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.
The Age of Decline, Apple Pie, and America’s Chosen Suicide Bomber
Recently, sorting through a pile of old children’s books, I came across a volume, That Makes Me Mad!, which brought back memories. Written by Steve Kroll, a long-dead friend, it focused on the eternally frustrating everyday adventures of Nina, a little girl whose life regularly meets commonplace roadblocks, at which point she always says… well, you can guess from the title! Vivid parental memories of another age instantly flooded back — of my daughter (now reading such books to her own son) sitting beside me at age five and hitting that repeated line with such mind-blowing, ear-crushing gusto that you knew it spoke to the everyday frustrations of her life, to what made her mad.
Three decades later, in an almost unimaginably different America, on picking up that book I suddenly realized that, whenever I follow the news online, on TV, or — and forgive me for this but I’m 72 and still trapped in another era — on paper, I have a similarly Nina-esque urge. Only the line I’ve come up with for it is (with a tip of the hat to Steve Kroll) “You must be kidding!”
Here are a few recent examples from the world of American-style war and peace. Consider these as random illustrations, given that, in the age of Trump, just about everything that happens is out-of-this-world absurd and would serve perfectly well. If you’re in the mood, feel free to shout out that line with me as we go.
Nuking the Planet: I’m sure you remember Barack Obama, the guy who entered the Oval Office pledging to work toward “a nuclear-free world.” You know, the president who traveled to Prague in 2009 to say stirringly: “So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons… To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same.” That same year, he was awarded the Nobel Prize largely for what he might still do, particularly in the nuclear realm. Of course, that was all so 2009!
Almost two terms in the Oval Office later, our peace president, the only one who has ever called for nuclear “abolition” — and whose administration has retired fewer weapons in our nuclear arsenal than any other in the post-Cold War era — is now presiding over the early stages of a trillion-dollar modernization of that very arsenal. (And that trillion-dollar price tag comes, of course, before the inevitable cost overruns even begin.) It includes full-scale work on the creation of a “precision-guided” nuclear weapon with a “dial-back” lower yield option. Such a weapon would potentially bring nukes to the battlefield in a first-use way, something the U.S. is proudly pioneering.
And that brings me to the September 6th front-page story in the New York Times that caught my eye. Think of it as the icing on the Obama era nuclear cake. Its headline: “Obama Unlikely to Vow No First Use of Nuclear Weapons.” Admittedly, if made, such a vow could be reversed by any future president. Still, reportedly for fear that a pledge not to initiate a nuclear war would “undermine allies and embolden Russia and China… while Russia is running practice bombing runs over Europe and China is expanding its reach in the South China Sea,” the president has backed down on issuing such a vow. In translation: the only country that has ever used such weaponry will remain on the record as ready and willing to do so again without nuclear provocation, an act that, it is now believed in Washington, would create a calmer planet.
You must be kidding!
Plain Old Bombing: Recall that in October 2001, when the Bush administration launched its invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. was bombing no other largely Islamic country. In fact, it was bombing no other country at all. Afghanistan was quickly “liberated,” the Taliban crushed, al-Qaeda put to flight, and that was that, or so it then seemed.
On September 8th, almost 15 years later, the Washington Post reported that, over a single weekend and in a “flurry” of activity, the U.S. had dropped bombs on, or fired missiles at, six largely Islamic countries: Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. (And it might have been seven if the CIA hadn’t grown a little rusty when it comes to the drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal borderlands that it’s launched repeatedly throughout these years.) In the same spirit, the president who swore he would end the U.S. war in Iraq and, by the time he left office, do the same in Afghanistan, is now overseeing American bombing campaigns in Iraq and Syria which are loosing close to 25,000 weapons a year on those countries. Only recently, in order to facilitate the further prosecution of the longest war in our history, the president who announced that his country had ended its “combat mission” in Afghanistan in 2014, has once again deployed the U.S. military in a combat role and has done the same with the U.S. Air Force. For that, B-52s (of Vietnam infamy) were returned to action there, as well as in Iraq and Syria, after a decade of retirement. In the Pentagon, military figures are now talking about “generational” war in Afghanistan — well into the 2020s.
Meanwhile, President Obama has personally helped pioneer a new form of warfare that will not long remain a largely American possession. It involves missile-armed drones, high-tech weapons that promise a world of no-casualty-conflict (for the American military and the CIA), and adds up to a permanent global killing machine for taking out terror leaders, “lieutenants,” and “militants.” Well beyond official American war zones, U.S. drones regularly cross borders, infringing on national sovereignty throughout the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, to assassinate anyone the president and his colleagues decide needs to die, American citizen or otherwise (plus, of course, anyone who happens to be in the vicinity). With its White House “kill list” and its “terror Tuesday” meetings, the drone program, promising “surgical” hunting-and-killing action, has blurred the line between war and peace, while being normalized in these years. A president is now not just commander-in-chief but assassin-in-chief, a role that no imaginable future president is likely to reject. Assassination, previously an illegal act, has become the heart and soul of Washington’s way of life and of a way of war that only seems to spread conflict further.
You must be kidding!
The Well-Oiled Machinery of Privatized War: And speaking of drones, as the New York Times reported on September 5th, the U.S. drone program does have one problem: a lack of pilots. It has ramped up quickly in these years and, in the process, the pressures on its pilots and other personnel have only grown, including post-traumatic stress over killing civilians thousands of miles away via computer screen. As a result, the Air Force has been losing those pilots fast. Fortunately, a solution is on the horizon. That service has begun filling its pilot gap by going the route of the rest of the military in these years — turning to private contractors for help. Such pilots and other personnel are, however, paid higher salaries and cost more money. The contractors, in turn, have been hiring the only available personnel around, the ones trained by… yep, you guessed it, the Air Force. The result may be an even greater drain on Air Force drone pilots eager for increased pay for grim work and… well, I think you can see just how the well-oiled machinery of privatized war is likely to work here and who’s going to pay for it.
You must be kidding!
Selling Arms As If There Were No Tomorrow: In a recent report for the Center for International Policy, arms expert William Hartung offered a stunning figure on U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. “Since taking office in January 2009,” he wrote, “the Obama administration has offered over $115 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia in 42 separate deals, more than any U.S. administration in the history of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. The majority of this equipment is still in the pipeline, and could tie the United States to the Saudi military for years to come.” Think about that for a moment: $115 billion for everything from small arms to tanks, combat aircraft, cluster bombs, and air-to-ground missiles (weaponry now being used to slaughter civilians in neighboring Yemen).
Of course, how else can the U.S. keep its near monopoly on the global arms trade and ensure that two sets of products — Hollywood movies and U.S. weaponry — will dominate the world’s business in things that go boom in the night? It’s a record to be proud of, especially since putting every advanced weapon imaginable in the hands of the Saudis will obviously help bring peace to a roiled region of the planet. (And if you arm the Saudis, you better do no less for the Israelis, hence the mind-boggling $38 billion in military aid the Obama administration recently signed on to for the next decade, the most Washington has ever offered any country, ensuring that arms will be flying into the Middle East, literally and figuratively, for years to come.)
Blessed indeed are the peacemakers — and of course you know that by “peacemaker” I mean the classic revolver that “won the West.”
Put another way…
You must be kidding!
The Race for the Generals: I mean, who’s got the biggest…
…list of retired generals and admirals? Does it surprise you that there are at least 198 retired commanders floating around in their golden parachutes, many undoubtedly still embedded in the military-industrial complex on corporate boards and the like, eager to enroll in the Trump and Clinton campaigns? Trump went first, releasing an “open letter” signed by 88 generals and admirals who were bravely standing up to reverse the “hollowing out of our military” and to “secure our borders, to defeat our Islamic supremacist adversaries, and restore law and order domestically.” (Partial translation: pour yet more money into our military as The Donald has promised to do.) They included such household names as Major General Joe Arbuckle, Rear Admiral James H. Flatley III, and Brigadier General Mark D. Scraba — or, hey!, one guy you might even remember: Lieutenant General William (“Jerry”) Boykin, the evangelical crusader who made the news in 2003 by claiming of a former Somali opponent, “I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol.”
Somehow, those 88 Trumpian military types assumedly crawled out of “the rubble” under which, as The Donald informed us recently, the Obama administration has left the American high command. His crew, however, is undoubtedly not the “embarrassment” he refers to when talking about American generalship in these years.
