation, and to be continued.”) Whatever else Donald Trump may be, he is, first and foremost, a salesman, which means he knows how to sell anything and charm just about anyone, when needed, and reality be damned.
If, however, you want to gauge his actual feelings on the subject, those outer borough sentiments of his youthful years when he evidently grew up feeling one-down to New York’s elite, then pay no attention to what he’s saying and take a look at what he’s doing. On climate change, it’s screw-you devastating all the way and visible payback to the many greens, liberals, and those simply worried about the fate of the Earth for their grandchildren who didn’t vote for or support him.
The Guardian recently did a rundown on his choices for both his transition team and key posts in his administration having anything to do with energy or the warming of the planet. It found climate deniers and so-called skeptics everywhere. In fact, “at least nine senior members” of his transition team, reported Oliver Milman of that paper, “deny basic scientific understanding that the planet is warming due to the burning of carbon and other human activity.”
Combine this with the president-elect’s urge to release American fossil fuels in a way no one previously has and you have a message that couldn’t be clearer or more devastating for the future of a livable planet. Think of it as so dystopian, so potentially post-apocalyptic, that it makes 1984 look like a nursery tale.
The message couldn’t be clearer. If I had to put it in just five words, they would be:
Trump to Earth: Drop Dead.
And oh yes, happy holidays!
For decades, Washington had a habit of using the Central Intelligence Agency to deep-six governments of the people, by the people, and for the people that weren’t to its taste and replacing them with governments of the [take your choice: military junta, shah, autocrat, dictator] across the planet. There was the infamous 1953 CIA- and British-organized coup that toppled the democratic Iranian government of Mohammad Mosadegh and put the Shah (and his secret police, the SAVAK) in power. There was the 1954 CIA coup against the government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala that installed the military dictatorship of Carlos Castillo Armas; there was the CIA’s move to make Ngo Dinh Diem the head of South Vietnam, also in 1954, and the CIA-Belgian plot to assassinate the Congo’s first elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, in 1961 that led, in the end, to the military dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko; there was the 1964 CIA-backed military coup in Brazil that overthrew elected president Jango Goulart and brought to power a military junta; and, of course, the first 9/11 (September 11, 1973) when the democratically elected socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, was overthrown and killed in a U.S.-backed military coup. Well, you get the idea.
In this way, Washington repeatedly worked its will as the leader of what was then called “the Free World.” Although such operations were carried out on the sly, when they were revealed, Americans, proud of their own democratic traditions, generally remained unfazed by what the CIA had done to democracies (and other kinds of governments) abroad in their name. If Washington repeatedly empowered regimes of a sort Americans would have found unacceptable for ourselves, it wasn’t something that most of us spent a whole lot of time fretting about in the context of the Cold War.
At least those acts remained largely covert, undoubtedly reflecting a sense that this wasn’t the sort of thing you should proudly broadcast in the light of day. In the early years of the twenty-first century, however, a new mindset emerged. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, “regime change” became the phrase du jour. As a course of action, there was no longer anything to be covert about. Instead, the process was debated openly and carried out in the full glare of media attention.
No longer would Washington set the CIA plotting in the shadows to rid it of detested governments and put in their place more malleable client states. Instead, as the “sole superpower” of Planet Earth, with a military believed to be beyond compare or challenge, the Bush administration would claim the right to dislodge governments it disdained directly, bluntly, and openly with the straightforward use of military force. Later, the Obama administration would take the same tack under the rubric of “humanitarian intervention” or R2P (“responsibility to protect”). In this sense, regime change and R2P would become shorthand for Washington’s right to topple governments in the full light of day by cruise missile, drone, and Apache helicopter, not to mention troops, if needed. (Saddam Hussein’s Iraq would, of course, be exhibit A in this process and Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, exhibit B.)
With this history in mind and in the wake of the recent election, a question came to me recently: In 2016, did the American people leave the CIA in a ditch and potentially do to themselves what the Agency (and more recently the U.S. military) had done to others? In other words, in the strangest election of our lifetimes, have we just seen something like a slow-motion democratic coup d’état or some form of domestic regime change?
Only time will tell, but one sign of that possibility: for the first time, part of the national security state directly intervened in an American election. In this case, not the CIA, but our leading domestic investigative outfit, the FBI. Inside it, as we now know, fulminating and plotting had been ongoing against one of the two candidates for president before its director, James Comey, openly, even brazenly, entered the fray with 11 days to go. He did so on grounds that, even at the time, seemed shaky at best, if not simply bogus, and ran against firm department traditions for such election periods. In the process, his intervention may indeed have changed the trajectory of the election, a commonplace in the rest of the world, but a unique moment in this country.
Donald Trump’s administration, now filling up with racists, Islamophobes, Iranophobes, and assorted fellow billionaires, already has the feel of an increasingly militarized, autocratic government-in-the-making, favoring short-tempered, militaristic white guys who don’t take criticism lightly or react to speed bumps well. In addition, on January 20th, they will find themselves with immense repressive powers of every sort at their fingertips, powers ranging from torture to surveillance that were institutionalized in remarkable ways in the post-9/11 years with the rise of the national security state as a fourth branch of government, powers which some of them are clearly eager to test out.
