Here’s the truth of it: I’d like a presidential pardon. Really, I would. And I think I deserve it more than Michael Milken or Rod Blagojevich or — because it’s obviously heading our way — Roger Stone (not to speak of Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort). Unlike the rest of them, I genuinely deserve a pardon because I don’t even remember being tried or know what I did. Yet somehow, here I am sentenced to what, if things don’t get better — given my age and his luck — could prove to be life not in prison but in Trumpland (once known as the United States of America).
Or here’s another possibility that came to mind as I was thinking over my predicament: maybe I can still use that old “get out of jail free card” I saved from my childhood Monopoly set. You know, the one at the bottom of which was written: “This card may be kept until needed or sold.” Well, I need it now. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work anymore, maybe because it was produced before financialization stopped being a kid’s board game and became one for presidents, presidential candidates, and those recently pardoned by you-know-who.
If only this were simply a game I found myself trapped in — Trumpopoly. Unfortunately, it’s no board game, though I must admit that, more than three years later, I’m officially bored with the man who has surely gotten more attention, more words spoken and written about him, than anyone in history. Even if you included Nebuchadnezzar, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong, I doubt he would have any serious competition.
Honestly, who could even contest that statement, given that nothing he does, no matter how trivial, isn’t dealt with as “news” and covered as if the world were ending? When you think about it, it’s little short of remarkable. And I’m not even talking about Donald Trump’s non-stop coverage on his own news service, also known as Fox News. No, what I had in mind was the Fake News Media itself, regularly identified by the president as his major enemy. (“Our primary opponent is the Fake News Media. They are now beyond Fake, they are Corrupt.”)
He’s not wrong, if by corruption you mean the over-coverage of him. The truth is that, whether you’re talking about the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, or MSNBC, none of them can get enough of him. Ever. They cover his rallies; they cover his tweets; they cover his impromptu news conferences in the north driveway of the White House, often as if nothing else on Earth were going on.
“Cover” might not even be the right word for it, unless you’re thinking about a thick, smothering, orange blanket thrown over our American world.
In this Trumpian prison of ours, you really have little choice. Whether you like it or not, whether you want to or not, you’re a witness to the vagaries of one Donald J. Trump, morning, noon, and night, day in, day out. I mean, you know what film the president thinks should have won the best-picture Oscar this year, right? Gone With the Wind, which, after he brought it up, promptly shot to number one on topics trending on Twitter. You have a sense of how many years he expects to remain in the White House (up to 26, as he told one of his rally crowds recently, or assumedly until Barron is ready to take over); you know that he’s a “germophobe” (small tip: don’t cough or sneeze in his presence and the next time you meet him, don’t try to shake his hand); you’re probably aware that his properties in India (as well as his pronunciation of Indian names) leave something to be desired, but that the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas is buzzing along (especially when he visits while on the campaign trail). And here are some other things you might have caught as well: that you and I have spent quite a little fortune (up to $650 a night per agent) putting up the Secret Service people protecting him at Trump properties; that, thanks to a tweeted photo of him on a windy day, he has quite a tan line (or that, as he tweeted back, “More Fake News. This was photoshopped, obviously, but the wind was strong and the hair looks good? Anything to demean!”); or that he hates being told, especially by American intelligence officials, no less “Shifty Schiff,” that Vladimir Putin would like to lend his reelection a hand, but loves it that the Russian prexy may have a yen to promote Bernie Sanders in this election season; that his greatest skill (à la The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice) may be firing people he considers personally disloyal to him (even if it’s called purging when you’re the president and they’re government officials or bureaucrats), hence his three years in office represent the greatest turnover in Washington officialdom in presidential memory; or perhaps the way he tweets charges and claims of every sort (that, for instance, Mitt Romney is a “Democratic spy”); or all the people he actually knows but claims he doesn’t; or his urge to slam every imaginable, or even unimaginable, figure ranging from the forewoman of the Roger Stone jury (“She somehow weaseled her way onto the jury and if that’s not a tainted jury then there is no such thing as a tainted jury”) to the 598 “people, places, and things” the New York Times counted him insulting by May 2019, including John McCain (23 times, “last in his class”) and his daughter Meghan (four times, “obnoxious”); oh, and let’s not forget his threats to unleash nuclear weapons on North Korea (“They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”) and Afghanistan (“And if we wanted to do a certain method of war, we would win that very quickly. But many, many — really, tens of millions of people would be killed…”). And that, of course, is barely a hint of the world we now inhabit, thanks not just to Donald J. Trump, but to the very Fake News Media that he denounces so incessantly.
We’re here in Trump’s version of a prison in part because he and the Fake News Media he hates so much are in eternal collusion as well as eternal collision! Much as they theoretically dislike each other, both the non-Fox mainstream media and the president seem to desperately need each other. After all, in a social media-dominated world, the traditional media has had its troubles. Papers have been losing revenue, folding, drying up, dying. Staffs have been plunging and local news suffering. (In my own hometown rag, the New York Times, undoubtedly because many copyeditors were dumped, small errors now abound in the paper paper, which I still read, in a way that once would have been unimaginable.) On TV, of course, you have cable news networks that need to talk about something quite literally 24/7.
So what a godsend it must be to be able to assign reporter after reporter and commentator after commentator to the doings of a single man, his words, acts, impulses, tweets, concerns, bizarre comments, strange thoughts, odd acts. Who could doubt that he has, in these years, become the definition of “the news” in a way that once would have been inconceivable but couldn’t be more convenient for a pressed and harried media?
And however much he may endlessly denounce them, he desperately needs them, too. Otherwise, what would he do for attention? They’re, in effect, his servants and he, in some strange way, theirs. No matter what they officially think of each other, this is the definition of collusion — one that has, in the last three years, also helped redefine the nature of our American world. No matter what they say about each other, in his own fashion, he’s always ready to pardon them and they, in their own fashion, him.
And here I am — don’t think I’m not feeling guilty about it — covering him, too, today. It seems I can’t help myself. After all, I’m in the same prison world as everyone else in this country, including reporters.
Pardon Him? You Bet!
By the way, give you-know-who credit where it’s due. He may be 73 years old, but he’s grasped the tweetable moment in a way that’s been beyond impressive from that fateful day in June 2015 when he rode a Trump Tower escalator into the presidential race, praising his future “great, great wall” (to be paid for by Mexico), and denouncing the “Mexican rapists” who had to go. In attention-getting terms, he had anything but a 73-year-old’s sense of how this world actually works and, let’s be honest, that was impressive.
At some basic level, the results of what he grasped are no less so. After all — god save us — he might even find himself in the White House for a second term (if the coronavirus or Bernie Sanders doesn’t take him down first).
Donald Trump is obviously no founding father but, despite his weight, you could perhaps think of him as something like a founding feather, a phenomenon carried by the latest political winds into the grim future of us all. And what a future it’s likely to be if this president, a genuine arsonist when it comes to heating the planet to the boiling point, gets reelected. (He could singlehandedly give William Blake’s classic poem, “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright, in the forests of the night,” new meaning.)
I, on the other hand, find myself trapped in his world but, in a sense, from elsewhere. Sometimes I wonder if I’m really living in the world I seem to inhabit or if I’m not already, in Australian terms, in some kind of midsummer night’s dream or rather nightmare?
I’m just a couple of years older than The Donald and yet if he represents the most modern of 73-year-old realities, then I’m from a past age. I can’t even tweet, having never learned that modern form of conspiracy haiku. Has anyone, no matter how much younger than him, grasped as fully or creatively as he did the all-too-modern sense of how to demand and command attention on a 24/7 basis? There has been nothing like him or his version of a presidency in our history.
Now, to be honest with you, I’m sick of both Donald Trump and the fake news media. No, I mean it. Sometimes, I dream of bringing back my long-dead parents and showing them our Trumpian world in which, for instance, Americans fight a range of endlessly unsuccessful wars across a remarkable swath of the planet. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is indulged in its urge to recreate a militarized version of the Cold War, including a new multi-trillion dollar nuclear arms race; a world in which, however — and this would have been beyond comprehension to them — “infrastructure week” in Washington, the very idea of putting significant sums of money into rebuilding the crumbling basics in this country, has become little short of a joke. Oh, and of course, I’d have to tell them that, since their deaths, we — some of us at least — have accepted that the planet itself, thanks to the burning of fossil fuels, is now overheating in a radical way.
There is, however, one thing I’ve never doubted about The Donald: that, as he did with his five flaming, bankrupt casinos in Atlantic City in the early 1990s, when the moment comes, he’ll jump ship in the nick of time, money in hand, leaving the rest of us to go down on the USS Constitution (with no get-out-of-jail-free card in sight).
Pardon me? Don’t count on it. Pardon you. I wouldn’t hold my breath. But pardon him? You bet! Consider it a done deal.
My first question is simple enough: After 18-plus years of our forever wars, where are all the questions?
Almost two decades of failing American wars across a startlingly large part of the planet and I’d like to know, for instance, who’s been fired for them? Who’s been impeached? Who’s even paying attention?
I mean, if another great power had been so fruitlessly fighting a largely undeclared set of conflicts under the label of “the war on terror” for so long, if it had wasted trillions of taxpayer dollars with no end in sight and next to no one in that land was spending much time debating or discussing the matter, what would you think? If nothing else, you’d have a few questions about that, right?
Well, so many years later, I do have a few that continue to haunt me, even if I see them asked practically nowhere and, to my frustration, can’t really answer them myself, not to my satisfaction anyway. In fact, since 2001 — with the exception of the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq when America’s streets suddenly filled with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators asking a range of questions (“How did USA’s oil get under Iraq’s sand?” was a typical protest sign of that moment) — our never-ending wars have seldom been questioned in this country. So think of what follows not as my thoughts on the war in question but on the war in questions.
The Age of Carnage
In October 2001, in response to the 9/11 attacks, the administration of President George W. Bush launched a bombing campaign not just against al-Qaeda, a relatively small group partially holed up in Afghanistan, but the Taliban, an Islamist outfit that controlled much of the country. It was a radical decision not just to target the modest-sized organization whose 19 hijackers, most of them Saudis, had taken out almost 3,000 Americans with a borrowed “air force” of commercial jets, but in the phrase of the moment to “liberate” Afghanistan. These days, who even remembers that, by then, Washington had already fought a CIA-directed, Saudi-backed (and partially financed) war against the Soviet Union in that country for a full decade (1979-1989). To take on the Red Army then, Washington funded, armed, and supported extremist Islamist groups, some of which would still be fighting in Afghanistan (against us) in the twenty-first century.
In the context of that all-American war, a rich young Saudi, Osama bin Laden, would, of course, form al-Qaeda, or “the base.” In 1989, Washington watched as the mighty Red Army limped out of Afghanistan, the “bleeding wound” as its leader then called it. (Afghanistan wasn’t known as “the graveyard of empires” for nothing.) In less than two years, that second great power of the Cold War era would implode, an event that would be considered history’s ultimate victory by many in Washington. President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, the man who first committed the U.S. to its Afghan Wars, would, as last century ended, sum things up this way: “What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”
Afghanistan itself would be left in ruins as Washington turned its attention elsewhere, while various local warlords fought it out and, in response, the extremist Taliban rose to power.
Now, let me jump ahead a few years. In 2019, U.S. air power expended more munitions (bombs and missiles) on that country than at any time since figures began to be kept in 2006. Despite that, during the last months of 2019, the Taliban (and other militant groups) launched more attacks on U.S.-and-NATO-trained-and-financed Afghan security forces than at any time since 2010 when (again) records began to be kept. And it tells you something about our American world that, though you could have found both those stories in the news if you were looking carefully, neither was considered worthy of major coverage, front-page headlines, or real attention. All these years later, it won’t surprise you to know that such ho-hum reporting is just par for the course. And when it comes to either of those two on-the-record realities, you certainly would be hard-pressed to find a serious editorial expression of outrage or much of anything else about them in the media.
At 18-plus years or, if you prefer to combine Washington’s two Afghan wars, 28-plus years, we’re talking about the longest American war in history. The Civil War lasted four years. The American part of World War II, another four. The Korean War less than four (though it never officially ended). The Vietnam War, from the moment the first significant contingent of U.S. advisors arrived, 14, and from the moment the first major U.S. troop contingents arrived, perhaps a decade. In the Trump era, as those air strikes rise, there has been a great deal of talk about possible “peace” and an American withdrawal from that country. Peace, however, has now seemingly come to be defined in Washington as a reduction of American forces from approximately 12,000 to about 8,500 (and that’s without counting either private military contractors or CIA personnel there).
Meanwhile, of course, the war on terror that began in Afghanistan now stretches from the Philippines across the Greater Middle East and deep into the heart of Africa. Worse yet, it still threatens to expand into a war of some sort with Iran — and that, mind you, is under the ministrations of an officially “antiwar” president who has nonetheless upped American military personnel in the Middle East to record levels in recent years.
Of course, this is a story that you undoubtedly know fairly well. Who, in a sense, doesn’t? But it’s also a story that, so many years and so much — to use a word once-favored by our president — “carnage” later, should raise an endless series of disturbing and unnerving questions here. And that it doesn’t, should raise questions in itself, shouldn’t it?
Still, in a country where opposition to endless war seems constantly to falter or fade out amid a media universe in which Donald Trump’s latest tweet can top any war news, it seems potentially useful to raise some of those questions — at least the ones that occur to me — and perhaps for you to do the same. Isn’t it time, after all, for Americans to ask a few questions about war, American-style, in what might be thought of as the post-9/11 age of carnage?
In any case, here are six of mine to which, as I said, I don’t really have the answers. Maybe you do.
- When the Bush administration launched that invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 2001 and followed it up with an invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, did we, in some curious fashion, really invade and occupy ourselves? Of course, in these years, across the Greater Middle East and Africa, the U.S. played a remarkable role in creating chaos in country after country, leading to failed states, displaced people in staggering numbers, economic disarray, and the spread of terror groups. But the question is: Did the self-proclaimed most exceptional and indispensable nation on the planet do a version of the same thing to itself in the process? After all, by 2016, the disarray in this country was striking enough and had spread far enough, amid historic economic inequality, social division, partisan divides, and growing anger, that Americans elected as president (if not quite by a majority) a man who had run not on American greatness but on American decline. He promised to make this country great again. (His declinist credentials were not much noted at the time, except among the heartland Americans who voted for him.) So, ask yourself: Would President Donald Trump have been possible if the Bush administration had simply gone after al-Qaeda on September 12, 2001, and left it at that? Since January 2017, under the tutelage of that “very stable genius,” the U.S. political (and possibly global economic) system has, of course, begun to crack open. Is there any connection to those forever wars?
- Has there ever been a truly great power in history, still at or near the height of its militarily prowess, that couldn’t win a war? Sure, great imperial powers from the Romans to the Chinese to the British sometimes didn’t win specific wars despite their seeming military dominance, but not a single one? Could that be historically unprecedented and, if so, what does it tell us about our moment? How has the country proclaimed by its leaders to have the finest fighting force the world has ever known won nothing in more than 18 years of unceasing global battle?
- How and why did the “hearts and minds” factor move from the nationalist left in the twentieth century to the Islamist right in the twenty-first? The anti-colonial struggles against imperial powers that culminated in America’s first great losing war in Vietnam (think of Korea as kind of a tie) were invariably fought by leftist and communist groups. And whatever the military force arrayed against them, they regularly captured — in that classic Vietnam-era phrase — “the hearts and minds” of what were then called “Third World” peoples and repeatedly outlasted far better armed powers, including, in the case of Vietnam, the United States. In a word, they had the moxie in such conflicts and it didn’t matter that, by the most obvious measures of military power, they were at a vast disadvantage. In the twenty-first century, similar wars are still being fought in a remarkably comparable fashion, Afghanistan being the most obvious. Again, the weaponry, the money, everything that might seem to pass for the works has been the property of Washington and yet that ability to win local “hearts and minds” has remained in the hands of the rebels. But what I wonder about is how exactly that moxie passed from the nationalist left to the extremist religious right in this century and what exactly was our role, intended or not, in all this?
- When it comes to preparations for war, why can’t we ever stop? After all, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended in 1991, the United States essentially had no enemies left on the planet. Yet Washington continued essentially an arms race of one with a finish line so distant — the bomber of 2018, Earth-spanning weapons systems, and weaponry for the heavens of perhaps 2050 — as to imply eternity. The Pentagon and the military-industrial complex surrounding it, including mega-arms manufacturers, advanced weapons labs, university science centers, and the official or semi-official think tanks that churned out strategies for future military domination, went right on without an enemy in sight. In fact, in late 2002, preparing for his coming invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush had to cook up an “axis of evil” — Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, two of which were mortal enemies and the third unrelated in any significant way to either of them — as a justification for what was to come, militarily speaking. Almost 20 years later, investing as much in its military as the next seven countries combined, updating and upgrading its nuclear arsenal to the tune of $1.7 trillion in the coming decades (and having just deployed a new “low-yield” nuclear weapon), and still investing staggering sums in its planes, tanks, aircraft carriers, and the like, the U.S. military now seems intent (without leaving its forever wars) on returning to the era of the Cold War as well. Face-offs against Russia and China are now the military order of the day in what seems like a déjà-vu-all-over-again situation. I’m just curious, but isn’t it ever all over?
- How can Washington’s war system and the military-industrial complex across the country continue to turn failure in war into success and endless dollars at home? Honestly, the one thing in America that clearly works right now is the U.S. military (putting aside those wars abroad). We may no longer invest in domestic infrastructure, but in that military and the giant corporate weapons makers that go with it? You bet! They are the true success stories of the twenty-first century if you’re talking about dollars invested, weaponry bought, and revolving doors greased. On the face of it, failure is the new success and few in this country seem to blink when it comes to any of that. How come?
- Why doesn’t the reality of those wars of ours ever really seem to sink in here? This, to my mind, is at least partially a question about media coverage. Yes, every now and then (as with the Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers last December), America’s forever wars briefly break through and get some attention. And yes, if you’re a war-coverage news jockey, you can find plenty of daily reports on aspects of our wars in the media. But isn’t it surprising how much of that coverage is essentially a kind of background hum, like Muzak in an elevator? Unless the president personally decides to drone assassinate an Iranian major general and prospective future leader of that country, our wars simply drone on, barely attended to (unless, of course, you happen to be in the U.S. military or a military spouse or child). Eighteen years of failed wars and so many trillions of dollars later, wouldn’t you have expected something else?
So those are my six questions, the most obvious things that puzzle me about what may be the strangest aspect of this American world of ours, those never-ending wars and the system that goes with them. To begin to answer them, however, would mean beginning to think about ourselves and this country in a different way.
Perhaps much of this would only make sense if we were to start imagining ourselves or at least much of the leadership crew, that infamous “Blob,” in Washington, as so many war addicts. War — the failing variety — is evidently their drug of choice and not even our “antiwar” president can get off it. Think of forever war, then, as the opioid not of the masses but of the ruling classes.
The War in Questions
Let me betray my age for a moment. Some of you, I know, will be shocked, but I still read an actual newspaper. Words on real paper every day. I’m talking about the New York Times, and something stuck with me from the January 9th edition of that “paper” paper. Of course, in the world of the Internet, that’s already ancient history — medieval times — but (as a reminder) it came only a few days after Donald Trump’s drone assassination of Iranian Major General Qassem Suleimani.
