TomDispatch

Donald Trump and the American descent toward failed-state status

These past few months, it's grown ever harder to recognize life in America. Thanks to Covid-19, basic day-to-day existence has changed in complicated, often confusing ways. Just putting food on the table has become a challenge for many. Getting doctors' appointments and medical care can take months. Many schools are offering on-line only instruction and good luck trying to get a driver's license or a passport renewed in person or setting up an interview for Social Security benefits. The backlog of appointments is daunting.

Meanwhile, where actual in-person government services are on tap, websites warn you of long lines and advise those with appointments to bring an umbrella, a chair, and something to eat and drink, as the Department of Motor Vehicles in Hudson, New York, instructed me to do over the summer. According to a September 2020 Yelp report, approximately 164,000 businesses have closed nationwide due to the pandemic, an estimated 60% of them for good. CNBC reports that 7.5 million businesses may still be at risk of closing. Meanwhile, more than 225,000 Americans have died of the coronavirus and, as a winter spike begins, it's estimated that up to 410,000 could be dead by year's end.

Then there are the signs of increasing poverty. Food banks have seen vast rises in demand, according to Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs. According to a study done by Columbia University's Center on Poverty and Social Policy, between February and September, the monthly poverty rate increased from 15% to 16.7%, despite cash infusions from Congress's CARES Act. That report also concluded that the CARES program, while putting a lid on the rise in the monthly poverty rate for a time, "was not successful at preventing a rise in deep poverty." And now, of course, Congress seems likely to offer nothing else.

The rate of unemployment is down from a high of 14% in April, but still twice what it was in January 2020 and seemingly stabilizing at a disturbing 8%. Meanwhile, schools and universities are struggling to stay viable. Thirty-four percent of universities are now online and only 4% are conducting fully in-person classes. The policy of stores limiting purchases in the spring and summer is still a fresh memory.

And what about freedom of movement? Dozens of countries, including most of the European Union, Latin America, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, have barred entry to American tourists and travelers, given this country's devastatingly high rate of infection. Canada and Mexico just re-upped their bans on U.S. travelers, too. In a sense, the pandemic has indeed helped build a "great, great wall" around America, one that won't let any of us out.

In fact, Americans are not being welcomed, even by one another. Inside our borders, states are requiring those arriving from other states with high percentages of Covid-19 cases to quarantine themselves for 14 days on arrival (though enforcing such mandates is difficult indeed). New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's list of places subject to such a travel advisory now includes 43 of the 49 other states.

And as we are reminded on a daily basis in the run-up to Election Day, early voters, especially in heavily minority districts, are being forced to wait long hours in endless lines in states where the pandemic is beginning to spike. In some places, local officials clearly set up the conditions for this as a deterrent to those they would prefer not to see at the polls. In Georgia, where a governor was intent on reducing the numbers of polling places to reduce turnout in African-American neighborhoods, the waiting time recently was up to 11 hours. Early voting lines in New York City "stretched for blocks" in multiple venues.

To top it all off, political and racial violence in the country is climbing, often thanks to uniformed law enforcement officers. From George Floyd's death to federal officials in unmarked vehicles dragging protesters off the streets of Portland, Oregon, to federal law enforcement officers using rubber bullets and tear gas on a gathering crowd of protestors to clear a path to a local church for President Trump, such cases have made the headlines. Meanwhile, officials across the country are ominously preparing to counter violence on Election Day

In the face of such challenges and deprivations, Americans, for the most part, are learning to adapt to the consequences of the pandemic, while just hoping that someday it will pass, that someday things will return to normal. As early as March 2020, a Pew poll had already detected a significant uptick in symptoms of anxiety nationwide. The percentage of such individuals had doubled, with young people and those experiencing financial difficulties driving the rise.

The American Psychological Association (APA) considers the pandemic not just an epidemiological but a "psychological crisis." The website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a paper written by two APA authors suggesting that Covid-19 is already taking "a tremendous psychological toll" on the country.

Failing, American-Style

All in all, we find ourselves in a daunting new world, but don't just blame it on the pandemic. This country was living in a state of denial before Covid-19 hit. The truth is that Americans have been in trouble for a surprisingly long time. The pandemic might have swept away that sense of denial and left us facing a new American reality, as that virus exposed previously ignored vulnerabilities for all to see.

