Nation (Un)Building and Planet (Un)Building, American-Style
Let me start 2022 by heading back — way, way back — for a moment.
It’s easy to forget just how long this world has been a dangerous place for human beings. I thought about this recently when I stumbled upon a little memoir my Aunt Hilda scrawled, decades ago, in a small notebook. In it, she commented in passing: “I was graduated during that horrible flu epidemic of 1919 and got it.” Badly enough, it turned out, to mess up her entry into high school. She says little more about it.
Still, I was shocked. In all the years when my father and his sister were alive and, from time to time, talked about the past, never had they (or my mother, for that matter) mentioned the disastrous “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918-1920. I hadn’t the slightest idea that anyone in my family had been affected by it. In fact, until I read John Barry’s 2005 book, The Great Influenza, I hadn’t even known that a pandemic devastated America (and the rest of the world) early in the last century — in a fashion remarkably similar to, but even worse than, Covid-19 (at least so far) before essentially being tossed out of history and the memory books of most families.
That should stun anyone. After all, at that time, possibly 50 million people died of the waves of that dreaded disease, often in horrific ways, and, even in this country, were sometimes buried in mass graves. Meanwhile, some of the controversies we’ve experienced recently over, for instance, masking went on in a similarly bitter fashion then, before that global disaster was chucked away and forgotten. Almost no one I know whose parents lived through that nightmare had heard anything about it while growing up.
America’s Maestro of Death and Destruction
Yes, when he was running for president, he did indeed say: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s, like, incredible.”
Then he won — and this November 3rd (or thereafter), whether he wins or loses, we’re likely to find out that, when it comes to his base, he was right. He may not have lost a vote. Yes, Donald Trump is indeed a murderer, but here’s where his prediction fell desperately short: as president, he’s proven to be anything but a smalltime killer. It wasn’t as if he went out one day, on New York City’s Fifth Avenue or even in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and shot a couple of people.
Nothing so minimalist for The Donald! Nor is it as if, say, he had ploughed “the Beast” (as his presidential Cadillac is known) into a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters, as so many other drivers have done this year. Let’s face it: that’s for his apprentices, not the showman himself. After all, Donald J. Trump has proven to be America’s twenty-first-century maestro of death and destruction, the P.T. Barnum of, as he put it predictively enough in his Inaugural Address, “American carnage.” In fact, he’s been a master of carnage in a way no one could then have imagined.
It was August 2017 and Donald Trump had not yet warmed up to Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s portly dictator. In fact, in typical Trumpian fashion, he was pissed at the Korean leader and, no less typically, he lashed out verbally, threatening that country with a literal hell on Earth. As he put it, “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” And then, just to make his point more personally, he complained about Kim himself, “He has been very threatening beyond a normal state.”
Only a year and a half later, our asteroidal president would, of course, say of that same man, “We fell in love.” Still, that threat by an American leader to — it was obvious — launch a nuclear strike for the first time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki were nearly obliterated in August 1945 was memorable. The phrase would, in fact, become the title of a 2018 bestselling book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, by journalist Michael Wolff. Two years later, amid so many other threatening phrases from this president, “fire and fury” has, however, been left in history’s dustbin, largely forgotten by the world.
Or American Carnage From a Pandemic President
The year was 1991 and the United States was suddenly the globe’s lone superpower, its ultimate hyperpower, the last and greatest of its kind, the soon-to-be-indispensable nation. The only one left — alone, utterly alone and triumphant atop the world.
Who could have asked for more? Or better? It had been a Cold War fantasy of the first order — until that other superpower, the Soviet Union, imploded. In fact, even that doesn’t catch the true shock of the moment, since Washington’s leaders simply hadn’t imagined a world in which the Cold War could ever truly end.
Now, go ahead, blame me. In this pandemic moment that should perhaps be considered a sign of a burning, sickening future to come, I’m stoking your nostalgia for better times. Admittedly, even that past was, in truth, a fantasy of the first (or perhaps last) order. After all, in retrospect, that mighty, resplendent, lone superpower, victorious beyond the wildest dreams of its political elite, was already about to embark on its own path of decline. Enwreathed in triumph, it, too, would be heading for the exits, even if so much more slowly than the Soviet Union.