Blowback and Blowforward as the History of Our Times
It took 22 years — in the wake of Washington’s 1979 decision to use the CIA to arm, fund, and train the most extreme Afghan (and other) Muslim fundamentalists and so give the Soviet Union a Vietnam-style bloody nose — for the initial American investment in radical Islam to come home big time. On that blowback path, there would be American military housing in Saudi Arabia blown sky high, two U.S. embassies bombed in Africa, and a U.S. destroyer ripped apart in a harbor in Aden. But it was 9/11 that truly put blowback on the map in this country (and, appropriately enough, turned Chalmers Johnson’s book with that title, published in 2000, into a bestseller). Those al-Qaeda attacks, estimated to cost only $400,000, were aimed at three iconic structures: the World Trade Center in Manhattan (representing American financial power), the Pentagon in Washington (military power), and assumedly either the White House or the Capitol (political power) — as United Airlines Flight 93 was undoubtedly headed there when it crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Those strikes by 19 mainly Saudi hijackers were meant to deliver a devastating blow to American amour propre, and so they did.
In response, the Bush administration launched the Global War on Terror, or GWOT (one of the worst acronyms ever), also known to its rabid promoters as “the Long War” or “World War IV.” Think of that “war,” including the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, as a kind of “blowforward,” or a second vast, long-term investment of time, money, and lives in Islamic extremism that only entrenched the phenomenon further in our world, helped recruit more supporters for it, and spread it ever more widely.
In other words, Osama bin Laden’s relatively modest $400,000 investment would lead Washington to squander literally trillions more dollars in ever-expanding wars and insurgencies, and on the targeting of growing, morphing terror outfits in the Greater Middle East and Africa. The resulting years of military effort that spiraled out of control and into disaster in that vast region led to what I’ve called an “empire of chaos” and set a new kind of blowback on a path home, blowback that would change and distort the nature of American governance and society.
Now, 37 years after the first Afghan intervention and 15 years after the second one, in the wake of an American election, blowback from the war on terror — its generals, its mindset, its manias, its urge to militarize everything — has come home in a significant way. In fact, we just held what may someday be seen as our first 9/11-style election. And with it, with the various mad proposals to ban or register Muslims and the like, the literal war on terror is threatening to come home big time, too. Based on the last decade and a half of “results” in distant lands, that can’t be good news. (According to the latest report, for instance, fears of persecution are growing even among Muslims in the Pentagon, the CIA, and the Department of Homeland Security, and with Islamophobic sentiments already rampant inside the newly forming Trump administration, you can conclude that this won’t end well either.)
On September 12, 2001, you would have been hard put to guess just how the shock of the attacks of the previous day would play out in the U.S. and the world, so perhaps it’s idle to speculate on what the events of 11/8/16 will lead to in the years to come. Prediction’s a dicey business in the best of times, and the future ordinarily is a black hole. But one thing does seem likely amid the murk: with the generals (and other officials) who ran America’s failed wars these last years potentially dominating the national security structure of a future Trump administration, our empire of chaos (including perhaps regime change) will indeed have come home. It’s reasonable to think of the victory of Donald Trump and his brand of right-wing corporatist or billionaire “populism” and of the rising tide of white racism that has accompanied it as a 9/11-style shock to the body politic, even if it proves a slo-mo version of the original event.
As with 9/11, a long, blowback-ridden history preceded 11/8 and Donald Trump’s triumph. That history included the institutionalization of permanent war as a way of life in Washington, the growing independent power and preeminence of the national security state, the accompanying growth and institutionalization of the most oppressive powers of that state, including intrusive surveillance of almost every imaginable sort, the return from distant battlefields of the technology and mindset of permanent war, and the ability to assassinate whomever the White House chooses to kill (even an American citizen). In addition, in blowback terms, domestically you would need to include the results of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of 2010, which helped release staggering amounts of corporate and 1%er funds from the engorged top of an increasingly unequal society into the political system (without which a billionaire running for president and a cabinet of billionaires and multimillionaires would have been inconceivable).
As I wrote in early October, “a significant part of the white working class… feels as if, whether economically or psychologically, its back is up against the wall and there’s nowhere left to go… many of these voters have evidently decided that they’re ready to send a literal loose cannon into the White House; they’re willing, that is, to take a chance on the roof collapsing, even if it collapses on them.” Think of Donald Trump’s election, then, as the victory of the suicide bomber the white working class dispatched to the Oval Office to, as people now say politely, “shake things up.”
In a moment that, in so many senses, is filling with extremism and in which the jihadists of the national security state are clearly going to be riding high, it’s at least possible that election 2016 will prove the equivalent of a slow-motion coup in America. Donald Trump, like right-wing populists before him, has a temperament that could lend itself not only to demagoguery (as in the recent election campaign), but to an American version of authoritarianism, especially since in recent years, in terms of a loss of rights and the strengthening of government powers, the country has already moved in an autocratic direction, even if that’s been a little noted reality.
Whatever Americans may have ushered in with the events of 11/8, one thing is increasingly certain about the country that Donald Trump will govern. Forget Vladimir Putin and his rickety petro-state: the most dangerous nation on the planet will now be ours. Led by a man who knows remarkably little, other than how to manipulate the media (on which he’s a natural-born genius) and, at least in part, by the frustrated generals from America’s war on terror, the United States is likely to be more extreme, belligerent, irrational, filled with manias, and heavily armed, its military funded to even greater levels no other country could come close to, and with staggering powers to intervene, interfere, and repress.