Meanwhile, the Clintonites struck back with a list of 95, “including a number of 4-star generals,” many directly from under that rubble, and within the week had added 15 more to hit 110. Meanwhile, members of the intelligence community and the rest of the national security state, former presidential advisers and other officials, drum-beating neocons, and strategists of every sort from America’s disastrous wars of the last 15 years hustled to line up behind Hillary or The Donald.
If nothing else, all of it was a reminder of the bloated size and ever-increasing centrality of the post-9/11 national security state and the military-industrial complex that goes with it. The question is: Does it inspire you with confidence in our candidates, or leave you saying…
You must be kidding!
Conflicts of Interest and Access to the Oval Office: Let’s put aside a possible preemptive $25,000 bribe to Florida’s attorney general from the Donald J. Trump Foundation to prevent an investigation of a scam operation, Trump “University.” If that “donation” to a political action committee does turn out to have been a bribe, no one should be surprised, given that The Donald has long been a walking Ponzi scheme. Thanks to a recent superb investigative report by Kurt Eichenwald of Newsweek, consider instead what it might mean for him to enter the Oval Office when it comes to conflicts of interest and the “national security” of the country. Eichenwald concludes that Trump would be “the most conflicted president in American history,” since the Trump Organization has “deep ties to global financiers, foreign politicians, and even criminals” in both allied and enemy countries. Almost any foreign policy decision he might make could hurt or enrich his own businesses. There would, in essence, be no way to divest himself and his family from the international Trump branding machine. (Think Trump U. writ large.) And you hardly need ask yourself whether The Donald would “act in the interests of the United States or his wallet,” given his prior single-minded pursuit of self-enrichment.
So much for conflicts of interest, what about access? That, of course, brings up the Clintons, who, between 2001 and the moment Hillary announced her candidacy for president, managed to take in $153 million dollars (yes, that is not a misprint) for a combined 729 speeches at an average fee of $210,795. That includes Hillary’s 20-minute speech to eBay’s Women’s Initiative Network Summit in March 2015 for a reported $315,000 just a month before she made her announcement. It’s obviously not Hillary’s (or Bill’s) golden words that corporate executives truly care about and are willing to pay the big bucks for, but the hope of accessibility to both a past and a possible future president. After all, in the world of business, no one ever thinks they’re paying good money for nothing.
Do I need to say more than…
You must be kidding!
Of course, I could go on. I could bring up a Congress seemingly incapable of passing a bill to fund a government effort to prevent the Zika virus from spreading wildly in parts of this country. (You must be kidding!) I could discuss how the media fell face first into an SUV — NBC Nightly News, which I watch, used the video of Hillary Clinton stumbling and almost falling into that van, by my rough count, 15 times over four nights — and what it tells us about news “coverage” these days. (You must be kidding!) I could start in on the constant polls that flood our lives by confessing that I’m an addict and plan on joining Pollers Anonymous on November 9th, and then consider what it means to have such polls, and polls of polls, inundate us daily, teaching us about favorable/unfavorable splits, and offering endlessly varying snapshots of how we might or might not vote and which of us might or might not do it day so long before we ever hit a voting booth. (You must be kidding!) Or I could bring up the way, after five years of assiduous “research,” Donald Trump grudgingly acknowledged that Barack Obama was born in the United States and then essentially blamed the birther movement on Hillary Clinton. (You must be kidding!)
I could, in other words, continue welcoming you into an increasingly bizarre American landscape of war and peace (without a Tolstoy in sight).
Still, enough is enough, don’t you think? So let me stop here and, just for the hell of it, join me one last time in chanting: You must be kidding!
You Must Be Kidding!
I recently dug my mother’s childhood photo album out of the depths of my bedroom closet. When I opened it, I found that the glue she had used as a girl to paste her life in place had given way, and on many pages the photos were now in a jumble.
My mother was born early in the last century. Today, for most of that ancient collection of photos and memorabilia — drawings (undoubtedly hers), a Caruthers School of Piano program, a Camp Weewan-Eeta brochure, a Hyde Park High School junior prom “senior ticket,” and photos of unknown boys, girls, and adults — there’s no one left to tell me who was who or what was what.
In some of them, I can still recognize my mother’s youthful face, and that of her brother who died so long ago but remains quite recognizable (even so many decades before I knew him). As for the rest — the girl in what looks like a gym outfit doing a headstand, all those young women lined up on a beach in what must then have been risqué bathing suits, the boy kneeling with his arms outstretched toward my perhaps nine-year-old mother — they’ve all been swept away by the tides of time.
And so it goes, of course. For all of us, sooner or later.
My mother was never much for talking about the past. Intent on becoming a professional caricaturist, she lit out from her hometown, Chicago, for the city of her dreams, New York, and essentially never looked back. For whatever reason, looking back frightened her.
And in all those years when I might have pressed her for so much more about herself, her family, her youthful years, I was too young to give a damn. Now, I can’t tell you what I’d give to ask those questions and find out what I can never know. Her mother and father, my grandparents who died before I was born, her sister whom I met once at perhaps age six, her friends and neighbors, swains and sidekicks, they’re all now the dust of history in an album that is disintegrating into a pile of black flakes at the slightest touch. Even for me, most of the photos in it are as meaningless (if strangely moving) as ones you’d pick up in an antique store or at a garage sale.
Lost Children on a Destabilizing Planet
I just had — I won’t say celebrated — my 72nd birthday. It was a natural moment to think about both the past that stretches behind me and the truncated future ahead. Recently, in fact, I’ve had the dead on my mind. I’m about to recopy my ancient address book for what undoubtedly will be the last time. (Yes, I’m old enough to prefer all that information on paper, not in the ether.) And of course when I flip through those fading pages, I see, as befits my age, something like a book of the dead and realize that the next iteration will be so much shorter.
It’s sometimes said of the dead that they’ve “crossed over.” In the context of our present world, I’ve started thinking of them as refugees of a sort — every one of them uprooted from their lives (as we all will be one day) and sent across some unknown frontier into a truly foreign land. But if our fate is, in the end, to be the ultimate refugees, heading into a place where there will be no resettlement camps, assumedly nothing at all, I wonder, too, about the world after me, the one I’ll leave behind when I finally cross that border.
I wonder, too — how could I not with my future life as a “refugee” in mind? — about the 65 million human beings uprooted from their homes in 2015 alone, largely in places where we Americans have been fighting our wars for this last decade and a half. And it’s hard not to notice how many more have followed in their path this year, including at least 80,000 of the Sunni inhabitants of Iraq’s recently “liberated” and partially destroyed city of Fallujah. In the process, tens of millions of them have remained internal exiles in their own country (or what is left of it), while tens of millions have officially become refugees by crossing borders into Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan, by taking to the seas in flimsy, overcrowded craft heading for Greece (from Turkey) or Italy (from Libya) moving onward in waves of desperation, hope, and despair, and drowning in alarming numbers. At the end of their journeys, they have sometimes found help and succor, but often enough only hostility and loathing, as if they were the ones who had committed a crime, done something wrong.
I think as well about the nearly 10% of Iraqi children, 1.5 million of them in a country gripped by chaos, war, ethnic conflict, insurgency, and terror who, according to a recent UNICEF report, have had to flee their homes since 2014, or the 20% of Iraqi kids (kids!) who are “at serious risk of death, injury, sexual violence, and recruitment into armed groups.” I think about the 51% of all those refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere who were children, many separated from their parents and alone on Planet Earth.
No child deserves such a fate. Ever. Each uprooted child who has lost his or her parents, and perhaps access to education or any childhood at all, represents a crime against the future.
And I think often enough about our response to all this, the one we’ve practiced for the last 15 years: more bombs, more missiles, more drone strikes, more advisers, more special ops raids, more weapons deals, and with it all not success or victory by any imaginable standard, but only the further destabilization of increasing regions of the planet, the further spread of terror movements, and the generation of yet more uprooted human beings, lost children, refugees — ever more, that is, of the terrorized and the terrorists. If this represents the formula from hell, it’s also been a proven one over this last decade and a half. It works, as long as what you mean to do is bring chaos to significant swathes of the planet and force yet more children in ever more unimaginable situations.
If you live in the United States, it’s easy enough to be shocked (unless, of course, you’re a supporter) when Donald Trump calls for the banning of Muslims from this country, or Newt Gingrich advocates the testing of “every person here who is of a Muslim background and if they believe in sharia they should be deported,” or various Republican governors fight to keep a pitiful few Syrian refugees out of their states. It’s easy enough to tsk-tsk over such sentiments, cite a long tradition of American xenophobia and racism, and so on. In truth, however, most of this (however hair-raising) remains bluster at this point. The real “xenophobic” action has taken place in distant lands where the U.S. Air Force reigns supreme, where a country that once created the Marshall Plan to raise a continent leveled by war can no longer imagine investing in or creating anything but further vistas of destruction and destabilization.
