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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.

A vote for the apocalypse

It was August 2017 and Donald Trump had not yet warmed up to Kim Jong-un, North Korea's portly dictator. In fact, in typical Trumpian fashion, he was pissed at the Korean leader and, no less typically, he lashed out verbally, threatening that country with a literal hell on Earth. As he put it, "They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen." And then, just to make his point more personally, he complained about Kim himself, "He has been very threatening beyond a normal state."

Only a year and a half later, our asteroidal president would, of course, say of that same man, "We fell in love." Still, that threat by an American leader to — it was obvious — launch a nuclear strike for the first time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki were nearly obliterated in August 1945 was memorable. The phrase would, in fact, become the title of a 2018 bestselling book, "Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House," by journalist Michael Wolff. Two years later, amid so many other threatening phrases from this president, "fire and fury" has, however, been left in history's dustbin, largely forgotten by the world.

"This is not an act of God"

Too bad, since it seems so much more relevant now that California, Oregon, and Washington, not to speak of a Southwest already officially in a "megadrought," have experienced the sort of apocalyptic fire and fury (and heat and smoke) that has turned daytime skies an eerie nighttime orange (or yellow or even purple, claims a friend of mine living in the San Francisco Bay Area). We're talking about a fire and fury that's forced cars to put on their headlights at noon; destroyed towns (leaving only armed right-wing militants behind amid the flames to await imagined Antifa looters); burned millions of acres of land, putting hundreds of thousands of Americans under evacuation orders; turned startling numbers of citizens into refugees under pandemic conditions; and crept toward suburbs and cities, imperiling the world as we've known it.

In the wake of the hottest summer on record in the Northern Hemisphere, we are, in other words, talking about the sort of apocalyptic conditions that the president undoubtedly had in mind for North Korea back in 2017, but not even faintly for the U. S. of A; we're talking, that is, about a burning season the likes of which no one in the West has ever seen before, a torching linked to the overheating of this planet thanks to the release of fossil-fuel-produced greenhouse gasses in ever greater quantities. In fact, as Washington Governor Jay Inslee pointed out recently, we shouldn't even be talking about "wildfires" anymore, but about "climate fires" whose intensity has already outpaced by years the predictions of most climate scientists. (Or, as Inslee put it, "This is not an act of God. This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways.")

Significant hunks of the American West have now been transformed into the natural equivalent of furnaces, with fires even reaching the suburban edges of Portland, Oregon (which, for days, had the worst air quality of any major urban area on the planet), and promising a future in which cities will undoubtedly be swept up in such conflagrations, too. Admittedly, Donald Trump didn't threaten to launch "fire and fury like the world has never seen" against Portland (though he did send federal agents there to snatch peaceful protesters off its streets and continues to insult and threaten that city's mayor). If anything, as the fires scorched those states to a crisp, he did his best to avoid the subject of the burning West, as in these years more generally he's largely treated climate change (that "hoax") like... well, a pandemic that should be ignored while America stayed "open."

And it's not a subject he's been grilled on much either, not until recently when Western governors began laying into him over his stance on climate change. To offer just one example, as far as I can tell, Bob Woodward, the Washington Post editor and court chroniclerof presidents who, for months, had unparalleled access to Trump and grilled him on so many subjects, never bothered to ask him about the most important, most dystopian, most apocalyptic future Americans face. And mainstream Democrats didn't do much better on the subject while those fires were building to a crescendo until Joe Biden finally called the president a "climate arsonist." He added, aptly enough, "If you give a climate arsonist four more years in the White House, why would anyone be surprised if we have more of America ablaze?"

There's no question that, at the beck and call of the fossil-fuel industry, Donald Trump and his demonic crew have worked without qualms or remorse to ensure that this would be a fiery and furious America. Freeing that industry of restrictions of every sort, withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, openingup yet more areas for oil drilling, wiping out environmental safeguards, and even (at the very moment when the West was burning) appointing a climate-science denier to a top position at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the president and his crew proved themselves to be pyromaniacs of the first order.

Of course, the heating of this planet has been intensifying for decades now. (Don't forget, for instance, that Barack Obama presided over a U.S. fracking boom that left people referring to us as "Saudi America.") Still, this president and his top officials have put remarkable energy (so to speak) into releasing yet more carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. And here's the strange thing: they made it deep into the present apocalyptic moment in the West without — Greta Thunberg and climate change protesters aside — being held faintly accountable for their urge to fuel the greatest danger humanity faces other than nuclear weapons. In fact, as is increasingly obvious from the torching of the West, what we're beginning to experience is a slow-motion version of the nuclear apocalypse that Trump once threatened to loose on North Korea.