It’s not a pretty picture. And yet it’s just a lead-in to what, undoubtedly, should be considered the ultimate question in Donald Trump’s America: With both the CIA’s coup-making and the military’s regime-change traditions in mind, could the United States also overthrow a planet? If, as the head of what’s already the world’s second largest greenhouse gas emitter, Trump carries out the future energy policies he promised during the election campaign — climate-science funding torn up, climate agreements denounced or ignored, alternative energy development downplayed, pipelines green-lighted, fracking and other forms of fossil-fuel extraction further encouraged, and the U.S. fully reimagined as the Saudi Arabia of North America — he will, in effect, be launching a regime-change action against Planet Earth.
All the rest of what a Trump administration might do, including ushering in a period of American autocracy, would be just part and parcel of human history. Autocracies come and go. Autocrats rise and die. Rebellions break out and fail. Democracies work and then don’t. Life goes on. Climate change is, however, none of that. It may be part of planetary history, but not of human history. It is instead history’s potential deal-breaker. What the Trump administration does to us in the years to come could prove a grim period to live through but a passing matter, at least when compared to the possible full-scale destabilization of life on Earth and of history as we’ve known it these last thousands of years.
This would, of course, put 9/11 in the shade. The election victory of 11/8 might ultimately prove the shock of a lifetime, of any lifetime, for eons to come. That’s the danger we’ve faced since 11/8, and make no mistake, it could be devastating.
Was 11/8 a New 9/11?
The one thing you could say about empires is that, at or near their height, they have always represented a principle of order as well as domination. So here’s the confounding thing about the American version of empire in the years when this country was often referred to as “the sole superpower,” when it was putting more money into its military than the next 10 nations combined: it’s been an empire of chaos.
Back in September 2002, Amr Moussa, then head of the Arab League, offered a warning I’ve never forgotten. The Bush administration’s intention to invade Iraq and topple its ruler, Saddam Hussein, was already obvious. Were they to take such a step, Moussa insisted, it would “open the gates of hell.” His prediction turned out to be anything but hyperbole — and those gates have never again closed.
The Wars Come Home
From the moment of the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, in fact, everything the U.S. military touched in these years has turned to dust. Nations across the Greater Middle East and Africa collapsed under the weight of American interventions or those of its allies, and terror movements, one grimmer than the next, spread in a remarkably unchecked fashion. Afghanistan is now a disaster zone; Yemen, wracked by civil war, a brutal U.S.-backed Saudi air campaign, and various ascendant terror groups, is essentially no more; Iraq, at best, is a riven sectarian nation; Syria barely exists; Libya, too, is hardly a state these days; and Somalia is a set of fiefdoms and terror movements. All in all, it’s quite a record for the mightiest power on the planet, which, in a distinctly un-imperial fashion, has been unable to impose its military will or order of any sort on any state or even group, no matter where it chose to act in these years. It’s hard to think of a historical precedent for this.
Meanwhile, from the shattered lands of the empire of chaos stream refugees by the millions,numbers not seen since vast swaths of the globe were left in rubble at the end of World War II. Startling percentages of the populations of various failed and failing states, including stunning numbers of children, have been driven into internal exile or sent fleeing across borders and, fromAfghanistan to North Africa to Europe, they are shaking up the planet in unsettling ways (as theirfantasy versions shook up the election here in the U.S.).
It’s something of a cliché to say that, sooner or later, the frontier wars of empires come home to haunt the imperial heartland in curious ways. Certainly, such has been the case for our wars on the peripheries. In various forms — from the militarization of the police to the loosing of spy drones in American skies and of surveillance technology tested on distant battlefields — it’s obvious that America’s post-9/11 conflicts have returned to “the homeland,” even if, most of the time, we have paid remarkably little attention to this phenomena.
And that, I suspect, is the least significant way in which our wars have been repatriated. What Election 2016 made clear was that the empire of chaos has not remained a phenomenon of the planet’s backlands. It’s with us in the United States, right here, right now. And it’s come home in a fashion that no one has yet truly tried to make sense of. Can’t you feel the deep and spreading sense of disorder that lay at the heart of the bizarre election campaign that roiled this country, brought the most extreme kinds of racism and xenophobia back into the mainstream, and with Donald Trump’s election, may never really end? Using the term of tradecraft that Chalmers Johnson borrowed from the CIA and popularized, think of this as, in some strange fashion, the ultimate in imperial blowback.
There’s a history to be written of how such disorder came home, of how it warped the American system and our democratic form of governance, of how a process that began decades ago not in the stew of defeat or disaster but in a moment of unparalleled imperial triumph undermined so much. If I had to choose a date to begin that history, I think I would start in 1979 in Afghanistan, a country that, if you were an American but not a hippie backpacker, you might then have had trouble locating on a map. And if someone had told you at the time that, over the next nearly four decades, your country would be involved in at least a quarter-century of wars there, you would undoubtedly have considered him mad.
Thought of a certain way, the empire of chaos began in a victory so stunning, so complete, so imperial that it essentially helped drive the other superpower, that “Evil Empire” the Soviet Union, to implode. It began, in fact, with the desire of Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, to give the Soviets a bloody nose, or to be more precise, a taste of America’s Vietnam experience, to trap the Red Army in an Afghan quagmire. In that light, the CIA would run a massive, decade-long covert program to fund, arm, and train fundamentalist opponents of the leftwing Afghan government in Kabul and of the occupying Red Army. To do so, it fatefully buddied up with two unsavory “allies”: the Saudis, who were ready to sink their oil money into support for Afghan mujahedeen fighters of the most extreme sort, and the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, which was intent on controlling events in that land, no matter the nature of the cast of characters it found available.