So you won’t be surprised to learn that its front page was essentially all Iran and The Donald. Atop it, there was a large photo of the president heading for a podium with his generals and officials lined up on either side of him. Its caption read: “‘The United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it,’ President Trump said Wednesday at the White House.” Beside it, the lead story was headlined “U.S. and Iranians Lower Tensions, at Least for Now.” Below were three more Iran-related pieces, taking up much of the rest of the page. (“A President’s Mixed Messages Unsettle More Than Reassure,” etc.)
At the bottom left, there was a fifth Iran-related article. Inside that 24-page section of the paper, there were seven more full pages of coverage on the subject. Only one other piece of hot news could be squeezed (with photo) onto the bottom right of the front page. And whether you still read actual papers or now live only in the world of the Internet, I doubt you’ll be shocked to learn that it focused on Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, already involved in a crisis among the British Royals that was almost Iranian in its intensity. The headline: “In Stunning Step, Duke and Duchess Seek New Title: Part-Timers.”
Had you then followed the “continued on page A5” below that piece, you would have found the rest of the story about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (including a second photo of them and an ad for Bloomingdales, the department store) taking up almost all of that inside page. If, however, you had been in a particularly attentive mood, you might also have noticed, squeezed in at the very bottom left of page 5, an 11-paragraph story by Henry Fountain. It had been granted so little space that the year 2019 had to be abbreviated as ’19 in its headline, which read in full: “’19 Was the 2nd-Hottest Year, And July Hottest Month Yet.”
Of course, that literally qualified as the hottest story of the day, but you never would have known it. It began this way:
“The evidence mounted all year. Temperature records were broken in France, Germany and elsewhere; the Greenland ice sheet experienced exceptional melting; and, as 2019 came to a close, broiling temperatures contributed to devastating wildfires that continue in Australia. Now European scientists have confirmed what had been suspected: 2019 was a very hot year, with global average temperatures the second highest on record. Only 2016 was hotter, and not by much — less than one-tenth of a degree Fahrenheit.”
As Fountain pointed out, however briefly, among the records broken in 2019, “The past five years have been the five warmest on record” (as had the last decade).
In another world, either that line or the actual headline should reasonably have been atop that Times front page in blazing letters. After all, that’s the news that someday could do us all in, whatever happens in Iran or to the British royal family. In my own dreamscape, that piece, headlined atop the front page, would have been continued on the obituary page. After all, the climate crisis could someday deliver an obituary for humanity and so many other living things on this planet, or at least for the way of life we humans have known throughout our history.
If you live online and were looking hard, you could have stumbled on the same news, thanks, say, to a similar CNN report on the subject, but it wasn’t the equivalent of headlines there either. Just another hot year… bleh. Who’s going to pay real attention when war with Iran lurks just beneath the surface and Harry and Meghan are heading for Canada?
To give credit where it’s due, however, a week later when that climate news was confirmed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it did finally hit the front page of the January 16th edition of the paper Times. Of course, I wouldn’t be writing this if it had been the day’s blazing headline, but that honor went to impeachment proceedings and a photo of the solemn walk of the seven House impeachment managers, as well as the clerk and sergeant-at-arms, delivering those articles to the Senate.
That photo and two stories about impeachment dominated the top of the page. Trump’s “phase 1” trade deal with China got the mid-page area and various other stories (“Warren Confronts the Skeptics Who Fear Her Plans Go Too Far”) were at page bottom. Stuck between the impeachment headliners and the Warren story was, however, a little insert. You might think of it as the news equivalent of a footnote. It had a tiny chart of global temperatures, 1880 to 2019, a micro-headline (“Warmer and Warmer”), and a note that read: “In the latest sign of global warming’s grip on the planet, the past decade was the hottest on record, researchers said. Page A8.” And, indeed, on that page was Henry Fountain’s latest story on the subject.
As it happened, between the 9th and 16th of January, yet more news about our heating planet had come out that, in a sense, was even grimmer. A new analysis found that the oceans, sinkholes for the heat trapped by greenhouse gas emissions, had also experienced their hottest five years on record (ditto for the last decade). In their case, however, 2019 was the very hottest, not the second hottest, year so far. And that, too, was a Times story, but only online.
Two Kinds of Time
Now, I don’t want you to misunderstand me here. The New York Times is anything but a climate change-denying newspaper. It has some superb environmental and global-warming coverage (including of Australia recently) by top-of-the-line journalists like Somini Sengupta. It’s in no way like Fox News or the rest of Rupert Murdoch’s fervently climate-denying media organization that happens to control more than 70% of newspaper circulation in burning Australia.
The situation I’ve been describing is, I suspect, far more basic and human than that and — my guess — it has to do with time. The time all of us are generally plunged into is, naturally enough, human time, which has a certain obvious immediacy for us — the immediacy, you might say, of everyday life. In human time, for instance, an autocratic-minded showman like Donald Trump can rise to the presidency, be impeached, and fall, or be impeached, stay in office, and pass on his “legacy” to his children until something new comes along to make its mark, fail or end in its own fashion, and go the way of… well, of all of us. That’s human history, again and again.
And then there’s the time-scape of global warming, which exists on a scale hard for us mortals to truly take in. After all, whatever Donald Trump might do won’t last long, not really — with two possible exceptions: the use of nuclear weapons in an apocalyptic fashion or the help he’s offering fossil-fuel companies in putting yet more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, while working to limit the development of alternative energy, both of which will only make the climate crisis to come yet more severe.
Otherwise, his time is all too human. With our normally far less than century-long life spans, we are, in the end, such immediate creatures. Climate change, even though human-caused, works on another scale entirely. Once its effects are locked in, we’re not just talking about 2100 or 2150, dates hard enough for us to get our brains (no less our policy-making) around, but hundreds of years, even millennia. Though we’ve known about climate change for many decades now, we’re dealing with a time scale that our brains simply aren’t prepared to fully take in.
When weighing an Iranian drone assassination or a presidential impeachment or the latest development in election 2020 against news of the long-term transformation of this planet, no matter how disastrous, the immediate tends to win out, whether you’re a New York Times editor or just about anyone else.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that it’s been so difficult to truly grasp the import of the warming of this planet, because its effects have, until now, generally been relatively subtle or challenging to grasp. When The Donald is in the White House or Harry and Meghan cause a stir or an Iranian major general is assassinated, that’s riveting, graspable, headlines. Those heating waters, those warming temperatures, the bleaching of coral reefs, the melting of ice shields in Greenland, the Arctic, and the Antarctic leading to rising sea levels that could one day drown coastal cities, maybe not so much, not deep down, not where it truly counts.
The real question is: When will climate change truly enter human time — when, that is, will the two time scales intersect in a way that clicks? Perhaps (but just perhaps) we’re finally seeing the beginning of an answer to that question for which you would, I suspect, have to thank two phenomena: Greta Thunberg and Australia’s fires.
In August 2018, all alone, the 15-year-old Thunberg began a Friday school strike in front of the Swedish parliament in Stockholm to make a point: that however all-encompassing the present human moment might seem, she understood in a way that mattered how her future and that of her peers was being stolen by the adults in charge of this planet and the climate crisis they were continuing to feed. The movement of the young she sparked, one that’s still sparking, was a living, breathing version of those two times intersecting. In other words, she somehow grasped and transmitted in a compelling way how a future crisis of staggering proportions was being nailed in place in human time, right at that very moment.
And then, of course, there was — there is — Australia. But one more thing before I get to the devastation of that country. I began writing this piece in New York City on a weekend in January when the temperature hit a record-breaking 65-69 degrees, depending on where in the metropolitan area you were measuring. (A couple of hundred miles north in Boston, it hit 74 degrees!) It was glorious, spring-like, idyllic, everything a human being in “winter” could want — if, that is, you hadn’t made it past Meghan and Harry or Suleimani and Trump, and so didn’t have a sense of what such records might mean on a planet threatening to heat to the boiling point in the coming century. We’re talking, of course, about a world in which Donald Trump and crew were responding to climate change by attempting to open the taps on every kind of fossil fuel and the greenhouse gas emissions that go with their burning. Meanwhile, despite the news that, by 2100, parts of the North China plain with its hundreds of millions of inhabitants could be too hot for habitation, China’s leaders were still pushing a global Belt and Road Initiative that involves the building of at least 63 new coal-fired power plants in 23 countries. Huzzah! And remember that China and the United States are already the top two emitters of greenhouses gases.
Of course, tell that to the Australians whose country, by the way, is the world’s third largest exporter of fossil fuels. For the last month or more, it’s also been a climate-change disaster area of a previously unimaginable sort. Even if you haven’t taken in the acreage that fire has already destroyed (estimated to be the size of South Korea or the state of Virginia) — fire that, by the way, is making its own weather — you’ve certainly seen the coverage of the dead or hurt koalas and roos, right? Maybe you’ve even seen the estimate by one scientist — no way to confirm it yet — that a billion creatures (yes, 1,000,000,000) might already have died in those fires and it’s still not the height of the Australian summer or fire season.
In some fashion, as a climate-change disaster, Australia seems to have broken through. (It probably doesn’t hurt that it has all those cute, endangered animals.) Looking back, we earthlings may someday conclude that, with Greta and with Australia burning, the climate crisis finally began breaking into human time. Yes, there was that less than Edenic November of 2018 in Paradise, California, and there have been other weather disasters, including hurricanes Maria and Dorian, that undoubtedly were heightened by climate-change, but Australia may be the first time that the climate-change time-scape and human history have intersected in a way that truly mattered.
And although, in the midst of winter, this country isn’t burning, we do have something else in common with those Australians: a nation being run by arsonists, by genuine pyromaniacs. After all, earlier in his coal-fired career, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison brought a literal lump of coal into that country’s parliament, soothingly reassuring the other members that “this is coal. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be scared.”
In the election he won in 2019 (against a Labor Party promoting action on climate change), he was in big coal’s back pocket. And like our president, his government has been messing with international attempts to deal with the climate crisis ever since. Again like our president, he’s also been an open denier of the very reality of climate change and so one of a crew of right-wing global leaders seemingly intent on setting this planet afire.
Years ago, in my apartment building, someone dozed off while smoking in bed, starting a fire a couple of floors below me. I noticed only when the smoke began filtering under my door. Opening it, I found the hall filled with smoke. Heading downstairs wasn’t an option. In fact, a couple who had tried to do so were trapped on my floor and I quickly took them in. I barely had time to panic, however, before I heard the sirens of the first fire engines. Not long after, the doorbell rang and two firemen were there, instructing me to open all the windows and stuff towels at the bottom of the door to keep the smoke out. I’m sure I’ve never been so happy to greet someone at my door.
That fire was, in the end, contained inside the apartment where it started and I was in no danger, but peering into that smoke-filled hallway I would never have known it. The memory of that long-lost afternoon came back to me in the context of burning Australia, a country where fire fighters had been desperately at work for weeks without being able to douse the hundreds of blazes across that drought-stricken land, which has also recently experienced record high temperatures. It’s been the definition of a living nightmare.
And here’s what I began to wonder on this newest version of planet Earth: Are we all in some sense Australians, whether we know it or not? I don’t mean that as an empathetic statement of solidarity with the suffering people of that land (though I do feel for them). I mean it as a statement of grim fact. Admittedly, it won’t be fire for all of us. For some, it will be rising sea levels, flooding of a never-before-experienced sort, storms or heat waves of a previously unimagined ferocity, and so on.
Still, right now, Australia is our petri dish and unless we get rid of the arsonists who are running too many countries and figure out a way to come together in human time, we’re likely to enter a world where there will be no fire fighters to save us (or our children and grandchildren). Climate change, after all, looks to be nature’s slo-mo version of nuclear war.
In movie terms, think of Australia as the previews. For most of us, the main feature is still to come. The problem is that the schedule for that feature may not be found in your local paper.
The Fate of the Earth
Yes, our infrastructure stinks, our schools are failing, this country’s a nightmare of inequality, and there’s a self-promoting madman in the White House, so isn’t it time to take pride in the rare institutional victories America has had in this century? Arguably, none has been more striking than the triumphal success of the American war system.
Oh, you’re going to bring that up immediately? Okay, you’re right. It’s true enough that the U.S. military can’t win a war anymore. In this century, it’s never come out on top anywhere, not once, not definitively. And yes, just to get a step ahead of you, everywhere it’s set foot across the Greater Middle East and Africa, it seems to have killed startling numbers of people and uprooted so many more, sending lots of them into exile and so unsettling other parts of the world as well. In the process, it’s also had remarkable success spreading failed states and terror groups far and wide.
Al-Qaeda, whose 19 suicidal hijackers so devastatingly struck this country on September 11, 2001, was just a modest outfit then (even if its leader dreamt of drawing the U.S. into conflicts across the Islamic world that would promote his group big time). Nineteen years later, its branches have spread from Yemen to West Africa, while the original al-Qaeda still exists. And don’t forget its horrific progeny, the Islamic State, or ISIS (originally al-Qaeda in Iraq). Though the U.S. military has declared it defeated in its “caliphate” (it isn’t, not truly), its branches have multiplied from the Philippines deep into Africa.
And the Afghan War, that original American invasion of this century, remains hell on Earth more than 18 years later. In December, the Washington Post broke a story about interviews on that conflict conducted by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction with 400 key insiders, military and civilian, revealing that it was a war of (well-grasped) error. As that paper’s reporter, Craig Whitlock, put it: “Senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.”
Many of those generals and other officials who had claimed, year after year, that there was “progress” in Afghanistan, that the U.S. had turned yet another “corner,” admitted to the Inspector General’s interviewers that they had been lying to the rest of us. In truth, so long after the invasion of 2001, this wasn’t exactly news (not if you had been paying attention anyway). And it couldn’t have been more historically familiar. After all, U.S. military commanders and other key officials had, in a similar fashion, regularly hailed “progress” in the Vietnam War years, too. As U.S. war commander General William Westmoreland put it in an address to the National Press Club in 1967, “We have reached an important point where the end begins to come into view,” a sentiment later boiled down by American officialdom to seeing “the light at the end of the tunnel.”
In fact, half a century later, these, too, have proved to be tunnel years for the U.S. military in its global war on terror, which might more accurately be called a global war of error. Take Iraq, the country that, in the spring of 2003, President George W. Bush and crew so triumphantly invaded, claiming a connection between its autocratic ruler, Saddam Hussein, and al-Qaeda, while citing the dangers of the weapons of mass destruction he supposedly possessed. Both claims were, of course, fantasies propagated by officials dreaming of using that invasion to establish a Pax Americana in the oil-rich Middle East forever and a day. (“Mission accomplished!”)
So many years later, Americans are still dying there; American air and drone strikes are still ongoing; and American troops are still being sent in, as Iraqis continue to die in significant numbers in a country turned into a stew of displacement, poverty, protest, and chaos. Meanwhile, ISIS (formed in an American prison camp in Iraq) threatens to resurge amid the never-ending mess that invasion created — and war with Iran seems to be the order of the day.
And just to continue down a list that’s little short of endless, don’t forget Somalia. The U.S. military has been fighting there, on and off, with strikingly negative consequences since the infamous Blackhawk Down disaster of 1993. Last year, American air strikes rose again to record levels there, while — no surprise — the terror outfit Washington has been fighting in that country since 2006, al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda offshoot, seems only to be gaining strength.
Hey, even the Russians got a (grim) win in Syria; the U.S., nowhere. Not in Libya, a failed state filled with warring militias and bad guys of every sort in the wake of a U.S.-led overthrow of the local autocrat. Not in Niger, where four American soldiers died at the hands of an ISIS terror group that still thrives; not in Yemen, yet another failed state where a Washington-backed Saudi war follows perfectly in the U.S. military’s footsteps in the region. So, yes, you’re right to challenge me with all of that.
How to Run a War of Error
Nonetheless, I stand by my initial statement. In these years, the American war system has proven to be a remarkable institutional success story. Think of it this way: in the military of the twenty-first century, failure is the new success. In order to grasp this, you have to stop looking at Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and the rest of those embattled lands and start looking instead at Washington, D.C. While you’re at it, you need to stop thinking that the gauge of success in war is victory. That’s so mid-twentieth century of you! In fact, almost the opposite may be true when it comes to the American way of war today.
After more than 18 years of what, once upon a time, would have been considered failure, tell me this: Is the Pentagon receiving more money or less? In fact, it’s now being fed record amounts of tax dollars (as is the whole national security state). Admittedly, Congress can’t find money for the building or rebuilding of American infrastructure — China now has up to 30,000 kilometers of high-speed rail and the U.S. not one — and is riven by party animosities on issue after issue, but funding the Pentagon? No problem. When it comes to that, there’s hardly a question, hardly a dispute at all. Agreement is nearly unanimous.
Failure, in other words, is the new success and that applies as well to the “industrial” part of the military-industrial complex. That reality was caught in a Washington Post headline the day after a CIA drone assassinated General Qassem Suleimani: “Defense stocks spike after airstrike against Iranian commander.” Indeed, the good times clearly lay ahead. In the age of Trump, when the last secretary of defense was a former Boeing executive and the present one a former lobbyist for arms-maker Raytheon, it’s been weapons galore all the way to the bank. Who cares if those weapons really work as advertised or if the wars in which they’re used are winnable, as long as they’re bought at staggering prices (and other countries buy them as well)? If you don’t believe me, just check out Lockheed Martin’s F-35 jet fighter, the most expensive weapons system ever (that doesn’t really work). Hey, in 2019, that company got a $2.43 billion contract just for spare parts for the plane!
And this version of a success story applies not just to funding and weaponry but to the military’s leadership as well. Keep in mind that, after almost two decades without a victory in sight, if you check any poll, you’ll find that the U.S. military remains the most admired institution around (or the one Americans have most “confidence” in). And under the circumstances, tell me that isn’t an accomplishment of the first order.
For just about every key figure in the U.S. military, you can now safely say that failure continues to be the order of the day. Consider it the twenty-first-century version of a military insurance policy: keep on keeping on without ever thinking outside the box and you’ll be pushed up the chain of command to ever more impressive positions (and, sooner or later, through Washington’s infamous “revolving door” onto the corporate boards of weapons makers and other defense firms). You’ll be hailed as a great and thoughtful commander, a genuine historian of war, and a strategist beyond compare. You’ll be admired by one and all.
Americans of another age would have found this strange indeed, but not today. Take, for instance, former Secretary of Defense and Marine General James “Mad Dog” Mattis who led troops into Afghanistan in 2001 and again in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In 2004, as commander of the 1st Marine Division, he was asked about a report that his troops had taken out a wedding party in western Iraq, including the wedding singer and his musicians, killing 43 people, 14 of them children. He responded: “How many people go to the middle of the desert… to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization?”
And then, of course, he only rose further, ending up as the head of U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, which oversees America’s wars in the Greater Middle East (and you know how that went), until he retired in 2013 and joined the corporate board of General Dynamics, the nation’s fifth largest defense contractor. Then, in 2016, a certain Donald J. Trump took a liking to the very idea of a general nicknamed “mad dog” and appointed him to run the Department of Defense (which should probably be renamed the Department of Offense). There, with full honors, the former four-star general oversaw the very same wars until, in December 2018, deeply admired by Washington journalists among others, he resigned in protest over a presidential decision to withdraw American troops from Syria (and rejoined the board of General Dynamics).
In terms of the system he was in, that may have been his only genuine “error,” his only true “defeat.” Fortunately for the Pentagon, another commander who had risen through the same dead-end wars, four-star Army General Mark Milley, having been appointed head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, knew just what to whisper in the president’s ear — the magic word “oil,” or rather some version of protect (i.e. take) Syrian oil fields — to get him to send American troops back into that country to continue the local version of our never-ending wars.