The Muslims that Donald Trump wants to ban are, after all, the very ones his country has played such a part in uprooting and setting in motion. And how can the few who might ever make it to this country compare to the millions who have flooded Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, among other places, further destabilizing the Middle East (which, in case you forgot, remains the oil heartland of the planet)? Where is the Marshall Plan for them or for the rest of a region that the U.S. and its allies are now in the process of dismantling (with the eager assistance of the Islamic State, various extremist outfits, Bashar al-Assad, and quite a crew of others)?
What Bombs Can’t Build
We Americans think well of ourselves. From our presidents on down, we seldom hesitate to imagine our country as a singularly “exceptional” nation — and also as an exceptionally generous one. In recent years, however, that generosity has been little in evidence at home or abroad (except where the U.S. military is concerned). Domestically, the country has split between a rising 1% (and their handlers and enablers) and parts of the other 99% who feel themselves on the path to hell. Helped along by Donald Trump’s political circus, this has given the U.S. the look of a land spinning into something like Third World-ism, even though it remains the globe’s “sole superpower” and wealthiest country.
Meanwhile, our professed streak of generosity hasn’t extended to our own infrastructure, which — speaking of worlds swept away by the tides of time — would have boggled the minds of my parents and other Americans of their era. The idea that the country’s highways, byways, bridges, levees, pipelines, and so on could be decaying in significant ways and starved for dollars without a response from the political class would have been inconceivable to them. And it does represent a strikingly ungenerous message sent from that class to the children of some future America: you and the world you’ll inhabit aren’t worth our investment.
In these years — thank you, Osama bin Laden, ISIS, and endless American politicians, officials, military figures, and terror “experts” — fear has gripped the body politic over a phenomenon, terrorism, that, while dangerous, represents one of the lesser perils of American life. No matter. There’s a constant drumbeat of discussion about how to keep ourselves “safe” from terrorism in a world in which freelance lunatics with an assault rifle or a truck can indeed kill startling numbers of people in suicidal acts. The problem is that, in this era, preserving our “safety” always turns out to involve yet more bombs and missiles dropped in distant lands, more troops and special operators sent into action, greater surveillance of ourselves and everyone else. In other words, we’re talking about everything that further militarizes American foreign policy, puts the national security state in command, and assures the continued demobilization of a scared and rattled citizenry, even as, elsewhere, it creates yet more uprooted souls, more children without childhoods, more refugees.
Our leaders — and we, too — have grown accustomed to our particular version of eternal “wartime,” and to wars without end, wars guaranteed to go on and on as more parts of the planet plunge into hell. In all of this, any sense of American generosity, either of the spirit or of funds, seems to be missing in action. There isn’t the faintest understanding here that if you really don’t want to create generations of terrorists amid a growing population loosed from all the boundaries of normal life, you’d better have a Marshall Plan for the Greater Middle East.
It should be obvious (but isn’t in our American world) that bombs, whatever they may do, can never build anything. You’d better be ready instead to lend a genuine hand, a major one, in making half-decent lives possible for millions and millions of people now in turmoil. You’d better know that war isn’t actually the answer to any of this, that if ISIS is destroyed in a region reduced to rubble and without hope of better, a few years from now that brutal organization could look good in comparison to whatever comes down the pike. You’d better know that peaceful acts — peace being a word that, even rhetorically, has gone out of style in “wartime” Washington — are still possible in this world.
Lost to the Future
Before those tides wash us away, there’s always the urge to ensure that you’ll leave something behind. I fear that I’m already catching glimpses of what that might be, of the world after me, an American world that I would never have wanted to turn over to my own children or grandchildren, or anyone else’s. My country, the United States, is hardly the only one involved in what looks like a growing global debacle of destabilization: a tip of the hat is necessary to the Pakistanis, the Saudis, our European allies, the Brexit British, the Russians, and so many others.
I have to admit, however, that my own focus — my sense of duty, you might say — is to this country. I’ve never liked the all-American words “patriot” and “super-patriot,” which we only apply to ourselves — or those alternatives, “nationalist” and “ultranationalist,” which we reserve pejoratively for gung-ho foreigners. But if I can’t quite call myself either an American patriot or an American nationalist, I do care, above all, about what this country chooses to be, what it wants to become. I feel some responsibility for that and it pains me to see what’s happening to us, to the country and the people we seem to be preparing to be. We, too, are perhaps beginning to show the strains of the global destabilization now evidently underway and, unnerved, we are undoubtedly continuing to damage the future in ways still hard to assess.
Perhaps someday, someone will have one of my own childhood photo albums in their hands. The glue will have worn off, the photos will be heading toward the central crease, the pages will be flaking away, and the cast of characters, myself included, will be lost to the past, as so many of those children we had such a hand in uprooting and making into refugees will be lost to the future. At that moment, my fate will be the norm and there will be nothing to mourn about it. The fate of those lost children, if they become the norm, will however be the scandal of the century, and will represent genuine crimes against the future.
Copyright 2016 Tom Engelhardt
The World After Me
Vladimir Putin recently manned up and admitted it. The United States remains the planet’s sole superpower, as it has been since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. “America,” the Russian president said, “is a great power. Today, probably, the only superpower. We accept that.”
Think of us, in fact, as the default superpower in an ever more recalcitrant world.
Seventy-five years ago, at the edge of a global conflagration among rival great powers and empires, Henry Luce first suggested that the next century could be ours. In February 1941, in his magazine LIFE, he wrote a famous essay entitled “The American Century.” In it, he proclaimed that if only Americans would think internationally, surge into the world, and accept that they were already at war, the next hundred years would be theirs. Just over nine months later, the Japanese attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, plunging the country into World War II. At the time, however, Americans were still riven and confused about how to deal with spreading regional conflicts in Europe and Asia, as well as the rise of fascism and the Nazis.
That moment was indeed a horrific one, and yet it was also just a heightened version of what had gone before. For the previous half-millennium, there had seldom been a moment when at least two (and often three or more) European powers had not been in contention, often armed and violent, for domination and for control of significant parts of the planet. In those many centuries, great powers rose and fell and new ones, including Germany and Japan, came on the scene girded for imperial battle. In the process, a modern global arms race was launched to create ever more advanced and devastating weaponry based on the latest breakthroughs in the science of war. By August 1945, this had led to the release of an awesome form of primal energy in the first (and thus far only) use of nuclear weapons in wartime.
In the years that followed, the United States and the Soviet Union grew ever more “super” and took possession of destructive capabilities once left, at least in the human imagination, to the gods: the power to annihilate not just one enemy on one battlefield or one armada on one sea but everything. In the nearly half-century of the Cold War, the rivalry between them became apocalyptic in nature as their nuclear arsenals grew to monstrous proportions. As a result, with the exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis, they faced off against each other indirectly in “limited” proxy wars that, especially in Korea and Indochina, were of unparalleled technological ferocity.
Then, in 1991, the Soviet Union imploded and, for the first time in historical memory, there was only one power that mattered. This was a reality even Henry Luce might have found farfetched. Previously, the idea of a single power so mighty that it alone loomed over the planet was essentially relegated to fictional fantasies about extraordinary evil. And yet so it was — or at least so it seemed, especially to the leadership that took power in Washington in the year 2000 and soon enough were dreaming of a planetary Pax Americana.
In a strange way, something similarly unimaginable happened in Europe. On that continent laid waste by two devastating twentieth-century wars, a single “union” was formed, something that not so long before would have been categorized as a madly utopian project. The idea that centuries of national rivalries and the rabid nationalism that often went with it could somehow be tamed and that former great powers and imperial contenders could be subsumed in a single peaceful organization (even if under the aegis of American global power) would once have seemed like the most absurd of fictions. And yet so it would be — or so it seemed, at least until recently.
A Planetary Brexit?
We seldom take in the strangeness of what’s happened on this curious planet of ours. In the years after 1991, we became so inured to the idea of a single superpower globe and a single European economic and political union that both, once utterly inconceivable, came to seem too mundane to spend a lot of time thinking about. And yet who would have believed that 75 years after Luce urged his country into that American Century, there would, in military terms, be no genuine rivals, no other truly great powers (only regional ones) on Planet Earth?
So many taken-for-granted things about our world were considered utterly improbable before they happened. Take China. I recall well the day in 1972 when, after decades of non-contact and raging hostility, we learned that President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, were in Beijing meeting congenially with Communist leader Mao Zedong. A friend called to tell me the news. I thought he was joking and it struck me as a ridiculously lame joke at that.