In the fashion of Vietnam for the Americans, Afghanistan would prove to be what Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called “the bleeding wound” for the Russians. A decade later, the Red Army would limp home in defeat and within two years a hollowed-out Soviet Union, never as strong as Washington imagined, would implode, a triumph so stunning that the American political elite initially couldn’t take it in. After almost half a century, the Cold War was over; one of the two remaining “superpowers” had left the global stage in defeat; and for the first time since Europeans set out on wooden ships to conquer distant parts of the globe, only a single great power was left standing on the planet.
Given the history of those centuries past, the dreams of Bush-Cheney & Co. about how the U.S. would dominate the world as no power, not even the Romans or the British, had ever done seemed to make a certain sense. But in that triumph of 1989 lay the seeds as well of future chaos. To take down the Soviets, the CIA, in tandem with the Saudis and the Pakistanis, had armed and built up groups of extreme Islamists, who, it turned out, had no intention of going away once the Soviets were driven from Afghanistan. It won’t exactly shock you if I add that, in those decisions, in that triumphant moment, lay the genesis of the future 9/11 attacks and in some curious fashion, even perhaps the future rise of a presidential candidate, and now president-elect, so bizarre that, despite the billions of words expended on him, he remains a phenomenon beyond understanding.
As our first declinist candidate for president, Donald J. Trump did at least express something new and true about the nature of our country. In the phrase that he tried to trademark in 2012 and with which he launched his presidential campaign in 2015 — “Make America Great Again” — he caught a deeply felt sense among millions of Americans that the empire of chaos had indeed arrived on our shores and that, like the Soviet Union a quarter-century ago, the U.S. might ever so slowly be heading into an era in which (minus him, naturally) “greatness” was a goner.
Imperial Overreach and the Rise of the National Security State
In the end, those seeds, first planted in Afghan and Pakistani soil in 1979, led to the attacks of September 11, 2001. That day was the very definition of chaos brought to the imperial heartland, and spurred the emergence of a new, post-Constitutional governing structure, through the expansion of the national security state to monumental proportions and a staggering version of imperial overreach. On the basis of the supposed need to keep Americans safe from terrorism (and essentially nothing else), the national security state would balloon into a dominant — and dominantly funded — set of institutions at the heart of American political life (without which, rest assured, FBI Director James Comey’s public interventions in an American election would have been inconceivable). In these years, that state-within-a-state became the unofficial fourth branch of government, at a moment when two of the others — Congress and the courts, or at least the Supreme Court — were faltering.
The 9/11 attacks also unleashed the Bush administration’s stunningly ambitious, ultimately disastrous Global War on Terror, and over-the-top fantasies about establishing a military-enforced Pax Americana, first in the Middle East and then perhaps globally. They also unleashed its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. drone assassination program across significant parts of the planet, the building of an unprecedented global surveillance state, the spread of a kind of secrecy so all-encompassing that much of government activity became unknowable to “the People,” and a kind of imperial overreach that sent literally trillions of dollars (often via warrior corporations) tumbling into the abyss. All of these were chaos-creating factors.
At the same time, the basic needs of many Americans went increasingly unattended, of those at least who weren’t part of a Gilded Age 1% sucking up American wealth in an extraordinary fashion. The one-percenters then repurposed some of those trickle-up funds for the buying and selling of politicians, again in an atmosphere of remarkable secrecy. (It was often impossible to know who had given money to whom for what.) In turn, that stream of Supreme Court-approved funds changed the nature of, and perhaps the very idea of, what an election was.
Meanwhile, parts of the heartland were being hollowed out, while — even as the military continued to produce trillion-dollar boondoggle weapons systems — the country’s inadequately funded infrastructure began to crumble in a way that once would have been inconceivable. Similarly, the non-security-state part of the government — Congress in particular — began to falter and wither. Meanwhile, one of the country’s two great political parties launched a scorched-earth campaign against governing representatives of the other and against the very idea of governing in a reasonably democratic fashion or getting much of anything done at all. At the same time, that party shattered into disorderly, competing factions that grew ever more extreme and produced what is likely to become a unique celebrity presidency of chaos.
The United States with all its wealth and power is, of course, hardly an Afghanistan or a Libya or a Yemen or a Somalia. It still remains a genuinely great power, and one with remarkable resources to wield and fall back on. Nonetheless, the recent election offered striking evidence that the empire of chaos had indeed made the trip homeward. It’s now with us big time, all the time. Get used to it.
Count on it to be an essential part of the Trump presidency. Domestically, for instance, if you thought the definition of American political dysfunction was a Congress that would essentially pass nothing, just wait until a fully Republican-controlled Congress actually begins to pass bills in 2017. Abroad, Trump’s unexpected success will only encourage the rise of right-wing nationalist movements and the further fragmention of this planet of increasing disorder. Meanwhile, the American military (promised a vast further infusion of funds by The Donald during the election campaign) will still be trying to impose its version of order in distant lands and, so many years later, you know perfectly well what that will mean. All of this should shock no one in our new post-November 8th world.
