Tom Engelhardt

The United States as a mass-killing machine

By the time you read this piece, it will already be out of date. The reason's simple enough. No matter what mayhem I describe, with so much all-American weaponry in this world of ours, there's no way to keep up. Often, despite the headlines that go with mass killings here, there's almost no way even to know.

On this planet of ours, America is the emperor of weaponry, even if in ways we normally tend not to put together. There's really no question about it. The all-American powers-that-be and the arms makers that go with them dream up, produce, and sell weaponry, domestically and internationally, in an unmatched fashion. You'll undoubtedly be shocked, shocked to learn that the top five arms makers on the planet — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics — are all located in the United States.

Put another way, we're a killer nation, a mass-murder machine, slaughter central. And as we've known since the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, there could be far worse to come. After all, in the overheated dreams of both those weapons makers and Pentagon planners, slaughter-to-be has long been imagined on a planetary scale, right down to the latest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) being created by Northrop Grumman at the cost of at least $100 billion. Each of those future arms of ultimate destruction is slated to be "the length of a bowling lane" and the nuclear charge that it carries will be at least 20 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. That missile will someday be capable of traveling 6,000 miles and killing hundreds of thousands of people each. (And the Air Force is planning to order 600 of them.)

By the end of this decade, that new ICBM is slated to join an unequaled American nuclear arsenal of — at this moment — 3,800 warheads. And with that in mind, let's back up a moment.

Have Gun — Will Travel

Before we head abroad or think more about weaponry fit to destroy the planet (or at least human life on it), let's just start right here at home. After all, we live in a country whose citizens are armed to their all-too-labile fingertips with more guns of every advanced sort than might once have been imaginable. The figures are stunning. Even before the pandemic hit and gun purchases soared to record levels — about 23 million of them (a 64% increase over 2019 sales) — American civilians were reported to possess almost 400 million firearms. That adds up to about 40% of all such weaponry in the hands of civilians globally, or more than the next 25 countries combined.

And if that doesn't stagger you, note that the versions of those weapons in public hands are becoming ever more militarized and powerful, ever more AR-15 semi-automatic rifles, not .22s. And keep in mind as well that, over the years, the death toll from those weapons in this country has grown staggeringly large. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote recently, "More Americans have died from guns just since 1975, including suicides, murders and accidents (more than 1.5 million), than in all the wars in United States history, dating back to the Revolutionary War (about 1.4 million)."

In my childhood, one of my favorite TV programs was called Have Gun — Will Travel. Its central character was a highly romanticized armed mercenary in the Old West and its theme song — still lodged in my head (where so much else is unlodging these days) — began:

"Have gun will travel is the card of a man.
A knight without armor in a savage land.
His fast gun for hire heeds the calling wind.
A soldier of fortune is the man called Paladin."

Staggering numbers of Americans are now ever grimmer versions of Paladin. Thanks to a largely unregulated gun industry, they're armed like no other citizenry on the planet, not even — in a distant second place — the civilians of Yemen, a country torn by endless war. That TV show's title could now be slapped on our whole culture, whether we're talking about our modern-day Paladins traveling to a set of Atlanta spas; a chain grocery store in Boulder, Colorado; a real-estate office in Orange, California; a convenience store near Baltimore; or a home in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

Remember how the National Rifle Association has always defended the right of Americans to own weapons at least in part by citing this country's hunting tradition? Well, these days, startling numbers of Americans, armed to the teeth, have joined that hunting crew. Their game of choice isn't deer or even wolves and grizzly bears, but that ultimate prey, other human beings — and all too often themselves. (In 2020, not only did a record nearly 20,000 Americans die from gun violence, but another 24,000 used guns to commit suicide.)

As the rate of Covid-19 vaccination began to rise to remarkable levels in this country and ever more public places reopened, the first mass public killings (defined as four or more deaths in a public place) of the pandemic period — in Atlanta and Boulder — hit the news big-time. The thought, however, that the American urge to use weapons in a murderous fashion had in any way lessened or been laid to rest, even briefly, thanks to Covid-19, proved a fantasy of the first order.

At a time when so many public places like schools were closed or their use limited indeed, if you took as your measuring point not mass public killings but mass shootings (defined as four or more people wounded or killed), the pandemic year of 2020 proved to be a record 12 months of armed chaos. In fact, such mass shootings actually surged by 47%. As USA Today recounted, "In 2020, the United States reported 611 mass shooting events that resulted in 513 deaths and 2,543 injuries. In 2019, there were 417 mass shootings with 465 deaths and 1,707 injured." In addition, in that same year, according to projections based on FBI data, there were 4,000 to 5,000 more gun murders than usual, mainly in inner-city communities of color.

In the first 73 days of Joe Biden's presidency, there were five mass shootings and more than 10,000 gun-violence deaths. In the Covid-19 era, this has been the model the world's "most exceptional" nation (as American politicians of both parties used to love to call this country) has set for the rest of the planet. Put another way, so far in 2020 and 2021, there have been two pandemics in America, Covid-19 and guns.

And though the weaponization of our citizenry and the carnage that's gone with it certainly gets attention — President Biden only recently called it "an international embarrassment" — here's the strange thing: when reporting on such a binge of killings and the weapons industry that stokes it, few here think to include the deaths and other injuries for which the American military has been responsible via its "forever wars" of this century outside our own borders. Nor do they consider the massive U.S. weapons deliveries and sales to other countries that often enough lead to the same. In other words, a full picture of all-American carnage has — to use an apt phrase — remained missing in action.

Cornering the Arms Market

In fact, internationally, things are hardly less mind-boggling when it comes to this country and weaponry. As with its armed citizenry, when it comes to arming other countries, Washington is without peer. It's the weapons dealer of choice across much of the world. Yes, the U.S. gun industry that makes all those rifles for this country also sells plenty of them abroad and, in the Trump years, such sales were only made easier to complete (as was the selling of U.S. unmanned aerial drones to "less stable governments"). When it comes to semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15 or even grenades and flamethrowers, this country's arms makers no longer even need State Department licenses, just far easier-to-get Commerce Department ones, to complete such sales, even to particularly abusive nations. As a result, to take one example, semi-automatic pistol exports abroad rose 148% in 2020.

But what I'm particularly thinking about here are the big-ticket items that those five leading weapons makers of the military-industrial complex eternally produce. On the subject of the sale of jet fighters like the F-16 and F-35, tanks and other armored vehicles, submarines (as well as anti-submarine weaponry), and devastating bombs and missiles, among other things, we leave our "near-peer" competitors as well as our weapons-making allies in the dust. Washington is the largest supplier to 20 of the 40 major arms importers on the planet.

When it comes to delivering the weapons of war, the U.S. leads all its competitors in a historic fashion, especially in the war-torn and devastated Middle East. There, between 2015 and 2019, it gobbled up nearly half of the arms market. Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia was its largest customer, which, of course, only further stoked the brutal civil war in Yemen, where U.S. weapons are responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians. As Pentagon expert William Hartung wrote of those years, U.S. arms deliveries to the region added up to "nearly three times the arms Russia supplied to MENA [the Middle East and North Africa], five times what France contributed, 10 times what the United Kingdom exported, and 16 times China's contribution." (And often enough, as in Iraq and Yemen, some of those weapons end up falling into the hands of those the U.S. opposes.)

In fact, in 2020, this country's arms sales abroad rose a further 2.8% to $178 billion. The U.S. now supplies no fewer than 96 countries with weaponry and controls 37% of the global arms market (with, for example, Lockheed Martin alone taking in $47.2 billion in such sales in 2018, followed by the four other giant U.S. weapons makers and, in sixth place, the British defense firm BAE).

This remains the definition of mayhem-to-come, the international version of that spike in domestic arms sales and the killings that went with it. After all, in these years, deaths due to American arms in countries like Afghanistan and Yemen have grown strikingly. And to take just one more example, arms, ammunition, and equipment sold to or given to the brutal regime of Rodrigo Duterte for the Philippine military and constabulary have typically led to deaths (especially in its "war on drugs") that no one's counting up.

And yet, even combined with the dead here at home, all of this weapons-based slaughter hardly adds up to a full record when it comes to the U.S. as a global mass-killing machine.

Far, Far from Home

After all, this country has a historic 800 or so military bases around the world and nearly 200,000 military personnel stationed abroad (about 60,000 in the Middle East alone). It has a drone-assassination program that extends from Afghanistan across the Greater Middle East to Africa, a series of "forever wars" and associated conflicts fought over that same expanse, and a Navy with major aircraft carrier task forces patrolling the high seas. In other words, in this century, it's been responsible for largely uncounted but remarkable numbers of dead and wounded human beings. Or put another way, it's been a mass-shooting machine abroad.

Unlike in the United States, however, there's little way to offer figures on those dead. To take one example, Brown University's invaluable Costs of War Project has estimated that, from the beginning of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 to late 2019, 801,000 people, perhaps 40% of them civilians, were killed in Washington's war on terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. Of course, not all of those by any means were killed by the U.S. military. In fact, some were even American soldiers and contractors. Still, the figures are obviously sizeable. (To take but one very focused example, from December 2001 to December 2013 at TomDispatch, I was counting up civilian wedding parties taken down by U.S. air power in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen. I came up with eight well-documented ones with a death toll of nearly 300, including brides, grooms, musicians, and revelers.)

Similarly, last December, Neta Crawford of the Costs of War Project released a report on the rising number of Afghan civilians who had died from U.S. air strikes in the Trump years. She found that in 2019, for instance, "airstrikes killed 700 civilians — more civilians than in any other year since the beginning of the war." Overall, the documented civilian dead from American air strikes in the war years is in the many thousands, the wounded higher yet. (And, of course, those figures don't include the dead from Afghan air strikes with U.S.-supplied aircraft.) And mind you, that's just civilians mistaken for Taliban or other enemy forces.

Similarly, thousands more civilians were killed by American air strikes across the rest of the Greater Middle East and northern Africa. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which followed U.S. drone strikes for years, estimated that, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, by 2019 such attacks had killed "between 8,500 and 12,000 people, including as many as 1,700 civilians — 400 of whom were children."