There’s almost no way now to capture how improbable this seemed at the time — the leading communist revolutionary on the planet chatting cheerily with the prime representative of anti-communism. If, however, you had told me then that, in the decades to come, China would undergo a full-scale capitalist revolution and become the economic powerhouse of the planet, and that this would be done under the leadership of Mao’s still regnant communist party, I would have considered you mad.
And mind you, that’s just to begin to mention the improbabilities of the present moment. After all, in what fantasies — ever — about a globe with a single dominant power, would anyone have imagined that it might fail so utterly to bring the world to anything approximating heel? If you had told Henry Luce, or me, or anyone else, including the masters of the universe in Washington in 1991, that the only superpower left on Earth, with the best-funded, mightiest, most technologically destructive and advanced military imaginable, would, on September 11, 2001, be goaded by a group so modest in size and power as to be barely noticeable into a series of never-ending wars across the Greater Middle East and Africa, we would have found that beyond improbable.
Who would have believed a movie or novel in which that same power, without national enemies of any significance in any of the regions where the fighting was taking place, would struggle unsuccessfully, year after year, to subdue scattered, lightly armed insurgents (aka “terrorists”) across a disintegrating region? Who could have imagined that every measure Washington took to assert its might only seemed to blow back (or blow somewhere, anyway)? Who would have believed that its full-scale invasion of one weak Middle Eastern country, its “mission accomplished” moment, would in the end prove a trip through “the gates of hell”? Who would have imagined that such an invasion could punch a hole in the oil heartlands of the region that, 13 years later, is still a bleeding wound, now seemingly beyond repair, or that it would set loose a principle of chaos and disintegration that seems to be spreading like a planetary Brexit?
And what if I told you that, after 15 years of such behavior, the only thing the leaders of that superpower can now imagine doing in the increasingly wrecked lands where they carry on their struggles is yet more of everything that hasn’t worked in all that time? Meanwhile — how improbable is this? — in its “homeland,” there is essentially no one, neither a movement in the streets, nor critical voices in the corridors of power protesting what’s happening or even exploring or suggesting other paths into the future.
Imagine that, wherever you looked, except in the borderlands of (and waters off) Russia and China, that single superpower was essentially unopposed and yet its ability to apply its unique status effectively in these years has been in eternal free-fall — even in perfectly peaceable areas to which it was closely allied. As an example, consider this: the president of that sole superpower flies to London and, in an England that (like much of Europe) hasn’t said no to Washington about anything of genuine significance in decades, strongly urges the British not to exit (or “Brexit”) the European Union (EU). He backs up his suggestion with a clearly stated threat. If they do so, he says, our closest trans-Atlantic partner will find itself at “the back of the queue” when it comes to future trade deals with Washington.
Remember, we’re talking about a country that has, in these years, seconded the U.S. endlessly. As David Sanger of the New York Times recently (and delicately) put it:
“No country shares Washington’s worldview quite the way Britain does, [American officials] say; it has long been the United States’ most willing security ally, most effective intelligence partner and greatest enthusiast of the free-trade mantras that have been a keystone of America’s internationalist approach. And few nations were as willing to put a thumb as firmly on the scales of European debates in ways that benefit the United States.”
By now, of course, we all know how the populace of our most loyal ally, the other side of that “special relationship,” reacted — with anger at the president’s intervention and with a vote to exit the European Union not long after. In its wake, fears are rising of further Frexits and Nexits that might crack the EU open and usher in a new era of nationalist feeling in Europe.
As goes Britain, so, it seems, goes the world. Give Washington real credit for much of this. Those post-9/11 dreams of global domination shared by the top leadership of the Bush administration proved wildly destructive and it’s gotten no better since. Consider the vast swath of the planet where the devastation is most obvious: the Greater Middle East and North Africa. Then ask yourself: Are we still in the American Century? And if not, whose (or what) century are we in?
If you had told me in 1975, when the Vietnam War finally ended some 34 years after Luce wrote that essay and 28 years before the U.S. invaded Iraq that, in 1979, Washington would become involved in a decade-long war in Afghanistan, I would have been stunned. If you had told me in 1975 that, in 2001, it would invade that same country and launch a second Afghan War, still underway 15 years later with no end in sight, I wouldn’t have believed you. A quarter-century of American wars and still counting in a country that, in 1975, most Americans might not have been able to locate on a map. If you had added that, starting in 1990, the U.S. would be involved in three successive wars in Iraq, the third of which is still ongoing, I might have been speechless. And that’s not to mention interventions of various sorts, also ongoing, in Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and Syria — none, by the way, by any normal standards successful.
If you were to do a little tabulation of the results of these years of American Century-ism across the Greater Middle East, you would discover a signature kind of chaos. In the early years of this century, officials of the Bush administration often referred to the region from China’s western border to northern Africa as an “arc of instability.” That phrase was meant to embody their explanation for letting the U.S. military loose there: to bring order and, of course, democracy to those lands. And with modest exceptions, it was indeed true that most of the Greater Middle East was then ruled by repressive, autocratic, or regressive regimes of various sorts. It was, however, still a reasonably orderly region. Now, it actually is an arc of instability filled with states that are collapsing left and right, cities and towns that are being leveled, and terror outfits, each worse than the last, that are spreading in the regional rubble. Religious and ethnic divisions of every sort are sharpening and conflicts within countries, or what’s left of them, are on the rise.
Most of the places where the U.S. has let its military and its air power loose — Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Syria – are now either failed or failing states. Under the circumstances, it might be reasonable to suggest that the very term “failed state” is outdated, and not just because it places all the blame for what’s happened on the indigenous people of a country. After all, if the arc of instability is now in any way “united,” it’s mainly thanks to spreading terror groups and perhaps the Islamic State brand.
Moreover, in the stunted imagination of present-day Washington, the only policies imaginable in response to all this are highly militarized and call for more of the same: more air power in the skies over distant battlefields, more boots on the ground, more private contractors and hired guns, more munitions and weaponry (surprising amounts of which have, in these years, ended up in the hands not of allied forces, but of Washington’s enemies), more special operations raids, more drone assassination campaigns, and at home, more surveillance, more powers for the national security state, more… well, you know the story.
For such a world, a new term is needed. Perhaps something like failed region. This, it seems, is one thing that the American Century has come to mean 75 years after Henry Luce urged it into existence. And perhaps lurking in the undergrowth as well is another phrase, one not quite yet imaginable but thoroughly chilling: failed world.
With this in mind, imagine what the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia could mean in the long run, or the recent U.S.-NATO pivot to the Baltics and Eastern Europe. If huge swaths of the planet have begun to disintegrate in an era when the worst the U.S. faced in the way of opponents has been minority insurgencies and terror outfits, or more recently a terror caliphate, consider for a moment what kinds of chaos could come to regions where a potentially hostile power remains. And by the way, don’t for a second think that, even if the Islamic State is finally defeated, worse can’t emerge from the chaos and rubble of the failed region that it will leave behind. It can and, odds on, it will.
All of this gives the very idea of an American Century new meaning. Can there be any question that this is not the century of Henry Luce, nor the one that American political and military leaders dreamed of when the Soviet Union collapsed? What comes to mind instead is the sentiment the Roman historian Tacitus put in the mouth of Calgacus, a chieftain in what is now Scotland, speaking of the Roman conquests of his time: “They make a desert and call it peace.”
Perhaps this is no longer really the American century at all, despite the continuing status of the U.S. as the planet’s sole superpower. A recent U.N. report estimates that, in 2015, a record 65 million people were uprooted, mainly in the Greater Middle East. Tens of millions of them crossed borders and became refugees, including staggering numbers of children, many separated from their parents. So perhaps this really is the century of the lost child.
What could be sadder?
Copyright 2016 Tom Engelhardt
Whose Century Is It?
Graduates of 2016, don’t be fooled by this glorious day. As you leave campus for the last time, many of you already deeply in debt and with a lifetime of payments to look forward to, you head into a world that’s anything but sunny. In fact, through those gates that have done little enough to protect you is the sort of fog bank that results in traffic pile-ups on any highway.
And if you imagine that I’m here to sweep that fog away and tell you what truly lies behind it, think again. My only consolation is that, if I can’t adequately explain our American world to you or your path through it, I doubt any other speaker could either.