So, expect one thing: that the indicators of America's decline will far surpass the problems that can be solved by addressing the pandemic's spread. When Covid-19 is brought under some control, the larger social system may unfortunately remain in tatters, in need of life support, posing new challenges for the country as a whole.

Several observers, witnessing such potentially long-lasting changes to the fabric of American life, have described the United States as resembling a failed state in its reaction to the pandemic. They point not just to the effects of staggering levels of inequality (on the rise for decades) or to a long-term unwillingness to invest in the kind of infrastructure that could keep what's still the wealthiest country on our planet strong, but to entrenched poverty and the fracturing of work life. Long before the pandemic hit, the Trump administration reflected this downhill slope.

As George Packer recently wrote in the Atlantic, the reaction to the coronavirus crisis here has been more "like Pakistan or Belarus -- like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering... Every morning in the endless month of March," he added, "Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state," unable to get the equipment, supplies, tests, or medical help they needed to fight the pandemic.

Looking beyond Covid-19 to the Trump administration's irresponsible handling of climate change and nuclear weapons, TomDispatch's Tom Engelhardt has also labeled the country a "failed state," one that now occupies a singular category (which he called "Fourth World") among the planet's countries.

There is no codified definition of a failed state, but there is general agreement that such a country has become unable or unwilling to care for its citizens. Safety and sustenance are at risk and stability in multiple sectors of life has become unpredictable. In 2003, future U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice attempted to craft a workable definition of the term in a report for the Brookings Institution, calling on President George W. Bush to address the underlying causes of failed states. "Failed states," she wrote, "are countries in which the central government does not exert effective control over, nor is it able to deliver vital services to significant parts of its own territory due to conflict, ineffective governance, or state collapse."

From the Proud Boys to the Wolverine Watchmen, it has become strikingly clear that, in this pandemic year, the U.S. is indeed becoming an increasingly riven, disturbed land and that nothing, including the election of Joe Biden, will simply make that reality disappear without immense effort.

In the twenty-first century, in fact, the United States has visibly been inching ever closer to failed-state status. In 2006, the Fund for Peace, an organization whose mission is global conflict reduction, human security, and economic development, launched a yearly Failed States Index (FSI), changing its name in 2014 to the Fragile State Index. For the last decade, for instance, Yemen has been among the top 10 most fragile states and, for the last two years, number one. Since 2013, Finland has been at the other end of the scale, number 178, the least failed state on the planet.

What's interesting, however, is the path the United States has travelled over that same decade, dropping a noteworthy 10 places. Until the Trump years, it consistently stood at number 158 or 159 among the 178 nations on the chart. In the 2018 report, however, it took a turn for the worse. In the 2020 report (based on pre-pandemic numbers), it had dropped to 149, reflecting in particular losses in what FSI calls "cohesion," based on rising nationalist rhetoric among increasingly riven elites and unequal access to resources in a country where economic inequality was already at staggering levels.

Just imagine, then, what the 2021 Index will likely report next April. At present, when it comes to FSI's rankings, the United States is in the third of five groupings of countries, behind the Scandinavian countries, most of the other nations of Europe, and Singapore. Given today's realities, it is poised to fall even further.

The Election Moment

Elections are a crucial factor in separating successful from failing states; fair elections, that is, ones that people in a country trust. As Pauline Baker, the director of the Fund for Peace, points out, "Elections are an essential part of democratization, but they can also be conflict-inducing if they are held too soon, are blatantly manipulated, lack transparency, or are marred by violence."

All you have to do is think about Donald Trump's endless claims -- that this year's election will be "rigged," that mail-in ballots will be a fraud, that he won't necessarily leave office even if the tallies are against him, and so on -- to know that a particularly heavy burden has been placed on the results of November 3rd. Add to that burden threats to the election's viability via disinformation from foreign agents and hackers, Republican Party attempts at voter suppression, and threats of violence by so-called poll watchers.