Here, however, is a potentially shocking question that has to be asked: With Donald Trump’s election, has the American “experiment” run its course?
Empire of Chaos
To say that this is the election from hell is to insult hell.
There’s been nothing like this since Washington forded the Rubicon or Trump crossed the Delaware or delivered the Gettysburg Address (you know, the one that began “Four score and eleven women ago…”) — or pick your own seminal moment in American history.
Billions of words, that face, those gestures, the endless insults, the abused women and the emails, the 24/7 spectacle of it all… Whatever happens on Election Day, let’s accept one reality: we’re in a new political era in this country. We just haven’t quite taken it in. Not really.
Forget Donald Trump.
Doh! Why did I write that? Who could possibly forget the first presidential candidate in our history preemptively unwilling to accept election results? (Even the South in 1860 accepted the election of Abraham Lincoln before trying to wave goodbye to the Union.) Who could forget the man who claimed that abortions could take place on the day of or the day before actual birth? Who could forget the man who claimed in front of an audience of nearly 72 million Americans that he had never met the women who accused him of sexual aggression and abuse, including the People magazine reporter who interviewed him? Who could forget the candidate who proudly cited his positive polling results at rallies and in tweets, month after month, before (when those same polls turned against him) discovering that they were all “rigged”?
Whatever you think of The Donald, who in the world — and I mean the whole wide world (including the Iranians) — could possibly forget him or the election he’s stalked so ominously? When you think of him, however, don’t make him the cause of American political dysfunction. He’s just the bizarre, disturbed, and disturbing symptom of the transformation of the American political system.
Admittedly, he is a one-of-a-kind “politician,” even among his associates in surging right-wing nationalist and anti-whatever movements globally. He makes France’s Marine Le Pen seem like the soul of rationality and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte look like a master tactician of our age. But what truly makes Donald Trump and this election season fascinating and confounding is that we’re not just talking about the presidency of a country, but of the country. The United States remains the great imperial state on Planet Earth in terms of the reach of its military and the power of its economy and culture to influence the workings of everything just about everywhere. And yet, based on the last strange year of election campaigning, it’s hard not to think that something — and not just The Donald — is unnervingly amiss on Planet America.
The World War II Generation in 2016
Sometimes, in my fantasies (as while watching the final presidential debate), I perform a private miracle and bring my parents back from the dead to observe our American world. With them in the room, I try to imagine the disbelief many from that World War II generation would surely express about our present moment. Of course, they lived through a devastating depression, light years beyond anything we experienced in the Great Recession of 2007-2008, as well as a global conflagration of a sort that had never been experienced and — short of nuclear war — is not likely to be again.
Despite this, I have no doubt that they would be boggled by our world and the particular version of chaos we now live with. To start at a global level, both my mother (who died in 1977) and my father (who died in 1983) spent decades in the nuclear age, the era of humanity’s greatest — for want of a better word — achievement. After all, for the first time in history, we humans took the apocalypse out of the hands of God (or the gods), where it had resided for thousands of years, and placed it directly in our own. What they didn’t live to experience, however, was history’s second potential deal-breaker, climate change, already bringing upheaval to the planet, and threatening a slow-motion apocalypse of an unprecedented sort.
While nuclear weapons have not been used since August 9, 1945, even if they have spread to the arsenals of numerous countries, climate change should be seen as a snail-paced version of nuclear war — and keep in mind that humanity is still pumping near-record levels of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. I imagine my parents’ amazement that the most dangerous and confounding issue on the planet didn’t get a single question, not to speak of an answer, in the three presidential debates of 2016, the four and a half hours of charges, insults, and interruptions just past. Neither a moderator, nor evidently an undecided voter (in the town hall second debate), nor either presidential candidate — each ready to change the subject on a moment’s notice from embarrassing questions about sexual aggression, emails, or anything else — thought it worth the slightest attention. It was, in short, a problem too large to discuss, one whose existence Donald Trump (like just about every other Republican) denies, or rather, in his case, labels a “hoax” that he uniquely blames on a Chinese plot to sink America.
So much for insanity (and inanity) when it comes to the largest question of all. On a somewhat more modest scale, my mom and dad wouldn’t have recognized our political world as American, and not just because of Donald Trump. They would have been staggered by the money pouring into our political system — at least $6.6 billion in this election cycle according to the latest estimate, more than 10% of that from only 100 families. They would have been stunned by our 1% elections; by our new Gilded Age; by a billionaire TV celebrity running as a “populist” by riling up once Democratic working-class whites immiserated by the likes of him and his “brand” of casino capitalism, scam, and spectacle; by all those other billionaires pouring money into the Republican Party to create a gerrymandered Congress that will do their obstructionist bidding; and by just how much money can be “invested” in our political system in perfectly legal ways these days. And I haven’t even mentioned the Other Candidate, who spent all of August on the true “campaign trail,” hobnobbing not with ordinary Americans but with millionaires and billionaires (and assorted celebrities) to build up her phenomenal “war chest.”