And that, of course, is just to begin to count the dead in America's conflicts of this era. Or thought of another way, in this century, the U.S. military has been a kind of global Paladin. Its motto could obviously be "have gun, will travel" and its forces and those allied to it (and often supplied with American arms) have certainly killed staggering numbers of people in conflicts that have devastated communities across a significant part of the planet, while displacing an estimated 37 million people.

Now, return to those Americans gunned down in this country and think of all of this as a single weaponized, well-woven fabric, a single American gun culture that spans the globe, as well as a three-part killing machine of the first order. Much as mass shootings and public killings can sometimes dominate the news here, a full sense of the damage done by the weaponization of our culture seldom comes into focus. When it does, the United States looks like slaughter central.

Or as that song from Have Gun — Will Travel ended:

Paladin, Paladin,
Where do you roam?
Paladin, Paladin,
Far, far from home.

Far, far from home — and close, close to home — indeed.

Copyright 2021 Tom Engelhardt

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

America unmasked: Life in a wounded and wounding land

Here's one of the things I now do every morning. I go to the online Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center and check out the figures there — global coronavirus cases and deaths, U.S. coronavirus cases and deaths. And I do so the way that, not so long ago, I would have opened the sports pages and checked out the latest scores of whatever New York team I was rooting for.

Where it was once a matter of the Knicks winning 109-92 or the Mets losing 4-2, it's now those other, always rising, ever grimmer figures — say, 29,607,486 and 538,087. Those are the ever-updated numbers of reported American cases and deaths in what, until the arrival of the Biden administration, was a pathetically chaotic, horrifically mismanaged, and politically depth-charged struggle with Covid-19. In certain Republican-run states now rushing to unmask and open anything and everything to the limit, in places where crowds gather as if nothing had truly happened in the past year (as at Florida beaches this spring), we may face yet another future "wave" of disease — the fourth wave, if it happens — in a country at least parts of which seem eternally eager to teeter at the edge of a health cliff. That it wouldn't have had to be this way we know from the success of the city of Seattle, which faced the first major coronavirus outbreak in this country a year ago and now has, as the New York Times reports, "the lowest death rate of the 20 largest metropolitan regions in the country."

Think of Covid-19-watching as the sport from hell. And when you look at those ever-changing figures — even knowing that vaccinations are now swiftly on the rise in this country (but not everywhere on this beleaguered planet of ours) — they should remind you daily that we live in a deeply wounded land on a deeply wounded planet and that, no matter the fate of Covid-19, it's only likely to get worse.

Here, for instance, is another figure to attend to, even though there's no equivalent to that Johns Hopkins page when it comes to this subject: 40%. That's the percentage of the human population living in tropical lands where, as this planet continues to heat toward or even past the 1.5-degree Fahrenheit mark set by the Paris climate accord, temperatures are going to soar beyond the limits of what a body (not carefully ensconced in air-conditioned surroundings) can actually tolerate. Climate change will, in other words, prove to be another kind of pandemic, even if, unlike Covid-19, it's not potentially traceable to bats or pangolins, but to us humans and specifically to the oil, gas, and coal companies that have over all these years powered what still passes for civilization.

In other words, just to take the American version of climate change, from raging wildfires to mega-droughts, increasing numbers of ever-more-powerful hurricanes to greater flooding, rising sea levels (and disappearing coastlines) to devastating heat waves (and even, as in Texas recently, climate-influenced freezes), not to speak of future migration surges guaranteed to make border crossing an even more fraught political issue, ahead lies a world that could someday make our present pandemic planet seem like a dreamscape. And here's the problem: at least with Covid-19, in a miracle of modern scientific research, vaccines galore have been developed to deal with that devastating virus, but sadly there will be no vaccines for climate change.

The Wounding of Planet Earth

Keep in mind as well that our country, the United States, is not only an especially wounded one when it comes to the pandemic; it's also a wounding one, both at home and abroad. The sports pages of death could easily be extended, for instance, to this country's distant wars, something Brown University's Costs of War Project has long tried to do. (That site is, in a sense, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center for America's grim, never-ending conflicts of the twenty-first century.)

Choose whatever post-9/11 figures you care to when it comes to our forever wars and they're all staggering: invasions and occupations of distant lands; global drone assassination campaigns; or the release of American air power across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa (most recently, the strike President Biden ordered in Syria that killed a mere "handful" of militia men — 22, claim some sources — a supposedly "proportionate" number that did not include any women or children, though it was a close call until the president canceled a second strike). And don't forget Washington's endless arming of, and support for, countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates engaged in their own orgies of death and destruction in Yemen. Pick whatever figures you want, but the wounding of this planet in this century by this country has been all too real and ongoing.

The numbers, in fact, remain staggering. As has been pointed out many times at TomDispatch, the money this country puts into its "defense" budget tops that of the next 10 countries (China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, and Brazil) combined. And when it comes to selling weaponry of the most advanced and destructive kind globally, the U.S. leaves every other country in the dust. It's the arms dealer of all arms dealers on Planet Earth.

And if you happen to be in the mood to count up U.S. military bases, which are on every continent except Antarctica, this country garrisons the planet in a way no previous power, not even imperial Britain, did. It has an estimated 800 such bases, while, just for the sake of comparison, China, that other fearsome rising power the U.S. military is now so focused on, has… hmmm, at least one such base, in Djibouti, Africa (remarkably close — you won't be surprised to learn — to an American military base there). None of this really has much of anything to do with "national security," but it certainly adds up to a global geography of wounding in a rather literal fashion. In this sense, on this planet in this century, the United States has truly — to use a word American politicians have long loved to apply to this country — proven "exceptional."

America Unmasked

At home, too, until recently, American political leadership has been wounding indeed. Keep in mind that this was in a country in which one political party is now a vortex of conspiracy theories, bizarre beliefs, wild convictions, and truths that are obvious lies, a party nearly a third of whose members view the QAnon conspiracy theory favorably, 75% of whose members believe that Joe Biden lost the 2020 election, and 49% of whose male members have no intention of being vaccinated for Covid-19 (potentially denying the country "herd immunity").

And just to put all this in perspective, not a single Republican "statesman" offered a vote of support when Joe Biden's congressional radicals passed a (temporary) $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill, parts of which were aimed at alleviating this country's historic levels of inequality. After all, in the pandemic moment, while so many Americans found themselves jobless, homeless, and hungry, the country's billionaires made an extra 1.3 trillion dollars (a figure that should certainly fit somewhere on the sports pages of death). Never, not even in the Gilded Age, has inequality been quite so extreme or wounding in the country that still passes for the greatest on the planet.

For the first time in its history, in 2017, a self-proclaimed billionaire became president of the United States and, with the help of a Republican Congress, passed a tax cut that left the rich and corporations flooded with yet more money. Admittedly, he was a billionaire who had repeatedly bankrupted his own businesses, always jumping ship just in time with other people's money in hand (exactly as he would do after helping to pandemicize this country, once again with oodles of his followers' money in his pocket).

As for me, shocking as the assault on the Capitol was on January 6th, I never thought that the Senate should have convicted Donald Trump for that alone. My feeling was that the House should have impeached him and the Senate convicted him for the far more serious and direct crime of murder. After all, he was the one who played a crucial role in turning the pandemic into our very own set of mask wars (even as he called on his followers, long before January 6th, to "liberate" a state capital building).

The half-baked, dismissive way he would deal with the coronavirus, its importance, and what should be done to protect us from it — even before he got a serious case of it, was hospitalized, and returned to the White House, still infectious, to tear off his mask in full public view — would functionally represent acts of murder. In effect, he unmasked himself as the killer he was. (A study in the International Journal of Health Services suggests that by July 2020 his personal decision to turn masks into a political issue had already resulted in between 4,000 and 12,000 deaths.)

Now, throw in other Republican governors like Greg Abbott of Texas and Tate Reeves of Mississippi, who knowingly refused to declare mask mandates or cancelled them early, and you have a whole crew of murderers to add to those Johns Hopkins figures in a moment when the all-American sport is surely death.

A Genuinely Green Planet?

Admittedly, I don't myself have any friends who have died of Covid-19, although I have at least two, even more ancient than I am, one 91 in fact, who have been hospitalized for it, devastated by it, and then have slowly and at least partially recovered from it. As for myself, since I had the foresight to be 75 when Covid-19 first hit and am now heading for 77, I've had my two vaccine shots in a world in which, thanks again at least in part to Donald Trump and to a social-media universe filled with conspiracy theories and misinformation, far too many Americans — one-third of mostly young military personnel, for instance! — are shying away from or refusing what could save us all.

So, we've been plunged into a nightmare comparable to those that have, in the past, been visited on humanity, including the Black Death and the Spanish Flu, made worse by leaders evidently intent on shuffling us directly into the graveyard. And yet, that could, in the end, prove the least of our problems. We could, as Joe Biden has only recently more or less promised, be heading for a future in which Covid-19 will be truly under control or becomes, at worst, the equivalent of the yearly flu.

Let's hope that's the case. Now, consider this: the one favor Covid-19 seemed to be doing for humanity by shutting so many of us in, keeping airlines passengers on the ground, taking vehicles off the road and even, for a while, ships off the high seas, was cutting down on the use of oil, coal, and natural gas and so greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere. In the year of Covid-19, carbon emissions dropped significantly. In December 2020, however, as various global economies like China's began to rev back up, those emissions were already reportedly a shocking 2% higher than they had been in December 2019 before the pandemic swept across the world.

In short, most of what might make it onto the sports pages of death these days may turn out to be the least of humanity's problems. After all, according to a new report, thanks in significant part to human activities, even the Amazon rain forest, once one of the great carbon sinks on the planet, is now releasing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than it's absorbing. And that should be a shock.

If you want to be further depressed, try this: on our planet, there are now two great greenhouse gas emitters, the United States (historically at the top of the charts) and China (number one at this moment). Given what lies ahead, here's a simple enough formula: if China and the United States can't cooperate in a truly meaningful way when it comes to climate change, we're in trouble deep. And yet the Biden administration, like the Trump administration before it, remains remarkably focused on hostility to China and a military response to that country, an approach that someday is guaranteed to seem so out of touch as to be unbelievable.