Of course, it’s not exactly a fog-lifter to say that, like it or not, you’re about to graduate onto Planet Donald — and I don’t mean, for all but a few of you, a future round of golf at Mar-a-Lago. Our increasingly unnerved and disturbed world is his circus right now (whether he wins the coming election or not), just as in the Philippines, it’s the circus of new president Rodrigo Duterte; in Hungary, of right-wing populist Viktor Orbán; in Austria, of Norbert Hofer, the extremist anti-immigrant presidential candidate who just lost a squeaker by .6% of the vote; in Israel, of new defense minister Avigdor Lieberman; in Russia, of the autocratic Vladimir Putin; in France, of Marine le Pen, leader of the right-wing National Front party, who has sometimes led in polls for the next presidential election; and so on. And if you don’t think that’s a less than pretty political picture of our changing planet, then don’t wait for the rest of this speech, just hustle out those gates. You’ve got a treat ahead of you.
For the rest of us lingerers, it says something about where we all are that, once through those gates, you’ll still find yourself in the richest, most powerful country around, the planet’s “sole superpower.” (USA! USA!) It is, however, a superpower distinctly in decline on — and this is a historic first — a planet similarly in decline.
How Trumpian Is American Authoritarianism?
In its halcyon days, Washington could overthrow governments, install Shahs or other rulers, do more or less what it wanted across significant parts of the globe and reap rewards, while (as in the case of Iran) not paying any price, blowback-style, for decades, if at all. That was imperial power in the blaze of the noonday sun. These days, in case you hadn’t noticed, blowback for our imperial actions seems to arrive as if by high-speed rail (of which by the way, the greatest power on the planet has yet to build a single mile, if you want a quick measure of decline).
Despite having a more massive, technologically advanced, and better funded military than any other power or even group of powers on the planet, in the last decade and a half of constant war across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, the U.S. has won nothing, nada, zilch. Its unending wars have, in fact, led nowhere in a world growing more chaotic by the second. Its militarized “milestones,” like the recent drone-killing in Pakistan of the leader of the Taliban, have proven repetitive signposts on what, even in the present fog, is surely the road to hell.
It’s been relatively easy, if you live here, to notice little enough of all this and — at least until Donald Trump arrived to the stunned fascination of the country (not to speak of the rest of the planet) — to imagine that we live in a peaceable land with most of its familiar markers still reassuringly in place. We still have elections, our tripartite form of government (as well as the other accoutrements of a democracy), our reverential view of our Constitution and the rights it endows us with, and so on. In truth, however, the American world is coming to bear ever less resemblance to the one we still claim as ours, or rather that older America looks increasingly like a hollowed-out shell within which something new and quite different has been gestating.
After all, can anyone really doubt that representative democracy as it once existed has been eviscerated and is now — consider Congress exhibit A — in a state of advanced paralysis, or that just about every aspect of the country’s infrastructure, is slowly fraying or crumbling and that little is being done about it? Can anyone doubt that the constitutional system — take war powers as a prime example or, for that matter, American liberties — has also been fraying? Can anyone doubt that the country’s classic tripartite form of government, from a Supreme Court missing a member by choice of Congress to a national security state that mocks the law, is ever less checked and balanced and increasingly more than “tri”?
In the Vietnam era, people first began talking about an “imperial presidency.” Today, in areas of overwhelming importance, the White House is, if anything, somewhat less imperial, but only because it’s more in thrall to the ever-expanding national security state. Though that unofficial fourth branch of government is seldom seriously considered when the ways in which our American world works are being described and though it has no place in the Constitution, it is increasingly the first branch of government in Washington, the one before which all the others kneel down.
There has, in this endless election season, been much discussion of Donald Trump’s potential for “authoritarianism” (or incipient “fascism,” or worse). It’s a subject generally treated as if it were some tendency or property unique to the man who rode a Trump Tower escalator into the presidential race to Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” or perhaps something from the 1930s that he carries in his jacket pocket and that his enthusiastic white working class followers are naturally drawn to and responsible for.
Few bother to consider the ways in which the foundations of authoritarianism have already been laid in this society — and not by disaffected working class white men either. Few bother to consider what it means to have a national security state and a massive military machine deeply embedded in our ruling city and our American world. Few think about the (count ’em!) 17 significant intelligence agencies that eat close to $70 billion annually or the trillion dollars or more a year that disappears into our national security world, or what it means for that state within a state, that shadow government, to become ever more powerful and autonomous in the name of American “safety,” especially from “terrorism” (though terrorism represents the most microscopic of dangers for most Americans).
In this long election season, amid all the charges leveled at Donald Trump, where have you seen serious discussion of what it means for the Pentagon’s spy drones to be flying missions over the “homeland” or for “intelligence” agencies to be wielding the kind of blanket surveillance of everyone’s communications — from foreign leaders to peasants in Afghanistan to American citizens — that, technologically speaking, put the totalitarian regimes of the previous century to shame? Is there nothing of the authoritarian lurking in all this? Could that urge really be the property of The Donald and his followers alone?
Perhaps it would be better to see Donald Trump as a symptom, not the problem itself, to think of him not as the Zika Virus but as the first infectious mosquito to hit the shores of this country. If you need proof that he’s at worst a potential aider and abettor of authoritarianism, just take a look at the rest of our world, where the mosquitoes are many and the virus of right-wing authoritarianism spreading rapidly with the rise of a new nationalism (that often goes hand in hand with anti-immigrant fervor of a Trumpian sort). He is, in other words, just one particularly bizarre figure in an increasingly crowded room.
Bursting Bubbles and Melting Ice Caps
If, as the first openly declinist presidential candidate, it’s The Donald’s job to make America great again, and if, despite its obvious wealth and military strength, the heartlands of the U.S. do look ever more Third World-ish, then consider the rest of the planet. Is there any place that doesn’t look at least a little, and in a remarkable number of cases, a lot the worse for wear? Leave aside those parts of the world from Afghanistan to Syria, Yemen to Libya, Nigeria to Venezuela that increasingly have the look of incipient or completely failed states. Consider instead that former Cold War enemy, that “Evil Empire” of a previous incarnation, the once-upon-a-time Soviet Union, now Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
It has made it to the top of the American military’s list of enemies. And yet, despite its rebuilt military and still massive nuclear arsenal, the superpower of yesterday is now a rickety petro-state with a restive population, a country that is neither great, nor rising, and may in fact be in genuine trouble. Yes, it has been aggressive in its borderlands (though largely in response to a sense of, or fear of, being aggressed upon) and yes, it is an authoritarian land, but no longer is it the planet’s second superpower or anything remotely like it. Its future looks, at best, insecure, at worst bleak indeed.
Even China, the only obvious rising power on the planet (now that countries like Brazil and South Africa are falling by the wayside), that genuine economic powerhouse of the last decade, has seen its economy slow significantly. In such a moment, who knows what one burst bubble, real estate or otherwise, might do there? An economic meltdown in the People’s Republic, with an expanding middle class that still remains small compared to its peasant masses, and an unparalleled record of peasant revolts extending back centuries, could prove an ominous event.
And mind you, graduates of 2016, that’s just to begin a discussion of the stresses on a planet whose ice caps are melting, sea levels rising, waters warming, forests drying, fire seasons expanding, storms intensifying, and temperatures rising (while petro-states, frackers, and giant oil companies keep pumping fossil fuels in ever more inventive ways as if there were — and don’t just think of it as a figure of speech — no tomorrow). In such a situation, no place, including this country, is too big to fail. And on such a helter-skelter planet, who will be there to bail out the too-big-to-fail states or anyone else? Judging by none-too-big-to-fail countries like Libya, Yemen, and Syria that have already essentially collapsed, the answer might be no one.
Decades ago, in the mid-1970s, in the first book I ever wrote, I labeled our American world “beyond our control.” Little did I know!
American Magical Realism
Now, let’s turn to you, graduates of 2016, and while we’re at it, to what we’re still calling an “election.” I’m talking about the roiling, ever-expanding phenomenon that now fills our TV screens and the “news” more or less 24/7 and for which, whatever he’s done and whomever he’s insulted, Donald Trump cannot all by himself be held to blame.
There is, to my mind, one question that makes what we call “election 2016” of paramount interest, even if we seldom bother to think about it: What the hell is it? We still refer to it as an “election,” of course, and on November 4th millions of us will indeed enter voting booths and opt for a candidate. Still, don’t tell me that, in any normal sense, this is an election, this weird money machine pouring billions and billions of dollars into the coffers of media barons, this endless, overblown, onrushing event with its “debates” and insults and anger and minute-by-minute polling results and squadrons of talking heads yammering away about nothing in particular, this bizarre stage set for an utterly unfiltered narcissist and reality-show host and casino owner and bankruptee and braggart and liar and fantasist and womanizer and… well, you know the list better than I do. Yes, it will put someone in the Oval Office next January and fill Congress with the usual set of clashing deadheads, but in any past sense of the word, an election? I don’t think so.