By now, Milley’s rise to glory will seem familiar to you. In announcing his appointment as Army chief of staff in 2015, for instance, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter called him “a warrior and a statesman.” He added, “He not only has plenty of operational and joint experience in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and on the Joint Staff, but he also has the intellect and vision to lead change throughout the Army.” Exactly!
Milley had, in fact, fought in both the Afghan and Iraq wars, serving three tours of duty in Afghanistan alone. In other words, the more you don’t win — the more you are, in a sense, in error — the more likely you are to advance. Or as retired General Gordon Sullivan, president of the Association of the United States Army and a former chief of staff himself, put it then, Milley’s command experience in war and peace gave him “firsthand knowledge of what the Army can do and of the impact of resource constraints on its capabilities.”
In other words, he was a man ready to command who knew just how to handle this country’s losing wars and keep them (so to speak) on track. Once upon a time, such a crew of commanders would have been considered a military of losers, but no longer. They are now the eternal winners in America’s war of error.
In September 2013, Milley, then an Army three-star general, typically offered this ludicrously rosy assessment of Afghanistan’s American-trained and American-supplied security forces: “This army and this police force have been very, very effective in combat against the insurgents every single day.”
As Tony Karon wrote recently, “Either Milley was dissembling or he was deluded and therefore grotesquely incompetent.” One thing we know, though: when it comes to public military assessments of the Afghan War (and the global war on terror more generally), he was typical. For such commanders, it was invariably “progress” all the way.
Just in case you don’t quite see the pattern yet, after the Washington Post‘s Afghanistan Papers came out last December, offering clear evidence that, whatever they said in public, America’s commanders saw little in the way of “progress” in the Afghan War, Milley promptly stepped up to the plate. He labeled that report’s conclusions “mischaracterizations.” He insisted instead that the endlessly optimistic public comments of generals like him had been “honest assessments… never intended to deceive either the Congress or the American people.”
Oh, and here’s a final footnote (as reported in the New York Times last year) on how Milley (and top commanders like him) operated — and not just in Afghanistan either:
“As Army chief of staff, General Milley has come under criticism from some in the Special Operations community for his involvement in the investigation into the 2017 ambush in Niger that left four American soldiers dead. He persuaded Patrick M. Shanahan, who was acting defense secretary, to curtail a broader review, and also protected the career of an officer who some blamed for the ambush. General Milley’s backers said he prevented the officer from leading another combat unit.”
Whatever you do, in other words, don’t give up the ghost (of error). Think of this as the formula for “success” in that most admired of institutions, the U.S. military. After all, Milley and Mattis are just typical of the commanders who rose (and are still rising) to ever more prestigious positions on the basis of losing (or at least not winning) an endless series of conflicts. Those failed wars were their tickets to success. Go figure.
Where Defeat Culture Leads
In other words, the men who fought the twenty-first-century equivalents of Vietnam — though against right-wing Islamists, not left-wing nationalists and communists — the men who never for a second figured out how to win “hearts and minds” any better than General William Westmorland had half a century earlier, are now triumphantly running the show in Washington. Add in the corporate types who endlessly arm them for battle and lobby for more of the same while raking in the dough and you have a system that no one involved would want to change. It’s a formula for success that works like a dream (even if someday that dream is sure to end up looking like a nightmare).
Once upon a time, in the early 1990s, I wrote a book called The End of Victory Culture. In it, I traced how a deeply embedded American culture of triumph evaporated in the Vietnam War years, “its graveyard for all to see,” as “the answers of 1945 dissolved so quickly into the questions of 1965.” Speaking of the impact of that war on American culture, I added: “There was no narrative form that could long have contained the story of a slow-motion defeat inflicted by a nonwhite people in a frontier war in which the statistics of American victory seemed everywhere evident.”
Little did I know then how deeply a version of what might be called “defeat culture” would embed itself in American life. After all, Donald Trump couldn’t have been elected to “make America great again” without it. From the evidence of these years, nowhere was that culture more deeply absorbed (however unconsciously) than in the military itself, which has, in our time, managed to turn it into a version of the ultimate success story.
Afghanistan has, of course, long been known as “the graveyard of empires.” The Soviet Union fought Islamic militants (backed by the Saudis and the United States) for nine years there before, in 1989, the Red Army limped home in defeat to watch a drained empire implode two years later. That left the U.S. as the “sole superpower” on Planet Earth and its military as the uncontested greatest one of all.
And it took that military just a decade to head for that same graveyard. In this century, Americans have lost trillions of dollars in the never-ending wars Washington has conducted across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, wars that represent an eternal reign (rain?) of error. I’ve long suspected that the Soviet Union wasn’t the only superpower with problems in 1991. Though it was anything but obvious at the time, I’ve since written: “It will undoubtedly be clear enough… that the U.S., seemingly at the height of any power’s power in 1991 when the Soviet Union disappeared, began heading for the exits soon thereafter, still enwreathed in self-congratulation and triumphalism.”
The question is: When will the far more powerful of the two superpowers of the Cold War era finally leave that graveyard of empires (now spread across a significant swath of the planet)? Still commanded by the losers of those very wars, will it, like the Red Army, limp home one day to watch its country implode? Will it leave a world of war, of the dead, of countless refugees and rubblized cities, and finally return to see its own society disintegrate in some fashion?
Who knows? But keep your eyes peeled in 2020 and beyond. Someday, the U.S. military’s war of error will come to an end and one thing seems certain: it won’t be pretty.
The Global War of Error
Here’s the question at hand — and I guarantee you that you’ll read it here first: Is Donald Trump the second or even possibly the third 9/11? Because truly, he has to be one or the other.
Let me explain, and while I do, keep this in mind: as 2019 ends, thanks to Brexit and the victory of Boris Johnson in Britain’s recent election, the greatest previous imperial power on this planet is clearly headed for the sub-basement of history. Meanwhile, that other superpower of the Cold War era, the Soviet Union, now Russia, remains a well-sauced Putinesca shadow of its former self. And then, of course, there’s the country that, not so long ago, every major American politician but Donald Trump proclaimed the most exceptional, indispensable nation ever.
As it happens, the United States — if you didn’t catch the reference above — has been looking a bit peaked lately itself. You can’t say that it’s the end of the road for a land of such wealth and staggering military power, enough to finish off several Earth-sized planets. However, it’s clearly a country in decline on a planet in the same condition and its present leader, Tariff Man, however uniquely orange-faced he may be, is just the symptom of the long path to hell in a handbasket its leadership embarked on almost three decades ago as the Cold War ended.
Admittedly, President Trump has proved to be the symptom from hell. To give him full credit, he’s now remarkably hard-at-tweet dismantling the various alliances, agreements, and organizations that U.S. leaders had assembled, since 1945, to make this country the Great Britain (and beyond) of the second half of the twentieth century and that’s an accomplishment of the first order.
And keep in mind the context for so much of this: it’s happening in a country that may be experiencing an unprecedented kind of inequality. It’s producing billionaires at a staggering clip with just three men already possessing wealth equivalent to that of half the rest of the population; this, mind you, at a moment when the globe’s 26 richest people reportedly are worth as much as half of everyone else, or 3.8 billion people. And this in a world in which, as the income of that poorest half of humanity continues to decline, the wealth of billionaires increases by $2.5 billion a day and a new billionaire is minted every two days.
Had all of this not already been so and had a sense of decline not been in the air, it’s inconceivable that those heartland white Americans who had come to feel themselves on the losing end of developments in this country would have sent a charlatan billionaire into the White House to represent them (or at least to give the finger to the Washington establishment). And all this on a planet that itself, in climate terms, appears to be in unprecedented decline.
Think of the above as part of what’s come down, metaphorically speaking, since those towers in New York fell more than 18 years ago.
Looking Back on 9/11
It’s in this context that we should all look back on what truly did come down that Tuesday morning in September 2001, an all-American day of the grimmest sort. That was, of course, the day when this country was attacked by 19 suicidal hijackers, most of them Saudi, using American commercial jets as their four-plane air force. They, in turn, were inspired by a man, Osama bin Laden, and his organization, al-Qaeda, part of a crew of radical Islamists that Washington had backed years earlier in an Afghan War against the Soviet Union. In response to the events of that day — though it seems unimaginable now — we could have joined a world already in pain, one that had experienced horrors largely unimaginable in this country until that moment, in a kind of global solidarity.
Instead, responding to the destruction of those towers in Manhattan and part of the Pentagon, the Bush administration essentially launched a war against much of the planet. They soon dubbed it a “Global War on Terror,” or GWOT, and key officials almost instantly claimed it would have more than 60 countries (or terror groups in them) in its sights. Eighteen years later, the U.S. is still at war across a vast swath of the globe, involved in conflict after conflict from the Philippines to Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq to northern Africa and beyond. In the process, that GWOT has produced failed state after failed state and terror group after terror group, enough to make the original al-Qaeda (still going) look like nothing at all. And of course, in all these years, the U.S. military, hailed here as “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known” (and similar formulations), lacks a single decisive (or even modest) victory. Meanwhile, everywhere, yet more towers, real or metaphorical, continue to fall; in fact, whole cities in the Middle East now lie in rubble.
The top officials of President George W. Bush’s administration would, at the time, mistake 9/11 for a kind of upside-down stroke of luck, the perfect excuse for launching military operations, including invasions, geared to the ultimate domination of the planet (and its key oil supplies). Via drones armed with missiles and bombs, they would turn any president into an assassin-in-chief. They would, in the end, help spread terror groups in a fashion beyond imagining on September 12, 2001, while their never-ending wars would displace vast numbers of innocent people, creating a refugee crisis of a kind not seen since the end of World War II when significant parts of the planet stood in ruins. And all of that, in turn, would help spark, on a global scale, what came to be known as the “populist right,” in part thanks to the very refugees created by that GWOT. The response to what came down on 9/11, in other words, would create its own hell on Earth.
Who knew back then? Not me, that’s for sure. Not when I started what became TomDispatch 18 years ago, feeling, in the wake of 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, that something was truly wrong with our world, that something more than the World Trade Center might be in the process of coming down around all our ears. I can still remember the feeling in those weeks, as I saw the mainstream media’s focus narrow drastically amid nationwide self-congratulatory celebrations of this country as the greatest survivor, dominator, and victim on the planet. I watched with trepidation as we began to close down to the world, while essentially attempting to take all the roles in the global drama for ourselves except greatest evil doer, which was, of course, left to Osama bin Laden.
I still remember thinking then that the Vietnam years had been the worst and most embattled in my lifetime, but that somehow this — whatever it turned out to be — would be so much worse. And yet whatever I was sensing, whatever I was imagining, wouldn’t prove to be the half of it, not the quarter of it.
If you had told me then that we were heading for Donald Trump’s version of American decline and a corrupt global gilded age of unprecedented proportions, one in which showmanship, scam, and self-serving corruption would become the essence of everything, while god knows what kinds of nightmares — like those subprime mortgages of the 2007 economic meltdown — were quietly piling up somewhere just beyond our view, I would have thought you mad.
The Second 9/11
All these years later, it’s strange to feel something like that moment recurring. Of course, in this elongated Trumpian version of it, no obvious equivalent to those towers in New York has come down. And yet, over the three years of The Donald’s presidency, can’t you just feel that something has indeed been coming down, even as the media’s coverage once again narrowed, this time not to a single self-congratulatory story of greatness and sadness, but to one strange man and his doings.
If you think about it, I suspect you can feel it, too. Looking back to 2016, mightn’t you agree that Donald Trump rather literally embodied a second 9/11? He certainly was, after a fashion, the hijacker-in-chief of that moment, not sent by al-Qaeda, of course, but… well, by whom? That is, indeed, the question, isn’t it? Whom exactly did he represent? Not his famed “base,” those red-hatted MAGA enthusiasts at his endless rallies who felt they had gotten lost in the shuffle of wealth and politics and corruption in this country. Perhaps, of course, the al-Qaeda of that moment was actually another kind of terrorist crew entirely, the one-percenters who had mistaken this country’s wealth for their own and preferred a billionaire of any sort in the White House for the first time in history. Or maybe, as a presidential hijacker first class, Donald Trump simply represented himself and no one else at all. Perhaps he was ready to bring a whole system to its knees (just as he had once bankrupted those five casinos of his in Atlantic City), as long as he could jump ship in the nick of time with the loot.
On that first 9/11, those towers came down. The second time around, the only thing that came down, at least in the literal sense, was, of course, The Donald himself. He famously descended that Trump Tower escalator into the presidential race in June 2015, promoting a “great wall” (still unbuilt years later and now, like everything The Donald touches, a cesspool of corruption) and getting rid of Mexican “rapists.”
From that moment on, Donald Trump essentially hijacked our world. I mean, try to tell me that, in the years since, he hasn’t provided living evidence that the greatest power in human history, the one capable of destroying the planet six different ways, has no brain, no real coordination at all. It’s fogged in by a mushroom cloud of largely senseless media coverage and, though still the leading force on the planet, in some rather literal fashion has lost its mind.
No wonder it’s almost impossible to tell what we’re actually living through. Certainly, in a slo-mo version of 9/11, Donald Trump has been taking down the nation as we’ve known it. Admittedly, unlike Bolivia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and other such places on this increasingly unsettled planet of ours, true civil strife has (yet) to break out here (though individual mass shootings certainly have). Still, the president and some of his supporters have begun talking about, even threatening, “civil war” for our unsettled future.
On the first 9/11, the greatest power in history struck out at the planet. The second time around, it seems to be preparing to strike out at itself.
Was 11/9 the original 9/11?
Perhaps this is the time to bring up the possibility that September 11, 2001, might not really have been the first 9/11 and that Donald Trump might actually be the third, not the second 9/11.
In a sense, the first 9/11 might really have been 11/9. I’m thinking, of course, of November 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall, that symbol of the Cold War, a divided Europe, and a deeply divided world, suddenly began to be torn down by East and West Germans. Believe me, in our nation’s capital, it was an event no less unexpected or shocking than September 11, 2001. Until that moment, Washington’s political class and the crew who ran the national security state had continued to imagine a future dominated by a never-ending Cold War with the Soviet Union. The shock of that moment is still hard to grasp.
Looked at a certain way, that November the people had hijacked history and Washington’s response to it would be no less monumentally misplaced than to the 2001 moment. Once the key officials of George H.W. Bush’s administration had taken in what happened, they essentially declared ultimate victory. Over everything. For all time.
With the U.S., the last standing superpower, ultimately victorious in a way never before imagined, history itself seemed to be at an end. The future was ours, forever, and we had every right to grab it for ourselves. The world in which so many of us had grown up was declared over and done with in a wave of self-congratulatory backslapping in Washington. The planet, it seemed, was now our oyster and ours alone. (And if you want to know how that turned out, just think of Donald Trump in the White House and then read Andrew Bacevich’s new book, The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.)
It’s in this context that Trump’s could be considered the third hijacking of our era. Given his sense of self, his might even be thought of not as the 1% hijacking moment, but as the .000000001% moment.
And be prepared: the next version of 9/11, however defined, is guaranteed to make Osama bin Laden and his 19 hijackers look like so many pikers. Depending on what tipping points are reached and what happens after that on our rapidly warming planet, so much could come down around humanity’s ears. And if so, that moment in 2015 when Donald Trump rode an escalator down into the presidential contest to the tune of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” will look very different — because it will be far clearer than it is even now that he was carrying a blowtorch with him.
Is Donald Trump the Second 9/11?
French king Louis XV reputedly said, “Après moi, le déluge.” (“After me, the flood.”) Whether that line was really his or not remains unclear, but not long after his death did come the French Revolution. We should be so lucky! Our all-American version of Louis XV, Donald I, is incapable, I suspect, of even imagining a world after him. Given the historically unprecedented way he’s covered by the “fake” or “corrupt” news media, that “enemy of the people,” I doubt they really can either.
Never, you might say, have we, as a nation, been plunged quite so fully not just into the ever-present, but into one man’s version of it. In other words, for us, the deluge is distinctly now and it has an orange tint, a hefty body, and the belligerent face of every 1950s father I ever knew — my own, in his angrier moods, included — as well as of redbaiting Senator Joseph McCarthy. Of course, you have to be at least as old as me to remember that Trump-anticipating political showman and his own extreme moment. After all, in distinctly Trumpian fashion (though without Twitter), he accused President Truman’s secretary of defense, George Marshall, and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, of being Russian agents. As McCarthy said at the time, “How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster?” McCarthy (whose aide, Roy Cohn, was once Donald Trump’s mentor) offers a reminder that Trumpian-style personalities were not unknown in our history and that, in the case of McCarthy, their antics were, however minimally by twenty-first-century standards, actually televised.
Our very own Louis XV is, of course, something else again: a deluge of tweets, insults, self-praise, lies and false claims, and strange acts of almost every imaginable sort. In other words, thanks in significant part to the media and social media, Donald J. Trump is indeed the definition of a deluge and we, the American people, are — thought about a certain way — present-day Venice; we are, that is, six feet under water, even if we don’t quite know it.
And here’s what may be the strangest thing of all: while HE — and, given the last three-plus years, those caps are anything but an exaggeration — is dealt with by the media in deluge fashion, there’s one story that’s in our faces everyday and yet, in some sense — a sense that drives me bonkers — is simply missing in action. To be clear: since 2016, Donald Trump has been covered in our ever-shrinking yet ever-expanding media universe like no other individual in history from Nebuchadnezzar’s moment to our own.
You know that. I know that. Everyone knows that — and yet, in case you haven’t noticed, the fact that HE’s in all our faces like no king, no emperor, no autocrat, no president, no entertainer, no performer ever is hardly being covered, hardly even acknowledged from day to day, week to week, month to month, or even sadly, given how long the Trumpian moment has already lasted, year to year. In other words, HE is eternally there, but the media, omnipresent as it may be when it comes to him, in some sense isn’t.
Winter Is Coming in Trumpian Fashion
The way that omnipresence is linked to his omnipresence must, I suppose, be obvious to everyone. Still, no one is really covering the coverage, not the way it should be covered in all its mind-boggling strangeness. Take the other day, a perfectly typical passing moment in my life in the age of Trump. On my way into the men’s locker room at my local gym, I stopped to have a sandwich in a room with a giant TV screen and a few tables and chairs. On any day as I wander through, the TV is almost invariably on — tuned in to (where else?) CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News — and if you-know-whose angry face isn’t on screen, then there are almost invariably several talking heads discussing HIM or something related to HIM anyway.
That particular day, when I sat down to eat my sandwich, CNN was on and the story being covered concerned an unscheduled visit the president had paid to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The White House claimed that Trump was simply getting part of his yearly physical early because he happened to have a free weekend in Washington. But the visit was (gasp!) “unannounced” and evidently unexpected by the hospital staff — as if much that Donald Trump does is announced and expected — and who knew what that meant.
In truth, the answer was: no one about to be onscreen yakking had much of anything to offer. The only news, beyond the visit itself, was that there was no news at all about HIM. Still, medical experts were interviewed and, by the time I had finished my sandwich and headed into the locker room, the talking heads were still discussing… well, essentially the same nothing much because nothing much was known.
And when I walked through that same room on my way out after my swim, another set of talking heads was, of course, discussing the president’s unscheduled visit to Walter Reed. Several days later, when I began writing this piece, the issue was still being chewed over by columnists and on TV and, as with so much else about this president, days after Trump’s “mysterious, unannounced visit to the hospital,” as the New York Times put it all too accurately, there remained “a torrent of speculation” about it. Then again, such a description could be applied endlessly to stories about Donald J. Trump.