Climate change will, over the coming decades, prove increasingly devastating to our lives. It could, in a sense, prove to be the pandemic of all the ages. And yet, here's the sad and obvious thing: the world doesn't have to be this way. It's true that there are no vaccinations against climate change, but we humans already know perfectly well what has to be done. We know that we need to create a genuinely green and green-powered planet to bring this version of a pandemic under control and we know as well that, over the next decades, it's a perfectly doable task if only humanity truly sets its mind to it.

Otherwise, we're going to find ourselves on an increasingly extreme planet, while the sports pages of death will only grow. If we're not careful, human history could, in the end, turn out to be the ultimate ghost story.

Copyright 2021 Tom Engelhardt

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

The United States is visibly in an early stage of disintegration

Like Gregor Samsa, the never-to-be-forgotten character in Franz Kafka's story "The Metamorphosis," we awoke on January 7th to discover that we, too, were "a giant insect" with "a domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments" and numerous "pitifully thin" legs that "waved helplessly" before our eyes. If you prefer, though, you can just say it: we opened our eyes and found that, somehow, we had become a giant roach of a country.

Yes, I know, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are now in charge and waving their own little limbs wildly, trying to do some of what needs to be done for this sad land of the disturbed, over-armed, sick, and dying. But anyone who watched the scenes of Floridians celebrating a Super Bowl victory, largely unmasked and cheering, shoulder to shoulder in the streets of Tampa, can't help but realize that we are now indeed a roach nation, the still-wealthiest, most pandemically unmasked one on Planet Earth.

But don't just blame Donald Trump. Admittedly, we've just passed through the Senate trial and acquittal of the largest political cockroach around. I'm talking about the president who, upon discovering that his vice president was in danger of being "executed" ("Hang Mike Pence!") and was being rushed out of the Senate as a mob bore down on him, promptly tweeted: "Mike Pence didn't have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution."

Just imagine. The veep who had — if you don't mind my mixing my creature metaphors here — toadied up to the president for four endless years was then given a functional death sentence by that same man. You can't fall much deeper into personal roachdom than that. My point here, though, is that our all-American version of roacherie was a long time in coming.

Or put another way: unimaginable as The Donald might have seemed when he descended that Trump Tower escalator in June 2015 to hail his future "great, great wall," denounce Mexican "rapists," and bid to make a whole country into his apprentices, he didn't end up in the Oval Office for no reason. He was the symptom, not the disease, though what a symptom he would prove to be — and when it came to diseases, what a nightmare beyond all imagining.

Let's face it, whether we fully grasp the fact or not, we now live in a system, as well as a country, that's visibly in an early stage of disintegration. And there lies a remarkable tale of history happening at warp speed, of how, in not quite three decades, the USS Enterprise of imperial powers was transformed into the USS Roach.

Once Upon a Time on Earth…

Return for a moment to 1991, almost two years after the Berlin Wall fell, when the Soviet Union finally imploded and the Cold War officially ended. Imagine that you had been able to show Americans then — especially the political class in Washington — that 13-minute video of Trump statements and tweets interlarded with mob actions in the Capitol that the Democratic House impeachment managers used in their opening salvo against the former president. Americans — just about any of us — would have thought we were watching the most absurd science fiction or perhaps the single least reality-based bit of black comedy imaginable.

In the thoroughly self-satisfied (if somewhat surprised) Washington of 1991, the triumphalist capital of "the last superpower," that video would have portrayed a president, an insurrectionary mob, and an endangered Congress no one could have imagined possible — not in another nearly 30 years, not in a century, not in any American future. Then again, if in 1991 you had tried to convince anyone in this country that a walking Ponzi scheme(r) like Donald Trump could become president, no less be impeached twice, you would have been laughed out of the room.

After all, this country had just become the ultimate superpower in history, the last one ever. Left alone on this planet, it had a military beyond compare and an economy that was the heartland of a globalized system and the envy of the world. The Earth was — or at least to the political class of that moment seemed to be — ours for the taking, but certainly not for the losing, not in any imaginable future. The question then wasn't keeping them out but keeping us in. No "big, fat, beautiful walls" were needed. After all, Russia was a wreck. China was still emerging economically from the hell of the Maoist years. Europe was dependent on the U.S. and, when it came to the rest of world, what else need be said?

This was an American planet, pure and simple.

In retrospect, consider the irony. There had been talk then about a post-Cold War "peace dividend." Who would have guessed, though, that dividends of any sort would increasingly go to the top 1% and that almost 30 years later this country would functionally be a plutocracy overseen until a month ago by a self-professed multibillionaire? Who would have imagined that the American version of a peace dividend would have been siphoned off by more billionaires than anyplace else on earth and that, in those same years, inequality would reach historic heights, while poverty and hunger only grew? Who woulda guessed that whatever peace dividend didn't go to the ultra-wealthy would go to an ever-larger national security state and the industrial complex of weapons makers that surrounded it? Who woulda guessed that, in official post-Cold War Washington, peace would turn out to be the last thing on anyone's mind, even though this country seemed almost disarmingly enemy-less? (Remember when the worst imaginable combination of enemies, a dreaded "axis of evil," would prove to be Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, all embattled, distinctly tertiary powers?)Who woulda guessed that a military considered beyond compare (and funded to this day like no other) would proceed to fight war after war, literally decades of conflict, and yet — except for the quasi-triumph of the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein's Iraq — achieve victory in none of them? Staggering trillions of taxpayer dollars would be spent on them, while those billionaires were given untold tax breaks. Honestly, who would have guessed then that, on a planet lacking significant enemies, Washington, even six presidents later, would prove incapable of stopping fighting?

Who woulda guessed that, in September 2001, not Russia or Communist China, but a tiny group of Islamic militants led by a rich Saudi extremist the U.S. had once backed would send 19 (mostly Saudi) hijackers to directly attack the United States? They would, of course, cause death and mayhem, allowing President George W. Bush to launch an almost 20-year "global war on terror," which still shows no sign of ending. Who woulda guessed that, in the wake of those 9/11 terror attacks, the son of the man who had presided over the first Gulf War (but stopped short of felling Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein) and the top officials of his administration would come to believe that the world was his oyster and that the U.S. should dominate the Greater Middle East and possibly the planet in a way previously unimaginable? Who would have imagined that he would invade Iraq (having done the same in Afghanistan a year and a half earlier), effectively helping to spread Islamic extremism far and wide, while creating a never-ending disaster for this country?

Who woulda guessed that, in 2009, in the wake of a Great Recession at home, the next president, Barack Obama, would order a massive "surge" of forces into Afghanistan, a war already eight years old? Tens of thousands of new troops, not to speak of contractors, CIA operatives, and others would be sent there without faintly settling things.

By November 2016, when an antiquated electoral system gave the popular vote to Hillary Clinton but put Donald Trump, a man who promised to end this country's "endless wars" (he didn't) in the Oval Office, it should have been obvious that something was awry on the yellow brick road to imperial glory. By then, in fact, for a surprising number of Americans, this had become a land of grotesque inequality and lack of opportunity. And many of them would prove ready indeed to use their votes to send a message to the country about their desire to Trump that very reality.

From there, of course, with no Wizard of Oz in sight, it would be anything but a yellow brick road to January 6, 2021, when, the president having rejected the results of the 2020 election, a mob would storm the Capitol. All of it and the impeachment fiasco to follow would reveal the functional definition of a failing democracy, one in which the old rules no longer held.

Exiting the Superpower Stage of History

And, of course, I have yet to even mention the obvious — the still-unending nightmare that engulfed the country early in 2020 and that, I suspect, will someday be seen as the true ending point for a strikingly foreshortened American century. I'm thinking, of course, of Covid-19, the pandemic disease that swept the country, infecting tens of millions of Americans and killing hundreds of thousands in a fashion unmatched anywhere else on the planet. It would even for a time fell a president, while creating mayhem and ever more fierce division in unmasked parts of the country filled with civilians armed to the teeth, swept up in conspiracy theories, and at the edge of who knew what.

Call it a sign from the gods or anything you want, but call it startling. Imagine a disease that the last superpower handled so much more poorly than countries with remarkably fewer resources. Think of it as a kind of judgment, if not epitaph, on that very superpower.

Or put another way: not quite 30 years after the Soviet Union exited the stage of history, we're living in a land that was itself strangely intent on heading for that same exit — a crippled country led by a 78-year-old president, its system under startling pressure and evidently beginning to come apart at the seams. One of its political parties is unrecognizable; its presidency has been stripped of a fully functioning Congress and is increasingly imperial in nature; its economic system plutocratic; its military still struggling across significant parts of the planet, while a possible new cold war with a rising China is evidently on the horizon; and all of this on a planet that itself, even putting aside that global pandemic, is visibly in the deepest of trouble.

At the end of Franz Kafka's classic tale, Gregor Samsa, now a giant insect with a rotting apple embedded in its back, dies in roach hell, even if also in his very own room with his parents and sisters nearby. Is the same fate in store, after a fashion, for the American superpower?

In some sense, in the Trump and Covid-19 years, the United States has indeed been unmasked as a roach superpower on a planet going to — again, excuse the mixed animal metaphors — the dogs. The expected all-American age of power and glory hasn't been faintly what was imagined in 1991, not in a country that has shown remarkably few signs of coming to grips with what these years have truly meant.

Centuries after the modern imperial age began, it's evidently coming to an end in a hell that Joe Biden and crew won't be able to stop, even if, unlike the previous president, they're anything but intent on thoroughly despoiling this land. Still, Trump or Biden, at this point it couldn't be clearer that we need some new way of thinking about and being on this increasingly roach-infested planet of ours.

Copyright 2021 Tom Engelhardt

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

The end of a pyromaniac's presidency

2021 has indeed begun and god knows what it has in store for us. But unless, somehow, we're surprised beyond imagining, The Donald is indeed going to leave the White House soon and, much as I hate to admit it, in some strange fashion we're going to miss him. Of course, it will be beyond a great relief to see his… well, let's just say him in the rearview mirror. While occupying the White House, he was, in a rather literal sense, hell on earth. Nonetheless, he was also a figure of remarkable fascination for anyone thinking about this country or that strangest of all species, humanity, and what we're capable of doing to ourselves.