In an all-too-literal fashion, The Donald is indeed proving to be history's "fire and fury" president.

And don't for a moment think that there was no warning about the over-the-top burning now underway in this country. After all, in 2019, parts of Australia were singed to a crisp in a way never before seen, killing at least 25 humans and possibly more than a billion animals. And that country, too, was headed by a climate-change denier, a man who once brought a piece of coal to parliament and handed it around while soothingly telling other legislators, "Don't be afraid, don't be scared." In addition, in recent years, the Arctic (of all places) has been smoking and burning in an unprecedented fashion, heating its permafrost and releasingstaggering amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Oh, and this June, the temperature in a small town in Siberia crossed the 100-degree mark for the first time.

By the way, Russia, too, is run by a leader who until recently was a climate denier. I mean, what is it about the urge of so many of us in such a crisis to support those dedicated to quite literally destroying this planet as a livable place for... well, us? (Hey there, Jair Bolsonaro!)

Our very own firenado

An almost unimaginable near-half-century ago on a different planet, I lived in San Francisco. I can still remember the fog rolling in daily, even during summer in one of the coolest, breeziest cities around. Not this year, though. On September 6th, for instance, the temperature there broke 100 degrees, "crushing" the previous record for that day. In Berkeley, across the Bay, where I also once lived long, long ago, it hit 110. As a heat wave swept the state (and the West), temperatures near Los Angeles soared to a record-breaking 121 degrees (almost challenging overheated Baghdad, Iraq, this year), while reaching 130 degrees in the aptly named Death Valley — and that's just to start down a list of soaring temperatures across the West from the Canadian to the Mexican borders.

As those fires filled the skies with smoke and ash, turning day into the eeriest of nights, a smoke cloud the likes of which had never before been seen appeared over the coastal West. Meanwhile, firenadoes were spotted and the ash-filled air threatened terrible things for health. As has been true for the last 46 years, I'm thousands of miles away from my old Bay Area haunts. Still, I regularly check in with friends and TomDispatch authors on that coast, some aged like me and locked in their homes lest the smoke and ash, the air from hell, do them in. Meanwhile, their cars are packed to go, their evacuation checklists ready.

My heart goes out to them and, really, to all of us (and, above all, to those to whom we oldsters will be leaving such a blazing, tumultuous world).

Sadly, among the endless scandals and horrors of the Trump era, the greatest one by far scandalized all too few for all too long among those who officially matter on this beleaguered planet of ours. Even in 2016, it should have been obvious enough that a vote for Donald Trump was a vote for the apocalypse. Give him credit, though. He made no secret of that fact or that his presidency would be a fossil-fueled nightmare. It was obvious even then that he, not climate change, was the "hoax" and that this planet would suffer in unique ways from his (ad)ministrations.

And in every way imaginable, Donald Trump delivered as promised. He's been uniquely fiery and furious. In his own fashion, he's also been a man of his word. He's already brought "fire and fury" to this country in so many ways and, if he has anything to say about it, he's just gotten started.

Don't doubt for a second that, should he be losing on November 3rd (or beyond, given the mail-in vote to come), he'll declare electoral fraud and balk at leaving the White House. Don't doubt for a second that he'd be happy to torch that very building and whatever, at this point, is left of the American system with it before he saw himself "lose."

Since he is, in his own fashion, a parody of everything: a politician, a Republican, an autocrat, even a human being, he sums up in some extreme (if eerily satiric) fashion human efforts to destroy our way of life in these years. In truth, fiery and furiously fueled, he's a historic cloud of smoke and ash over us all.

By his very nature, to use those 2017 nuclear words of his, he is "threatening beyond a normal state." Think of him as the president from hell and here I mean a literal hell. Four more years of him, his crew, and the fossil-fuelized criminals running the major oil, gas, and coal companies who are riding his coattails into profit heaven and planetary misery are the cast of a play, both comedy and tragedy, that none of us should have to sit through. He's our very own firenado and — it's not complicated — four more years of him will consign us to a hell on Earth of a sort still only faintly imaginable today.

Copyright 2020 Tom Engelhardt

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Tom Engelhardt

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 is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).

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