A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt
October 4, 2020

Murder, He Said

America’s Maestro of Death and Destruction

Yes, when he was running for president, he did indeed say: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s, like, incredible.”

Then he won — and this November 3rd (or thereafter), whether he wins or loses, we’re likely to find out that, when it comes to his base, he was right. He may not have lost a vote. Yes, Donald Trump is indeed a murderer, but here’s where his prediction fell desperately short: as president, he’s proven to be anything but a smalltime killer. It wasn’t as if he went out one day, on New York City’s Fifth Avenue or even in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and shot a couple of people.

Nothing so minimalist for The Donald! Nor is it as if, say, he had ploughed “the Beast” (as his presidential Cadillac is known) into a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters, as so many other drivers have done this year. Let’s face it: that’s for his apprentices, not the showman himself. After all, Donald J. Trump has proven to be America’s twenty-first-century maestro of death and destruction, the P.T. Barnum of, as he put it predictively enough in his Inaugural Address, “American carnage.” In fact, he’s been a master of carnage in a way no one could then have imagined.

Back in 2016, he was way off when it came to the scale of what he could accomplish. As it happens, the killing hasn’t just taken place on Fifth Avenue, or even in his (now hated) former hometown, but on avenues, streets, lanes, and country roads across America. He was, however, right about one thing: he could kill at will and no one who mattered (to him at least) would hold him responsible, including the attorney general of the United States who has been one of his many handymen of mayhem.

His is indeed proving to be a murderous regime, but in quite a different form than even he might have anticipated. Still, a carnage-creator he’s been (and, for god knows how long to come, will be) and here’s the remarkable thing: he’s daily been on “Fifth Avenue” killing passersby in a variety of ways. In fact, it’s worth going through his methods of murder, starting (where else?) with the pandemic that’s still ripping a path from hell across this country.

Death by Disease

We know from Bob Woodward’s new book that, in his own strange way, in February Donald Trump evidently grasped the seriousness of Covid-19 and made a conscious decision to “play it down.” There have been all sorts of calculations since then, but by one modest early estimate, beginning to shut down and social distance in this country even a week earlier in March would have saved 36,000 lives (the equivalent of twelve 9/11s); two weeks earlier and it would have been a striking 54,000 in a country now speeding toward something like 300,000 dead by year’s end. If the president had moved quickly and reasonably, instead of worrying about his reelection or how he looked with a mask on; if he had followed the advice of actual experts; if he had championed masking and social distancing as he’s championed the Confederate flag, military bases named after Confederate generals, and the Proud Boys, we would have been living in a different and less wounded country — and that’s only the beginning of his Fifth Avenue behavior.

After all, no matter what the scientific experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Protection and elsewhere were then saying about the dangers of gathering in mask-less crowds indoors, it was clear that the president just couldn’t bear a world without fans, without crowds cheering his every convoluted word. That would have been like going on the diet from hell. As a result, he conducted his first major rally in June at the Bank of Oklahoma Center in Tulsa.

Admittedly, that particular crowd would be nowhere near as big as he and his advisers had expected. Still, perhaps 6,000 fans, largely unmasked and many in close proximity, cheered on their commander-in-chief there. It was visibly a potential pandemic super-spreader of an event, but the commander-in-chief, mask-less himself, couldn’t have cared less. About three weeks later, when Tulsa experienced a striking rise in coronavirus cases (likely linked to that rally) and former presidential candidate and Trump supporter Herman Cain who had attended unmasked died of Covid-19, it didn’t faze him in the slightest.

He kept right on holding rallies and giving his patented, wildly cheered rambles in the brambles. As Rolling Stone correspondent Andy Kroll put it after attending one of his outdoor rallies in North Carolina, the president’s “remarks” that day (which ran to 37 pages and 18,000 words) were “practically a novella, albeit a novella that makes Finnegan’s Wake look like See Spot Run!

Nothing, certainly not a pandemic, was going to stop Donald J. Trump from sucking up the adoration of his base. Though in the first presidential debate with Joe Biden, he claimed that he’s only been holding his rallies outdoors, in September in Nevada, a state whose governor had banned indoor gatherings of more than 50 people, he held a typically boisterous, adoring indoor rally of 5,000 largely unmasked, jammed-together Trumpsters. When questioned on the obvious dangers of such a gathering, he classically responded, “I’m on a stage and it’s very far away. And so I’m not at all concerned” — i.e. not at all concerned about (or for) them.

If that isn’t the Covid-19 equivalent of a bazooka on Fifth Avenue, what is? And it summed up perfectly Trump’s response to the choice of pursuing his own reelection in the way he loves (and seems so desperately to need) or keeping Americans healthy. During these unending pandemic months, he regularly downplayed every danger and most reasonable responses to them, while at one point even tweeting to his followers to “LIBERATE” (possibly in an armed fashion) states that had imposed stay-at-home orders. He needed what he’s long called the “greatest economy in the history of America” back and reopening everything was naturally the way to go.


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A Nation Unmade by War

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Mimicking his boss’s style, Attorney General William Barr would even essentially compare lockdowns to slavery. As he put it, “A national lockdown. Stay-at-home orders. It’s like house arrest. Other than slavery, which is a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history.”

Clearly at the president’s behest, “top White House officials” would, according to the New York Times, pressure “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this summer to play down the risk of sending children back to school, a strikingly political intervention in one of the most sensitive public health debates of the pandemic.” (As the president would tweet in a similar spirit: “The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but it is important for the children and families. May cut off funding if not open!”)

In other words, it didn’t matter who might be endangered — his best fans or the nation’s school children — when his reelection, his future wellbeing, was at stake. Murder on Fifth Avenue? A nothing by comparison.

Supreme Assassins?