So, here's my look back at our final Trumpian months (at least for a while). As I review the weeks just past, however, you may be surprised to learn that I'm not planning to start with the president's former national security adviser (of 23 days — "you're fired!") cum-convictee-cum-pardonee urging The Donald to declare martial law; nor will I review the president's endless tweets and fulminations about the "fraudulent" 2020 election or his increasing lame (duck!) assaults on all those he saw as deserting his visibly sinking Titanic, including Mitch McConnell ("the first one off the ship"); nor do I have the urge to focus on the conspiracy-mongress who captured the president's heart (or whatever's in that chest of his) with her claims about how "Venezuelan" votes did him in; nor even his doom-and-gloom "holiday" trip to Mar-a-Lago, including on Christmas Day his 309th presidential visit to a golf course; nor will I waste time on how the still-president of these increasingly dis-United States, while pardoning war criminals and pals (as well as random well-connected criminals), managed to ignore the rest of a country slipping into pandemic hell — cases rising, deaths spiraling, hospitals filling to the brim in a fashion unequaled on the planet — about which he visibly couldn't have cared less; nor will I focus on how, as Christmas arrived, he landed squarely on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's position of giving $2,000 checks to the American people and so for a few days became an honorary "socialist"; nor will I even spend time on his unique phone call for 11,780 votes in Georgia.

Instead, in this most downbeat of seasons, I'd like to begin with something more future-oriented, a little bit of December news you might have missed amid all the gloom and doom. So, just in case you didn't notice as 2020 ended in chaos and cacophony, as the president who couldn't take his eyes off a lost election sunk us ever deeper in his own version of the Washington swamp, there were two significantly more forward-looking figures in his circle. I'm thinking of his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner who plunked down $30 million on the most exclusive bit of real estate they could find in Florida, a small island with only 41 residences known among locals as the "billionaire's bunker."

They purchased a plot of land there on which they can assumedly build the most modest of multimillion-dollar mansions… but let the Hill describe it:

"The secluded spot sits on 1.8 acres and comes with 200 feet of waterfront and 'breathtaking sunset views.' A real estate listing dubs it an 'amazing parcel of land,' saying, 'This sprawling lot provides a rare opportunity to build your waterfront dream estate.' The listing boasts that the Miami island is 'one of the most exclusive and private neighborhoods in the world with its private country club and golf course, police force, and 24/7 armed boat patrol.'"

And better yet, though just off the coast of Miami, it's only 60 miles from what they may hope will be the alternate White House for the next four years, Mar-a-Lago.

The Future, Trump-Style

As far as I'm concerned, amid the year-ending chaos of the Trump presidency, nothing could have caught the essential spirit of the last four years better than that largely overlooked news story. Let's start at its end, so to speak. Instead of brooding nonstop about a lost election like you-know-who, Ivanka and Jared, both key presidential advisers, are instead going to pour millions of dollars into what might be thought of as a personal investment in the future on that island off the southern coast of Florida.

When it comes to the planet, this catches in a nutshell the essence of what's passed for long-term thinking in the Trump White House since January 2017. After all, the most notable thing about the southern coast of Florida, if you're in an investing (and lifestyle) mood, is this: as the world's sea levels rise (ever more precipitously, in fact) thanks to climate change, one of the most endangered places in the United States is that very coast. Flooding in the region has already been on the rise and significant parts of it could be underwater by 2050 with its inhabitants washed out of their homes well before that — and no personal police force or patrol boats will be able to protect Ivanka and Jared from that kind of global assault. Even Donald Trump, should he run and win again in 2024, won't be able to pardon them for that decision.

Put another way, the future of those two key Trump family members is a living example of what, in this world of ours, is usually called climate denialism; the "children," that is, have offered their own $30-million-plus encapsulation of the four-year environmental record of a 74-year-old president who couldn't imagine anyone's future except his own.

So, a climate-change endangered island? Why even bother to imagine such a future? In fact, the president made this point all too vividly when it came to Tangier Island, a 1.3-square-mile dot in the middle of Chesapeake Bay that global warming and erosion are imperiling and that is, indeed, expected to be gone by 2050. In 2017, the president called the mayor of its town (after CNN put out a story about the increasing problems of that Trump-loving isle). He assured him, as the mayor reported, that "we shouldn't worry about rising sea levels. He said that 'your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.'"

Though climate denialism is indeed the term normally used for this phenomenon, as a descriptor in the Trump years it fell desperately short of the mark. It's a far too-limited way of describing what the U.S. government has actually been doing. Withdrawing from the Paris climate accords, promoting oil exploration and drilling galore, and deep-sixing energy-related environmental regulations, Trump and his crew have not just been denying the obvious reality of climate change (as the West Coast burned in a historic fashion and the hurricane season ramped up dramatically in 2020), but criminally aiding and abetting the phenomenon in every way imaginable. They have, in fact, done their best to torch humanity's future. As I've written in these years, they rather literally transformed themselves into pyromaniacs even as they imagined unleashing, as the president proudly put it, "American energy dominance." The promotional phrase they used for their fossil-fuelized policies was "the golden era of American energy is now underway" — that golden glow assumedly being the flames licking at this overheating planet of ours.

IED-ing the American System

And of course, let's not forget that, for the president's daughter and son-in-law, dropping $30 million is just another day at the office. In that, they distinctly follow in the tradition of the bankruptee who has similarly dished out dough to his heart's content, while repeatedly leaving others holding the bag for his multiple business failures. (Undoubtedly, this is something the American people will experience when he finally jumps ship on January 20th, undoubtedly leaving the rest of us holding that very same bag.) Pardon me, but that $30 million dollars being plunked down on a snazzy plot of land — someday to be water — should remind us that we're talking about a crew who are already awash in both money (of every questionable sort) and, at least in the case of the president, staggering hundreds of millions of dollars in debts. It should remind us as well that we're dealing with families evidently filled with grifters and a now-pardoned criminal, too.

Make no mistake, from the moment Donald Trump walked into the White House, he was already this country's con-man-in-chief. Back when he was first running for president, this was no mystery to his ever-loyal "base," those tens of millions of voters who opted for him then and continue to stick by him no matter what. As I wrote in that distant 2016 election season,

"Americans love a con man. Historically, we've often admired, if not identified with, someone intent on playing and successfully beating the system, whether at a confidence game or through criminal activity. [At] the first presidential debate… Trump essentially admitted that, in some years, he paid no taxes ('that makes me smart') and that he had played the tax system for everything it was worth… I guarantee you that Trump senses he's deep in the Mississippi of American politics with such statements and that a surprising number of voters will admire him for it (whether they admit it or not). After all, he beat the system, even if they didn't."

And admire him they did and, as it happens, still do. He was elected on those very grounds and, despite his loss in 2020 (with a staggering 74 million voters still opting for him), a couple of weeks from now, he'll walk away from the White House with a final con that will leave him floating in a sea of money for months (years?) to come. Here's how New York Times reporters Shane Goldmacher and Maggie Haberman describe the situation:

"Donald J. Trump will exit the White House as a private citizen next month perched atop a pile of campaign cash unheard-of for an outgoing president, and with few legal limits on how he can spend it… Mr. Trump has cushioned the blow by coaxing huge sums of money from his loyal supporters — often under dubious pretenses — raising roughly $250 million since Election Day along with the national party. More than $60 million of that sum has gone to a new political action committee, according to people familiar with the matter, which Mr. Trump will control after he leaves office."

He was, in other words, in character from his first to last moment in office and, in his own way (just as his followers expected), he did beat the system, even if he faces years of potential prosecution to come.

Oh, and one more thing when it comes to The Donald. With a future Biden administration in mind, you might think of him not just as the con-man president but the Taliban president as well. After all, he's not only torn up but land-mined, or in Taliban terms IED-ed, both the federal government, including that "deep state" he's always denounced, and the American system of governing itself. ("This Fake Election can no longer stand…") And those improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, he and his crew have buried in that system, whether in terms of health care, the environment, or you name it are likely to go off at unexpected moments for months, if not years, to come.

So, when you say so long, farewell, aufwiedersehn, adieu to you-know-who, his children, and his pals, the odds are you won't ever be saying goodbye. Not really. Thanks to that $60 million-plus fund, that base of his, and all those landmines (many of which we don't even know are there yet), he'll be with us in one form (of disaster) or another for years to come — he, his children, and that island that, unfortunately, just won't sink fast enough.

Like it or not, after these last four years, whatever the Biden era may hold for us, Donald Trump proved a media heaven and a living hell. It's going to be quite a task in a world that needs so much else just to demine the American system after he leaves the White House (especially with Mitch McConnell and crew still in place). Count on one thing: we won't forget The Donald any time soon. And give him credit where it's due. There's no denying that, in just four years, he's helped usher us into a new American world that already couldn't be more overheated or underwhelming.

Copyright 2020 Tom Engelhardt

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

Partyland 2020: The Trumpists celebrate while the world burns

'Tis the season to be folly
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la
Don(ald) we now our gay apparel,
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la!...

It's party time in the nation's capital and the Christmas spirit reigns supreme, even if the Texas Republican Party does want to secede from the Union. I mean, who doesn't?

And hey, don't you want to attend a party? After all, it'll be at the White House, masks purely optional, social distancing not particularly necessary. Too bad you already missed the Congressional Ball (redubbed the "Covid Ball") that The Donald and Melania so graciously hosted. Still, if you make it to one of the others, be sure to check out Melania's decorations, not to speak of her just-unveiled new White House tennis pavilion of which she should be proud, despite all the criticism. After all, unlike you-know-who, she used the moment to welcome non-Trumpian presidents to come! ("It is my hope that this private space will function as both a place of leisure and gathering for future first families.")