Meanwhile, an embattled Supreme Court has been issuing decisions on matters like "faithless electors," extended voting, and absentee ballots. The record so far has been mixed at best. On the one hand, the justices have voted to keep intact the Electoral College rule that requires electors to honor their pledges to vote according to whatever the voters have decided. They also nixed an attempt by the Republican National Committee to enforce a Rhode Island rule that mail-in voters, under pandemic conditions, must have their ballots signed by either two witnesses or a notary public. And most recently, the Court voted 4-4 to uphold Pennsylvania's decision to extend the absentee ballot deadline.

For the most part, however, its decisions have gone the other way, upholding more restrictive voting policies in 8 out of 11 cases. In July, for example, the court ruled against a decision in Alabama that had eased restrictions on absentee ballot submissions. That same week, it refused to reinstate an order in Texas allowing all voters to cast mail-in ballots due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, it seems that Pennsylvania Republicans are again trying to narrow the time frame on absentee ballots, announcing that they have returned to the Court for a further decision on the matter in light of Justice Amy Barrett's certain confirmation.

The point is, this election should matter, both the form it takes and its outcome. If trust in the process of voting goes by the wayside, then the image of the United States as a failing, even a failed state will be hard to dispute. And if there is violence at the polls, or after the vote takes place, then we'll sense an even deeper failure.

While some may view the coming election as a precipitous cliff, with dangers lurking everywhere, I also see it as an opportunity, which is why the tsunami of early voting, often involving hours of waiting, is an encouraging sign. Despite the abyss that we face after four years of chaos and cruelty, this country still has a chance to prove that we are not a failing state and to reclaim our trust in our government, our protections, and one another. Only then will we be able to begin to repair the economic damage, the rank divisiveness, and the unequal allocation of resources that has fueled our disastrous pandemic response and, with it, a further erosion of trust in government.

Maybe we need to accept the challenge of proving in this election that one of the world's longest-standing democracies can rise to the occasion and vote to uphold the foundation of its system, elections themselves. Maybe, using this very election, we can harness the civic pride that could lead to a successful restoration of our basic beliefs in constitutional principles and the rule of law. The chance to vote, no matter how long the lines and the wait, might be just the opportunity we need.

Karen J. Greenberg, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law, the host of the Vital Interests Podcast, the editor-in-chief of the CNS Soufan Group Morning Brief, and the author of Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State and editor of Reimagining the National Security State: Liberalism on the Brink. Julia Tedesco helped with research for this article.

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 Karen J. Greenberg

The war Trump started at home

It was July 2017, a few weeks before the "Unite the Right" Charlottesville riots, when white men marched through the streets of that Virginia city protesting the planned takedown of a confederate statue and chanting, "Jews will not replace us." I was sitting at a coffee shop in my quiet town of Poulsbo in Washington State. I had set aside an hour away from my kids to do some necessary writing, while my husband, then second-in-command on a Navy ballistic missile submarine, sat suspended somewhere in the depths of the Pacific Ocean.

Our toddler and infant were home with a babysitter, offering me a rare chance to write, peacefully, amid the stressors of my life. I had a clinical social-work internship then, counseling war-traumatized veterans, and had spent months single-mothering while my spouse was at sea. To my surprise, I was suddenly jolted from my daydreams by chanting men. Glancing out the window at the usually placid waterfront of our town, I caught sight of a group of surprisingly large white men wearing animal skin loincloths, vests, and horned hats. They were also holding torches and -- I kid you not -- spears. They were loudly chanting, "Poulsbo! Poulsbo! Poulsbo!" And that was when I suddenly remembered that this was our annual Viking Fest in which groups of Washington residents from near and far celebrated the town's Norwegian founders.

Cars parked more than a mile down our modest streets suggested that such gatherings were anything but local. This would be my second Viking Fest and I would be struck once again by how little I learned about how the town was actually founded, the values it stood for, and which of them might have survived to today. Poulsbo, after all, now existed in a largely militarized area, including a local submarine base, with white, privileged officer families -- those fortunate enough, at least, to be dual-income ones like mine or have trust funds -- purchasing and reselling homes every few years as the U.S. military moved them around the country and the world.