And his response to the pandemic only launches us on what should qualify as an all-American killing spree from hell. In the end, it could even prove to be the most modest part of it.

For the rest of that death toll, you might start with health care. It’s already estimated that at least 2.3 million Americans have lost their health insurance in the Trump years (and that figure, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, includes 726,000 children, some of whom may now be headed back to school under pandemic conditions). That, in turn, could prove just a drop in the bucket if his administration’s ongoing assault on Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) finally succeeds. And after November 3rd, it indeed might if Mitch McConnell is successful in hustling Amy Coney Barrett onto the Supreme Court in place of the dead Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who twice upheld the constitutionality of that act). A supposedly “pro-life” Trump version of the Supreme Court — unless the pandemic were to sweep through it — would undoubtedly turn out to be murderous in its own fashion. Think of them as potential Supreme Assassins.

Barrett, in particular, is known to hold negative views of the ACA and the Court will hear the Trump administration’s case for abolishing that act within a week of Election Day, so you do the math. Wiping it out reportedly means that at least 23 million more Americans would simply lose their health insurance and it could, in the end, leave tens of millions of Americans with “pre-existing medical conditions” in an uninsured hell on earth.

Death? I guarantee it, on and off Fifth Avenue — and it will have been the Donald’s doing.

A Murderous Future

All of the above should be considered nothing more than warm-up exercises for the real deal when it comes to future presidential slaughter. All of it precedes the truly long-term issue of death and destruction that goes by the name of climate change.

It’s hardly news that Donald Trump long ago rejected global warming as a Chinese “hoax.” And as he withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord and, like the child of the fossil-fuelized 1950s that he is, proclaimed a new policy of “American Energy Dominance” (“the golden era of American energy is now underway”), he’s never stopped rejecting it. He did so again recently on a brief visit to burning California amid a historic wildfire season, where he predicted that it would soon get “cooler.” The only exception: when he suddenly feels in the mood to criticize the Chinese for their release of greenhouse gases. As he said in a September 22nd speech to the U.N. General Assembly, “China’s carbon emissions are nearly twice what the U.S. has, and it’s rising fast. By contrast, after I withdrew from the one-sided Paris Climate Accord, last year America reduced its carbon emissions by more than any country in the agreement.”

He and those he’s put in place at the Environmental Protection Agency and elsewhere in his administration have spent his presidency in a remarkably determined fashion trying to destroy the American and global environment. So far, they have rolled back (or are trying to roll back) 100 environmental protections that were in place when he arrived in the Oval Office, including most recently limits on a pesticide that reportedly can stunt brain development in children. Air pollution alone was, according to one study, responsible for 9,700 more deaths in this country in 2018 than in 2016. Above all, at the service of a still expanding American fossil-fuel industry, he and his crew have done their damnedest to open the way for oil, gas, and coal development in just about any imaginable form.

In a season in which the West coast has burned in a previously inconceivable fashion, leaving a historic cloud of smoke in its wake, while fierce storms have flooded the Gulf Coast, he’s continued, for instance, to focus on opening the Alaskan wilderness to oil drilling. In short, he and his administration have, in a rather literal fashon, proven to be pyromaniacs of the first order. They’ve been remarkably intent on ensuring that, in the future, the world will continue to heat in ways certain to unsettle humanity, creating almost unimaginable forms of death and destruction. Despite the fact that Joe Biden called him a “climate arsonist” as the West coast burned, somehow the potentially murderous nature of his environmental policies has barely sunk in this election season.

If the legend was true, the Roman emperor Nero fiddled — actually, he was probably playing the cithara — while the capital of his empire, Rome, burned for six days. He didn’t personally set the fire, however. Trump and his crew are, it seems, intent on setting fire not just to Rome, or New York, or Washington, D.C., but to the Alaskan wilderness, the Brazilian rain forest, and that giant previously iced in landmass he couldn’t figure out how to purchase, Greenland. He’s helping to ensure that even the oceans will, in their own fashion, be on fire; that storms will grow ever more intense and destructive; that the temperature will rise ever higher; and that the planet will become ever less habitable.

Meanwhile, intently maskless and socially undistanced, even he (and his wife Melania) have now contracted the coronavirus, officially becoming part of his own American carnage. The White House, Air Force One, and the president and his aides became the equivalent of Covid-19 superspreaders, as senators and reporters, among others, also began to come down with the disease. It’s now proving a visible all-American nightmare of the first order. 

Donald Trump has, of course, hardly been alone when it comes to burning the planet, but it’s certainly eerie that, at this moment, such an arsonist would stand any chance at all, if he recovers successfully, of being reelected president of the United States. His urge is visibly not just to be an autocrat, but to commit mass murder nationwide and on a planetary scale deep into the future.

Murder, he said, and murder it was, and Fifth Avenue was the least of it.

Books from this Author

A Nation Unmade by War

A Nation Unmade by War

From the election from hell to the future according to Donald Trump, A Nation Unmade by War surveys American exceptionalism in the age of absurdity.

About the Author

Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the Tomdispatch.com website, a project of The Nation Institute where he is a Fellow. He is the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, and of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, as well as a collection of his Tomdispatch interviews, Mission Unaccomplished. Each spring he is a Teaching Fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

Tomdispatch.com is the sideline that ate his life. Before that he worked as an editor at Pacific News Service in the early 1970s, and, these last three decades, as an editor in book publishing. For 15 years, he was Senior Editor at Pantheon Books where he edited and published award-winning works ranging from Art Spiegelman’s Maus and John Dower’s War Without Mercy to Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy. He is now Consulting Editor at Metropolitan Books, as well as co-founder and co-editor of Metropolitan’s The American Empire Project. Many of the authors whose books he has edited and published over the years now write for Tomdispatch.com. He is married to Nancy J. Garrity, a therapist, and has two children, Maggie and Will.

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