Meanwhile, even though more than 50 people in his circle have already been infected with Covid-19, her husband has been hosting up to 24 parties and celebrations of every sort at the White House this month. In other words, top-notch super-spreader Christmas fun until more or less the end of time. (If you're well over 65, like I am, it may quite literally be your last chance to have a blast.) And whatever you do, when you're freely wandering the White House, don't miss that tribute to essential workers in the Red Room!

If, however, you're of a slightly more serious frame of mind, how about cocktails and hors d'oeuvres at Mike Pompeo's State Department? Hurry it up because one thing is guaranteed: it's not going to be anywhere near as much fun in the Biden years. (I mean, so been-there, done-that, right?) And don't worry, since the State Department building has been deep-cleaned repeatedly due to reported Covid-19 infections there and pay no attention to the fact that State Department personnel are being urged to work from home. I guarantee you that it'll be a blast -- and I don't mean a bombing-Iran sort of blast either, though for all any of us knows, that might be in the works, too! After all, you could already have run into a bevy of foreign ambassadors and up to 900 guests (actually, fewer than 70 appeared) in rooms on the eighth floor of that building (but socially distanced, I swear) at gatherings that were supposed to go on until Christmas.

Whoa, rein in that sleigh, Santa! Sorry to disappoint, but Mike canceled his final superspreader party and went into quarantine last week after -- big shock! -- coming into contact with someone who had the coronavirus while hosting those "diplomats and dignitaries" at close quarters!

Deck the halls with boughs of folly indeed!

A Historical Switcheroo

And 2020! What a year to celebrate, right? The very year when Donald Trump won his second term as president in a landslide -- or am I confused? Did I mean lost the presidency in a landslide of pandemic deaths? Still, if in this "holiday" season, and in the true spirit of Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo, I were to be offered the chance to remake the history of this century, here's the switcheroo I might choose to pull.

Let's start with this simple fact: on December 9th, more people died in a single day from Covid-19 (3,124) than died on September 11, 2001, in the ruins of the Twin Towers and part of the Pentagon (2,977). Or cumulatively speaking, think of it this way: more Americans have died in less than a year from the coronavirus than the 301,000 civilians that Brown University's Costs of War Project estimates have died in America's forever wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and Yemen since 2001.

Donald Trump's response to the pandemic has, of course, been to give awful advice, hold super-spreader rallies galore, and most recently host those ongoing, largely unmasked festivities at the White House; he has, that is, responded to the arrival of Covid-19 on our shores by committing murder big time. (Estimates are that, by February 2021, 450,000 Americans could be dead from the pandemic even as vaccines to prevent it begin to arrive. By the time this country is more or less safe -- if it ever truly is -- that number might be 600,000 (or almost in the range of the American toll in the "Spanish Flu" of 1918).

Now, to step back just a few years, consider the response of President George W. Bush to that one day of horrific death caused by 19 mostly Saudi hijackers aboard four commercial jets. In response to those 9/11 attacks, he launched what quickly became known as the Global War on Terror, promptly invaded Afghanistan, and a year and a half later did the same thing in Iraq. (That was, of course, something he and his top officials had begun thinking about -- quite literally, in the case of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- in the rubble of the Pentagon, even though that country's ruler, Saddam Hussein, had nothing whatsoever to do either with al-Qaeda or those terror attacks.) Of course, 19 years later, despite a president who swore he would end this country's "forever wars," the war on terror is still ongoing without a lasting victory or true success in sight.

Now, in this mad Trumpian Christmas season with increasing parts of the country in lockdown and Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths eternally rising into record-breaking territory, here's my fantasy proposition, my imagined historical switcheroo: What if, in response to 9/11, George W. Bush had, irresponsibly enough, simply thrown parties at the White House in high Trumpian-style; and what if, in response to the coronavirus crisis, Donald Trump had, responsibly enough, launched a global war on Covid-19 in true Bushian fashion? How differently history might have turned out.

The Blazing Fool Before Us

Instead, of course, Bush did launch those disastrous invasions and Trump did launch his own personal war on truth when it came to the pandemic (and so much else). The result, in both cases: crimes and deaths galore. Though it's seldom thought of that way, both of those twenty-first-century presidents of "ours" were, in a rather literal sense, mass murderers. In addition, thanks to the two of them and the cast of characters that accompanied them, we now live in a world of remarkable lies and self-delusion, whether we're talking about the U.S. military or our health and well-being.

After all, if you don't think this country is delusional when it comes to what still passes for "national security" consider this: just the other day, the Democrats and Republicans in Congress, who can evidently agree on so little else, passed a record veto-proof defense bill giving the Pentagon a staggering $740 billion dollars for the next fiscal year. (Talk about inequality in this country with so many Americans at the edge of eviction or even hunger and Congress doing next to nothing for them!) In fact, together they actually agreed to offer more money than the Pentagon even asked for when it came to purchasing new arms, including extra Lockheed Martin F-35 jet fighters, already the most expensive and possibly least effective warplanes in history. Meanwhile, across the planet, the weaponry into which all that "national security" money has been poured is still killing people, including startling numbers of civilians, in never-ending unsuccessful wars that have turned millions of people in distant countries into displaced persons and refugees.

Considering such funding to be for "national security" isn't just a joke, but a lie of the first order. It has, as a start, produced both global and national insecurity (while aiding the rise of what's now called right-wing populism). Those disastrous but disastrously well-funded wars launched by George W. Bush proved to be, above all else, acts of mass murder abroad, even as they also led to the deaths, injuries, or PTSD misery of significant numbers of Americans. Think of them, in fact, as, in the most literal sense imaginable, war crimes.

Of course, those acts of mass murder all took place in distant lands far from most American eyes, even as, in an ever more unequal society, they deprived so many here of needed assistance. In part, Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 presidential campaign was a product of that mass murder abroad. And now, without ever actually ending those wars as he promised so vociferously, he's become a mass murderer at home in his own striking fashion. In this pandemic year, think of him, whether in relation to Covid-19 itself or the election that took place in its midst, as launching a kind of war on terror on both Americans and our political system.

In the process, he's helped create a world of staggering folly that should be eternally unmasked. (Whoops! Well, you know what I mean.) The America he's played such a part in producing has created a kind of mental chaos that's hard to take in. One nurse in unmasked South Dakota caught its sad spirit in this series of tweets:

"I have a night off from the hospital. As I'm on my couch with my dog I can't help but think of the Covid patients the last few days. The ones that stick out are those who still don't believe the virus is real. The ones who scream at you for a magic medicine and that Joe Biden is going to ruin the USA. All while gasping for breath on 100% Vapotherm. They tell you there must be another reason they are sick. They call you names and ask why you have to wear all that 'stuff' because they don't have Covid because it's not real... These people really think this isn't going to happen to them. And then they stop yelling at you when they get intubated. It's like a fucking horror movie that never ends. There's no credits that roll. You just go back and do it all over again."

She's right. No credits roll and yet the president and his men, as well as Republican governors like South Dakota's Kristi Noem who refuse to mandate masks are, in an obvious sense, aiding and abetting murders. Take, for instance, the president's lawyer, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani who traveled the country unmasked, ignoring social distancing guidelines wherever he went, to beat the post-election drums for Donald Trump. He then fell ill with Covid-19, was hospitalized, got special medications that most Americans could never receive thanks to his pal, and called into his own radio show from his hospital room to essentially denounce masking and social distancing and assure his listeners that Covid-19 was "curable." (Tell that to the more than 300,000 Americans who have already died from it.)

Now, don't such acts, multiplied many times over, qualify as part of what might be considered a homegrown war of (not on) terror in a world not of holly but folly this Christmas season? And I haven't even mentioned the crimes this president and his administration have committed against the environment or President Trump's criminal urge to torch the planet itself in a fashion that, given what we already know about climate change, will potentially result in so much more death, destruction, and displacement.

We live in a land of vast crimes against others and increasingly against ourselves. We also await a new president whose greatest ad line is simply that he is not Donald J. Trump (thank god!), though in all honesty that "new" has to be taken under advisement. Let's hope for the best, especially when it comes to climate change, but Joe Biden will, after all, be 78 years old -- by far the oldest president in our history -- on entering the Oval Office. He's the been-there, done-that man of our moment and, Obama appointee by Obama appointee, he seems largely intent on recreating a familiar past that helped create the very future we're now mired in.

As we await him in a country on edge, armed, angry, and in a conspiratorial frame of mind, as we face a Mitch McConnell Republican Party that would rather take down the future than negotiate much of anything, Donald Trump, the murderer, continues to prove himself the ultimate, possibly all-time, sore loser, even as he parties away at the White House. He gives a pandemic version of Christmas true meaning.

See the blazing fool before us,
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs TomDispatch and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Tom Engelhard

The rise and fall of American empire: Trump brought a message from hell to a failing planet

We're nw living in an age of opacity, as Rudy Giuliani pointed out in a courtroom recently. Here was the exchange:

"'In the plaintiffs' counties, they were denied the opportunity to have an unobstructed observation and ensure opacity,' Giuliani said. 'I'm not quite sure I know what opacity means. It probably means you can see, right?'
"'It means you can't,' said U.S. District Judge Matthew Brann.
"'Big words, your honor,' Giuliani said."

Big words indeed! And he couldn't have been more on the mark, whether he knew it or not. Thanks in part to him and to the president he's represented so avidly, even as hair dye or mascara dripped down his face, we find ourselves in an era in which, to steal a biblical phrase from Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman, all of us see as if "through a glass darkly."

As in Election Campaign 2016, Donald Trump isn't the cause but a symptom (though what a symptom!) of an American world going down. Then as now, he somehow gathered into his one-and-only self so many of the worst impulses of a country that, in this century, found itself eternally at war not just with Afghans and Iraqis and Syrians and Somalis but increasingly with itself, a true heavyweight of a superpower already heading down for the count.