Now, there would be nothing particularly wrong with any of this, story by story, if it weren’t seemingly our only media present, past, and future in the Trump era. But the historically unprecedented nature of all this yakking, writing, interviewing, speculating, Tweeting, Facebooking, discussing, arguing, reporting, and perhaps, above all, the 24/7 talking heads on cable news going on and on about everything faintly related to one distinctly over-present personage (who was evidently God’s gift to them in 2016) has yet to truly sink in.
At some level, it’s not even complicated, especially in this impeachment moment. The shambling body of that president of ours — thanks to a set of media decisions about what truly draws eyeballs on this planet — simply blocks out much of the rest of the world, everything but HIM and anything or anyone faintly relevant to or associated with or ready to attack him and his strange imperial solar system. In media terms, he is now something akin to a force of nature, a Category 5 (or maybe 6) hurricane, but so, of course, is the coverage of him.
There’s obviously a unique history to be written of how King Donald I, still officially “president” of the United States (though he often acts as if he were something far more than that), proved so capable of drawing every camera, every bit of media attention to himself alone, how he kept “the red light” of those cameras and their social media equivalents ever on. It’s a feat for the ages and, it seems, a successful gamble in a media world that found itself in a scramble for ad dollars, for existence and eyeballs, a world that made some hard, if seldom publicly delineated, decisions about what, in the twenty-first century, the news was becoming.
After all, in a world in which so much is, in fact, happening (and going wrong), other decisions, though hard to imagine today, might have been possible and Donald Trump’s all-enveloping, all-absorbing presidency, under less of a media glare and stare, might have taken quite a different turn.
Right now, it doesn’t matter what the subject is: Sports? It’s him. Movies? It’s The Godfather Part II, Roger Stone, and him. And believe me, if there’s an expert on the Godfather films — and I know one! — he’ll be interviewed. Or if you were truly curious about how former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley managed to remain “all in” with the president as her new book comes out (despite a misstep or two and thanks to some advice from Ivanka and Jared), no problem. Hey, believe me, winter is coming and winter, it turns out, is HIM, too. It’s all him, all the time.
This is not, of course, the only way this world could be covered.
The Donald as a Perspective Problem
I remember the first moment I saw this kind of coverage and I was living in a very different world. It was Friday, November 22, 1963, and President John F. Kennedy had just been gunned down. I was 19 years old and, in those days when you didn’t have a screen in every room (or every hand), I was in the basement of my college dorm (along with so many others), near a pool table, watching the only accessible TV around. It was the closest we would come, except perhaps in the O.J. Simpson White Ford Bronco moment, to the sort of 24/7 coverage that has become the norm of the post-9/11 world.
In that case, of course, a president had been assassinated, something that hadn’t happened in my lifetime, not in fact in the lifetime of the TV set. And the reportage on the three major networks of that moment went on without commercials for four days — from soon after the fatal shots were fired that Friday, through the on-camera shooting of suspect Lee Harvey Oswald during a perp walk in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters that Sunday, until Kennedy’s funeral the following Monday (when 81% of home TVs were reportedly on). According to Nielsen, 93% of Americans were watching, “more than half of them for 13 or more straight hours.” But a president had been murdered and the coverage, while unique for its moment, did end.
Donald Trump exists in a very different universe, one in which the screen is with you, day and night, in which HE and you and it are often alone together for what seems like forever. At 75, I’m not quite as screened in as much of our world. I still read an actual newspaper, the New York Times, in print. (Who knows how much longer that will even be possible, as the paper newspaper continues to shrink?) And the truth is that, for me, it’s become a kind of daily nightmare. I have no doubt that the paper, which got rid of a number of its copy editors (and now has visible typos and errors daily), has assigned more reporters to cover you-know-who (& company) than it has ever assigned to cover anyone or anything long-term before. (Back in March 2018, for instance, I counted a typical day on the Trump beat and found “15 reporters, three op-ed writers, and the unnamed people who produced those editorials.”)
On some days, as in the week the impeachment hearings began, it’s no longer uncommon to have up to six interior pages of the paper covered with Trumpian “news” — at least two or three of those pieces continuations from the front page and many of them filled with material that’s distinctly repetitive. Think of it as the newspaper version of those endlessly talking heads on cable TV.
To take a recent example, on November 21st, the morning after U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testified in the impeachment hearings, of the six columns that normally make up the Times’s front page, three were devoted to giant quotes from Sondland’s testimony in large white and yellow print against a dark background. The other three atop the page were articles on the same subject, all under a single giant headline, another quote from Sondland, “We Followed the President’s Orders.” One was headlined “A Witness Places Pompeo Firmly ‘in the Loop’”; a second, “Democrats Detect Watergate Echo”; a third, “Sondland Names Top Officials in Ukraine Push.” At the bottom of the page was a piece on the Democratic debate of that night, headlined “Democrats Soften Disagreements and Sharpen Attacks on Trump.” Only a single piece, Sabrina Tavernise’s “Moving Vans Idle as Migration Stalls in a Reshaped Economy,” snugly lodged at the bottom right corner of the page, and one of the eight reporters involved in front-page coverage, had nothing to do with the president or his possible impeachment.
On the editorial pages, there was a giant editorial, “Implicating the President and His Men,” while three of the four op-eds opposite it had Trump in their titles (“Should Trump Tromp Rudy?,” “The Cowardice Behind Trump’s Vaping-Ban Retreat,” and “Trump Is Doing What He Was Elected to Do”). Inside the paper, there were another 5½ pages of pieces with Trump in the headline or on subjects related to the impeachment process, involving 11 more reporters. More than 20 reporters, op-ed and editorial writers, in other words, were dealing with the world of Donald Trump on that single day.
And yet that kind of coverage itself is never front-page news, even if he invariably is. In a sense, what that means is that you can neither see him for what he is nor see around him. Once upon a distant time — it was the 1990s, just after the Cold War ended — I wrote a book that I called The End of Victory Culture. In it, I explored how, “between 1945 and 1975, victory culture ended in America” and traced it to “its graveyard for all to see,” the disastrous war in Vietnam,” or as I put it: “It was a bare two decades from the beaches of Normandy to the beachfronts of Danang, from Overlord to Operation Hades, from GIs as liberators to grunts as perpetrators, from home front mobilization to antiwar demonstrations organized by ‘the Mobe.’”
And in truth, despite the dreams of Washington’s political elite in the immediate post-Cold War moment and then of top officials of the Bush administration in the post-9/11 moment, “victory” has turned out to be a truly lost cause for the planet’s most “indispensable” nation, as our never-ending wars of this century have made all too clear. Whether we know it or not, we are now in a distinctly post-post-triumphalist American world. Otherwise, of course, there’s no way Donald Trump would be in the White House.
But here’s my question for someone who isn’t 75 years old and is ready to write a new book: What exactly are we at the end of now? It must be something, mustn’t it? What does the Trump phenomenon really represent? And far more important, what lurks behind all the attention paid to him (other, of course, than a climate-changed planet)?
He’s our “witch hunt” president and, if nothing else, he’s presented us, Escher-style, with a remarkable perspective problem. Thanks to certain essential media decisions about what matters (especially when it comes to gluing eyeballs to screens), we’re eternally in close-up. It isn’t just that Donald Trump is somewhat overweight. He’s the sumo wrestler as president. He fills the screen. Every screen. All the time.
Thanks to the media, he’s impeaching us. But really — and I’m just asking — which witches are we actually hunting these days?
Après Moi, le Déluge…
There can be no question about it. Donald Trump is Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts. “Off with his head!” was the president’s essential suggestion for — to offer just one example — a certain whistleblower who fingered him on that now notorious Ukrainian phone call. And if The Donald hasn’t also been playing the roles of White Rabbit, Mad Hatter, and other characters from Carroll’s classic nineteenth century children’s book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, then tell me what he’s been doing these last years.
Unfortunately, in attempting to explain the Trumpian world we’ve been plunged into, I’m not Lewis Carroll. If only I were! Still, I realized recently that, like Alice, I had gone down the proverbial rabbit hole and was still falling, falling as if into a deep, deep well or through the very center of the Earth. Now Alice, if you remember, first had to follow a White Rabbit with pink eyes who rushed by wearing a waistcoat, suddenly pulled a watch from its pocket, and said to itself, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” It then disappeared down that memorably large rabbit hole by a riverbank near her house in nineteenth-century England.
Willingly or not, I — and here, I suspect, I speak for most of the rest of us, too — had little choice, given election 2016, but to follow our own rabbit down a twenty-first-century version of that rabbit hole. It goes without saying that our rabbit, that famed impresario of (un)reality TV shows, was distinctly a white rabbit, too. (After all, he would be the first to assure you that he’s no “Mexican rapist,” nor a compatriot of the recently dead Congressman Elijah Cummings whom he labeled a “brutal bully” representing a “rat and rodent infested” district of Baltimore.)
In his own twitchy fashion, the president recently refused to throw out the first pitch at a World Series game in Washington, D.C., because he knew that the Secret Service would dress him up in “a lot of heavy armor” and he would, as he put it, “look too heavy.” In other words, he rejected his own armored version of a waistcoat, a Kevlar vest, because it might, he felt, make him seem fat. This sort of thing, now our everyday reality, even Lewis Carroll might have had trouble inventing. And if any of this seems petty to you, keep in mind that never in our history has there been a pettier or more self-absorbed president. (On his introduction at that baseball game, by the way, he was greeted with a chorus of boos and — a first — chants of “Lock him up!”)
For those of you who remember Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with its classic John Tenniel illustrations, here’s one image that, I think, captures our Trumpian moment. Alice, already in Wonderland, finds herself in a room with a door too little to exit through. (It seems to me that, since 2016, all of us have found ourselves in just such a room — updated to include an @realDonaldTrump Twitter account — with no exit in sight.) On a small table, she suddenly notices a tiny bottle, “which certainly was not here before.” As Carroll describes it, “Round the neck of the bottle was a paper label with the words ‘DRINK ME’ beautifully printed on it in large letters.”
After carefully checking to make sure it wasn’t marked “poison,” Alice sipped the liquid in that bottle. It had, she reported, a “mixed flavor of cherry-tart, custard, pineapple, roast turkey, toffy, and hot buttered-toast.” As she drank it, Alice found herself shrinking until she was 10 inches tall, just the size for that little door. She would later grow giant indeed in a world in which nothing seemed to remain expectably normal-sized.
Whatever we Americans may think, including the 30% percent or more of us who make up Donald Trump’s ever-loyal base, it seems to me that we’ve all shrunk quite a bit in the years since he entered the Oval Office, even as he’s grown, in his own strange way, to gigantic proportions, Kevlar vest or no. Through no fault of their own, in the last election season, many of those who would become part of that base were already far down a rabbit hole of inequality and feeling an increasing sense of hopelessness. No wonder that, recognizing a Queen of Hearts on their TV sets ready to insult the surrounding world of political propriety (“Low-energy Jeb,” “Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “Crooked Hillary“), they decided he would be the perfect messenger to give the finger to a Washington that had betrayed them.
Were he ever to enter the White House, they assumed, he might indeed take off the heads of some of those who had helped put them in such a spot. Since they undoubtedly had few illusions about just what sort of figure they were voting into the highest office in the land, they had no reason to reject or desert him almost three years later (though admittedly his administration and a Republican Congress have only increased inequality in this country). Today, with Donald Trump in Blunderland and themselves still falling, falling, they remain remarkably loyal to, and anything but disillusioned with, their very own Queen of Hearts.
The Donald’s Truest Moment in Blunderland
Now, consider for a moment just how wondrous (in a sense) all this has been. I mean, who, not in Blunderland, could ever have imagined that a bankrupted casino magnate and reality TV host might essentially — like his lawyer recently — butt-dial us all into a new form of (un)reality? Who could have imagined a world in which every camera would be focused on him and him alone, its red light seemingly always on? Who could have imagined that any bizarre thought our very own Queen of Hearts had or bit of braggadocio he tweeted or uttered (“[ISIS uses] the internet better than almost anybody in the world, perhaps other than Donald Trump”) would be the news of that day? Who could have imagined that, no matter how he insulted them, the “fake news media” would focus on him and him alone, assigning reporters to cover him in hordes that had been inconceivable in the pre-rabbit-hole history of journalism? In other words, in media terms, whatever Donald Trump drank, it made him far bigger than anything else on this planet.
And honestly, each day, when you tumble down that rabbit hole yet again, it hardly matters whether you’re heading there via CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News. What once would have been known as the politics of it all is now, in many ways, beside the point in what I once termed the White Ford Bronco presidency (in honor of the car O.J. Simpson drove down a California highway in a long-gone moment of no significance that was nonetheless blanketed by the TV news and watched by a nation).
Still, give Lewis Carroll the credit he deserves for grasping something of our twenty-first-century American fate so long ago. After all, his book ends on what might be thought of as the Wonderland version of an impeachment trial. There, the blustering Queen and King of Hearts are eternally eager for the heads of everyone, while the jurors — small animals, birds, and a lizard — desperately try to write down ridiculously irrelevant “evidence,” and Alice suddenly begins to grow ever larger as she watches the spectacle.
Much as it may anger Donald Trump, impeachment will be his truest moment in Blunderland, the one in which the focus on him will only become more extreme (“Drink this!”). In fact, count on it growing to proportions never before imagined on this planet. All of us will, by then, have drunk that potion and, despite what Carroll imagined in balmier times, it has indeed proven a kind of poison. The question, of course, is: Will the rest of us ever reach the book-ending moment in which all the characters in Wonderland, having turned back into so many playing cards, rise up “into the air” and come “flying down upon” Alice? As she beats them off, she suddenly awakens on that riverbank near her house, “her head in the lap of her sister, who was gently brushing away some dead leaves that had fluttered down from the trees upon her face.”
Will we someday wake up, too, and discover that our version of Wonderland, The Donald’s Blunderland, was all a kind of strange dream? Or in our time, in our world, might waking on that riverbank no longer be possible?
The New Hostage Crisis
In his acts, statements, and tweets, in his very essence, Donald Trump is the living version of a mixed metaphor. So it seems appropriate enough here to desert Wonderland and Blunderland momentarily for another set of images from our past.
Who, of a certain age, doesn’t remember November 4, 1979? That day, a group of Iranian student militants seized the American embassy in Tehran. They were protesting the arrival in the U.S. of the Shah, the ruler Washington had installed in power in their country via a CIA-British intelligence coup that overthrew a democratic government there in 1953. Only months before, the Shah had fled his country in the face of an uprising inspired by a fundamentalist cleric.
Those Iranian students took the diplomats and employees in that embassy hostage and held most of them under harsh conditions for 444 (highly televised) days, despite a failed American military attempt to rescue them. As anyone who lived through that time will remember, the hostage crisis proved decisive in domestic politics, undoubtedly costing Jimmy Carter reelection as president and putting Ronald Reagan in the White House in his place. (Curiously enough, the students finally freed their hostages on the day of Reagan’s inauguration.)
That more-than-year-long saga represented an early, far more minor version of the Trumpian media madness that grips us today. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to suggest — here comes that non-Wonderland mixed metaphor I promised you — that we are now in the midst of a new hostage crisis. Yes, 40 Novembers later, it’s happening again, only here. With the help of that “fake news media” of his, Donald Trump, a very different kind of fundamentalist, has taken us all hostage. And more than 1,000 days into his presidency, there seems little sign of rescue in sight.
Like those diplomats of long ago, we are all in some fashion blindfolded and somewhere in the distance we can, like them, hear the jeering crowds or perhaps, in our case, it’s just the jeering of our self-promotional president.
Yes, we are now, all of us, hostages in a country spiraling who knows where. To take another brief step back (though perspective on any of this couldn’t be harder to get), Donald Trump isn’t so much the cause of our present dilemma as the symptom and bizarre personification of it — of, that is, the sudden and precipitous decline of the American imperium at home and abroad.
It’s hard to wrap one’s head around all of this, in part because the very words “empire” and “imperial” aren’t in the American lexicon, not when applied to us anyway. And that’s too bad because they might give us a little perspective on the Blunderland we find ourselves in and how we got here.
Unfortunately, in the wake of the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, this country’s leaders, who took such pride in presiding over the only indispensable superpower on Planet Earth, managed to lead us into hell (a hell that is now Donald Trump). After years of the growth of devastating inequality here and failed wars in distant lands, that unparalleled imperial power is now in deep trouble. And don’t blame The Donald for that. As he’s pointed out before, he didn’t order the invasion of Afghanistan or Iraq in the wake of 9/11. He wasn’t the one who pursued what really should be known (from the spread of terrorist groups in this period) as the American war not “on” but “for” terror.
Perhaps it’s time for us to pick up that other little bottle on Alice’s table, the one that says “failing empire: drink this.” Because 40 years after that first hostage crisis (which itself was a crisis of empire gone awry), we are all hostages to the blunderer who would never have been in the White House if it weren’t for a country that had already auctioned off its political system to the highest bidders and its government to the national security state. You know, what Donald Trump likes to denounce as the “deep state” (though its thinking couldn’t be more shallow). And here’s the irony: much as he decries it, he still can’t help feeding it ever more taxpayer dollars galore.
Welcome, in other words, to Blunderland, a country already at the edge of oligarchy with a feel of autocracy to it. Consider it an irony of the worst sort that the United States, founded in response to a Mad King George and his empire, is now itself an empire on a downward spiral, whose populace is mesmerized by, distracted by a Mad King Donald. After so many endless centuries of imperial struggle on a planet heading into a crisis of pyromania unlike any we humans have ever experienced, perhaps what we need is our own Lewis Carroll to record it all.
Now, drink this!
Down the Rabbit Hole With Donald Trump
Donald Trump may prove to be the ultimate Brexiteer. Back in August 2016, in the midst of his presidential campaign, he proudly tweeted, “They will soon be calling me MR. BREXIT!” On the subject of the British leaving the European Union (EU) he’s neither faltered nor wavered. That June, he was already cheering on British voters, 51.9% of whom had just opted for Brexit in a nationwide referendum. They had, he insisted, taken “their country back” and he predicted that other countries, including you-know-where, would act similarly. As it happened, Mr. “America First” was proven anything but wrong in November 2016.
Ever since, he’s been remarkably eager to insert himself in Britain’s Brexit debate. Last July, for instance, he paid an official visit to that country and had tea with the queen (“an incredible lady… I feel I know her so well and she certainly knows me very well right now”). As Politico put it at the time, “In just a matter of a few hours, he snubbed the leader of the opposition — who wants a close relationship with the EU after Brexit and if he can’t get it, advocates a second referendum on the options — in favor of meeting with two avid Brexiteers and chatting with a third.” Oh, and that third person just happened to be the man who would become the present prime minister, Brexiteer-to-hell Boris Johnson.
Since then, of course, he’s praised Johnson’s stance — get out now, no deal — to the heavens, repeatedly promising to sign a “very big” trade agreement or “lots of fantastic mini-deals” with the Brits once they dump the European Union. (And if you believe there will be no strings attached to that generous offer, you haven’t been paying attention to the presidency of one Donald J. Trump.) In Britain itself, sentiment about Brexiting the EU remains deeply confused, or perhaps more accurately disturbed, and little wonder. It’s clear enough that, from the economy to medical supplies, cross-Channel traffic snarl-ups to the Irish border, a no-deal Brexit is likely to prove problematic in barely grasped ways, as well as a blow to living standards. Still, there can be little question that the leaving option has been disturbing at a level that goes far deeper than just fear of the immediate consequences.