I would have to take a deep breath and explain to my parents that, in twenty-first-century America, by Supreme Court decree, money has become the equivalent of speech, even if it’s anything but “free.” And let’s not forget that other financial lodestone for an American election these days: the television news, not to speak of the rest of the media. How could I begin to lay out for my parents, for whom presidential elections were limited fall events, the bizarre nature of an election season that starts with media speculation about the next-in-line just as the previous season is ending, and continues more or less nonstop thereafter? Or the spectacle of talking heads discussing just about nothing but that election 24/7 on cable television for something like a full year, or the billions of ad dollars that have fueled this never-ending Super Bowl of campaigns, filling the coffers of the owners of cable and network news?
We’ve grown strangely used to it all, but my mom and dad would undoubtedly think they were in another country — and that would be before they were even introduced to the American system as it now exists, the one for which Donald Trump is such a bizarre front man.
What Planet Is This Anyway?
I wish I still had my high school civics text. If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember it: the one in which a man from Mars lands on Main Street, USA, to be lectured on the glories of American democracy and our carefully constructed, checked-and-balanced tripartite form of governance. I’m sure knowledge of that system changed life on Mars for the better, even if it was already something of a fantasy here on Earth in my parents’ time. After all, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower — my mom and dad voted for Democrat Adlai Stevenson — was the one who, in his farewell address in 1961, first brought “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power” and “the military-industrial complex” to the attention of the American people.
Yes, all of that was already changing then, as a peacetime war state of unparalleled size developed in this country. Still, 30-odd years after my father’s death, surveying the American landscape, my parents might believe themselves on Mars. They would undoubtedly wonder what exactly had happened to the country they knew. After all, thanks to the Republican Party’s scorched-earth tactics in these last years in bipolar Washington, Congress, that collection of putative representatives of the people (now a crew of well-paid, well-financed representatives of the country’s special interests in a capital overrun with corporate lobbyists), hardly functions anymore. Little of significance makes it through the porticos of the Capitol. Recently, for instance, John McCain (usually considered a relatively “moderate” Republican senator) suggested — before walking his comments part way back — that if Hillary Clinton were elected president, his fellow Republican senators might decide a priori not to confirm a single Supreme Court justice she nominated during her tenure in office. That, of course, would mean a court now down to what looks like a permanent crew of eight would shrink accordingly. And his comments, which once would have shocked Americans to the core, caused hardly a ripple of upset or protest.
On my tour of this new world, I might start by pointing out to my mom and dad that the U.S. is now in a state of permanent war, its military at the moment involved in conflicts in at least six countries in the Greater Middle East and Africa. These are all purely presidential conflicts, as Congress no longer has a real role in American war-making (other than ponying up the money for it and beating the drums to support it). The executive branch stands alone when it comes to the war powers once checked and balanced in the Constitution.
And I wouldn’t want my parents to simply look abroad. The militarization of this country has proceeded apace and in ways that, I have not the slightest doubt, would shock them to their core. I could take my parents, for instance, to Grand Central Station in midtown Manhattan, their hometown and still mine, and on any day of the week they would see the once-inconceivable: actual armed soldiers on guard in full camo. I could mention that, at my local subway stop, I’ve several times noted a New York police department counterterror squad that could be mistaken for a military Special Ops team, assault rifles slung across their chests, and no one even stops and gawks anymore. I could point out that the police across the country increasingly have the look of military units and are supplied by the Pentagon with actual weaponry and equipment directly off distant U.S. battlefields, including armored vehicles of various sorts. I could mention that military surveillance drones, those precursors of future robotic warfare (and, for my parents, right out of the childhood sci-fi novels I used to read), are now regularly in American skies; that advanced surveillance equipment developed in far-off war zones is now being used by the police here at home; and that, though political assassination was officially banned in the post-Watergate 1970s, the president now commands a formidable CIA drone force that regularly carries out such assassinations across large swaths of the planet, even against U.S. citizens, and without the say-so of anyone outside the White House, including the courts. I could mention that the president who, in my parents’ time, commanded one modest-sized secret army, the CIA’s paramilitaries, now essentially presides over a full-scale secret military, the Special Operations Command: 70,000 elite troops cocooned inside the larger U.S. military, including elite teams ready to be deployed on what are essentially executive missions across the planet.
I could point out that, in the twenty-first century, U.S. intelligence has set up a global surveillance state that would have shamed the totalitarian powers of the previous century and that American citizens, en masse, are included in it; that our emails (a new concept for my parents) have been collected by the millions and our phone records made available to the state; that privacy, in short, has essentially been declared un-American. I would also point out that, on the basis of one tragic day and what otherwise has been the most modest of threats to Americans, a single fear — of Islamic terrorism — has been the pretext for the building of the already existing national security state into an edifice of almost unbelievable proportions that has been given once unimaginable powers, funded in ways that should amaze anyone (not just visitors from the American past), and has become the unofficial fourth branch of the U.S. government without either discussion or a vote.
Little that it does — and it does a lot — is open to public scrutiny. For their own “safety,” “the People” are to know nothing of its workings (except what it wants them to know). Meanwhile, secrecy of a claustrophobic sort has spread across significant parts of the government. The government classified 92 million documents in 2011 and things seem not to have gotten much better since. In addition, the national security state has been elaborating a body of “secret law” — including classified rules, regulations, and interpretations of already existing law — kept from the public and, in some cases, even from congressional oversight committees.
Americans, in other words, know ever less about what their government does in their name at home and abroad.