Here's a little of what I wrote back in June 2016 about The Donald, a reminder that what's happening now, bizarre as it might seem, wasn't beyond imagining even so many years ago:

"It's been relatively easy... -- at least until Donald Trump arrived to the stunned fascination of the country (not to speak of the rest of the planet) -- to imagine that we live in a peaceable land with most of its familiar markers still reassuringly in place... In truth, however, the American world is coming to bear ever less resemblance to the one we still claim as ours, or rather that older America looks increasingly like a hollowed-out shell within which something new and quite different has been gestating.
"After all, can anyone really doubt that representative democracy as it once existed has been eviscerated and is now -- consider Congress Exhibit A -- in a state of advanced paralysis, or that just about every aspect of the country's infrastructure is slowly fraying or crumbling and that little is being done about it? Can anyone doubt that the constitutional system -- take war powers as a prime example or, for that matter, American liberties -- has also been fraying? Can anyone doubt that the country's classic tripartite form of government, from a Supreme Court missing a member by choice of Congress to a national security state that mocks the law, is ever less checked and balanced and increasingly more than 'tri'?"

Even then, it should have been obvious that Donald Trump was, as I also wrote in that campaign year, a wildly self-absorbed symptom of American-style imperial decline on a planet increasingly from hell. And that, of course, was four years before the pandemic struck or there was a wildfire season in the West the likes of which no one had imagined possible and a record 30 storms that more or less used up two alphabets in a never-ending hurricane season.

In the most literal sense possible, The Donald was our first presidential candidate of imperial decline and so a genuine sign of the times. He swore he would make America great again, and in doing so, he alone, among American politicians of that moment, admitted that this country wasn't great then, that it wasn't, as the rest of the American political class claimed, the greatest, most exceptional, most indispensible country in history, the sole superpower left on Planet Earth.

An American World Without "New Deals" (Except for Billionaires)

In that campaign year, the United States was already something else again and that was more than four years before the richest, most powerful country on the planet couldn't handle a virus in a fashion the way other advanced nations did. Instead, it set staggering records for Covid-19 cases and deaths, numbers that previously might have been associated with third-world countries. You can practically hear the chants now as those figures continue to rise exponentially: USA! USA! We're still number one (in pandemic casualties)!

Somehow, in that pre-pandemic year, a billionaire bankruptee and former reality TV host instinctively caught the mood of the moment in an ever-less-unionized American heartland, long in decline if you were an ordinary citizen. By then, the abandonment of the white working class and lower middle class by the "new Democrats" was history. The party of Bill and Hillary Clinton had long been, as Thomas Frank wrote recently in the Guardian, "preaching competence rather than ideology and reaching out to new constituencies: the enlightened suburbanites; the 'wired workers'; the 'learning class'; the winners in our new post-industrial society."

Donald Trump arrived on the scene promising to attend to the abandoned ones, the white Americans whose dreams of better lives for themselves or their children had largely been left in the dust in an ever-more-unequal country. Increasingly embittered, they were, at best, taken totally for granted by the former party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (In the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton didn't even consider it worth the bother to visit Wisconsin and her campaign underplayed the very idea of focusing on key heartland states.) In the twenty-first century, there were to be no "new deals" for them and they knew it. They had been losing ground -- to the tune of $2.5 trillion a year since 1975 -- to the very billionaires whom The Donald so proudly proclaimed himself one of and to a version of corporate America that had grown oversized, wealthy, and powerful in a fashion that would have been unimaginable decades earlier.

On entering the Oval Office, Trump would still offer them blunt words, which would ring bells in rally after rally where they could cheer him to death. At the same time, with the help of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he continued the process of abandonment by handing a staggering tax cut to the 1% and those very same corporations, enriching them ever so much more. So, of course, would the pandemic, which only added yet more billions to the fortunes of billionaires and various corporate giants (while granting the front-line workers who kept those companies afloat only the most meager and passing "hazard pay").

Today, the coronavirus here in the United States might be more accurately relabeled "the Trump virus." After all, the president really did make it his own in a unique fashion. Via ignorance, neglect, and a striking lack of care, he managed to spread it around the country (and, of course, the White House itself) in record ways, holding rallies that were visibly instruments of death and destruction. All of this would have been clearer yet if, in Election Campaign 2020, he had just replaced MAGA as his slogan with MASA (Make America Sick Again), since the country was still going down, just in a new way.

In other words, ever since 2016, Donald Trump, wrapped up eternally in his own overwrought self, has come to personify the very essence of a bifurcated country that was heading down, down, down, if you weren't part of that up, up, up 1%. The moment when he returned from the hospital, having had Covid-19 himself, stepped out on a White House balcony, and proudly tore off his mask for all the world to see summed up the messaging of this all-American twenty-first-century moment perfectly.

Waving Goodbye to the American Moment

Unique as Donald Trump may seem in this moment and overwhelming as Covid-19 might be for now, the American story of recent years is anything but unique in history, at least as so far described. From the Black Death (bubonic plague) of the fourteenth century to the Spanish Flu of the early twentieth century, pandemics have, in their own fashion, been a dime a dozen. And as for foolish rulers who made a spectacle of themselves, well, the Romans had their Nero and he was anything but unique in the annals of history.

As for going down, down, down, that's in the nature of history. Known once upon a time as "imperial powers" or "empires," what we now call "great powers" or "superpowers" rise, have their moments in the sun (even if it's the shade for so many of those they rule over), and then fall, one and all. Were that not so, Edward Gibbon's classic six-volume work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, would never have gained the fame it did in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Across the planet and across time, that imperial rising and falling has been an essential, even metronomic, part of humanity's story since practically the dawn of history. It was certainly the story of China, repeatedly, and definitely the tale of the ancient Middle East. It was the essence of the history of Europe from the Portuguese and Spanish empires to the English empire that arose in the 18th century and finally fell (in essence, to our own) in the middle of the last century. And don't forget that other superpower of the Cold War, the Soviet Union, which came into being after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and grew and grew, only to implode in 1991, after a (gulp!) disastrous war in Afghanistan, less than 70 years later.

And none of this, as I say, is in itself anything special, not even for a genuinely global power like the United States. (What other country ever had at least 800 military garrisons spread across the whole planet?) If this were history as it's always been, the only real shock would perhaps be the strikingly bizarre sense of self-adulation felt by this country's leadership and the pundit class that went with it after that other Cold War superpower so surprisingly blew a fuse. In the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Soviet Union's plunge to its grave in 1991, leaving behind an impoverished place once again known as "Russia," they engaged in distinctly delusional behavior. They convinced themselves that history as it had always been known, the very rise and fall and rise (and fall) that had been its repetitious tune, had somehow "ended" with this country atop everything forever and beyond.

Not quite three decades later, in the midst of a set of "forever wars" in which the U.S. managed to impose its will on essentially no one and in an increasingly chaotic, riven, pandemicized country, who doesn't doubt that this was delusionary thinking of the first order? Even at the time, it should have been obvious enough that the United States would sooner or later follow the Soviet Union to the exits, no matter how slowly, enveloped in a kind of self-adoration.

A quarter-century later, Donald Trump would be the living evidence that this country was anything but immune to history, though few then recognized him as a messenger of the fall already underway. Four years after that, in a pandemicized land, its economy a wreck, its military power deeply frustrated, its people divided, angry, and increasingly well-armed, that sense of failing (already felt so strongly in the American heartland that welcomed The Donald in 2016) no longer seems like such an alien thing. It feels more like the new us -- as in U.S.

Despite the oddity of The Donald himself, all of this would just be more of the same, if it weren't for one thing. There's an extra factor now at work that's all but guaranteed to make the history of the decline and fall of the American empire different from the declines and falls of centuries past. And no, it has next to nothing to do with (blare of trumpets!) Donald Trump, though he did long ago reject climate change as a "Chinese hoax" and, in every way possible, thanks to his love of fossil fuels, give it as much of a helping hand as he could, opening oil lands of every sort to the drill, and dismissing environmental regulations that might have impeded the giant energy companies. And don't forget his mad mockery of alternative power of any sort.

I could go on, of course, but why bother. You know this part of the story well. You're living it.

Yes, in its own distinctive fashion, the U.S. is going down and will do so whether Donald Trump, Joe Biden, or Mitch McConnell is running the show. But here's what's new: for the first time, a great imperial power is falling just as the earth, at least as humanity has known it all these thousands of years, seems to be going down, too. And that means there will be no way, no matter what The Donald may think, to wall out intensifying storms, fires, or floods, mega-droughts, melting ice shelves and the rising sea levels that go with them, record temperatures, and so much more, including the hundreds of millions of people who are likely to be displaced across a failing planet, thanks to those greenhouse gases released by the burning of the fossil fuels that Donald Trump loves so much.

Undoubtedly, the first genuine twist in the rise-and-fall version of human history -- the first story, that is, that was potentially all about falling -- arrived on August 6th and 9th, 1945 when the U.S. dropped nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It soon became apparent that such weaponry, collected in vast and spreading arsenals, had (and still has) the power to quite literally take history out of our hands. In this century, even a "limited" regional war with such weaponry could create a nuclear winter that might starve billions. That version of Armageddon has at least been postponed time and again since August 1945, but as it happened, humanity proved quite capable of coming up with another version of ultimate disaster, even if its effects, no less calamitous, happen not with the speed of an exploding nuclear weapon, but over the years, the decades, the centuries.

Donald Trump was the messenger from hell when it came to a falling empire on a failing planet. Whether, on such a changing world, the next empire or empires, China or unknown powers to come, can rise in the normal fashion remains to be seen. As does whether, on such a planet, some other way of organizing human life, some potentially better, more empathetic way of dealing with the world and ourselves will be found.

Just know that the rise and fall of history, as it always was, is no more. The rest, I suppose, is still ours to discover, for better or for worse.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs TomDispatch and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Tom Engelhardt

A vote for doom: Trump is defeated — but the state of chaos remains

In 2016 as now, he was the candidate of chaos. Yes, he was a billionaire (or wanna-be billionaire or in-hock billionaire, not to mention a liar, a cheat, and a scoundrel), but from the beginning he appealed to the forces of order in America that were also, as it happened, the forces of chaos. Donald Trump entered the presidential sweepstakes, or to be completely accurate rode an escalator into it, from stage right. In another universe, he could have entered from stage left and he wouldn't have given a damn either way.