Remember, we’re talking about the greatest power of the late eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, the country that launched the industrial revolution, whose navy once ruled the waves, and that had more colonies and military garrisons in more places more permanently than any country in history. Now, it’s about to fall into what will someday be seen as the subbasement of imperial history. Think of Johnson’s version of Brexiting as a way of saying goodbye to all that with a genuine flourish. Brexit won’t just be an exit from the European Union but, for all intents and purposes, from history itself. It will mark the end of a century-long fall that will turn Britain back into a relatively inconsequential island kingdom.
Exiting the American Century
By now, you might think that all of this is a lesson written in the clouds for anyone, including Donald Trump, to see. Not that he will. After all, though no one thinks of him this way, he really is our own American Brexiteer. In some inchoate and (if I can use such a word for such a man) groping fashion, he, too, wants us out; not, of course, from the European Union, though he’s no fan of either the EU or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), but from the whole global system of alliances and trade arrangements that Washington has forged since 1945 to ensure the success of the “American Century” — to cement, that is, its global position as the next Great Britain.
Not so long ago, when it came to Washington’s system of global power, the U.S. was the sun for orbiting allies in alliances like NATO, the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization, and the Organization of American States. Meanwhile, the U.S. military had scattered an unprecedented number of military garrisons across much of the planet. In the wake of the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States briefly seemed to be not just the next but potentially the last Great Britain. Its leaders came to believe that this country had been left in a position of unique dominance on Planet Earth at “the end of history” and perhaps until the end of time. In the years after the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, it came to be known as “the sole superpower” or, in the phrase of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “the indispensable nation.” It briefly seemed to find itself in a position no country, not even the Roman or British empires, had ever been in.
Now, in his own half-baked, half-assed fashion, Donald Trump is promoting another kind of first: his unique version of “America First.” Two New York Times reporters, David Sanger and Maggie Haberman, evidently reminded him of that isolationist phrase from the pre-World War II era in an interview in March 2016 during his election run. They described the exchange this way: “He agreed with a suggestion [of ours] that his ideas might be summed up as ‘America First.’”
“Not isolationist, but I am America First,” he said. “I like the expression.” So much so that, from then on, he would use it endlessly in his presidential campaign.
Donald Trump has, of course, been something of a collector of, or perhaps sponge for, the useful past slogans of others (as well as the present ones of his right-wing followers in the Twittersphere). As any red baseball cap should remind us, the phrase that helped loft him to the presidency was, of course, “Make America Great Again,” or MAGA, a version of an old line from Ronald Reagan’s winning election campaign of 1980. He had the foresight to try to trademark it only days after Mitt Romney lost his bid for the presidency to Barack Obama in November 2012.
Both phrases would appeal deeply to what became known as his “base” — a significant crew in the heartland, particularly in rural America, who felt as if (in a country growing ever more economically unequal) the American dream was over. Their futures and those of their children no longer seemed to be heading up but down toward the subbasement of economic subservience. Their unions had been broken, their jobs shipped elsewhere, their hopes and those for their kids left in the gutter. In a country whose leadership class still had soaring dreams of global domination and wealth beyond compare, whose politicians (Republican and Democratic alike) felt obliged to speak of American greatness, they were — and Donald Trump sensed it — the first American declinists.
At the time, however, few focused on the key word in that slogan of his, the final one: again. As I wrote back in April 2016, with that single word, candidate Trump reached out to them, however intuitively, and crossed a line that would feel familiar today to someone like Boris Johnson in a British context. With it, he had, to put it bluntly, begun to exit the American century. He had become, as I commented then, “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.” He had, in short, become America’s first declinist presidential candidate, striking a new chord here, just as the Brexiteers would do in England.
As I also wrote then, “Donald Trump, in other words, is the first person to run openly and without apology on a platform of American decline.” This country, he made clear, was no longer “great.” In doing so (and in speaking out, after a fashion, against America’s forever wars of this century), he grasped, in his own strange way, the inheritance that the post-Cold War Washington establishment had left both him and the rest of the country.
After all, if Donald Trump hadn’t noticed that something was truly wrong, someone would have. As the planet’s sole superpower with a military budget that left every other nation (even bevies of them) in the shade, the U.S. had, since 2001, invaded two countries, repeatedly bombed many more, and fought conflicts that spread across much of the Greater Middle East and Africa. Those wars, when launched in 2001 (Afghanistan) and 2003 (Iraq), were visibly meant both to demonstrate and ensure American dominion over much of the planet. Fifteen years later, as Donald Trump alone seemed to grasp, they had done the very opposite.
By the time The Donald took to the campaign trail, the U.S. had not had a single true victory in this century. Not even in Afghanistan where it all began. In the years before he entered the Oval Office, the world’s only truly “exceptional” power had mainly proven exceptionally incapable (in ways that weren’t true in the Cold War years) of making its desires and will felt anywhere, except as a force for ultimate disruption and displacement.
Globally speaking, despite all its alliances, its unparalleled military power, and its loneliness at the top — Russia remained a nuclear-armed but fragile petro-state and China was visibly rising but not yet “super” — it looked distinctly like a great power in the early stages of decline. As not just Donald Trump’s but Bernie Sanders’s campaign suggested in 2016, there was clearly a kind of decline underway at home as well, a process of hollowing out that extended from the economy to the courts to the political system.
It was no mistake that, in January 2017, in a new age of plutocracy and degradation, a billionaire entered the White House — or that his first major domestic act (with a Republican Congress) would be a tax cut that only gave yet more to the already extraordinarily wealthy. Nor would it be strange that, for the first time, the 400 wealthiest Americans would actually have a lower tax rate than any other income group.
Though The Donald did insist that he would make this country great again, his presidency has proven a distinctly declinist one. However instinctively, however chaotically, however impulsively, he has, after all, been hard at work cracking open the American imperial system as it once existed and directing the country into a future ripe for candidates with yet redder hats and slogans.
If Boris Johnson is plugging for a Britain Last moment, Donald Trump, despite his bravado and braggadocio, has been treading a similar path for the greatest power on the planet. In his trade wars, he’s been intent on cracking open the American global economic system, whether in relation to the EU, China, or allies like Japan and South Korea. In his relations with such allies, he’s been hard at work undermining the alliances that once ensured American power and influence, even as he cozies up to autocrats and plutocrats the world over.
Of course, in October 2019, its forever wars and new trade wars notwithstanding, the United States remains the strongest military power on the planet, not to speak of the wealthiest one around. So no matter what President Trump may do, we’re not about to join Great Britain in that imperial subbasement any time soon. Still, as the Trump years should already have made clear, we are in at least the early stages of an American Brexit, globally and domestically.
When the Trumpian era ends, whether in 2020, 2024, or at some other unpredictable moment, count on this: the American global system will have been cracked open, the domestic political and judicial systems undermined further, and this country made even more unequal in a gilded age beyond compare, as well as split at least in two (“civil war”!) in terms of popular sentiment.
There is, however, a difference between a British and an American Brexit. While a British one could harm the European Union (and even perhaps the American economy), its effects (except on England itself) should be relatively modest. On our overheating orb, however, an American Brexit could take the planet down with it. We are, after all, on a world in decline.
Think of Donald Trump as the president of that decline or, if you prefer, as MR. BREXIT!
Worlds end. Every day. We all die sooner or later. When you get to my age, it’s a subject that can’t help but be on your mind.
What’s unusual is this: it’s not just increasingly ancient folks like me who should be thinking such thoughts anymore. After all, worlds of a far larger sort end, too. It’s happened before. Ask the dinosaurs after that asteroid hit the Yucatán. Ask the life forms of the Permian era after what may have been the greatest volcanic uproar the planet ever experienced.
According to a recent U.N. global assessment report, up to one million (that’s 1,000,000!) species are now in danger of extinction, thanks largely to human actions. It’s part of what’s come to be called “the sixth extinction,” a term that makes the point all too clearly. Except in our ability to grasp (or avoid grasping) our seeming determination to wipe away this version of the world, we’re in good company. Five great moments of obliteration preceded us on Planet Earth.
And by the way, that impressive figure for endangered species should probably be upgraded to at least one million and one (1,000,001!). As anthropologist Richard Leakey said years ago, “Homo Sapiens might not only be the agent of the sixth extinction, but also risks being one of its victims.” In other words, it’s evidently not enough for us to turn ourselves into the modern equivalent of the asteroid that took down the dinosaurs, ending the Cretaceous period. It looks as if, in some future that seems ever closer, we might be our own asteroid, the one that will collapse human civilization as we’ve known it.
While there are deep mysteries in our present situation, its existence is — or at least should be — anything but a mystery. It’s not even news. After all, in 1965, more than half a century ago, a science advisory committee reported to President Lyndon Johnson with remarkable accuracy on the coming climate crisis. That analysis was based on the previous two centuries in which we humans had been burning fossil fuels in an ever more profligate manner to fashion and develop our way of life on, and command of, this planet. As one of those scientists told Bill Moyers, Johnson’s special assistant coordinating domestic policy, humanity had launched a “‘vast geophysical experiment.’ We were about to burn, within a few generations, the fossil fuels that had slowly accumulated in the earth over the past 500 million years.”
In the process, we would put ever more carbon emissions into the atmosphere and so change the very nature of the planet we were living on. Ignored at the time by a president soon to be swept away by an American war in Vietnam, that report would offer remarkably accurate predictions about how those greenhouse gas emissions would change our twenty-first-century world. A small footnote here: since 1990 — stop a second to take this in — humanity has burned approximately half of all the fossil fuels it’s ever consumed. As my father used to say to me, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it.” And by the way, in the age of Donald Trump, U.S. carbon emissions are once again surging (as they are globally as well).
By now, it should be clear enough that this planet is in crisis. That reality may finally be sinking in somewhat here, as CNN’s recent seven-hour climate-change town hall for Democratic presidential candidates suggested (even after the Democratic National Committee rejected the idea of a televised debate on the subject). And yet this crisis continues to prove a surprisingly hard one for humanity to get its head(s) fully around.
And that’s no less true of the mainstream media. A Public Citizen report, for instance, recently offered a snapshot of the then-nonstop coverage of Dorian, the monster Category 5 hurricane that, at one point, had wind gusts up to 220 miles an hour and obliterated parts of the Bahamas before moving on to the U.S. Even though the storm’s intensified behavior fit the expectations of climate scientists to a T, the report found that “climate [change] or global warming was mentioned in just 7.2% of the 167 pieces on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC and Fox.” In the 32 newspapers Public Citizen followed that were covering the storm, “of 363 articles about Dorian…, just nine (2.5%) mentioned climate change.” And I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that Fox News went out of its way to denigrate the very idea that there might be a connection between Dorian’s ferocity and the warming of the planet.
One reason awareness of the crisis has sunk in so slowly is obvious enough. Climate change has not been happening in human time; it hasn’t, that is, been taking place in the normal context of history on a timescale that would make it easier for us to grasp how crucial it will prove to be to our everyday lives and those of our children and grandchildren. It’s operating instead on what might be thought of as planetary time. In other words, autocrats or, in the case of our president, potential ones, come and go; their sons take over (or don’t); a revolt topples the autocracy only to turn sour itself; and so it goes in human history. However disturbing such events may be, they are also of our moment and so familiarly graspable.
The climate crisis, however, has been taking place on another timescale entirely and the planet that it’s changing will assumedly feel global warming’s version of autocracy not for a few years, or even a century to come, but potentially for thousands or tens of thousands of years. The results could dwarf what we’ve always known as “history.”
Given the immediacy of our lives and concerns, getting us to focus on predicted events decades or even a century away remains problematic at best. If, as predicted, by 2100 the North China Plain, with its tens of millions of people, becomes partially uninhabitable or Shanghai is drowned thanks to rising sea levels, that’s beyond horrific, but hard to focus on when you’re a government or a people plunged into an immediate trade war with the globe’s other great power; hard to react to when the needs of today and tomorrow, this year and next, seem so pressing, and when you’re still exporting hundreds of coal-fired power plants to other parts of the world.
It shouldn’t be surprising that it’s been so difficult for most of us to respond to the climate crisis over these last decades when its effects, while noticeable enough if you’re looking for them, hadn’t yet impinged in obvious ways on most of our lives. It seemed to matter little that what was being prepared for delivery might be the collective asteroid of human history.
Consider this the ultimate sign of how difficult it’s been to take in a crisis that, in its magnitude and span, seems to mock the human version of time: in these years, vast numbers of people haven’t hesitated to elect (or support) a crew of pyromaniacs as their leaders. From the U.S. to Brazil, Poland to Australia, Russia to Saudi Arabia, coming to power in these years across significant parts of the planet are men — and they are men — who seem intent on ignoring or rejecting the very idea that we are altering the planet’s climate at a rapid rate. They have, in fact, generally been strikingly transparent in their blunt urge not just to overlook the climate crisis, but to actually increase its intensity through the greater use of fossil fuels, while often trying to deep-six or ignore alternative forms of energy.
In other words, blind to our future fate and that of our children and grandchildren, humanity has been installing in power leaders who are the literal raw material for ensuring that the collective asteroid of human history will indeed be delivered. In an ongoing gesture of self-destruction, humanity has been tapping what might be thought of as Pyromaniacs, Incorporated, to run the world.
The Greatest Crime of All
All that may be changing, however, for an obvious reason — even if the first sign of that change couldn’t have been more modest or less Trumpian: a 15-year-old Swedish girl who, in 2018, began skipping school, Friday after Friday, to perch on the steps of the Swedish parliament building, holding a handmade banner (“school strike for climate”). Not even her parents initially encouraged her “Fridays for Future” protest against what this planet’s adults were visibly doing: stealing her generation’s future. In the end, Greta Thunberg would unexpectedly spark a movement of the young, increasingly aware that their future was in peril, that, in various forms, spread (and is still spreading) across the planet. It may prove to be the most hopeful movement of our times.
As it happened, Thunberg began that strike of hers at a crucial juncture, just at the edge of the moment when climate change would start to enter human time as a crisis in everyday life. In retrospect, we may come to see the summer of 2019 as a turning point in the reaction to that phenomenon. This summer, almost anywhere you lived, climate change seemed to be in view. The Brazilian Amazon was burning (as were similar rain forests in Africa and Indonesia); Alaska, too, was burning, its sea ice gone for the first time in history, its fire season extended by two months. Burning as well in record fashion were areas across much of the rest of the Far North, especially Siberia, where forests and peatlands sent vast plumes of smoke into space (while releasing startling amounts of carbon into the atmosphere); flooding hit the American Midwest in an unparalleled fashion, while record summer heat, drought, and an early fire season clobbered Australia; water scarcity struck areas of the planet in new ways, including Chennai, an Indian city of nine million that practically lost its water supply to drought; and Europe experienced three unprecedented heat waves, with temperatures soaring across the continent. Much of this seemed to be happening at a pace that exceeded the predictions of climate scientists. The government of Iceland held a “funeral” for the first glacier lost to global warming, while Greenland’s ice sheet experienced what may prove to be a record melt and sea ice continued to disappear at a startling clip in both the Arctic and Antarctic. The Arctic was already heating at double the rate of the rest of the planet, as was Canada. And don’t forget that, as the globe’s oceans continued to warm in a striking fashion, storms like Dorian were intensifying (and the numbers of weather-displaced people hitting record levels globally).
And so it went. We humans were no longer simply living with predictions about what might happen in 2030, 2050, 2100, or thereafter, about possibilities that, while grim, seemed far away when the endless crises of everyday life beckoned. We were suddenly in an increasingly overheated present, one visibly changing, visibly intensifying in ways we hadn’t previously experienced.
In the summer of 2019, from the tropics to the poles, we found ourselves, in short, on an already burning, melting planet and it showed, even in opinion polls in this country. An acceptance that climate change was actually happening and mattered was clearly growing. It would prove increasingly visible in the Democratic rollout for the 2020 election and even, as the New York Times reported, in the secret worries of Republican strategists that younger conservative voters, “who in their lifetimes haven’t seen a single month of colder-than-average temperatures globally, and who call climate change a top priority,” might in the future be alienated from the party.
In a remarkable recent article, Stephen Pyne, historian of fire, offered a vision of what’s happening as humans, a “keystone species for fire,” essentially toast the planet. Historically speaking, as he points out, the crucial development was that, with the industrial revolution, humans turned
“from burning living landscapes to burning lithic ones in the form of fossil fuels. That is the Big Burn of today, acting as a performance enhancer on all aspects of fire’s global presence. So vast is the magnitude of these changes that we might rightly speak of a coming Fire Age equivalent in stature to the Ice Ages of the Pleistocene. Call it the Pyrocene.”
And if, from Paradise, California, to Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas, we have indeed already entered the Pyrocene Age, expect the pyres only to grow. After all, the government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is almost literally setting fire to the Amazon rain forest (a job that human arsonists may have started, but that those forests could self-destructively end all on their own). Similarly, in the U.S., the Trump administration has been reversing climate-change-related rules or regulations of every sort, trying to open ever more American landscapes to oil and natural gas drilling, and working to ensure that yet more methane, a particularly powerful greenhouse gas, will be released into the atmosphere. And that’s just to begin a list of such horrors.
Keep in mind as well that the brutal summer of 2019 is guaranteed to prove anything but “the new normal.” In fact, there can be no new normal as long as those greenhouse gases continue to pour into the atmosphere. Admittedly, we humans are a notoriously clever species. Who could doubt that, if we ever truly mobilized, launching the equivalent of World War II’s Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bomb — the other way we’ve found to asteroid ourselves to death — something might indeed happen? Various methods might be found to deal with or sequester carbon emissions, while far more effort might be put into developing non-carbon-emitting forms of energy.
In the meantime, from Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro to the CEOs of all those fossil-fuel companies, we’re still left with the pyromaniacs largely in charge. If they have their way, they will undoubtedly take their pleasures and profits and not give a damn about turning much of this world into an oven for the Greta Thunbergs of the future.
Think of this as a planet on the precipice. If Pyromaniacs, Inc., succeeds, if the arsonists are truly able to persevere, there will have been no crime like this in history, none at all.
On the Precipice
I, Winston Smith… I mean, Tom Engelhardt… have not just been reading a dystopian novel, but, it seems, living one — and I suspect I’ve been living one all my life.
Yes, I recently reread George Orwell’s classic 1949 novel, 1984. In it, Winston Smith, a secret opponent of the totalitarian world of Oceania, one of three great imperial superpowers left on planet Earth, goes down for the count at the hands of Big Brother. It was perhaps my third time reading it in my 75 years on this planet.
Since I was a kid, I’ve always had a certain fascination for dystopian fiction. It started, I think, with War of the Worlds, that ur-alien-invasion-from-outer-space novel in which Martians land in southern England and begin tearing London apart. Its author, H.G. Wells, wrote it at the end of the nineteenth century, evidently to give his English readers a sense of what it might have felt like to be living in Tasmania, the island off the coast of Australia, and have the equivalent of Martians — the British, as it happened — appear in your world and begin to destroy it (and your culture with it).
I can remember, at perhaps age 13, reading that book under the covers by flashlight when I was supposed to be asleep; I can remember, that is, being all alone, chilled (and thrilled) to the bone by Wells’ grim vision of civilizational destruction. To put this in context: in 1957, I would already have known that I was living in a world of potential civilizational destruction and that the Martians were here. They were then called the Russians, the Ruskies, the Commies, the Reds. I would only later grasp that we (or we, too) were Martians on this planet.