Don’t tell me it isn’t something new and different. Everyone knows it is. But what, exactly? I have no idea. It’s clear enough, however, that our American system is morphing in ways for which we have no names, no adequate descriptive vocabulary. Perhaps it’s not just that we have no clear bead on what’s going on, but that we prefer not to know.
Whether Donald Trump wins or not, rest assured that we all have an education ahead of us. This, after all, is our world now. You have no choice but to leave these grounds and neither, in a sense, do your parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, the whole lot of us. Whether we like it or not, we’re all being shoved unceremoniously into an American world that’s changing in unnerving ways on a planet itself in transformation.
Which brings me to the task ahead of your generation (not mine), as I imagine it. After all, I’m almost 72 years old. I’m superannuated. When something goes wrong on my computer I genuinely believe myself doomed, grieve for the lost days of the typewriter, and then, in despair, call my daughter. And if I can’t even grasp the basics of the machine I now live on much of the time, how likely is it that I — and my ilk — can grasp the world in which it’s implanted?
As I see it, you’ve been attending classes, studying, and preparing all these years for just this moment. Now, it’s your job to step into the fog-bound landscape beyond these gates where the pile-ups are already happening and make sense of it for the rest of us. Soon, graduates of 2016, you will leave this campus. The question is: What can you do for yourself and the rest of us then?
Here’s my thought: to change this world of ours, you first have to name (or rename) it, as any magical realist novelist from Gabriel Garcia Márquez on has long known. The world is only yours when you’ve given it and its component parts names.
If there’s one thing that the Occupy Wall Street movement reminded us of, it was this: that the first task in changing our world is to find new words to describe it. In 2011, that movement arrived at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan calling the masters of our universe “the 1%” and the rest of us “the 99%.” Simply wielding those two phrases brought to the fore a set of previously half-seen realities — the growing inequality gap in this country and the world — and so briefly electrified the country and changed the conversation. By relabeling the mental map of our world, those protesters cleared some of the fog away, allowing us to begin to imagine paths through it and so ways to act.
Right now, we need you to take these last four hard years and everything you know, including what you weren’t taught in any classroom but learned on your own — your experience, for instance, of your education as a financial rip-off — and tell those of us in desperate need of fresh eyes just how our world should be described.
In order to act, in order to change much of anything, you first need to give that world the names, the labels, it deserves, and they may not be “election” or “democracy” or so many of the other commonplace words of our past and our present moment. Otherwise, we’ll all continue to spend our time struggling to grasp ghostly shapes in that fog.
Now, all you graduates, form up your serried ranks, muster the words you’ve taken four years to master, and prepare to march out of those gates and begin to apply them in ways that your elders are incapable of doing.
Class of 2016, tell us who we are and where we are.
Copyright 2016 Tom Engelhardt
Class of 2016, Tell Us Who We Are
There are the news stories that genuinely surprise you, and then there are the ones that you could write in your sleep before they happen. Let me concoct an example for you:
“Top American and European military leaders are weighing options to step up the fight against the Islamic State in the Mideast, including possibly sending more U.S. forces into Iraq, Syria, and Libya, just as Washington confirmed the second American combat casualty in Iraq in as many months.”
Oh wait, that was actually the lead sentence in a May 3rd Washington Times piece by Carlo Muñoz. Honestly, though, it could have been written anytime in the last few months by just about anyone paying any attention whatsoever, and it surely will prove reusable in the months to come (with casualty figures altered, of course). The sad truth is that across the Greater Middle East and expanding parts of Africa, a similar set of lines could be written ahead of time about the use of Special Operations forces, drones, advisers, whatever, as could the sorry results of making such moves in [add the name of your country of choice here].
Put another way, in a Washington that seems incapable of doing anything but worshiping at the temple of the U.S. military, global policymaking has become a remarkably mindless military-first process of repetition. It’s as if, as problems built up in your life, you looked in the closet marked “solutions” and the only thing you could ever see was one hulking, over-armed soldier, whom you obsessively let loose, causing yet more damage.
How Much, How Many, How Often, and How Destructively
In Iraq and Syria, it’s been mission creep all the way. The B-52s barely made it to the battle zone for the first time and were almost instantaneously in the air, attacking Islamic State militants. U.S. firebases are built ever closer to the front lines. The number of special ops forces continues to edge up. American weapons flow in (ending up in god knows whose hands). American trainers and advisers follow in ever increasing numbers, and those numbers are repeatedly fiddled with to deemphasize how many of them are actually there. The private contractors begin to arrive in numbers never to be counted. The local forces being trained or retrained have their usual problems in battle. American troops and advisers who were never, never going to be “in combat” or “boots on the ground” themselves now have their boots distinctly on the ground in combat situations. The first American casualties are dribbling in. Meanwhile, conditions in tottering Iraq and the former nation of Syria grow ever murkier, more chaotic, and less amenable by the week to any solution American officials might care for.
And the response to all this in present-day Washington?
You know perfectly well what the sole imaginable response can be: sending in yet more weapons, boots, air power, special ops types, trainers, advisers, private contractors, drones, and funds to increasingly chaotic conflict zones across significant swaths of the planet. Above all, there can be no serious thought, discussion, or debate about how such a militarized approach to our world might have contributed to, and continues to contribute to, the very problems it was meant to solve. Not in our nation’s capital, anyway.
The only questions to be argued about are how much, how many, how often, and how destructively. In other words, the only “antiwar” position imaginable in Washington, where accusations of weakness or wimpishness are a dime a dozen and considered lethal to a political career, is how much less of more we can afford, militarily speaking, or how much more of somewhat less we can settle for when it comes to militarized death and destruction. Never, of course, is a genuine version of less or a none-at-all option really on that “table” where, it’s said, all policy options are kept.
Think of this as Washington’s military addiction in action. We’ve been watching it for almost 15 years without drawing any of the obvious conclusions. And lest you imagine that “addiction” is just a figure of speech, it isn’t. Washington’s attachment — financial, tactical, and strategic — to the U.S. military and its supposed solutions to more or less all problems in what used to be called “foreign policy” should by now be categorized as addictive. Otherwise, how can you explain the last decade and a half in which no military action from Afghanistan to Iraq, Yemen to Libya worked out half-well in the long run (or even, often enough, in the short run), and yet the U.S. military remains the option of first, not last, resort in just about any imaginable situation? All this in a vast region in which failed states are piling up, nations are disintegrating, terror insurgencies are spreading, humongous population upheavals are becoming the norm, and there are refugee flows of a sort not seen since significant parts of the planet were destroyed during World War II.
Either we’re talking addictive behavior or failure is the new success.
Keep in mind, for instance, that the president who came into office swearing he would end a disastrous war and occupation in Iraq is now overseeing a new war in an even wider region that includes Iraq, a country that is no longer quite a country, and Syria, a country that is now officially kaput. Meanwhile, in the other war he inherited, Barack Obama almost immediately launched a military-backed “surge” of U.S. forces, the only real argument being over whether 40,000 (or even as many as 80,000) new U.S. troops would be sent into Afghanistan or, as the “antiwar” president finally decided, a mere 30,000 (which made him an absolute wimp to his opponents). That was 2009. Part of that surge involved an announcement that the withdrawal of American combat forces would begin in 2011. Seven years later, that withdrawal has once again been halted in favor of what the military has taken to privately calling a “generational approach” — that is, U.S. forces remaining in Afghanistan into at least the 2020s.
The military term “withdrawal” may, however, still be appropriate even if the troops are staying in place. After all, as with addicts of any sort, the military ones in Washington can’t go cold turkey without experiencing painful symptoms of withdrawal. In American political culture, these manifest themselves in charges of “weakness” when it comes to “national security” that could prove devastating in the next election. That’s why those running for office compete with one another in over-the-top descriptions of what they will do to enemies and terrorists (from acts of torture to carpet-bombing) and in even more over-the-top promises of “rebuilding” or “strengthening” what’s already the largest, most expensive military on the planet, a force better funded at present than those of at least the next seven nations combined.
