How the U.S. Invaded, Occupied, and Remade Itself
by Tom Engelhardt
It’s been epic! A cast of thousands! (Hundreds? Tens?) A spectacular production that, five weeks after opening on every screen of any sort in America (and possibly the world), shows no sign of ending. What a hit it’s been! It’s driving people back to newspapers (online, if not in print) and ensuring that our everyday companions, the 24/7 cable news shows, never lack for “breaking news” or audiences. It’s a smash in both the Hollywood and car accident sense of the term, a phenomenon the likes of which we’ve simply never experienced. Think of Nero fiddling while Rome burned and the cameras rolled. It’s proved, in every way, to be a giant leak. A faucet. A spigot. An absolute flood of non-news, quarter-news, half-news, crazed news, fake news, and over-the-top actual news.
And you know exactly what — and whom — I’m talking about. No need to explain. I mean, you tell me: What doesn’t it have? Its lead actor is the closest we’ve come in our nation’s capital to an action figure. Think of him as the Mar-a-Lego version of Batman and the Joker rolled into one, a president who, as he told us at a news conference recently, is “the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life” and the “least racist person” as well. As report after report indicates, he attacks, lashes out, mocks, tweets, pummels, charges, and complains, showering calumny on others even as he praises his achievements without surcease. Think of him as the towering inferno of twenty-first-century American politics or a modern Godzilla eternally emerging from New York harbor.
As for his supporting cast? Islamophobes, Iranophobes, white nationalists; bevies of billionaires and multimillionaires; a resurgent stock market gone wild; the complete fossil fuel industry and every crackpot climate change “skeptic” in town; a press spokesman immortalized by Saturday Night Live whose afternoon briefings are already beating the soap opera General Hospital in the ratings; a White House counselor whose expertise is in “alternative facts”; a national security adviser who (with a tenure of 24 days) seemed to sum up the concept of “insecurity”; a White House chief of staff and liaison with the Republicans in Congress who’s already being sized up for extinction, as well as a couple of appointees who were “dismissed” or even frog-marched out of their offices and jobs for having criticized The Donald and not fessed up… honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up, or rather only Trump himself can do so. And by the way, just so you know, based on the last weeks of “news” I could keep this paragraph going more or less forever without even breaking into a sweat.
Among so many subjects I haven’t even mentioned, including Melania and former wife Ivana — is it even possible that she could become the U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic? — there are, of course, the Trump kids and their businesses and the instantly broken promises on (such an old-fashioned phrase) their conflicts of interest and the conflicts about those conflicts and the presidential tweets, threats, and bluster that have gone with them, not to speak of the issue of for-pay access to the new president. And how about Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner (another walking conflict of you-know-what), who reputedly had a role in the appointment of the new ambassador to Israel, a New York bankruptcy lawyer known for raising millions of dollars to fund a West Bank Jewish settlement and for calling supporters of the liberal Jewish group J Street “far worse than kapos” (Jews who aided the Nazis in their concentration camps). Kushner has now been ordained America’s ultimate peacemaker in the Middle East. And don’t forget that sons Donald and Eric are already saving memorabilia for the future Trump presidential library, a concept that should take your breath away. (Just imagine a library with those giant golden letters over its entrance to honor a man who proudly doesn’t read books and, as with presidential executive orders and possibly even volumes he’s “written,” signs off on things he’s barely bothered to check out.)
And speaking of Rome (remember Nero fiddling?), have you noticed that these days all news roads lead back to… well, Donald Trump? Take my word for it: nothing happens in our world any longer that doesn’t relate to him and his people (or, by definition, it simply didn’t happen). Since he rode that Trump Tower escalator into the presidential race in June 2015, his greatest skill has, without any doubt, been his ability to suck up all the media air in any room, whether that “room” is the Oval Office, Washington, or the world at large. He speaks at a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, amid angry outbursts on leaks from the intelligence community and attacks on “the dishonest media” for essentially firing his national security adviser, he suddenly turns his attention to the Israeli-Palestinian issue and says, “So, I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one. I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two but honestly, if Bibi and if the Palestinians — if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.” And the world as we’ve known it in the Middle East is suddenly turned upside down and inside out.
In its way, even 20 months after it began, it’s all still so remarkable and new, and if it isn’t like being in the path of a tornado, you tell me what it’s like. So no one should be surprised at just how difficult it is to step outside the storm of this never-ending moment, to find some — any — vantage point offering the slightest perspective on the Trumpaclysm that’s hit our world.