The world I inhabited was, of course, a post-Hiroshima, post-Nagasaki one. I was born on July 20, 1944, just a year and a few days before my country dropped atomic bombs on those two Japanese cities, devastating them in blasts of a kind never before experienced and killing more than 200,000 people. Thirteen years later, I had already become inured to scenarios of the most dystopian kinds of global destruction — of a sort that would have turned those Martians into pikers — as the U.S. and the Soviet Union (in a distant second place) built up their nuclear arsenals at a staggering pace.
Nuclear obliteration had, by then, become part of our everyday way of life. After all, what American of a certain age who lived in a major city can’t remember, on some otherwise perfectly normal day, air-raid sirens suddenly beginning to howl outside your classroom window as the streets emptied? They instantly called up a vision of a world in ashes. Of course, we children had only a vague idea of what had happened under those mushroom clouds that rose over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As we huddled under our desks, hands over heads, “ducking and covering” like Bert the Turtle while a radio on the teacher’s desk blared Conelrad warnings, we knew enough, however, to realize that those desks and hands were unlikely to save us from the world’s most powerful weaponry. The message being delivered wasn’t one of safety but of ultimate vulnerability to Russian nukes. After such tests, as historian Stephen Weart recalled in his book Nuclear Fear, “The press reported with ghoulish precision how many millions of Americans ‘died’ in each mock attack.”
If those drills didn’t add up to living an everyday vision of the apocalypse as a child, what would? I grew up, in other words, with a new reality: for the first time in history, humanity had in its hands Armageddon-like possibilities of a sort previously left to the gods. Consider, for instance, the U.S. military’s Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) of 1960 for a massive nuclear strike on the Communist world. It was, we now know, meant to deliver more than 3,200 nuclear weapons to 1,060 targets, including at least 130 cities. Official, if then secret, estimates of casualties ran to 285 million dead and 40 million injured (and probably underestimated the longer term effects of radiation).
In the early 1960s, a commonplace on the streets of New York where I lived was the symbol for “fallout shelters” (as they were then called), the places you would head for during just such an impending global conflagration. I still remember how visions of nuclear destruction populated my dreams (or rather nightmares) and those of my friends, as some would later admit to me. To this day, I can recall the feeling of sudden heat on one side of my body as a nuclear bomb went off on the distant horizon of one of those dreams. Similarly, I recall sneaking into a Broadway movie theater to see On the Beach with two friends — kids of our age weren’t allowed into such films without parents — and so getting a glimpse, popcorn in hand, of what a devastated, nuclearized San Francisco might look like. That afternoon at that film, I also lived through a post-nuclear-holocaust world’s end in Australia with no less than Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire for company.
An All-American Hate Week
So my life — and undoubtedly yours, too — has been lived, at least in part, as if in a dystopian novel. And certainly since November 2016 — since, that is, the election of Donald Trump — the feeling (for me, at least) of being in just such a world, has only grown stronger. Worse yet, there’s nothing under the covers by flashlight about The Donald or his invasive vision of our American future. And this time around, as a non-member of his “base,” it’s been anything but thrilling to the bone.
It was with such a feeling growing in me that, all these years later, I once again picked up Orwell’s classic novel and soon began wondering whether Donald Trump wasn’t our very own idiosyncratic version of Big Brother. If you remember, when Orwell finished the book in 1948 (he seems to have flipped that year for the title), he imagined an England, which was part of Oceania, one of the three superpowers left on the planet. The other two were Eurasia (essentially the old Soviet Union) and Eastasia (think: a much-expanded China). In the book, the three of them are constantly at war with each other on their borderlands (mostly in South Asia and Africa), a war that is never meant to be either decisive or to end.
In Oceania’s Airstrip One (the former England), where Winston Smith is a minor functionary in the Ministry of Truth (a ministry of lies, of course), the Party rules eternally in a world in which — a classic Orwellian formulation — “WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.” It’s a world of “inner” Party members (with great privilege), an outer circle like Smith who get by, and below them a vast population of impoverished “proles.”
It’s also a world in which the present is always both the future and the past, while every document, every newspaper, every bit of history is constantly being rewritten — Smith’s job — to make it so. At the same time, documentation of the actual past is tossed down “the memory hole” and incinerated. It’s a world in which a “telescreen” is in every room, invariably announcing splendid news (that might have been terrible news in another time). That screen can also spy on you at just about any moment of your life. In that, Orwell, who lived at a time when TV was just arriving, caught something essential about the future worlds of surveillance and social media.
In his dystopian world, English itself is being reformulated into something called Newspeak, so that, in a distant future, it will be impossible for anyone to express a non-Party-approved thought. Meanwhile, whichever of those other two superpowers Oceania is at war with at a given moment, as well as a possibly mythical local opposition to the Party, are regularly subjected to a mass daily “two minutes hate” session and periodic “hate weeks.” Above all, it’s a world in which, on those telescreens and posters everywhere, the mustachioed face of Big Brother, the official leader of the Party — “Big Brother is watching you!” — hovers over everything, backed up by a Ministry of Love (of, that is, imprisonment, reeducation, torture, pain, and death).
That was Orwell’s image of a kind of Stalinist Soviet Union perfected for a future of everlasting horror. Today, it might be argued, Americans have been plunged into our own bizarre version of 1984. In our world, Donald Trump has, in some sense, absorbed into his own person more or less everything dystopian in the vicinity. In some strange fashion, he and his administration already seem like a combination of the Ministry of Truth (a ministry of eternal lies), the memory hole (down which the past, especially the Obama legacy and the president’s own discarded statements, disappear daily), the two-minutes-hate sessions and hate week that are the essence of any of his rallies (“lock her up!,” “send her back!”), and recently the “hate” slaughter of Mexicans and Hispanics in El Paso, Texas, by a gunman with a Trumpian “Hispanic invasion of Texas” engraved in his brain. And don’t forget Big Brother.
In some sense, President Trump might be thought of as Big Brother flipped. In The Donald’s version of Orwell’s novel, he isn’t watching us every moment of the day and night, it’s we who are watching him in an historically unprecedented way. In what I’ve called the White Ford Bronco presidency, nothing faintly like the media’s 24/7 focus on him has ever been matched. No human being has ever been attended to, watched, or discussed this way — his every gesture, tweet, passing comment, half-verbalized thought, slogan, plan, angry outburst, you name it. In the past, such coverage only went with, say, a presidential assassination, not everyday life in the White House (or at Bedminster, Mar-a-Lago, his rallies, on Air Force One, wherever).
Room 101 (in 2019)
Think of Donald Trump’s America as, in some sense, a satirical version of 1984 in crazed formation. Not surprisingly, however, Orwell, remarkable as he was, fell short, as we all do, in imagining the future. What he didn’t see as he rushed to finish that novel before his own life ended makes the Trumpian present far more potentially dystopian than even he might have imagined. In his book, he created a nightmare vision of something like the Communist Party of the Stalin-era Soviet Union perpetuating itself into eternity by constantly regenerating and reinforcing a present-moment of ultimate power. For him, dystopia was an accentuated version of just such a forever, a “huge, accurately planned effort to freeze history at a particular moment of time,” as a document in the book puts it, to “arrest the course of history” for “thousands of years.”
Yes, in 1948, Orwell obviously knew about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the weaponry that went with them. (In 1984, he even mentions the use of such weaponry in the then-future 1950s.) What he didn’t imagine in his book was a dystopian world not of the grimmest kind of ongoingness but of endings, of ultimate destruction. He didn’t conjure up a nuclear apocalypse set off by one of his three superpowers and, of course, he had no way of imagining another kind of potential apocalypse that has become increasingly familiar to us all: climate change.
Unfortunately, on both counts Donald Trump is proving dystopian indeed. He is, after all, the president who threatened to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea (before falling in love with its dictator). He only recently claimed he could achieve victory in the almost 18-year-old Afghan War “in a week” by wiping that country “off the face of the Earth” and killing “10 million people.” For the first time, his generals used the “Mother of all Bombs,” the most powerful weapon in the U.S. conventional arsenal (with a mushroom cloud that, in a test at least, could be seen for 20 miles), in that same country, clearly to impress him.
More recently, beginning with its withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, his administration has started trashing the Cold War-era nuclear architecture of restraint that kept the great-power arsenals under some control. In the process, it’s clearly helping to launch a wildly expensive new nuclear arms race on Planet Earth. And keep in mind that this is happening at a time when we know that a relatively localized nuclear war between regional powers like India and Pakistan (whose politicians are once again at each other’s throats over Kashmir) could create a global nuclear winter and starve to death up to a billion people.
And keep in mind as well that all of the above may prove to be the lesser of Donald Trump’s dystopian acts when it comes to the ultimate future of humanity. After all, he and his administration are, in just about every way imaginable, doing their damnedest to aid and abet climate change by ensuring that ever more carbon will be released into the atmosphere, warming an already over-heated planet further. That’s the very planet on which humanity has, since 1990, burned half of all the fossil fuels ever used. Despite the Paris climate accord and much talk about the necessity of getting climate change under some kind of control, carbon is still being released into the atmosphere at record levels. (Not surprisingly, U.S. emissions began rising again in 2018.)
This summer, amid fierce heat waves in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere, as well as the setting of global heat records, with parts of the Arctic literally burning (while heating twice as fast as the world average), with Greenland melting, and the Antarctic losing sea ice in record amounts, some of the predictions of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for the relatively distant future already seem to be in sight. As climate scientist Marco Tedesco put it recently, speaking of the Arctic, “We are seeing ice melting now that we expected 30 to 40 years from now.”
We are, in other words, already on a dystopian planet. With threats to the world’s food supply and the swamping of coastal cities lying in our future, with the migration of previously unheard of populations in that same future, with heat rising to levels that may, in some places, become unbearable, leaving parts of the planet uninhabitable, it is at least possible now to imagine the future collapse of civilization itself.
And keep in mind as well that our own twisted version of Big Brother, that guy with the orange hair instead of the mustache, could be around to be watched for significantly longer, should he win the election of 2020. (His polling numbers have, on the whole, been slowly rising, not falling in these years.)
In other words, with the American president lending a significant hand, we may make it to 2084 far sooner than anyone expected. With that in mind, let’s return for a moment to 1984. As no one who has read Orwell’s book is likely to forget, its mildly dissident anti-hero, Winston Smith, is finally brought into the Ministry of Love by the Thought Police to have his consciousness retuned to the needs of the Party. In the process, he’s brutally tortured until he can truly agree that 2 + 2 = 5. Only when he thinks he’s readjusted his mind to fit the Party’s version of the world does he discover that his travails are anything but over.
He still has to visit Room 101. As his interrogator tells him, “You asked me once what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.” And that “worst thing” is always adjusted to the specific terrors of the specific prisoner.
So here’s one way to think of where we are at this moment on Planet Earth: Americans — all of humanity, in fact — may already be in Room 101, whether we know it or not, and the truth is, by this steaming summer, that most of us should know it.
It’s obviously time to act on a global scale. Tell that to Big Brother.
As I turn 75, there’s no simpler way to put it than this: I’m an old man on a new planet — and, in case it isn’t instantly obvious, that’s not good news on either score.
I still have a memory of being a camp counselor in upstate New York more than half a century ago. I was perhaps 20 years old and in charge of a cabin of — if I remember rightly — nine-year-old campers. In other words, young as they were, they were barely less than half my age. And here’s what I remember most vividly: when asked how old they thought I was, they guessed anything from 30 to 60 or beyond. I found it amusing largely because, I suspect, I couldn’t faintly imagine being 60 years old myself. (My grandmother was then in her late sixties.) My present age would have been off the charts not just for those nine year olds, but for me, too. At that point, I doubt I even knew anyone as old as I am now.
Yet here I am, so many decades later, with grandchildren of my own. And I find myself looking at a world that, had you described it to me in the worst moments of the Vietnam War years when I was regularly in the streets protesting, I would never have believed possible. I probably would have thought you stark raving mad. Here I am in an America not just with all the weirdness of Donald Trump, but with a media that feeds on his every bizarre word, tweet, and act as if nothing else were happening on the face of the Earth. If only.
A Demobilizing World
In those Vietnam years, when a remarkable range of people (even inside the military) were involved in antiwar protests, if you had told me that, in the next century, we would be fighting unending wars from Afghanistan to Somalia and beyond I would have been shocked. If you had added that, though even veterans of those wars largely believe they shouldn’t have been fought, just about no one would be out in the streets protesting, I would have thought you were nuts. Post-Vietnam, how was such a thing possible?
If you had told me that, in those years to come, the American military would be an “all-volunteer” one, essentially a kind of foreign legion, and that those who chose not to be part of it would endlessly “thank” the volunteers for their service while otherwise continuing their lives as if nothing were going on, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you had also pointed out that economic inequality in America would reach levels that might have staggered denizens of the Gilded Age, that three Americans would possess the same wealth as the bottom half of society, that a CEO would, on average, make at least 361 times the income of a worker, and that for years there would be no genuine protest around any of this, I would have considered it un-American.
If, in those same years, you had assured me that, in our future, thanks to a crucial Supreme Court decision, so much of the money that had gushed up to the wealthiest 1%, or even .01%, of Americans would be funneled back, big time, into what still passed for American democracy, I would have been stunned. That a 1% version of politics would essentially pave the way for a billionaire to enter the White House, and that, until the arrival of Bernie Sanders in 2016, protest over all this would barely be discernable, I certainly wouldn’t have believed you.
In sum, I would have been amazed at the way, whatever the subject, Americans had essentially been demobilized (or perhaps demobilized themselves) in the twenty-first century, somehow convinced that there was nothing to be done that would change anything. There was no antiwar movement in the streets, unions had been largely defanged, and even the supposed “fascist” in the White House would have no interest in launching a true movement of his own. If anything, his much-discussed “base” would actually be a set of “fans” wearing red MAGA hats and waiting to fill stadiums for the Trump Show, the same way you’d wait for a program to come on TV.
And none of this would have staggered me faintly as much as one thing I haven’t even mentioned yet. Had I been told then that, by this century, there would be a striking scientific consensus on how the burning of fossil fuels was heating and changing the planet, almost certainly creating the basis for a future civilizational crisis, what would I have expected? Had I been told that I lived in the country historically most responsible for putting those carbon emissions into the atmosphere and warming the planet egregiously, how would I have reacted? Had I been informed that, facing a crisis of an order never before imagined (except perhaps in religious apocalyptic thinking), humanity would largely demobilize itself, what would I have said? Had I learned then that, in response to this looming crisis, Americans would elect as president a man who denied that global warming was even occurring, a man who was, if anything, focused on increasing its future intensity, what in the world would I have thought? Or how would I have reacted if you had told me that from Brazil to Poland, the Philippines to England, people across the planet were choosing their own Donald Trumps to lead them into that world in crisis?
Where’s the Manhattan Project for Climate Change?
Here, let me leap the almost half-century from that younger self to the aging creature that’s me today and point out that you don’t have to be a scientist anymore to grasp the nature of the new planet we’re on. Here, for instance, is just part of what I — no scientist at all — noticed in the news in the last few weeks. The planet experienced its hottest June on record. The temperature in Anchorage, Alaska, hit 90 degrees for the first time in history, mimicking Miami, Florida, which was itself experiencing record highs. (Consider this a footnote, but in March, Alaska had, on average, temperatures 20 degrees warmer than usual.) According to figures compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), not just that state but every state in the union has been steadily warming, compared to twentieth-century averages, with Rhode Island leading the way. Europe also just experienced a fierce heat wave — they’re coming ever more often — in which one town in southern France hit a record 115 degrees. India’s sixth-largest city, under its own heat emergency, essentially ran out of water. The sea ice in Antarctica has experienced a “precipitous” fall in recent years that shocked scientists, while a glacier the size of Florida there seems to be destabilizing (bad news for the future rise of global sea levels). As a NOAA study showed, thanks to sea-level rise, flooding in coastal American cities like Charleston, South Carolina, is happening ever more often, even on perfectly sunny days. Meanwhile, the intensity of the rainfall in storms is increasing like the one that dumped a month’s worth of water on Washington, D.C., one recent Monday morning. That one turned “streets into rivers and basements into wading pools,” even dampening the basement of the White House — and such storms are growing more frequent. Oh yes, and the world’s five hottest years on record have all occurred since 2014, with 2019 more or less a surefire add-on to that list on a planet on which the last 406 consecutive months have been warmer than the twentieth-century average. (By the end of the month of January 2019, that same planet in only 31 days had already set 35 records for heat and only two for cold.) And that’s just to start down a longer list of news about climate change or global warming or, as the Guardian has taken to calling it recently, the “climate emergency” or “climate breakdown.”
In response to such a world, sometimes — an exaggeration but not too much of one — it seems as if only the children, mainly high-school students inspired by a remarkable 16-year-old Swedish girl with Asperger syndrome, have truly been mobilizing. With their Friday school strikes, they are at least trying to face the oncoming crisis that is increasingly our world. In a way the adults of that same world generally don’t, they seem to grasp that, by not mobilizing to deal with climate change, we are potentially robbing them of their future.
In that sense, of course, I have no future, which is just the normal way of things. Our lives all end and, at 75, I (kind of) understand that I’m ever closer to stepping off this planet of ours. The question for me is what kind of a planet I’ll be leaving behind for those very children (and their future children). I understand, too, that when it comes to climate change, we face the wealthiest, most powerful industry on the planet, the fossil-fuel giants whose CEOs, in their urge to keep the oil, coal, and natural gas flowing forever and a day, will assuredly prove to be the greatest criminals and arsonists in a history that doesn’t lack for great crimes — and that’s no small thing. (In those never-ending wars of ours, of course, we Americans face some of the next most powerful corporate entities on the planet and the money and 1% politics that go with them.)
Still, I can’t help but wonder: Was the Paris climate accord really the best the planet could do (even before Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would pull out of it)? I mean, at 75, I think to myself: Where, when it comes to climate change, is an updated version of the Manhattan Project, the massive government research effort that produced (god save us) the atomic bomb? Or the Cold War version of the same that so effectively got Americans onto the moon and back? It was possible to mobilize at a massive level then, why not now? Imagine what might be done in terms of renewable energy or global projects to mitigate climate change if the governments of Planet Earth were somehow to truly face the greatest crisis ever to hit human life?
Imagine being the Chinese government and knowing that, by 2100, parts of one of your most populous regions, the North China Plain, will likely be too hot to be habitable. Grasping that, wouldn’t you start to mobilize your resources in a new way to save your own people’s future rather than building yet more coal-fired power plants and exporting hundreds of them abroad as well? Honestly, from Washington to Beijing, New Delhi to London, the efforts — even the best of them — couldn’t be more pathetic given what’s at stake.
The children are right. We’re effectively robbing them of their future. It’s a shame and a crime. It’s what no parents or grandparents should ever do to their progeny. We know that, as in World War II, mobilization on a grand scale is possible. The United States proved that in 1941 and thereafter.
Perhaps, like most war mobilizations, that worked so effectively because it had a tribal component to it, being against other human beings. We have little enough experience mobilizing not against but with other human beings to face a danger that threatens us all. And yet, in a sense, doesn’t climate change represent another kind of “world war” situation, though it’s not yet thought of that way?