Such promises, the bigger the better, are now a necessity if you happen to be a Republican candidate for president. The Democrats have a lesser but similar set of options available, which is why even Bernie Sanders only calls for holding the Pentagon budget at its present staggering level or for the most modest of cuts, not for reducing it significantly. And even when, for instance, the urge to rein in military expenses did sweep Washington as part of an overall urge to cut back government expenses, it only resulted in a half-secret slush fund or “war budget” that kept the goodies flowing in.
These should all be taken as symptoms of Washington’s military addiction and of what happens when the slightest signs of withdrawal set in. The U.S. military is visibly the drug of choice in the American political arena and, as is only appropriate for the force that has, since 2002, funded, armed, and propped up the planet’s largest supplier of opium, once you’re hooked, there’s no shaking it.
Recently, in the New York Times Magazine, journalist Mark Landler offered a political portrait entitled “How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk.” He laid out just how the senator and later secretary of state remade herself as, essentially, a military groupie, fawning over commanders or former commanders ranging from then-General David Petraeus to Fox analyst and retired general Jack Keane; how, that is, she became a figure, even on the present political landscape, notable for her “appetite for military engagement abroad” (and as a consequence, well-defended against Republican charges of “weakness”).
There’s no reason, however, to pin the war-lover or “last true hawk” label on her alone, not in present-day Washington. After all, just about everyone there wants a piece of the action. During their primary season debates, for instance, a number of the Republican candidates spoke repeatedly about building up the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, while making that already growing force sound like a set of decrepit barges.
To offer another example, no presidential candidate these days could afford to reject the White House-run drone assassination program. To be assassin-in-chief is now considered as much a part of the presidential job description as commander-in-chief, even though the drone program, like so many other militarized foreign policy operations these days, shows little sign of reining in terrorism despite the number of “bad guys” and terror “leaders” it kills (along with significant numbers of civilian bystanders). To take Bernie Sanders as an example — because he’s as close to an antiwar candidate as you’ll find in the present election season — he recently put something like his stamp of approval on the White House drone assassination project and the “kill list” that goes with it.
Mind you, there is simply no compelling evidence that the usual military solutions have worked or are likely to work in any imaginable sense in the present conflicts across the Greater Middle East and Africa. They have clearly, in fact, played a major role in the creation of the present disaster, and yet there is no place at all in our political system for genuinely antiwar figures (as there was in the Vietnam era, when a massive antiwar movement created space for such politics). Antiwar opinions and activities have now been driven to the peripheries of the political system along with a word like, say, “peace,” which you will be hard-pressed to find, even rhetorically, in the language of “wartime” Washington.
The Look of “Victory”
If a history were to be written of how the U.S. military became Washington’s drug of choice, it would undoubtedly have to begin in the Cold War era. It was, however, in the prolonged moment of triumphalism that followed the Soviet Union’s implosion in 1991 that the military gained its present position of unquestioned dominance.
In those days, people were still speculating about whether the country would reap a “peace dividend” from the end of the Cold War. If there was ever a moment when the diversion of money from the U.S. military and the national security state to domestic concerns might have seemed like a no-brainer, that was it. After all, except for a couple of rickety “rogue states” like North Korea or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, where exactly were this country’s enemies to be found? And why should such a muscle-bound military continue to gobble up tax dollars at such a staggering rate in a reasonably peaceable world?
In the decade or so that followed, however, Washington’s dreams turned out to run in a very different direction — toward a “war dividend” at a moment when the U.S. had, by more or less universal agreement, become the planet’s “sole superpower.” The crew who entered the White House with George W. Bush in a deeply contested election in 2000 had already been mainlining the military drug for years. To them, this seemed a planet ripe for the taking. When 9/11 hit, it loosed their dreams of conquest and control, and their faith in a military that they believed to be unstoppable. Of course, given the previous century of successful anti-imperial and national independence movements, anyone should have known that, no matter the armaments at hand, resistance was an inescapable reality on Planet Earth.
Thanks to such predictable resistance, the drug-induced imperial dreamscape of the Busheviks would prove a fantasy of the first order, even if, in that post-9/11 moment, it passed for bedrock (neo)realism. If you remember, the U.S. was to “take the gloves off” and release a military machine so beyond compare that nothing would be capable of standing in its path. So the dream went, so the drug spoke. Don’t forget that the greatest military blunder (and crime) of this century, the invasion of Iraq, wasn’t supposed to be the end of something, but merely its beginning. With Iraq in hand and garrisoned, Washington was to take down Iran and sweep up what Russian property from the Cold War era still remained in the Middle East. (Think: Syria.)
A decade and a half later, those dreams have been shattered, and yet the drug still courses through the bloodstream, the military bands play on, and the march to… well, who knows where… continues. In a way, of course, we do know where (to the extent that we humans, with our limited sense of the future, can know anything). In a way, we’ve already been shown a spectacle of what “victory” might look like once the Greater Middle East is finally “liberated” from the Islamic State.
The descriptions of one widely hailed victory over that brutal crew in Iraq — the liberation of the city of Ramadi by a U.S.-trained elite Iraqi counterterrorism force backed by artillery and American air power — are devastating. Aided and abetted by Islamic State militants igniting or demolishing whole neighborhoods of that city, the look of Ramadi retaken should give us a grim sense of where the region is heading. Here’s how the Associated Press recently described the scene, four months after the city fell:
“This is what victory looks like…: in the once thriving Haji Ziad Square, not a single structure still stands. Turning in every direction yields a picture of devastation. A building that housed a pool hall and ice cream shops — reduced to rubble. A row of money changers and motorcycle repair garages — obliterated, a giant bomb crater in its place. The square’s Haji Ziad Restaurant, beloved for years by Ramadi residents for its grilled meats — flattened. The restaurant was so popular its owner built a larger, fancier branch across the street three years ago. That, too, is now a pile of concrete and twisted iron rods.
“The destruction extends to nearly every part of Ramadi, once home to 1 million people and now virtually empty.”
Keep in mind that, with oil prices still deeply depressed, Iraq essentially has no money to rebuild Ramadi or anyplace else. Now imagine, as such “victories” multiply, versions of similar devastation spreading across the region.
In other words, one likely end result of the thoroughly militarized process that began with the invasion of Iraq (if not of Afghanistan) is already visible: a region shattered and in ruins, filled with uprooted and impoverished people. In such circumstances, it may not even matter if the Islamic State is defeated. Just imagine what Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and still in the Islamic State’s hands, will be like if, someday, the long-promised offensive to liberate it is ever truly launched. Now, try to imagine that movement itself destroyed, with its “capital,” Raqqa, turned into another set of ruins, and remind me: What exactly is likely to emerge from such a future nightmare? Nothing, I suspect, that is likely to cheer up anyone in Washington.
And what should be done about all this? You already know Washington’s solution — more of the same — and breaking such a cycle of addiction is difficult even under the best of circumstances. Unfortunately, at the moment there is no force, no movement on the American scene that could open up space for such a possibility. No matter who is elected president, you already know more or less what American “policy” is going to be.
But don’t bother to blame the politicians and national security nabobs in Washington for this. They’re addicts. They can’t help themselves. What they need is rehab. Instead, they continue to run our world. Be suitably scared for the ruins still to come.
Washington’s Military Addiction
“Low-energy Jeb.” “Little Marco.” “Lyin’ Ted.” “Crooked Hillary.” Give Donald Trump credit. He has a memorable way with insults. His have a way of etching themselves on the brain. And they’ve garnered media coverage, analysis, and commentary almost beyond imagining. Memorable as they might be, however, they won’t be what last of Trump’s 2016 election run. That’s surely reserved for a single slogan that will sum up his candidacy when it’s all over (no matter how it ends). He arrived with it on that Trump Tower escalator in the first moments of his campaign and it now headlines his website, where it’s also emblazoned on an array of products from hats to t-shirts.
You already know which line I mean: “Make America Great Again!” With that exclamation point ensuring that you won’t miss the hyperbolic, Trumpian nature of its promise to return the country to its former glory days. In it lies the essence of his campaign, of what he’s promising his followers and Americans generally — and yet, strangely enough, of all his lines, it’s the one most taken for granted, the one that’s been given the least thought and analysis. And that’s a shame, because it represents something new in our American age. The problem, I suspect, is that what first catches the eye is the phrase “Make America Great” and then, of course, the exclamation point, while the single most important word in the slogan, historically speaking, is barely noted: “again.”