I might suggest to my parents that they simply imagine the Constitution of the United States being rewritten and amended in secrecy and on the fly in these years without as much as a nod to “We, the People.” In this way, as our elections became elaborate spectacles, democracy was sucked dry and ditched in all but name — and that name is undoubtedly Donald J. Trump.
Consider that, then, a brief version of how I might describe our new American world to my amazed parents.
America as a National Security State
None of this is The Donald’s responsibility. In the years in which a new American system was developing, he was firing people on TV. You could, of course, think of him as the poster boy for an America in which spectacle, celebrity, the gilded class of One Percenters, and the national security state have melded into a narcissistic, self-referential brew of remarkable toxicity.
Whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is elected president, one thing is obvious: the vast edifice that is the national security state, with its 17 intelligence agencies and enormous imperial military, will continue to elaborate itself and expand its power in our American world. Both candidates have sworn to pour yet more money into that military and the intelligence and Homeland Security apparatus that goes with it. None of this, of course, has much of anything to do with American democracy as it was once imagined.
Someday perhaps, like my parents, “I” will be called back from the dead by one of my children to view with awe or horror whatever world exists. Long after the America of an unimaginable Donald J. Trump presidency or a far-more-imaginable Hillary Clinton version of the same has been folded into some god-awful, half-forgotten chapter in our history, I wonder what will surprise or confound “me” then. What version of our country and planet will “I” face in 2045?
Creating a National Security State “Democracy”
This is not about Donald Trump. And I mean it.
From the moment the first scribe etched a paean of praise to Nebuchadnezzar into a stone tablet, it’s reasonable to conclude that never in history has the media covered a single human being as it has Donald Trump. For more than a year now, unless a terror attack roiled American life, he’s been the news cycle, essentially the only one, morning, noon, and night, day after day, week after week, month after month. His every word, phrase, move, insult, passing comment, off-the-cuff remark, claim, boast, brazen lie, shout, or shout-out has been ours as well. In this period, he’s praised his secret plan to destroy ISIS and take Iraqi oil. He’s thumped that “big, fat, beautiful wall” again and again. He’s birthered a campaign that could indeed transport him, improbably enough, into the Oval Office. He’s fought it out with 17 political rivals, among others, including “lyin’ Ted,” “low-energy Jeb,” Carly (“Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?”) Fiorini, “crooked Hillary,” a Miss Universe (“Miss Piggy”), the “highly overrated” Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle (“You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever”), always Rosie O’Donnell (“a slob [with] a fat, ugly face”), and so many others. He’s made veiled assassination threats; lauded the desire to punch someone in the face; talked about shooting “somebody” in “the middle of Fifth Avenue”; defended the size of his hands and his you-know-what; retweeted neo-Nazis and a quote from Mussolini; denounced the outsourcing of American manufacturing jobs and products while outsourcing his own jobs and products; excoriated immigrants and foreign labor while hiring the same; advertised the Trump brand in every way imaginable; had a bromance with Vladimir Putin; threatened to let nuclear weapons proliferate; complained bitterly about a rigged election, rigged debates, a rigged moderator, and a rigged microphone; swore that he and he alone was capable of again making America, and so the world, a place of the sort of greatness only he himself could match, and that’s just to begin a list on the subject of The Donald.
In other words, thanks to the media attention he garners incessantly, he is the living embodiment of our American moment. No matter what you think of him, his has been a journey of a sort we’ve never seen before, a triumph of the first order, whatever happens on November 8th. He’s burnished his own brand; opened a new hotel on — yes — Pennsylvania Avenue (which he’s used his election run to promote and publicize); sold his products mercilessly; promoted his children; funneled dollars to his family and businesses; and in an unspoken alliance (pact, entente, détente) of the first order, kept the nightly news and the cable networks rolling in dough and in the spotlight (as long as they kept yakking about him), despite the fact that younger viewers were in flight to the universe of social media, streaming services, and their smartphones. Thanks to the millions, billions, perhaps trillions of words expended on him by nonstop commentators, pundits, talking heads, retired generals and admirals, former intelligence chiefs, ex-Bush administration officials, and god knows who else that have kept the cable channels churning with Trump on a nearly 24/7 basis, he and his remarkable ego, and his now familiar gestures — that jut-jawed look, that orange hair, that overly tanned face, that eternally raised voice — have become the wallpaper of our lives, something close to our reality. If he were an action film, some Hollywood studio would be swooning, because never has a single act gotten such nonstop publicity. We’ve never seen anything like him or it, and yet, strange as the Trump phenomenon may be, if you think about it for a moment, you’ll realize that there’s also something eerily familiar about him, and not just because of The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice.
In a world where so many things deserve our attention and don’t get it, rest assured that this is not about Donald Trump. It really isn’t.
In terms of any presidential candidate from George Washington to Barack Obama, Trump is little short of a freak of nature. There’s really no one to compare him to (other, perhaps, than George Wallace). Sometimes his pitch about America — and a return to greatness — has a faintly Reaganesque quality (but without any of Ronald Reagan’s sunniness or charm). Otherwise, I dare you to make such a comparison.
Still, don’t be fooled. As a phenomenon, Donald Trump couldn’t be more American — as American, in fact, as a piece of McDonald’s baked apple pie. What could be more American, after all, than his two major roles: salesman (or pitchman) and con artist? From P.T. Barnum (who, by the way, became the mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, late in life) to Willy Loman, selling has long been an iconic American way to go. A man who sells his life and brand as the ultimate American life and brand… come on, what’s not familiar about that?