So why, I continue to wonder, in such a moment of true crisis are we still largely living on such a demobilized world? Why is it increasingly a Trumpian planet of the surreal, not a planet of the all-too-real?
Planet of the Surreal
Headlined “U.S. Seeks Other Ways to Stop Iran Shy of War,” the article was tucked away on page A9 of a recent New York Times. Still, it caught my attention. Here’s the first paragraph:
“American intelligence and military officers are working on additional clandestine plans to counter Iranian aggression in the Persian Gulf, pushed by the White House to develop new options that could help deter Tehran without escalating tensions into a full-out conventional war, according to current and former officials.”
Note that “Iranian aggression.” The rest of the piece, fairly typical of the tone of American media coverage of the ongoing Iran crisis, included sentences like this: “The C.I.A. has longstanding secret plans for responding to Iranian provocations.” I’m sure I’ve read such things hundreds of times without ever really stopping to think much about them, but this time I did. And what struck me was this: rare is the moment in such mainstream news reports when Americans are the “provocative” ones (though the Iranians immediately accused the U.S. military of just that, a provocation, when it came to the U.S. drone its Revolutionary Guard recently shot down either over Iranian air space or the Strait of Hormuz). When it comes to Washington’s never-ending war on terror, I think I can say with reasonable confidence that, in the past, the present, and the future, the one phrase you’re not likely to find in such media coverage will be “American aggression.”
I mean, forget the history of the second half of the last century and all of this one so far. Forget that back in the Neolithic age of the 1980s, before Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein turned out to be the new Adolf Hitler and needed to be taken down by us (no aggression there), the administration of President Ronald Reagan actively backed his unprovoked invasion of, and war against, Iran. (That included his use of chemical weapons against Iranian troop concentrations that American military intelligence helped him target.) Forget that, in 2003, the administration of George W. Bush launched an unprovoked war of aggression against Iraq, based on false intelligence about Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction and his supposed links to al-Qaeda. Forget that the Trump administration tore up a nuclear agreement with Iran to which that country was adhering and which would indeed have effectively prevented it from producing nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future. Forget that its supreme leader (in fatwas he issued) prohibited the creation or stockpiling of such weaponry in any case.
Forget that the Trump administration, in a completely unprovoked manner, imposed crippling sanctions on that country and its oil trade, causing genuine suffering, in hopes of toppling that regime economically as Saddam Hussein’s had been toppled militarily in neighboring Iraq in 2003, all in the name of preventing the atomic weapons that the Obama-negotiated pact had taken care of. Forget the fact that an American president, who, at the last moment, halted air strikes against Iranian missile bases (after one of their missiles shot down that American drone) is now promising that an attack on “anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force… In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration.”
Provocations? Aggression? Perish the thought!
And yet, just ask yourself what Washington and the Pentagon might do if an Iranian drone were spotted off the East Coast of the United States (no less in actual U.S. air space). No more need be said, right?
So here’s the strange thing, on a planet on which, in 2017, U.S. Special Operations forces deployed to 149 countries, or approximately 75% of all nations; on which the U.S. has perhaps 800 military garrisons outside its own territory; on which the U.S. Navy patrols most of its oceans and seas; on which U.S. unmanned aerial drones conduct assassination strikes across a surprising range of countries; and on which the U.S. has been fighting wars, as well as more minor conflicts, for years on end from Afghanistan to Libya, Syria to Yemen, Iraq to Niger in a century in which it chose to launch full-scale invasions of two countries (Afghanistan and Iraq), is it truly reasonable never to identify the U.S. as an “aggressor” anywhere?
What you might say about the United States is that, as the self-proclaimed leading proponent of democracy and human rights (even if its president is now having a set of love affairs with autocrats and dictators), Americans consider ourselves at home just about anywhere we care to be on planet Earth. It matters little how we may be armed and what we might do. Consequently, wherever Americans are bothered, harassed, threatened, attacked, we are always the ones being provoked and aggressed upon, never provoking and aggressing. I mean, how can you be the aggressor in your own house, even if that house happens to be temporarily located in Afghanistan, Iraq, or perhaps soon enough in Iran?
A Planet of Aggressors and Provocateurs
To mine the same New York Times piece a little more, here’s another paragraph:
“Some officials believe the United States needs [to] be willing to master the kind of deniable, shadowy techniques Tehran has perfected in order to halt Iran’s aggressions. Others think that, while helpful, such clandestine attacks will not be enough to reassure American allies or deter Iran.”
Of course, such clandestine American attacks would, by definition, not be “aggression,” not given that they were directed against Iran. Forget the grim historical humor lurking in the above passage, since the present Iranian religious hard-liners probably wouldn’t be there if, back in 1953, the CIA hadn’t used just such techniques to overthrow a democratically elected Iranian government and install its own autocrat, the young Shah, in power.
As that Times piece also emphasizes, Iran now uses “proxy forces” throughout the region (indeed it does!) against U.S. (and Israeli) power, a tactic Americans evidently just hadn’t thought about employing themselves in this century — until now. Americans naturally have no proxy forces in the Greater Middle East. That’s a well-known fact. Just out of curiosity, however, what would you call the local forces our special ops guys are training and advising in so many of those 149 countries around the planet, since obviously they could never be proxy forces? And how about the Afghan and Iraqi militaries that the U.S. trained, supplied with weaponry, and advised in these years? (You know, the Iraqi army that collapsed in the face of ISIS in 2014 or the Afghan security forces that have been unable to staunch either the growth of the Taliban or of the Afghan branch of ISIS.)
Now, don’t get me wrong. Yes, the Iranians can (and sometimes do) provoke and aggress. It’s an ugly planet filled with aggression and provocation. (Take Vladimir Putin’s Russia in Crimea and Ukraine, for instance.) The Chinese are now aggressing in the South China Sea where the U.S. Navy regularly conducts “freedom of navigation” operations — though no provocation there, as the Pacific’s an American lake, isn’t it?
In short, when it comes to provocation and aggression, the world is our oyster. There are so many bad guys out there and then, of course, there’s us. We can make mistakes and missteps, we can kill staggering numbers of civilians, destroy cities, uproot populations, create hordes of refugees with our never-ending wars across the Greater Middle East and Africa, but aggression? What are you thinking?
One thing is obvious if you follow the mainstream media: in our world, no matter what we do, we’re still the good guys on a planet filled with provocateurs and aggressors of every sort.
War to the Horizon
Now let’s think for a moment about that remarkable American comfort level, that unprecedented sense of being at home practically anywhere on Earth we choose to send armed Americans — and while we’re at it, let’s consider a related subject: America’s wars.
If, in the early 1970s, you had told me or any other American that, in the nearly half-century to come, the U.S. would fight wars and other lesser conflicts of almost every imaginable sort in startling numbers of places thousands of miles from home, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, countries most Americans couldn’t then (or now) find on a map, I guarantee you one thing: we would have thought you were nuts. (Of course, if you had described Donald Trump’s White House to me then as our future reality, I would have considered you beyond delusional.)
And yet here we are. Think about Afghanistan for a moment. In those distant days of the last century, that country would undoubtedly have been known here only to small numbers of young adventurers eager to hike what was then called “the hippy trail.” There, in a still remarkably peaceful place, a young American might have been greeted with remarkable friendliness and then spaced out on drugs.
That, of course, was before Washington’s first (covert) Afghan War, the one the CIA oversaw, with the help of Saudi money (yes, even then!) and a major hand from the Pakistani intelligence services. Do you remember that conflict, which began in 1979 and ended a decade later with the Red Army limping out of Kabul in defeat, heading for a land, the Soviet Union, which would implode within two years? What a “victory” that proved to be for America, not to speak of the groups of extremist Islamic militants we helped to fund and support, including a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden.
And keep in mind as well that that was our “short” war in Afghanistan, a mere decade long. In October 2001, soon after the 9/11 attacks, instead of launching a police action against Osama bin Laden and crew, the administration of George W. Bush decided to invade that country. Almost 18 years later, the U.S. military is still fighting there (remarkably unsuccessfully) against a thoroughly rejuvenated Taliban and a new branch of ISIS. It now qualifies as the longest war in our history (without even adding in that first Afghan War of ours).
And then, of course, there’s Iraq. By my count, the U.S. has been involved in four conflicts involving that country, starting with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980 and the ensuing war, which the administration of President Ronald Reagan supported militarily (as the present one does the Saudi war in Yemen). Then there was President George H.W. Bush’s war against Saddam Hussein after his military invaded Kuwait in 1990, which resulted in a resounding (but by no means conclusive) victory and the kind of victory parade in Washington that Donald Trump can only dream of. Next, of course, was President George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq (mission accomplished!), a grim and unsatisfying eight-year conflict from which President Barack Obama withdrew U.S. troops in 2011. The fourth war followed in 2014 when the U.S.-trained Iraqi military collapsed in the face of relatively small numbers of ISIS militants, a group that was an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which didn’t exist until the U.S. invaded that country. That September, President Obama loosed the U.S. air force on Iraq and Syria (so you can add a fifth war in a neighboring country to the mix) and sent U.S. troops back into Iraq and into Syria where they still remain.
Oh, yes, and don’t forget Somalia. U.S. troubles there began with the famed Black Hawk Down incident amid the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993 and never, in a sense, really ended. Today, U.S. Special Operations forces are still on the ground there and U.S. air strikes against a Somali militant Islamic group, al-Shabaab, have actually been on the rise in the Trump era.
As for Yemen, from the first U.S. drone strike there in 2002, the U.S. had been in an on-again, off-again low-level conflict there that included commando raids, cruise missile attacks, air strikes, and drone strikes against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, another offshoot of the original al-Qaeda. Since, in 2015, the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates launched their war against Houthi rebels (backed by Iran) who had come to control significant parts of the country, the U.S. has been supporting them with weaponry, intelligence, and targeting, as well as (until late last year) mid-air refueling and other aid. Meanwhile, that brutal war of destruction has led to staggering numbers of Yemeni civilian casualties (and widespread starvation), but as with so many of the other campaigns the U.S. has involved itself in across the Greater Middle East and Africa it shows no sign of ending.
And don’t forget Libya, where the U.S. and NATO intervened in 2011 to help rebels take down Muammar Gaddafi, the local autocrat, and in the process managed to foster a failed state in a land now experiencing its own civil war. In the years since 2011, the U.S. has sometimes had commandos on the ground there, has launched hundreds of drone strikes (and air strikes), often against a branch of ISIS that grew up in that land. Once again, little is settled there, so we can all continue to sing the Marine Hymn (“…to the shores of Tripoli”) with a sense of appropriateness.
And I haven’t even mentioned Pakistan, Niger, and god knows where else. You should also note that the American forever war on terror has proven a remarkably effective war for terror, clearly helping to foster and spread such groups, aggressors and provocateurs all, around significant parts of the planet, from the Philippines to the Congo.
Addicted to war? Not us. Still, all in all, it’s quite a record and let’s not forget that looming on the horizon is another possible war, this time with Iran, a country that the men overseeing the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (including present National Security Advisor John Bolton) were eager to go after even then. “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad,” so the saying reputedly went in Washington at the time. “Real men want to go to Tehran.” And it’s just possible that, in 2019, Bolton and crew will be able to act on that much delayed urge. Considering the history of American wars in these years, what could possibly go wrong?
To sum up, no one should ever claim that we Americans aren’t “at home” in the world. We’re everywhere, remarkably well funded and well armed and ready to face off against the aggressors and provocateurs of this planet. Just one small suggestion: thank the troops for their service if you want, and then, as most Americans do, go about your business as if nothing were happening in those distant lands. As we head into election season 2020, however, just don’t imagine that we’re the good guys on Planet Earth. As far as I can tell, there aren’t many good guys left.
We’re Not the Good Guys
Don’t try to deny it! The political temperature of this country is rising fast. Call it Trump change or Trump warming, if you want, but grasp one thing: increasingly, you’re in a different land and, whatever happens to Donald Trump, the results down the line are likely to be ever less pretty. Trump change isn’t just an American phenomenon, it’s distinctly global. After all, from Australia to India, the Philippines to Hungary, Donald Trumps and their supporters keep getting elected or reelected and, according to a recent CNN poll, a majority of Americans think Trump himself will win again in 2020 (though, at the moment, battleground-state polls look grim for him).
Still, whether or not he gets a second term in the White House, he only seems like the problem, partially because no president, no politician, no one in history has ever gotten such 24/7 media coverage of every twitch, tweet, bizarre statement, falsehood, or fantasy he expresses (or even the clothes he wears). Think of it this way: we’re in a moment in which the only thing the media can’t imagine saying about Donald Trump is: “You’re fired!” And believe me, that’s just one sign of a media — and a country — with a temperature that’s anything but 98.6.
Since you-know-who is always there, always being discussed, always @(un)realdonaldtrump, it’s easy enough to imagine that everything that’s going wrong — or, if you happen to be part of his famed base, right (even if that right isn’t so damned hot for you) — is due to him. When we’re gripped by such thinking and the temperature’s rising, it hardly matters that just about everything he’s “done” actually preceded him. That includes favoring the 1%, deporting record numbers of illegal immigrants, and making war (unsuccessfully) or threatening to do so across significant parts of the planet.
Here, then, is the question of the day, the sort you’d ask about any patient with a rising temperature: If Donald Trump is only the symptom, what’s the disease?
Let me say that the late Chalmers Johnson would have understood President Trump perfectly. The Donald clearly arrived on the scene as blowback — the CIA term of tradecraft Johnson first put into our everyday vocabulary — from at least two things: an American imperium gone wrong with its never-ending wars, ever-rising military budgets, and ever-expanding national security state, and a new “gilded age” in which three men (Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett) have more wealth than the bottom half of society and the .01% have one of their own, a billionaire, in the Oval Office. (If you want to add a third blowback factor, try a media turned upside down by new ways of communicating and increasingly desperate to glue eyes to screens as ad revenues, budgets, and staffs shrank and the talking heads of cable news multiplied.)
Now, I don’t mean to sell Donald Trump short in any way. Give that former reality TV star credit. Unlike either Hillary Clinton or any of his Republican opponents in the 2016 election campaign, he sensed that there were voters in profusion in the American heartland who felt that things were not going well and were eager for a candidate just like the one he was ready to become. (There were, of course, other natural audiences for a disruptive, self-promoting billionaire as well, including various millionaires and billionaires ready to support him, the Russians, the Saudis… well, you know the list). His skill, however, never lay in what he could actually do (mainly, in these years, cut taxes for the wealthy, impose tariffs, and tweet his head off). It lay in his ability to catch the blowback mood of that moment in a single slogan — Make America Great Again, or MAGA — that he trademarked in November 2012, only days after Mitt Romney lost his bid for the presidency to Barack Obama.
Yes, four years later in the 2016 election, others began to notice the impact of that slogan. You couldn’t miss the multiplying MAGA hats, after all. Hillary Clinton’s advisers even briefly came up with the lamest response imaginable to it: Make America Whole Again, or MAWA. But what few at the time really noted was the crucial word in that phrase: “again.” Politically speaking, that single blowback word might then have been the most daring in the English language. In 2016, Donald Trump functionally said what no other candidate or politician of any significance in America dared to say: that the United States was no longer the greatest, most indispensable, most exceptionable nation or superpower or hyper-power ever to exist on Planet Earth.
That represented a groundbreaking recognition of reality. At the time, it didn’t matter whether you were Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or Marco Rubio, you had to acknowledge some version of that formula of exceptionalism. Trump didn’t and, believe me, that rang a bell in the American heartland, where lots of people had felt, however indirectly, the blowback from all those years of taxpayer-funded fruitless war, while not benefitting from infrastructure building or much of anything else. They experienced blowback from a country in which new billionaires were constantly being created, while the financial distance between CEO salaries and those of workers grew exponentially vaster by the year, and the financing of the political system became a 1% affair.
With that slogan, The Donald caught the spirit of a moment in which both imperial and economic decline, however unacknowledged by the Washington political elite, had indeed begun. In the process, as I wrote at that time, he crossed a psychologically taboo line and became America’s first declinist candidate for president. MAGA captured a feeling already at large that tomorrow would be worse than today, which was already worse than yesterday. As it turned out, it mattered not at all that the billionaire conman spouting that trademarked phrase had long been part of the problem, not the solution.
He caught the essence of the moment, in other words, but certainly didn’t faintly cause it in the years when he financed Trump Tower, watched his five Atlantic City casinos go bankrupt, and hosted The Apprentice. In that election campaign, he captured a previously forbidden reality of the twenty-first century. For example, I was already writing this in June 2016, five months before he was elected president:
“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.”
Mind you, three years later the United States remains a staggeringly powerful imperial force, with hundreds of military bases still scattered across the globe, while its economic clout — its corporations control about half the planet’s wealth — similarly remains beyond compare. Yet, even in 2016, it shouldn’t have been hard to see that the American Century was indeed ending well before its 100 years were up. It shouldn’t have been hard to grasp, as Donald Trump intuitively did, that this country, however powerful, was already both a declining empire — thank you, George W. Bush for invading Iraq! Mission Accomplished! — and a declining economic system (both of which still looked great indeed, if you happened to be profiting from them). That intuition and that slogan gave Trump his moment in… well, dare I call it “the afternoon sun”? They made him president.
In a sense, all of this should have been expectable enough. Despite the oddity of Donald Trump himself, there was little new in it, even for the imperial power that its enthusiasts once thought stood at “the end of history.” You don’t need to look far, after all, for evidence of the decline of empires. You don’t even have to think back to the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, almost three decades ago in what now seems like the Stone Age. (Admittedly, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a brilliant imagineer, has brought back a facsimile of the old Soviet Union, even if, in reality, Russia is now a rickety, fraying petro-state.)
Just take a glance across the Atlantic at Great Britain at this moment. And imagine that three-quarters of a century ago, that modest-sized island nation still controlled all of India, colonies across the planet, and an impressive military and colonial service. Go back even further and you’ll find yourself in a time when it was the true superpower of planet Earth. What a force it was — industrially, militarily, colonially — until, of course, it wasn’t.
If you happen to be looking for imperial lessons, you could perhaps say that some empires end not with a bang but with a Brexit. Despite all the pomp and circumstance (tweeting and insults) during the visit of the Trump royal family (Donald, Melania, Ivanka, Jared, Donald Jr., Eric, and Tiffany) to the British royals, led by a queen who, at 93, can remember better days, here’s something hard to deny: with Brexit (no matter how it turns out), the Earth’s former superpower has landed in the sub-basement of history. Great Britain? Obviously that adjective has to change.
In the meantime, across the planet, China, another once great imperial power, perhaps the greatest in the long history of this planet, is clearly on the rise again from another kind of sub-basement. That, in turn, is deeply worrying the leadership, civilian and military, of the planet’s “lone superpower.” Its president, in response, is wielding his weapon of choice — tariffs — while the U.S. military prepares for an almost unimaginable future war with that upstart nation, possibly starting in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, the still-dominant power on the planet is, however incrementally, heading down. It’s nowhere near that sub-basement, of course — anything but. It’s still a rich, immensely powerful land. Its unsuccessful wars, however, go on without surcease, the political temperature rises, and democratic institutions continue to fray — all of which began well before Donald Trump entered the Oval Office and, in fact, helped ensure that he would make it there in the first place.
And yet none of this, not even imperial decline itself, quite captures the “disease” of which The Donald is now such an obvious symptom. After all, while the rise and fall of imperial powers has been an essential part of history, the planetary context for that process is now changing in an unprecedented way. And that’s not just because, since the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, growing numbers of countries have come to possess the power to take the planet down in a cataclysm of fire and ice (as in nuclear winter). It’s also because history, as we’ve known it, including the rise and fall of empires, is now, in a sense, melting away.