After all, there never really was a left, right, or center for the king of apprentices. There was never anything but the imposing figure known as The Donald, the man of the hour, any hour, past, present, or future. Whatever his political position of the moment, he reflected one thing above all: the underlying chaos and bad faith of a world of wealth, power, and ever-growing inequality, a world, as it happened, just waiting to go down.

Now that he's defeated, count on one thing: he'll take as much of this country with him as he can. If he has his way, when he finally decides to jump ship, money in hand, he'll leave the rest of us at a vast mask-less rally with death running wild in our midst. From the beginning, he was always the orange-faced, yellow-haired personification of chaos. Now, just as the Republican Party did in 2016, this country has taken on his chaos as our own and, in the wake of the recent election, one obvious question is: Are we, too, scheduled for the ventilator of history?

Do I sound extreme? I damn well hope so. We're in a gridlocked, post-election moment of previously unimaginable extremity in an increasingly over-armed, ever more divided country that used to be known as the "last superpower" on Planet Earth. It matters (but not enough) that that aged Democratic centrist Joe Biden has taken the presidency and, if all goes faintly as previously expected, will make his way into the future White House. Without a Senate majority, however, and with a reduced majority in the House, without the Democrats having taken a single state legislature from the Republicans, and with Donald Trump's America still fully mobilized and ready for... well, who knows what... don't count on good tidings ahead.

The Personification of Carnage

From the start, he was imperial America's candidate of decline, even if few recognized it at the time. Still, it should have been obvious enough in 2016 -- it was to me anyway -- that his trademark slogan, Make America Great Again, was nothing short of an admission that this "exceptional," "indispensable" nation of ours, the greatest superpower in history (or so this country's politicians then liked to believe) had, in fact, seen better times.

Donald Trump was then, and remains, a vengeful, preening peacock sent by god knows whom to make that reality obvious to one and all. That was certainly true of the slice of white, heartland, working-class America that decided to embrace the billionaire bankuptee and reality TV host. In a land of already staggering inequality, he was the one who would somehow give them back their lost status, their lost sense of American wellbeing and of a future that they could embrace for their children and grandchildren. And if he didn't do that for them, he would at least be emotional payback when it came to all the loathed powers-that-be in Washington who had, they felt, taken them down

His "base," as they came to be known in the media, whom he abhorred, adored, and played like an accordion, embraced the man who, in the end, was guaranteed to leave them holding the bag without the slightest compunction. In those years, they became his property, his very own apprentices, like the political party he also absorbed without a second thought.

When it came to that base, he became, after a fashion, their god or perhaps their demon, and so he remains today, even in defeat. Of course, he won't care if he ends up bankrupting them, leaves them in a ditch, or continues to rev them up at future rallies that, though they may spread death, leave him feeling whole and good and top of the line.

On the other hand, when Joe Biden, the definition of an old white man, finally limps into the Oval Office, he'll represent a return to normalcy in Washington, the retrieval of an America that was. The only problem: the America that was -- if you'll excuse the repetition of a verb -- was an America in decline, even if its leaders didn't know it. It was a country on course for a previously un-American version of inequality and so instability that once would have been unimaginable.

Who can doubt that Donald Trump himself was the personification of hell on Earth? He was the witch in the wardrobe. He was a satanic art-of-the-dealer (every deal, by definition, meant only for himself). He was what this country vomited up from the depths of its disturbed innards as a uniquely symbolic president. From the moment he delivered that Inaugural Address of his on January 20, 2017, he would also be the personification of carnage.

And yes, goad me a little more, and believe me I could go on. But you get the drift, right?

And yet give Donald Trump the credit he deserves. However intuitively, he grasped just where this country was and was going (and, of course, how he could benefit from that). He understood its fault lines in a way no one else did. He even understood how to run a campaign for -- instead of against -- a pandemic in a way that should have left him 20,000 leagues under the sea, not floating in a heated pool at Mar-a-Lago.

There couldn't be a grimmer moral to the American story than this: he knew all of us so much better than we knew ourselves. To so many Americans, he spoke what felt like reality itself. It mattered not at all that he looked like, felt like, and was a con man in a great American tradition, or that he had stiffed the government with those tax returns he'd never release. After all, whatever he was, he was the genuine (fraudulent) thing in a world where increasing numbers of Americans already felt conned by the 1% politics of a Washington that was filled with con artists of a different sort.

Now, despite the scads of lawyers he's called into action to screw the works, Donald Trump has missed his chance for a second round in the Oval Office and, as a result, rest assured, we'll all be left holding the bag. In the midst of the pandemic from hell -- don't doubt it for a second -- this will be another kind of hell on earth.

A Vote for Doom

Now, let's look on the bright side, because at such a moment who wants to just read a screed of negativity? So here's the good news: thanks to President Trump's defeat in election 2020 (however long it may take to play out in court), the world will go down more slowly, though how much more slowly remains to be seen. After all, there was one factor in any Trump second term that was going to be unlike any other.

Though it may not seem like it to us, the rest of what we would have seen from a Trump second term -- autocratic behavior, raw racism, a red-hot version of nationalism (white and otherwise), aggrieved masculinity, all amid the pandemic of the century -- would have been just another passing chapter in human history. In that long tale, autocrats and nationalists of every grim kind have been a dime-a-dozen and even nightmarish pandemics anything but unknown. Give it a decade, a century, a millennium, and it would be as if nothing had happened at all. Who but the historians (if they still exist) would even remember?

Unfortunately, that's not true of one factor in election 2020, though it played the most modest of roles in the campaign itself. That was, of course, the phenomenon of climate change, the human heating of the planet through the never-ending release into the atmosphere (and the oceans) of greenhouse gasses from the burning of fossil fuels.

Certainly, since the coal-fired industrial revolution began in England in the eighteenth century, the warming of this planet has been sparked and fed by us humans, but it is not, in fact, part of human history. It will operate on a timescale likely to leave that history in the dust. Once released, and if not brought under some reasonable control (as is still possible), it's a phenomenon that will stand, in the most devastating fashion imaginable, outside human history altogether. Unlike any other Trumpian phenomenon, once it truly sets in, give it a decade, a century, even a millennium, and it will still be working to ensure that Earth, to one degree or another, becomes a distinctly unlivable planet for humanity.

It's little short of passing strange -- you might actually call it suicidal -- that Donald Trump (and the crew he brought to power) would be quite so intent not just on ignoring or "denying" climate change, as is often charged, but on amplifying it by, in essence, actively setting this planet afire. The president's term for it was "unleashing American Energy Dominance." How strange, however, that his intent to destroy a habitable planet proved quite so popular, not once, but twice -- and who knows about a third time in 2024?

After all, a vote for Trump was, in essence, a vote for doom. At some level, it wasn't even complicated, but from a base that seemed to glory in those mask-less, chanting love fests for their One and Only, perhaps none of this should have been a surprise at all.

If Donald Trump has become something like a god to his supporters, then perhaps it's worth asking what kind of a god would be quite so intent on setting fire to the planet (and while he was at it murdering his own apprentices with Covid-19)? Perhaps we need to think of him, in fact, as our very own boatman Charon on the river Styx, paddling us all to what someday could quite literally be a hell on Earth.

After all, I'm writing this piece in New York City on a November day when it's 74 degrees outside (and, no, that's not a misprint). Yet another fierce tropical storm in a record year of them has drenched parts of Florida, a place that's no longer a swing state but, like Mar-a-Lago, property of The Donald. Meanwhile, parts of the West, having burned and smoked and flamed in a historic fashion across millions and millions of charred acres amid heat waves galore, are still smoldering (though hardly noticed by anyone), and the world couldn't be less together.

In a Senate controlled by Mitch McConnell, green new deals or two-trillion-dollar climate plans will become more fantastic than Donald Trump himself. Still, with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris at least partially running a deeply divided country in the midst of a pandemic and an economy that's gone to hell, the pyromania will ease up somewhat. Some modest steps might even be taken toward alternate forms of energy and some to save the environment, as well as a humanity in distress. It won't be what's needed, but it won't be a torch either and that's the best thing to be said about our moment and why it truly mattered that Donald Trump was not reelected.

Now, return for a moment to 1991, when that other superpower, the Soviet Union, imploded. America's power brokers then (including Joe Biden), believing themselves alone and powerful beyond imagining on Planet Earth, the inheritors of everything that had gone before, launched what would become disastrous forever wars, sure that this planet was theirs for the taking, even as history itself -- just imagine -- was ending.

Almost three decades later, that same last superpower is a democracy in decline, not to say chaos; an imperial power in decline globally; a military power that can't find a winning war to fight (even as Congress, no matter the president, appropriates yet more funding for the military-industrial complex). We have a 78-year-old man getting ready to inhabit the Oval Office and another 78-year-old preparing to oppose him in the Senate, while an 80-year-old runs the House. Doesn't this tell you something about a country swept away by a pandemic -- 100,000 or more cases a day -- and, despite assurances from Donald Trump, without a turnable "corner" in sight? And none of this would be the end of the world, so to speak, if it weren't for climate change.

Admittedly, Covid-19 has turned this country into a kind of hell on Earth, having been left to roam in an unprecedented fashion by a killer president. Cases are soaring, hospitals overwhelmed, deaths rising, and almost half of America can't think about anything but crowding together for presidential rallies, living mask-less lives, and "opening" the economy.

Trumpism has split America in two in a way that hasn't been imaginable since the Civil War. The president and the Senate are likely to be in gridlock, the judicial system a partisan affair of the first order, the national security state a money-gobbling shadow empire, the citizenry armed to the teeth, racism rising, and life everywhere in an increasing state of chaos.

Welcome to the (Dis)United States. Donald Trump led the way and, whatever he does, I suspect that this, for at least the time being, is still in some sense his world, not Joe Biden's. He was the man and, like it or not, we were all his apprentices in a performance of destructive power of the first order that has yet to truly end.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs TomDispatch and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Tom Engelhardt

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A forgotten prophecy: How I caught a glimpse of Donald Trump's America in 1973

It was summer almost half a century ago when I got into that Volkswagen van and began my trip across country with Peter, a photographer friend. I was officially doing so as a reporter for a small San Francisco news service, having been sent out to tap the mood of the nation in a politically fraught moment. The Vietnam War, with all its domestic protests and disturbances, was just ending. North Vietnamese troops would soon enough enter Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital; the president of the United States, Richard Nixon, was then trapped in an escalating scandal called "Watergate."