Osama bin Laden Won (Twice)
It’s July 2020 and I’m about to turn 76, which, as far as I’m concerned, officially makes me an old man. So put up with my aging, wandering brain here, since (I swear) I wasn’t going to start this piece with Donald J. Trump, no matter his latest wild claims or bizarre statements, increasingly white nationalist and pro-Confederate positions (right down to the saving of the rebel stars and bars), not to speak of the Covid-19 slaughter of Americans he’s helped facilitate. But then I read about his demand for a “National Garden of American Heroes,” described as “a vast outdoor park that will feature the statues of the greatest Americans to ever live” and, honestly, though this piece is officially about something else, I just can’t help myself. I had to start there.
Yes, everyone undoubtedly understands why General George Patton (a Trump obsession) is to be in that garden, not to speak — given the president’s reelection politics — of evangelist Billy Graham, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and former president Ronald Reagan. Still, my guess is that most of you won’t have the faintest idea why Davy Crockett is included. I’m talking about the frontiersman and Indian killer who died at the Alamo. Given my age, though, I get Donald Trump on this one and it gave me a rare laugh in a distinctly grim moment. That’s why I can’t resist explaining it, even though I guarantee you that the real subject of this piece is Osama bin Laden’s revenge.
Or How the American Century Ends
Let me rant for a moment. I don’t do it often, maybe ever. I’m not Donald Trump. Though I’m only two years older than him, I don’t even know how to tweet and that tells you everything you really need to know about Tom Engelhardt in a world clearly passing me by. Still, after years in which America’s streets were essentially empty, they’ve suddenly filled, day after day, with youthful protesters, bringing back a version of a moment I remember from my youth and that’s a hopeful (if also, given Covid-19, a scary) thing, even if I’m an old man in isolation in this never-ending pandemic moment of ours.
In such isolation, no wonder I have the urge to rant. Our present American world, after all, was both deeply unimaginable — before 2016, no one could have conjured up President Donald Trump as anything but a joke — and yet in some sense, all too imaginable. Think of it this way: the president who launched his candidacy by descending a Trump Tower escalator to denounce Mexican “rapists” and hype the “great, great wall” he would build, the man who, in his election campaign, promised to put a “big, fat, beautiful wall” across our southern border to keep out immigrants (“invaders!”) — my grandpa, by the way, was just such an invader — has, after nearly three and a half years, succeeded only in getting a grotesquely small wall built around the White House; in other words, he’s turned the “people’s house” into a micro-Green Zone in a Washington that, as it filled with National Guard troops and unidentified but militarized police types, was transformed into a Trumpian version of occupied Baghdad. Then he locked himself inside (except for that one block walk to a church through streets forcibly emptied of protesters). All in all, a single redolent phrase from our recent past comes to mind: mission accomplished!
“Be assured of one thing: whichever candidate you choose at the polls in November, you aren’t just electing a president of the United States; you are also electing an assassin-in-chief.” So I wrote back in June 2012, with a presidential election approaching.
I was referring then to the war on terror’s CIA and military drone assassination programs, which first revved up in parts of the Greater Middle East in the years of George W. Bush’s presidency and only spread thereafter. In the process, such “targeted killings” became, as I wrote at the time, “thoroughly institutionalized, normalized, and bureaucratized around the figure of the president.” In Barack Obama’s years in the Oval Office, they were ramped up further as he joined White House “Terror Tuesday” meetings to choose individual targets for those attacks. They often enough turned out to involve “collateral damage”; that is, the deaths of innocent civilians, including children. In other words, “commander-in-chief” had, by then, gained a deadly new meaning, as the president personally took on the role of a global assassin.
I had little doubt eight years ago that this wouldn’t end soon — and on that I wasn’t wrong. Admittedly, our present commander-in-chief probably doesn’t have the time (given how much of his day he’s spent watching Fox News, tweeting his millions of followers, and, until recently, holding two hour press-briefings-cum-election-rallies on the coronavirus pandemic) or the attention span for “Terror Tuesday” meetings. Still, in his own memorable fashion, he’s managed to make himself America’s assassin-in-chief par excellence.
Donald Trump is the Fakest (and Realest) News of All
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.
Making Sense of the Age of Carnage
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.
See Page Five
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.”
No, That’s Not a Typo
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.
Or Is He the Third?
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.
The Age of Trump, the End of What?
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.
Living a Mixed Metaphor
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.)
The Collective Asteroid of Human History
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.