Trump change, the rising political temperature stirred by the growing populist right, is taking place in the context of (and, worse yet, aiding and abetting) record global temperatures, the melting of ice across the planet, the rise of sea levels and the future drowning of coastlines (and cities), the creation of yet more refugees, the increasing fierceness of fires and droughts, and the intensification of storms. In the midst of it all, an almost unimaginable wave of extinctions is occurring, with a possible million plant and animal species, some crucial to human existence, already on the verge of departure.
Never before in history has the rise and decline of imperial powers taken place in the context of the decline of the planet itself. Try, for instance, to imagine what a “risen” China will look like in an age in which one of its most populous regions, the north China plain, may by century’s end be next to uninhabitable, given the killing heat waves of the future.
In the context of both Trump change and climate change, we’re obviously still awaiting our true transformative president, the one who is not a symptom of decline, but a factor in trying to right this country and the Earth before it’s too late. You know, the one who will take as his or her slogan, MTPGA (Make The Planet Great Again).
If Donald Trump Is the Symptom…
In this country, reactions to the Mueller report have been all-American beyond belief. Let’s face it, when it comes to election meddling, it’s been me, me, me, 24/7 here. Yes, in some fashion some set of Russians meddled in the last election campaign, whether it was, as Jared Kushner improbably claimed, “a couple of Facebook ads” or, as the Mueller report described it, “the Russian government interfer[ing]… in sweeping and systematic fashion.”
But let me mention just a few of the things that we didn’t learn from the Mueller report. We didn’t learn that Russian agents appeared at Republican Party headquarters in 2016 with millions of dollars in donations to influence the coming election. (Oops, my mistake! That was CIA agents in the Italian election of 1948!) We didn’t learn that a Russian intelligence agency in combination with Chinese intelligence, aided by a major Chinese oil company, overthrew an elected U.S. president and installed Donald Trump in the White House as their autocrat of choice. (Oops, my mistake again! That was the CIA, dispatched by an American president, and British intelligence, with the help of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, later BP. In 1953, they overthrew Mohammad Mossadegh, the elected prime minister of Iran, and installed the young Shah as an autocratic ruler, the very first — but hardly the last — time the CIA successfully ousted a foreign government.) We didn’t learn that key advisers to Russian President Vladimir Putin were in close touch with rogue elements of the U.S. military preparing to stage a coup d’état in Washington, kill President Barack Obama in a direct assault on the White House, and put the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in office. (Sorry, again my slip-up and full apologies! That was President Richard Nixon’s adviser Henry Kissinger in contact with Chilean military officers who, on September 11, 1973 — the first 9/11 — staged an armed uprising during which Salvador Allende, the democratically elected socialist president of that country, died and army commander-in-chief Augusto Pinochet took power.) We didn’t learn that, at the behest of Vladimir Putin, Russian secret service agents engaged in a series of plots to poison or in some other fashion assassinate Barack Obama during his presidency and, in the end, had at least a modest hand in encouraging those who did kill him after he left office. (Oh, wait, I was confused on that one, too. I was actually thinking about the plots, as the 1960s began, to do in Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba.) Nor, for that matter, did we learn that the Russian military launched a regime-change-style invasion of this country to unseat an American president and get rid of our weapons of mass destruction and then occupied the country for years after installing Donald Trump in power. (Sorry one more time! What I actually had in mind before I got so muddled up was the decision of the top officials of President George W. Bush’s administration, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, to launch a “regime-change” invasion of Iraq in 2003, based on fraudulent claims that Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction, and install a government of their choice in Baghdad.)
No, none of that happened here. Still, even though most Americans might find it hard to believe, we weren’t exactly the first country to have an election meddled with by an intrusive foreign power with an agenda all its own! And really, my examples above just begin an endless list of events the Mueller report didn’t mention, ones that most Americans no longer know anything about or we wouldn’t have acted as if the Russian election intervention of 2016 stood essentially alone in history.
I don’t, however, want that to sound like blame. After all, if you lived in the United States in these years and didn’t already know the secret history of American intervention and regime change across the globe from the end of World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union, you could be forgiven for thinking that never had anyone done anything quite so dastardly as did the Putin regime in attempting to hack and alter the results of an American election. In the media, that Russian intervention has (with the rarest of exceptions) been covered as if it were an event unique in history. Admittedly, whatever the Russians did do in 2016 to lend a hand to Donald Trump, they didn’t plan a coup d’état; it wasn’t an assassination attempt; and it wasn’t, in the normal sense, what has come to be known as “regime change.”
A World of Chaos Without End
Let’s start with one thing that should have been (but wasn’t) obvious since the first reports on Russian meddling in the election campaign of 2016 began to appear. Historically speaking, such a plan fits well with a classic Russian tradition. As scholar Dov Levin discovered in studying “partisan election interventions” from 1946 to 2000, the Russians — the Soviet Union until 1991 — engaged in a staggering 36 of them globally.
If, however, you jumped to the conclusion that such an impressive cumulative figure gave the Russians the world’s record for election meddling, think again. In fact, it left them languishing in a distant second place when it came to interfering in other countries’ elections over more than four decades. The United States took the crown with, by Levin’s count, a distinctly imperial 81 interventions! (USA! USA!)
Put another way, the two Cold War superpowers together meddled in approximately “one of every nine competitive elections” in that era in at least 60 countries covering every part of the planet but Oceania. Moreover, only seven of them were in the same election in the same country at the same time.
And elections are but one part of a story of meddling on a scale that has been historically remarkable. In her book Covert Regime Change, Lindsey O’Rourke notes that between 1947 and 1989, a span of nine Cold War-era American administrations, the least number of “U.S.-backed regime-change attempts” per president was three (Gerald Ford’s administration), the most 30 (Dwight D. Eisenhower’s). Harry Truman’s administration came in second with 21, Lyndon Johnson’s third with 19, Ronald Reagan’s fourth with 16, John F. Kennedy’s fifth with 15, and Richard Nixon’s sixth with 10.
And keep in mind that, while such numbers remain unprecedented, despite a number of short-term successes from Iran to Guatemala, this was not generally a notable record of success in remaking the world in the image Washington desired. Many of those regime-change attempts, especially against countries in the Soviet bloc, failed dismally. Others created chaos or regimes that not only did their citizens little good but didn’t end up doing much for Washington either. Still, that didn’t stop one administration after another from trying, which is why the numbers remain mind-boggling.
And then the Soviet Union imploded and there was but a “sole” superpower left on Planet Earth. Its leaders had no doubt that its ultimate moment had come and it was to be no less than “the end of history”! The planet was obviously Washington’s for the taking. No more need for subterfuge, subtle election meddling, secret support for dissidents, or even covert regime change, not when the only opposition to an American planet was a few weak “rogue states” (think: the “axis of evil,” also known as Iran, Iraq, and North Korea), a desperately weakened and impoverished but still nuclear-armed Russia, and a modestly rising future power in Asia.
And then, of course, came 9/11, that staggering act of blowback — in part from one of the great “successes” of CIA covert action in the Cold War, the decisive defeat of the Red Army in Afghanistan thanks to the funding and arming of a set of extremist Islamist militants, a war in which a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden gained a certain modest reputation. On that day in 2001, the last superpower, the one exceptional nation, became the planet’s greatest victim and all hell was let loose (just as bin Laden hoped it would be).
In response, in a world without other superpowers, the country with, as one president proudly put it, “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known” no longer needed to meddle secretly (or at least in a fashion that allowed for “plausible deniability”). With the invasion of Afghanistan that October, open regime change became the order of the day. Iraq would come in 2003, Libya in 2011. The U.S. Air Force and the CIA’s drones would bomb and missile at least seven countries across the Greater Middle East and North Africa repeatedly in the years to come, helping reduce great cities to rubble, uprooting and displacing massive numbers of people, creating failed states galore, and setting in motion forces that, from Pakistan to Syria, Yemen to Niger, would in turn unsettle a significant part of the planet.
And, of course, it would all prove to be a militarized failure of the first order. And yet, with a potential new conflict ramping up in Iran and the U.S. still fighting in Afghanistan almost 18 years later, America’s wars show little sign of winding down. Only recently, for instance, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff assured a group of senators that the American military would “need to maintain a counterterrorism presence as long as an insurgency continues in Afghanistan,” which should be considered the very definition of a forever war. Think of it as a world of chaos without end and now consider again that Russian meddling in an American election.
By the way, whatever the Russians did in 2016 (or may do in the future to American or other elections) is deplorable and should be denounced, no matter how slapdash it might have been. After all, as Dov Levin discovered, it doesn’t necessarily take much to affect the result of an election in another country. Here’s his conclusion for election meddling in the Cold War era:
“I find that an electoral intervention in favor of one of the sides contesting [an] election has a statistically significant effect, increasing its vote share by about 3%. Such an effect can have major ‘real life’ implications. For example, such a swing in the vote share from the winner to the loser in the 14 U.S. presidential elections occurring since 1960 would have been sufficient to change the identity of the winner in seven of these elections.”
As we all know, a 3% shift in the 2016 election in several states would have made a staggering difference. After all, as the Washington Post reported, in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by “0.2, 0.7, and 0.8 percentage points, respectively — and by 10,704, 46,765, and 22,177 votes. Those three wins gave him 46 electoral votes; if Clinton had done one point better in each state, she’d have won the electoral vote, too.”
So the issue isn’t faintly whether Russian electoral meddling was despicable or not. The issue is that it’s been covered here, like so much else has in this century, as yet another case of American exceptionalism (but never narcissism). As on 9/11 — forget that first 9/11 in Chile — we eternally stand alone in our experiences because, by definition, we are the special ones, the ones who matter.
In the case of election meddling, however, this country just joined a moiling crowd of the interfered with — and largely by us. It was a classic case of getting a taste of one’s own medicine and not liking it one bit. It should have taught us a lesson about our own global behavior since World War II. Instead, it’s simply continued us on a path of exceptional meddling that will prove someday to have been one of the great follies in history.
Election-Meddling Follies, 1945-2019
As Notre Dame burned, as the flames leapt from its roof of ancient timbers, many of us watched in grim horror. Hour after hour, on screen after screen, channel after channel, you could see that 850-year-old cathedral, a visiting spot for 13 million people annually, being gutted, its roof timbers flaring into the evening sky, its steeple collapsing in a ball of fire. It was dramatic and deeply disturbing — and, of course, unwilling to be left out of any headline-making event, President Trump promptly tweeted his advice to the French authorities: “Perhaps flying water tankers could be used to put it out. Must act quickly!” No matter that water from such planes would probably have taken the cathedral’s towers down and endangered lives as well — “the equivalent,” according to a French fire chief, “of dropping three tons of concrete at 250 kilometers per hour [on] the ancient monument.”
Still, who could doubt that watching such a monument to the human endeavor being transformed into a shell of its former self was a reminder that everything human is mortal; that, whether in a single lifetime or 850 years, even the most ancient of our artifacts, like those in Iraq and Syria recently, will sooner or later be scourged by the equivalent of (or even quite literally by) fire and sword; that nothing truly lasts, even the most seemingly permanent of things like, until now, Notre Dame?
That cathedral in flames, unlike so much else in our moment (including you-know-who in his every waking moment), deserved the front-and-center media attention it got. Historically speaking, it was a burning event of the first order. Still, it’s strange that the most unnerving, deeply terrifying burning underway today, not of that ancient place of worship that lived with humanity for so many tumultuous centuries but of the planet itself, remains largely in the background.
When the cathedral in which Napoleon briefly crowned himself emperor seemed likely to collapse, it was certifiably an event of headline importance. When, however, the cathedral (if you care to think of it that way) in which humanity has been nurtured all these tens of thousands of years, on which we spread, developed, and became what we are today — I mean, of course, the planet itself — is in danger of an unprecedented sort from fires we continue to set, that’s hardly news at all. It’s largely relegated to the back pages of our attention, lost any day of the week to headlines about a disturbed, suicidal young woman obsessed with the Columbine school massacre or an attorney general obsessed with protecting the president.
And let’s not kid ourselves, this planet of ours is beginning to burn — and not just last week or month either. It’s been smoldering for decades now. Last summer, for instance, amid global heat records (Ouargla, Algeria, 124 degrees Fahrenheit; Hong Kong, over 91 degrees Fahrenheit for 16 straight days; Nawabsha, Pakistan, 122 degrees Fahrenheit; Oslo, Norway, over 86 degrees Fahrenheit for 16 consecutive days; Los Angeles, 108 degrees Fahrenheit), wildfires raged inside the Arctic Circle. This March, in case you hadn’t noticed — and why would you, since it’s gotten so little attention? — the temperature in Alaska was, on average, 20 degrees (yes, that is not a misprint) above normal and typical ice roads between villages and towns across parts of that state were melting and collapsing with deaths ensuing.
Meanwhile, in the Antarctic, ice is melting at a rate startling to scientists. If the process accelerates, global sea levels could rise far faster than expected, beginning to drown coastal cities like Miami, New York, and Shanghai more quickly than previously imagined. Meanwhile, globally, the wildfire season is lengthening. Fearsome fires are on the rise, as are droughts, and that’s just to begin to paint a picture of a heating planet and its ever more extreme weather systems and storms, of (if you care to think of it that way) a Whole Earth version of Notre Dame.
The Arsonists Arrive
As was true with Notre Dame, when it comes to the planet, there were fire alarms before an actual blaze was fully noted. Take, for example, the advisory panel of scientists reporting to President Lyndon Johnson on the phenomenon of global warming back in 1965. They would, in fact, predict with remarkable accuracy how our world was going to change for the worse by this twenty-first-century moment. (And Johnson, in turn, would bring the subject up officially for perhaps the first time in a Special Message to Congress on February 5, 1965, 54 years before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal proposal.) As that panel wrote at the time, “Through his worldwide industrial civilization, Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment. Within a few generations he is burning the fossil fuels that slowly accumulated in the earth over the past 500 million years…” In other words, the alarm was first sounded more than half a century ago.
When it comes to climate change, however, as the smoke began to appear and, in our own moment, the first flames began to leap — after all, the last four years have been the hottest on record and, despite the growth of ever less expensive alternative energy sources, carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere are still rising, not falling — no firemen arrived (just children). There were essentially no adults to put out the blaze. Yes, there was the Paris climate accord but it was largely an agreement in principle without enforcement power of any genuine sort.
In fact, across significant parts of the planet, those who appeared weren’t firefighters at all, but fire feeders who will likely prove to be the ultimate arsonists of human history. In a way, it’s been an extraordinary performance. Leaders who vied for, or actually gained, power not only refused to recognize the existence of climate change but were quite literally eager to aid and abet the phenomenon. This is true, for instance, of the new president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, who came to power prepared to turn the already endangered carbon sink of the Amazon rain forest into a playground for corporate and agricultural destroyers. It is similarly true in Europe, where right-wing populist movements have begun to successfully oppose gestures toward dealing with climate change, gaining both attention and votes in the process. In Poland, for instance, just such a party led by President Andrzej Duda has come to power and the promotion of coal production has become the order of the day.
And none of that compared to developments in the richest, most powerful country of all, the one that historically has put more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere than any other. On taking office, Donald Trump appointed more climate-change deniers to his cabinet than might have previously seemed possible and swore fealty to “American energy dominance,” while working to kneecap the development of alternative energy systems. He and his men tried to open new areas to oil and gas drilling, while in every way imaginable striving to remove what limits there had been on Big Energy, so that it could release its carbon emissions into the atmosphere unimpeded. And as the planetary cathedral began to burn, the president set the mood for the moment (at least for his vaunted “base”) by tweeting such things as “It’s really cold outside, they are calling it a major freeze, weeks ahead of normal. Man, we could use a big fat dose of global warming!” or, on alternative energy, “You would be doing wind, windmills, and if it doesn’t if it doesn’t blow you can forget about television for that night… Darling, I want to watch television. I’m sorry, the wind isn’t blowing.”
Among those who will someday be considered the greatest criminals in history, don’t forget the Big Energy CEOs who, knowing the truth about climate change from their own hired scientists, did everything they could to increase global doubts by funding climate-denying groups, while continuing to be among the most profitable companies around. They even hedged their bets by, among other things, investing in alternative energy and using it to more effectively drill for oil and natural gas.
Meanwhile, of course, the planet that had proven such a comfortable home for humanity was visibly going down. No, climate change won’t actually destroy the Earth itself, just the conditions under which humanity (and so many other species) thrived on it. Sooner or later, if the global temperature is indeed allowed to rise a catastrophic seven degrees Fahrenheit or four degrees Celsius, as an environmental impact statement from the Trump administration suggested it would by 2100, parts of the planet could become uninhabitable, hundreds of millions of human beings could be set in desperate motion, and the weather could intensify in ways that might be nearly unbearable for human habitation. Just read David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth, if you doubt me.
This isn’t even contestable information anymore and yet it’s perfectly possible that Donald Trump could be elected to a second term in 2020. It’s perfectly possible that more right-wing populist movements could sweep into power in Europe. It’s perfectly possible that Vladimir Putin’s version of great powerdom — a sagging Russian petro-state — could continue on its present globally warming path well into the future.
Understand this: Trump, Bolsonaro, Duda, Putin, and the others are just part of human history. Sooner or later, they will be gone. Climate change, however, is not part of human history (whatever it may do to civilization as we know it). Its effects could, in human terms, last for almost unimaginable periods of time. It operates on a different time scale entirely, which means that, unlike the tragedies and nightmares of human history, it is not just a passing matter.
Of course, the planet will survive, as will some life forms (as would be true even if humanity were to succumb to that other possible path to an apocalypse, a nuclear holocaust resulting in “nuclear winter”). But that should be considered small consolation indeed.
Putting the Planet on a Suicide Watch
Consider global warming a story for the ages, one that should put Notre Dame’s near-destruction after almost nine centuries in grim perspective. And yet the planetary version of burning, which should be humanity’s crisis of all crises, has been met with a general lack of media attention, reflecting a lack of just about every other kind of attention in our world (except by those outraged children who know that they are going to inherit a degraded world and are increasingly making their displeasure about it felt).
To take just one example of that lack of obvious attention, the response of the mega-wealthy to the burning of Notre Dame was an almost instantaneous burst of giving. The euro equivalent of nearly a billion dollars was raised more or less overnight from the wealthiest of French families and other .01%ers. Remind me of the equivalent for climate change as the planet’s spire threatens to come down?
As for arsonists like Donald Trump and the matter of collusion, there’s not even a question mark on the subject. In the United States, such collusion with the destroyers of human life on Planet Earth is written all over their actions. It’s beyond evident in the appointment of former oil and gas lobbyists and fellow travelers to positions of power. Will there, however, be the equivalent of a Mueller investigation? Will the president be howling “witch hunt” again? Not a chance. When it comes to Donald Trump and climate change, there will be neither a Mueller Report, nor the need for a classic Barr defense. And yet collusion — hell, yeah! The evidence is beyond overwhelming.
We are, of course, talking about nothing short of the ultimate crime, but on any given day of our lives, you’d hardly notice that it was underway. Even for an old man like me, it’s a terrifying thing to watch humanity make a decision, however inchoate, to essentially commit suicide. In effect, there is now a suicide watch on Planet Earth. Let’s hope the kids can make a difference.