As for being a conman, since at least Mark Twain (remember the Duke of Bridgewater and the Dauphin, who join Huck and Jim on their raft?) and Herman Melville (The Confidence Man), the charm of the — excuse the phrase under the circumstances — huckster in American life can’t be denied. It’s something Donald Trump knows in his bones, even if all those pundits and commentators and pollsters (and for that matter Hillary Clinton’s advisers) don’t: Americans love a conman. Historically, we’ve often admired, if not identified with, someone intent on playing and successfully beating the system, whether at a confidence game or through criminal activity.
After the first presidential debate, when Trump essentially admitted that in some years he paid no taxes (“that makes me smart”) and that he had played the tax system for everything it was worth, there was all that professional tsk-tsking and the suggestion that such an admission would deeply disturb ordinary voters who pay up when the IRS comes knocking. Don’t believe it for a second. I guarantee you that Trump senses he’s deep in the Mississippi of American politics with such statements and that a surprising number of voters will admire him for it (whether they admit it or not). After all, he beat the system, even if they didn’t.
Whenever I see Trump and read accounts of his business dealings, I’m reminded of what 1920s Chicago crime boss Al Capone told British journalist Claud Cockburn: “Listen, don’t get the idea I’m one of those goddamn radicals… Don’t get the idea I’m knocking the American system. My rackets are run on strictly American lines. Capitalism, call it what you like, gives to each and every one of us a great opportunity if only we seize it with both hands and make the most of it.” Trump’s “rackets” are similarly “run on strictly American lines.” He’s the Tony Soprano of casino capitalism and so couldn’t be more American.
My father was a salesman. I grew up watching him make his preparations to sell. I existed at the edge of his selling universe and, though I thought I rejected his world, the truth is that, given the chance and under the right circumstances, I still love to sell myself. It’s addictive in the most American way. There was as well another aspect of that commonplace world of fathers I once knew and that I now recognize in Trump’s overwhelming persona: the bully. That jut-jawed stance, the pugnacious approach to the world, that way of carrying both one’s body and face that seems inbuilt and offers the constant possibility of threat — it was the norm of the world I grew up in. It was what fathers looked like (and must still in so many families). It was, in short, an essential part of the pre-Trumpian world, a manner, a way of being that The Donald has distilled into an iconically brutal version of itself, into not the commonplace bully — schoolyard variety — but The Bully. Still, at least to me, and I think to many Americans, it couldn’t be more recognizable and, I suspect, for people raised among the bullies, the thought of having such a bully in the Oval Office and speaking for you for once is strangely appealing.
Just in case you were wondering at this point, I’m serious: this is not about Donald Trump.
And yet, don’t believe that everything about The Donald is old hat and familiarly American. In this strange election season, there are aspects of his role that are so new they should startle us all. Begin with the fact that he’s the first declinist candidate for president of our era. Put another way, he’s the only politician in the country who refuses to engage in a ritual — until now a virtual necessity for American presidential wannabes, candidates, and presidents: affirming repeatedly that the United States is the greatest, most exceptional, most indispensable nation of all time and that it possesses the “finest fighting force in the history of the world.”
Undoubtedly, that by-now-kneejerk urge to repeat such formulaic sentiments reflects creeping self-doubts about America’s future imperial role. It has the quality of a magic mantra being used to ward off reality. After all, when a great power truly is at its height, as the United States was in my youth, no one feels the need to continually, defensively insist that it’s so.
Trump broke decisively with this version of political orthodoxy and it tells us much about our moment that he is now in the final round of election 2016, not in the trash heap of American history. His claim, unique to our moment, is that America is not great at all, even if he (and only he) can — feel free to chant it with me — make America great again! Add to that his insistence that the U.S. military in the Obama era is anything but the finest fighting machine in history. According to him, it’s now a hollowed-out force, a “disaster” and “in shambles,” whose generals have been “reduced to rubble.” Not so long ago, such claims would have automatically disqualified anyone as a candidate for president (or much of anything else). That he can continually make them, and make the first of them his t-shirt-and-cap campaign slogan, tells you that we are indeed in a new American world.
In relation to his Republican rivals, and now Hillary Clinton, he stands alone in accepting and highlighting what increasing numbers of Americans, especially white Americans, have evidently come to feel: that this country is in decline, its greatness a thing of the past, or as pollsters like to put it, that America is no longer “heading in the right direction” but is now “on the wrong track.” In this way, he has mainlined into a deep, economically induced mindset, especially among white working class men facing a situation in which so many good jobs have headed elsewhere, that the world has turned sour.
Or think of it another way (and it may be the newest way of all): a significant part of the white working class, at least, feels as if, whether economically or psychologically, its back is up against the wall and there’s nowhere left to go. Under such circumstances, many of these voters have evidently decided that they’re ready to send a literal loose cannon into the White House; they’re willing, that is, to take a chance on the roof collapsing, even if it collapses on them.
That is the new and unrecognizable role that Donald Trump has filled. It’s hard to conjure up another example of it in our recent past. The Donald represents, as a friend of mine likes to say, the suicide bomber in us all. And voting for him, among other things, will be an act of nihilism, a mood that fits well with imperial decline.
Think of him as a message in a bottle washing up on our shore. After all…
This is not about Donald Trump. It’s about us.