Even in 2017, longtime residents were starting to move away to escape the smoke that snaked into the community earlier each year from ever-fiercer wildfires in ever-longer fire seasons, part of our new climate-changed reality. Meanwhile, Poulsbo's picturesque gingerbread house-style buildings were being replaced by larger condo complexes, as developers moved ever deeper into the town's hillside forests that would undoubtedly someday burn.

Viking Fest, with its spectacle of white men banging spears and shouting aggressively, set my heart racing with an unnamed fear. It was, after all, a moment when the recently elected Donald Trump was already demonstrating that practically no behavior, including in Charlottesville soon ("You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides"), should be considered beyond bounds. Later, talking with another military wife, a rare woman of color visiting that town, about the Viking shout-a-thon, amid an almost all-white crowd of officers and their families watching the event, she said, "It's like there's no point. It's like a celebration of white people!"

Who Are They and What Do They Stand For?

Looking back now, it's hard not to see that evening's loud and prideful display of white masculinity, which merely disturbed the peace for stressed-out moms like me, as a harbinger of more sinister things to come. Shouting male nationalist groups like the Proud Boys that President Trump told to "stand by" at his first debate with Joe Biden and the Wolverine Watchmen, some of whom have allegedly been linked to a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, are increasingly commonplace in the news.

As a military wife who has made five different moves over the last 10 years, I'm particularly aware of how racially and ethnically diverse this country and its military actually are. Under the circumstances, it's remarkable that much of white America lacks any understanding of just how threatening displays like Viking Fest must look to the rare person of color who happens upon them.

It should certainly be obvious in October 2020 how destructive to our democracy fraternal, pro-Trump groups have become during Donald Trump's presidency. Take those Proud Boys. Among the founding principles their website offers are a vague set of notions that include "reinstating a spirit of Western chauvinism," "anti-political correctness," "venerating the housewife," "pro-gun rights" (in a pandemic-ridden country where, between March and July alone, an estimated three million more guns were purchased than usual), and -- get this -- "anti-racism." For the Proud Boys to say that they reject racism and venerate housewives did little more than provide them with a veneer of social acceptability, even as they planned armed counter-rallies in progressive cities like Providence and Portland with the explicit purpose of inciting violence among Black Lives Matter protesters and their allies.

Other influences, like the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, are even more direct. For example, that site urged its followers to cyber-bully American University's first black female student government president, Taylor Dumpson after nooses began appearing on that school's campus in 2017. In April 2016, its founder Andrew Anglin had written, "Jews, Blacks, and lesbians will be leaving America if Trump gets elected -- and he's happy about it. This alone is enough reason to put your entire heart and soul into supporting this man."

One thing is certain: all that matters as markers of humanity to the man who inspires and, however implicitly, endorses such groups, President Donald Trump, is white skin and political support. The other night at his town hall with NBC's Savannah Guthrie, a would-be supporter presented herself as the granddaughter of immigrants who had fled religious persecution in Eastern Europe. She asked the president about his plans to protect DACA recipients from having to return to their countries. The president responded: "DACA is somewhat different from Dreamers. You understand that... Where do you come from, by the way, originally? Where?" After the woman responded that her grandparents came from Russia and Poland, he stated, "That's very good." He then went on to discuss his border wall with Mexico; that is, keeping the wrong kind of immigrants out.

The Military as a Recruiting Ground for the Far Right

If there is any concept that these groups threatening to disrupt our democracy stand for, it's a version of individual freedom -- like not wearing masks -- that's akin to driving drunk and without putting on a seat belt, rather than waiting for a sober friend to drive you home. Yes, it's more comfortable not to wear a mask or a seatbelt. The short-term benefits, like physical comfort, are tangible, as is perhaps the exhilarating sense that you can do anything you want with your body. (Ask most anti-maskers about abortion rights, however, and you'll get quite a different perspective on the degree to which our bodies should be our own.)

Yet the most current scientific evidence is that if all Americans wore masks (and social-distanced) right now, it would potentially save tens of thousands of lives. In the age of Covid-19, however, concerns over public health restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus, including lockdowns of gyms, bars, and other public facilities, have become political firestorms. Such mandated lockdowns were the main reason various gunmen collaborated with the Wolverine Watchmen in a plot -- fortunately foiled -- to kidnap the governor of Michigan and considered a similar plot against Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia.