Still, odd as it may seem under the circumstances, Trump’s presidency came from somewhere, developed out of something. To think of it (as many of those resisting Trump now seem inclined to do) as uniquely new, the presidential version of a virgin birth, is to defy both history and reality.
Donald Trump, whatever else he may be, is most distinctly a creature of history. He’s unimaginable without it. This, in turn, means that the radical nature of his new presidency should serve as a reminder of just how radical the 15 years after 9/11 actually were in shaping American life, politics, and governance. In that sense, to generalize (if you’ll excuse the pun), his presidency already offers a strikingly vivid and accurate portrait of the America we’ve been living in for some years now, even if we’d prefer to pretend otherwise.
After all, it’s clearly a government of, by, and evidently for the billionaires and the generals, which pretty much sums up where we’ve been heading for the last decade and a half anyway. Let’s start with those generals. In the 15 years before Trump entered the Oval Office, Washington became a permanent war capital; war, a permanent feature of our American world; and the military, the most admired institution of American life, the one in which we have the most confidence among an otherwise fading crew, including the presidency, the Supreme Court, public schools, banks, television news, newspapers, big business, and Congress (in that descending order).
Support for that military in the form of staggering sums of taxpayer dollars (which are about to soar yet again) is one of the few things congressional Democrats and Republicans can still agree on. The military-industrial complex rides ever higher (despite Trumpian tweets about the price of F-35s); police across the country have been armed like so many military forces, while the technology of war on America’s distant battlefields — from Stingrays to MRAPs to military surveillance drones — has come home big time, and we’ve been SWATified.
This country has, in other words, been militarized in all sorts of ways, both obvious and less so, in a fashion that Americans once might not have imagined possible. In the process, declaring and making war has increasingly become — the Constitution be damned — the sole preoccupation of the White House without significant reference to Congress. Meanwhile, thanks to the drone assassination program run directly out of the Oval Office, the president, in these years, has become an assassin-in-chief as well as commander-in-chief.
Under the circumstances, no one should have been surprised when Donald Trump turned to the very generals he criticized in the election campaign, men who fought 15 years of losing wars that they bitterly feel should have been won. In his government, they have, of course, now taken over — a historic first — what had largely been the civilian posts of secretary of defense, secretary of homeland security, national security adviser, and National Security Council chief of staff. Think of it as a junta light and little more than the next logical step in the further militarization of this country.
It’s striking, for instance, that when the president finally fired his national security adviser, 24 days into his presidency, all but one of the other figures that he reportedly considered for a post often occupied by a civilian were retired generals (and an admiral), or in the case of the person he actually tapped to be his second national security adviser, a still-active Army general. This reflects a distinct American reality of the twenty-first century that The Donald has simply absorbed like the human sponge he is. As a result, America’s permanent wars, all relative disasters of one sort or another, will now be overseen by men who were, for the last decade and a half, deeply implicated in them. It’s a formula for further disaster, of course, but no matter.
Other future Trumpian steps — like the possible mobilization of the National Guard, more than half a century after guardsmen helped desegregate the University of Alabama, to carry out the mass deportation of illegal immigrants — will undoubtedly be in the same mold (though the administration has denied that such a mobilization is under serious consideration yet). In short, we now live in an America of the generals and that would be the case even if Donald Trump had never been elected president.
Add in one more factor of our moment: we have the first signs that members of the military high command may no longer feel completely bound by the classic American prohibition from taking any part in politics. General Raymond “Tony” Thomas, head of the elite U.S. Special Operations Command, speaking recently at a conference, essentially warned the president that we are “at war” and that chaos in the White House is not good for the warriors. That’s as close as we’ve come in our time to direct public military criticism of the White House.
The Ascendancy of the Billionaires
As for those billionaires, let’s start this way: a billionaire is now president of the United States, something that, until this country was transformed into a 1% society with 1% politics, would have been inconceivable. (The closest we came in modern times was Nelson Rockefeller as vice president, and he was appointed by President Gerald Ford in 1974, not elected.) In addition, never have there been so many billionaires and multimillionaires in a cabinet — and that, in turn, was only possible because there are now so staggeringly many billionaires and multimillionaires in this country to choose from. In 1987, there were 41 billionaires in the United States; in 2015, 536. What else do you need to know about the intervening years, which featured growing inequality and the worst economic meltdown since 1929 that only helped strengthen the new version of the American system?