With that “again,” Donald Trump crossed a line in American politics that, until his escalator moment, represented a kind of psychological taboo for politicians of any stripe, of either party, including presidents and potential candidates for that position. He is the first American leader or potential leader of recent times not to feel the need or obligation to insist that the United States, the “sole” superpower of Planet Earth, is an “exceptional” nation, an “indispensable” country, or even in an unqualified sense a “great” one. His claim is the opposite. That, at present, America is anything but exceptional, indispensable, or great, though he alone could make it “great again.” In that claim lies a curiosity that, in a court of law, might be considered an admission of guilt. Yes, it says, if one man is allowed to enter the White House in January 2017, this could be a different country, but — and in this lies the originality of the slogan — it is not great now, and in that admission-that-hasn’t-been-seen-as-an-admission lies something new on the American landscape.
Donald Trump, in other words, is the first person to run openly and without apology on a platform of American decline. Think about that for a moment. “Make America Great Again!” is indeed an admission in the form of a boast. As he tells his audiences repeatedly, America, the formerly great, is today a punching bag for China, Mexico… well, you know the pitch. You don’t have to agree with him on the specifics. What’s interesting is the overall vision of a country lacking in its former greatness.
Perhaps a little history of American greatness and presidents (as well as presidential candidates) is in order here.
“City Upon a Hill”
Once upon a time, in a distant America, the words “greatest,” “exceptional,” and “indispensable” weren’t even part of the political vocabulary. American presidents didn’t bother to claim any of them for this country, largely because American wealth and global preeminence were so indisputable. We’re talking about the 1950s and early 1960s, the post-World War II and pre-Vietnam “golden” years of American power. Despite a certain hysteria about the supposed dangers of domestic communists, few Americans then doubted the singularly unchallengeable power and greatness of the country. It was such a given, in fact, that it was simply too self-evident for presidents to cite, hail, or praise.
So if you look, for instance, at the speeches of John F. Kennedy, you won’t find them littered with exceptionals, indispensables, or their equivalents. In a pre-inaugural speech he gave in January 1961 on the kind of government he planned to bring to Washington, for instance, he did cite the birth of a “great republic,” the United States, and quoted Puritan John Winthrop on the desirability of creating a country that would be “a city upon a hill” to the rest of the world, with all of humanity’s eyes upon us. In his inaugural address (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”), he invoked a kind of unspoken greatness, saying, “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” It was then common to speak of the U.S. with pride as a “free nation” (as opposed to the “enslaved” ones of the communist bloc) rather than an exceptional one. His only use of “great” was to invoke the U.S.-led and Soviet Union-led blocs as “two great and powerful groups of nations.”
Kennedy could even fall back on a certain modesty in describing the U.S. role in the world (that, in those years, from Guatemala to Iran to Cuba, all too often did not carry over into actual policy), saying in one speech, “we must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent or omniscient — that we are only six percent of the world’s population — that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94 percent of mankind — that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity — and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.” In that same speech, he typically spoke of America as “a great power” — but not “the greatest power.”
If you didn’t grow up in that era, you may not grasp that none of this in any way implied a lack of national self-esteem. Quite the opposite, it implied a deep and abiding confidence in the overwhelming power and presence of this country, a confidence so unshakeable that there was no need to speak of it.
If you want a pop cultural equivalent for this, consider America’s movie heroes of that time, actors like John Wayne and Gary Cooper, whose Westerns and in the case of Wayne, war movies, were iconic. What’s striking when you look back at them from the present moment is this: while neither of those actors was anything but an imposing figure, they were also remarkably ordinary looking. They were in no way over-muscled nor in their films were they over-armed in the modern fashion. It was only in the years after the Vietnam War, when the country had absorbed what felt like a grim defeat, been wracked by oppositional movements, riots, and assassinations, when a general sense of loss had swept over the polity, that the over-muscled hero, the exceptional killing machine, made the scene. (Think: Rambo.)
Consider this, then, if you want a definition of decline: when you have to state openly (and repeatedly) what previously had been too obvious to say, you’re heading, as the opinion polls always like to phrase it, in the wrong direction; in other words, once you have to say it, especially in an overemphatic way, you no longer have it.
The Reagan Reboot
That note of defensiveness first crept into the American political lexicon with the unlikeliest of politicians: Ronald Reagan, the man who seemed like the least defensive, most genial guy on the planet. On this subject at least, think of him as Trumpian before the advent of The Donald, or at least as the man who (thanks to his ad writers) invented the political use of the word “again.” It was, after all, employed in 1984 in the seminal ad of his political run for a second term in office. While that bucolic-looking TV commercial was entitled “Prouder, Stronger, Better,” its first line ever so memorably went, “It’s morning again in America.” (“Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?”)
Think of this as part of a post-Vietnam Reagan reboot, a time when the U.S. in Rambo-esque fashion was quite literally muscling up and over-arming in a major way. Reagan presided over “the biggest peacetime defense build-up in history” against what, referencing Star Wars, he called an “evil empire” — the Soviet Union. In those years, he also worked to rid the country of what was then termed “the Vietnam Syndrome” in part by rebranding that war a “noble cause.” In a time when loss and decline were much on the American brain, he dismissed them both, even as he set the country on a path toward the present moment of 1% dysfunction in a country that no longer invests fully in its own infrastructure, whose wages are stagnant, whose poor are a growth industry, whose wealth now flows eternally upward in a political environment awash in the money of the ultra-wealthy, and whose over-armed military continues to pursue a path of endless failure in the Greater Middle East.
Reagan, who spoke directly about American declinist thinking in his time — “Let’s reject the nonsense that America is doomed to decline” — was hardly shy about his superlatives when it came to this country. He didn’t hesitate to re-channel classic American rhetoric ranging from Winthop’s “shining city upon a hill” (perhaps cribbed from Kennedy) in his farewell address to Lincoln-esque (“the last best hope of man on Earth”) invocations like “here in the heartland of America lives the hope of the world” or “in a world wracked by hatred, economic crisis, and political tension, America remains mankind’s best hope.”
And yet, in the 1980s, there were still limits to what needed to be said about America. Surveying the planet, you didn’t yet have to refer to us as the “greatest” country of all or as the planet’s sole truly “exceptional” country. Think of such repeated superlatives of our own moment as defensive markers on the declinist slope. The now commonplace adjective “indispensable” as a stand-in for American greatness globally, for instance, didn’t even arrive until Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright began using it in 1996. It only became an indispensable part of the rhetorical arsenal of American politicians, from President Obama on down, a decade-plus into the twenty-first century when the country’s eerie dispensability (unless you were a junkie for failed states and regional chaos) became ever more apparent.
As for the U.S. being the planet’s “exceptional” nation, a phrase that now seems indelibly in the American grain and that no president or presidential candidate has avoided, it’s surprising how late that entered the presidential lexicon. As John Gans Jr. wrote in the Atlantic in 2011, “Obama has talked more about American exceptionalism than Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush combined: a search on UC Santa Barbara’s exhaustive presidential records library finds that no president from 1981 to today uttered the phrase ‘American exceptionalism’ except Obama. As U.S. News‘ Robert Schlesinger wrote, ‘American exceptionalism’ is not a traditional part of presidential vocabulary. According to Schlesinger’s search of public records, Obama is the only president in 82 years to use the term.”
And yet in recent years it has become a commonplace of Republicans and Democrats alike. In other words, as the country has become politically shakier, the rhetoric about its greatness has only escalated in an American version of “the lady doth protest too much.” Such descriptors have become the political equivalent of litmus tests: you couldn’t be president or much of anything else without eternally testifying to your unwavering belief in American greatness.
This, of course, is the line that Trump crossed in a curiously unnoticed fashion in this election campaign. He did so by initially upping the rhetorical ante, adding that exclamation point (which even Reagan avoided). Yet in the process of being more patriotically correct than thou, he somehow also waded straight into American decline so bluntly that his own audience could hardly miss it (even if his critics did).
Think of it as an irony, if you wish, but the ultimate American narcissist, in promoting his own rise, has also openly promoted a version of decline and fall to striking numbers of Americans. For his followers, a major political figure has quit with the defensive BS and started saying it the way it is.
Of course, don’t furl the flag or shut down those offshore accounts or start writing the complete history of American decline quite yet. After all, the United States still looms “lone” on an ever more chaotic planet. Its wealth remains stunning, its economic clout something to behold, its tycoons the envy of the Earth, and its military beyond compare when it comes to how much and how destructively, even if not how successfully. Still, make no mistake about it, Donald Trump is a harbinger, however bizarre, of a new American century in which this country will indeed no longer be (with a bow to Muhammad Ali) “the Greatest” or, for all but a shrinking crew, exceptional.
So mark your calendars: 2016 is the official year the U.S. first went public as a declinist power and for that you can thank Donald — or rather Donald! — Trump.