Perhaps not coincidentally, people of color -- Blacks and Latinos -- die from Covid-19 at a rate about a third higher than their share of the population. In other words, it couldn't be clearer whose bodily freedoms are really considered at stake in these far-right struggles and whose are expendable.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of these groups is that they take a significant part of their manpower and know-how from the United States military with the tacit support of a Republican Senate. As a military spouse as well as the co-founder of Brown University's Costs of War Project, it's been no secret to me that our military's support for bigotry of all kinds is endemic. Racist and sexist remarks are commonplace both on the boats where my husband has served and in gatherings with officer colleagues and their families. Little more than brief reprimands (if that) are handed out in return.

In a country where gun ownership and firearms training are seen by the far right as inalienable, all-American freedoms, the military is a ripe breeding ground for disaffected men looking for individual empowerment, a sense of belonging, and just such training. In fact, a recent New York Times investigation claims that veterans and active-duty military members make up more than a fifth of the membership of America's 300 anti-government, pro-Trump "militia" groups. According to a 2019 survey by the Military Times, about a quarter of active-duty service members reported witnessing signs of white nationalist ideology among their fellow soldiers, including racist and anti-Semitic slurs and homemade explosives shaped like swastikas.

Nothing is more disturbing, when it comes to white nationalist-style hate, than the way the Republicans in Congress have implicitly sanctioned it. In 2019, after the Democratic-controlled House introduced a clause into the Defense Authorization Act to have recruits screened for white nationalist ideology, the Republican Senate nixed the provision. What more need be said?

How did an institution that should be about service to the nation become a petri dish for people who stand for nothing of collective significance? Even one of the favorite and abiding principles of far-right actors (and many Republicans in Congress), the right to bear arms, seems eerily decontextualized from history in a country that leads the world by far in armed citizens (many with distinctly military-style weaponry).

Let's remember that this right was grounded in the idea of organizing the revolutionary army against a colonial power that taxed people without representing them and forcibly billeted its military in their homes. The colonists, while rife with their own history of human-rights violations, were not a bunch of disaffected, irrationally angry individual crusaders with an urge to use weapons to threaten civilians.

Two and a half centuries later, the party that regularly signals its support for the far right's armed tactics still controls the presidency, the upper chamber of Congress, and will soon control the Supreme Court as well. And yet it and its right-wing supporters eternally act as if they were the victims in our world and, from that position of victimization, are now threatening others (and not just Gretchen Whitmer either.)

Many among them still see themselves as subjugated by this country's ruling elite, which may represent a kind of projection or, psychologically speaking, seeing in others the thoughts and feelings one actually harbors in oneself. And as a therapist who has worked with significant numbers of veterans and military service members, I can warn them: don't do it. As I know from some military service members who have told me of their time in distant lands, when they used guns against civilians, it shook to the core their belief in the principle of service to country, leaving them distrustful of the homeland they had been fighting for.

Of course, an increasingly armed far right has responded by creating a world of symbols that are deeply comforting to them. Yet do they really stand for anything?

I was recently appalled by a bumper sticker on a minivan featuring two large guns and three smaller ones aligned together like those stickers that show heterosexual nuclear families. Its tagline: "My guns are my family." At the wheel was a young woman with several children. I balk similarly at pictures on people's lawns that feature Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" flag -- how did he get a separate flag? -- and the word "Jesus" in all-capital letters.

Guns and small children? A separate Trump state and Jesus? Never before has sociologist Émile Durkheim's idea that religious groups are less in need of a cohesive ideology than symbols to which they can all bow down in unison made more sense to me. Amid such incoherence (and symbolic violence), such an inability to justify their place in this democracy, it might be fairest to say that, as this election campaign heads toward its chaotic climax, Trump and the far right worship little more than one another.

"At Least He Hasn't Started Another War"

In October, the United States passed its 19-year mark in its second Afghan War of the last four decades. In many ways, that war and the dregs of the conflict in Iraq, which the U.S. invaded in the spring of 2003, have become as empty as the war that far-right groups wage in the United States. The hundreds of thousands of dead civilians, the flourishing of terrorist groups far deadlier and angrier than those the U.S. originally sought to defeat, the degradation of basic human rights including the rights to life and health -- the carnage has been significant indeed. As these wars enter or near their third decade, I often hear friends say about President Trump, "At least he hasn't started another war."