And here was the odd thing. I felt trapped, too. In some way, I felt lost. As I put it then (and this should have a familiar ring to it, even if, in 1973, I was only referring to the TV version of the news), "That screen haunted my life. Somehow I wanted to shatter it and discover new, more human reference points, a true center of gravity." I had the urge to break out of that world of mine and do the all-American thing, the Jack Kerouac thing: go "on the road."

So Peter and I set out on that famed American road, traveling from campgrounds to fast-food restaurants, carnival midways to Old Faithful, only to find ourselves trapped in what I called "the increasing corporate control not just of people on the job, but on their vacations, in their leisure hours." I found myself interviewing, and him photographing, what I came to think of as a "population of disoriented nomads" -- mostly lower-middle-class and working-class Americans, confused and angry, "pushed aside," as I wrote then, by "forces they feel are beyond their control." We were, it turned out, on someone else's road entirely.

In Milwaukee, we would be joined by Nancy, who later became my wife, and then would spend weeks following those all-too-unromantic highways (without a Jack Kerouac in sight), interviewing anyone who would talk to us. In the end, that attempt of a 29-year-old to break free from his own life, to figure out "where (or whether) I fit into American society" became my first book, Beyond Our Control: America in the Mid Seventies. In retrospect, that book about our strange journey into a country being reorganized for eternal consumption and the wellbeing of giant corporations became my own -- as I would then call it -- "dream-document excavated from our recent past."

And yes, even so long ago, it was already a troubled moment in a troubled land. I must admit, though, that I hadn't looked at Beyond Our Control in years, not until a friend recently found a copy, read it, and emailed, quoting my own ancient text back to me to point out how eerily relevant it still was, how -- in a sense -- Trumpian parts of that 1973 America already were.

He highlighted, in particular, an interview near the end of that book with "Frank Nelson" -- I changed all the names, so who knows now what his real one was -- about which more in a moment. That missive startled me. I had forgotten all those Frank Nelsons and perhaps as well the Tom Engelhardt who interviewed them so long ago.

So, curious about that long-lost self of mine and the world I then inhabited, I picked up that old book and reread it in order to meet the young Tom Engelhardt on the road in another American universe. And how strange that journey back into my own -- and our -- past proved to be.

The Right Wind Sweeping In Off the Plain

So, if you have the patience for a little time travel, return with me to July 1973 and let me tell you about Frank Nelson, whom I met at a trailhead in Yellowstone National Park with his wife and three children. He was "a responsible, likeable family man" with -- regardless of how hard I pressed him -- "no vision of a better future." A plumber and union shop steward from Cleveland, as well as the chairman of the union bargaining committee in his factory, he proudly told me: "I have really dedicated myself to the labor movement all my life and I believe in it."

Yet he was already talking back then about the growing "conservative approach" of the trade union movement and the possibility that it would be destroyed, he believed, by "the race issue." He was clearly both anti-Semitic and racist. ("Being white, I would prefer the continued supremacy of the white race instead of this homogenization that's coming.") And while discussing what he felt was a growing American crisis with me, he also told me that "your liberals believe in one world government... and your conservatives" -- which he clearly believed himself to be -- "believe in America first, American domination."

And remember, this was July 1973, not July 2019. It was Richard Nixon's America, not Donald Trump's.

Frank and his wife Helen were open, chatty, and so pleased with the interview experience that she gave me their address and asked me to send them a copy of anything I wrote. In other words, he said nothing he felt was out of the range of propriety. My reaction, on leaving him, was: "For me, this interview seemed like the crescendo towards which the bits and pieces of our trip have been building."

As I had discovered in those weeks of interviewing, Nelson, like so many others on that vacation loop, was filled to the brim with half-spoken and unspoken fears about a future in which, as I put it then, "the [corporate] pushers will survive, maybe even profit. It's these people we've talked with, the vast mass of middle people who have barely eked out a toehold in the system, who will be cut off at the knees. And, being hooked [on that system], they don't know what to do."

Then, thinking about Nelson (and others like him we had met), I added,

"The next step for Frank Nelson, however, may be out of this passivity and into the streets... The motivation, the frustration, the anger is there. Even a new ideology, the ideology of race and nationalism is emerging. All that's missing is the right wind sweeping in off the plain, a combination of forces at the top of the society willing to mobilize Frank Nelson.
"...Sinking people don't usually have a trenchant analysis of reality. All they require is the promise that their hard-won sense of status will not go down the drain; and an explanation, any explanation, on which to hang their hopes. American society leaves people so confused and reality so disjointed that almost any formula which pretends to put the pieces together and appeals to what people think of as their self-interest may prove acceptable."

In those pages, I had already brought up Weimar-era Germany -- the moment, that is, before Hitler rose to power -- and then I added:

"In Germany in the thirties, the formula that worked was anti-Semitism, anti-communism, and a rabid nationalism combined with full employment and a return to domestic stability. If Frank Nelson's any criterion, the formula may not be that much different here... Nationalism could well be the banner under which the struggle and the inevitable sacrifices will come, and race the bogeyman just as Jews were in Germany. The identifiable (Black) poor are the symbol for Frank Nelson of what he has to lose, what could be ripped out of his hands. And he'll defend himself against that even if he has to ally himself with 'the Jews and rich Gentiles' to do it.
"Frank Nelson and millions of other Americans are set up for the picking, if a group at the top sees profit in the crop."

Welcome to a More Extreme World

In the age of Donald Trump, the Proud Boys, and the Wolverine Watchmen, much of this should feel strangely familiar. If, however, my reporting was in any way prophetic, I have to admit that I didn't realize it all these years -- not until my friend wrote me. Still, it should be obvious, in retrospect, that, bizarre as the present moment may seem, it didn't come out of the blue, not faintly. How could it have?

For that matter, Donald Trump didn't exactly arrive out of the blue either. As a start, just a couple of months after I got back to San Francisco from that cross-country jaunt of ours, he made his first appearance on the front page of the New York Times. He was 27, two years younger than me, and already the president of the Trump Management Corporation. The headline, shades of the future Donald and the white nationalism that's accompanied him, was: "Major Landlord Accused of Antiblack Bias in City." The Justice Department was then charging his father Fred and him with refusing "to rent or negotiate rentals 'because of race and color'" in the buildings they then owned and managed. And his first words quoted in that paper about those charges were, appropriately enough: "They are absolutely ridiculous... We never have discriminated and we never would." Of course not! And what hasn't been increasingly, ridiculously Trumpian about our all-American world ever since?

When you think about it, with that moment in 1973 in mind, Trump himself might be reimagined as some extreme combination of Richard Nixon (a man with his own revealing tapes just like The Donald) and George Wallace. The racist governor of Alabama and a third party candidate the year Nixon slipped by Democrat Hubert Humphrey to first win the White House, Wallace was a man best known for the formulation "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

Nixon took the presidency in 1968 and again in 1972 with his own form of racism, the "southern strategy," first pioneered by Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964 (and then called, far more redolently, "Operation Dixie"). In a racially coded and distinctly nationalist fashion, Nixon brought southern whites in the formerly Democratic bastions of the South definitively into the Republican fold. By 1980, Ronald Reagan wouldn't think twice about launching his own presidential election campaign with a "states' rights" speech (then still a code phrase for segregation) near Philadelphia, Mississippi, just miles from the earthen dam where three murdered civil rights workers had been found buried in 1964. And in the intervening years, the Republican Party, too, has gone south (so to speak) big time and into a form of illiberality that was, even in the Nixon era, striking enough.

By 2016, of course, that southern strategy had become something more like a national strategy in the (pussy-grabbing) hands of Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, the corporatization -- I might, then, have thought of it as the fast-foodization -- of the country that Peter, Nancy, and I were traveling across was already well underway. At the same time, a new kind of all-American inequality was, in those years, just beginning to make itself felt. Today, with the first billionaire in the White House and other billionaires, even in the midst of a pandemic, continuing to make an absolute mint while so many Americans suffer, the inequality that left Frank Nelson and his peers so desperately uneasy has never stopped rising to truly staggering levels.

Believe me, even if Donald Trump has to leave the Oval Office on January 20, 2021, we'll still be in his America. And 47 years after my long, strange trip, I think I can guarantee you one thing: if it weren't for the pandemic that has this country in its grasp and has swept so many of us off any path whatsoever, some young reporter, stir crazy and unhappy, would still be able to head out onto a twenty-first-century "road" and find updated versions of Frank Nelson galore (a surprising number of whom might be well-armed and angry).

Welcome to America! There's no question that, so long after Peter, Nancy, and I travelled that not-so-open road, our lives and this country are way beyond our control.

Writing about the people I had interviewed then (about whom -- with the single inspirational exception of a museum director I met in Twin Falls, Idaho -- I knew nothing more), I said: "I don't doubt that they, like me, are still heading reluctantly toward a future that will make the summer of 1973 seem truly unreal and leave us all wondering: Could life ever have really been that way?"

In Covid-19 America, with the West Coast still burning, Colorado in historic flames, a record 11 storms hitting the Gulf Coast and elsewhere this hurricane season, and heat of every sort rising everywhere, don't for a second believe that the phrase "beyond our control" couldn't gain new meaning in the decades to come.

Welcome to a more extreme version of the world Frank Nelson and I already inhabited in 1973.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs TomDispatch and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Tom Engelhardt

Trump's Fifth Avenue killing spree and the real American carnage

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 ploghed "the Beast" (as his presidential Cadillac is known) into a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters, as so many other drivers have done this year. Let's face it: that's for his apprentices, not the showman himself. After all, Donald J. Trump has proven to be America's twenty-first-century maestro of death and destruction, the P.T. Barnum of, as he put it predictively enough in his Inaugural Address, "American carnage." In fact, he's been a master of carnage in a way no one could then have imagined.

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

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

Death by Disease

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supreme Assassins?

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

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

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

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

A Murderous Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs TomDispatch and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

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