In swift order in these years, we moved from billionaires funding the political system (after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision opened the financial floodgates) to actually heading and running the government. As a result, count on a country even friendlier to the already fantastically wealthy — thanks in part to whatever Trump-style “tax cuts” are put in place — and so the possible establishment of a new “era of dynastic wealth.” From the crew of rich dismantlers and destroyers Donald Trump has appointed to his cabinet, expect, among other things, that the privatization of the U.S. government — a process until now largely focused on melding warrior corporations with various parts of the national security state — will proceed apace in the rest of the governing apparatus.
We were, in other words, already living in a different America before November 8, 2016. Donald Trump has merely shoved that reality directly in all our faces. And keep in mind that if it weren’t for the one-percentification of this country and the surge of automation (as well as globalization) that destroyed so many jobs and only helped inequality flourish, white working class Americans in particular would not have felt so left behind in the heartland of their own country or so ready to send such an explosive figure into the White House as a visible form of screw-you-style protest.
Finally, consider one other hallmark of the first month of the Trump presidency: the “feud” between the new president and the intelligence sector of the national security state. In these post-9/11 years, that state within a state — sometimes referred to by its critics as the “deep state,” though given the secrecy that envelops it, “dark state” might be a more accurate term — grew by leaps and bounds. In that period, for instance, the U.S. gained a second Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security with its own security-industrial complex, while the intelligence agencies, all 17 of them, expanded in just about every way imaginable. In those years, they gained a previously inconceivable kind of clout, as well as the ability to essentially listen in on and monitor the communications of just about anyone on the planet (including Americans). Fed copiously by taxpayer dollars, swollen by hundreds of thousands of private contractors from warrior corporations, largely free of the controlling hand of either Congress or the courts, and operating under the kind of blanket secrecy that left most Americans in the dark about its activities (except when whistle-blowers revealed its workings), the national security state gained an ascendancy in Washington as the de facto fourth branch of government.
Now, key people within its shadowy precincts find Donald Trump, the president who is in so many ways a product of the same processes that elevated them, not to their liking — even less so once he compared their activities to those of the Nazi era — and they seem to have gone to war with him and his administration via a remarkable stream of leaks of damaging information, especially about now-departed National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. As Amanda Taub and Max Fisher of the New York Times wrote, “For concerned government officials, leaks may have become one of the few remaining means by which to influence not just Mr. Flynn’s policy initiatives but the threat he seemed to pose to their place in democracy.”
This, of course, represented a version of whistle-blowing that, when directed at them in the pre-Trump era, they found appalling. Like General Thomas’s comments, that flood of leaks, while discomfiting Donald Trump, also represented a potential challenge to the American political system as it once was known. When the fiercest defenders of that system begin to be seen as being inside the intelligence community and the military you know that you’re in a different and far more perilous world.
So much of what’s now happening may seem startlingly new and overwhelming. In truth, however, it’s been in development for years, even if the specifics of a Trump presidency were not so long ago unimaginable. In March of 2015, for instance, two months before The Donald tossed his hair into the presidential ring, in a post at TomDispatch I asked if “a new political system” was emerging in America and summed the situation up this way:
“Still, don’t for a second think that the American political system isn’t being rewritten on the run by interested parties in Congress, our present crop of billionaires, corporate interests, lobbyists, the Pentagon, and the officials of the national security state. Out of the chaos of this prolonged moment and inside the shell of the old system, a new culture, a new kind of politics, a new kind of governance is being born right before our eyes. Call it what you want. But call it something. Stop pretending it’s not happening.”
We’re now living in Donald Trump’s America (which I certainly didn’t either predict or imagine in March 2015); we’re living, that is, in an ever more chaotic and aberrant land run (to the extent it’s run at all) by billionaires and retired generals, and overseen by a distinctly aberrant president at war with aberrant parts of the national security state. That, in a nutshell, is the America created in the post-9/11 years. Put another way, the U.S. may have failed dismally in its efforts to invade, occupy, and remake Iraq in its own image, but it seems to have invaded, occupied, and remade itself with remarkable success. And don’t blame this one on the Russians.
No one said it better than French King Louis XV: Après moi, le Trump.