Oh, but he has! This time, though, the war is at home. Even the Wolverine Watchmen and their co-collaborators in recent kidnapping plots saw themselves as initiating a civil war, or a boogaloo (to use far-right terminology). Not since the Jim Crow South years have we had to worry about people's physical safety as they approach the polls to cast their vote -- and the "Four More Years" folks and other gun-toting Trump supporters have, I fear, just gotten started. Never would it have been thinkable for a sitting president to overlook, or even implicitly endorse, plots to kidnap and possibly kill elected officials, but Trump has even gone so far as to respond to his supporters at a recent rally in Michigan chanting "Lock her up!" by saying "Lock them all up!" (a play both on his Hillary Clinton chants in the last election and on Governor Whitmer's pandemic lockdown orders).

Twenty years later, our healthcare resources (never sufficient) are further depleted. A pandemic is again spiking across the country. Those who run for office and try to govern with dignity are being challenged in all too threatening ways. Think of it, whether in political or health terms, as our new war zone. I hope that those who appear to vote in person under pandemic conditions and increasing threats of voter intimidation will not come under attack next by far-right groups. To anyone who is listening in elected office anywhere in America: I hope you have a plan for a peaceful transition of power, since the "law-and-order" president is, of course, anything but that when it comes to sustaining our democracy, rather than his presidency.

Andrea Mazzarino, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded Brown University's Costs of War Project. She has held various clinical, research, and advocacy positions, including at a Veterans Affairs PTSD Outpatient Clinic, with Human Rights Watch, and at a community mental health agency. She is the co-editor of War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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 Andrea Mazzarino

The nightmare Joe Biden could inherit

Donald Trump isn't just inside the heads of his Trumpster base; he's long been a consuming obsession among those yearning for his defeat in November. With barely more than a week to go before the election of our lifetime, those given to nail biting as a response to anxiety have by now gnawed ourselves down to the quick. And many have found other ways to manage (or mismanage) their apprehensions through compulsive rituals, which only ratchet up the angst of the moment, among them nonstop poll tracking, endless "what if" doomsday-scenario conversations with friends, and repeated refrigerator raids.

As one of those doomsday types, let me briefly suggest a few of the commonplace dystopian possibilities for November. Trump gets the majority of the votes cast in person on November 3rd. A Pew Research Center survey found that 60% of those supporting the president intend to vote that way on Election Day compared to 23% of Biden supporters; and a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll likewise revealed a sizable difference between Republicans and Democrats, though not as large. He does, however, lose handily after all mail-in and absentee ballots are counted. Once every ballot is finally tabulated, Biden prevails in the popular vote and ekes out a win in the Electoral College. The president, however, having convinced his faithful that voting by mail will result in industrial-scale fraud (unless he wins, of course), proclaims that he -- and "the American people" -- have been robbed by the establishment. On cue, outraged Trumpsters, some of them armed, take to the streets. Chaos, even violence, ensues. The president's army of lawyers frenetically file court briefs contesting the election results and feverishly await a future Supreme Court decision, Mitch McConnell having helpfully rammed through Amy Coney Barrett's nomination to produce a 6-3 conservative majority (including three Trump-appointed Supremes) that will likely favor him in any disputed election case.

Or the vote tally shows that Trump didn't prevail in pivotal states, but in state legislatures with Republican majorities, local GOP leaders appoint electors from their party anyway, defying the popular will without violating Article II, Section I, of the Constitution, which doesn't flat-out prohibit such a stratagem. That was one possibility Barton Gellman explored in his bombshell Atlantic piece on the gambits Trump could use to snatch victory (of a sort) from the jaws of a Biden victory. Then there are the sundry wag-the-dog plots, including a desperate Trump trying to generate a pre-election rally-around-the-flag effect by starting a war with Iran -- precisely what, in 2011, he predicted Barack Obama would do to boost his chances for reelection.

And that, of course, is just part of a long list of nightmarish possibilities. Whatever your most dreaded outcome, dwelling on it doesn't make for happiness or even ephemeral relief. Ultimately, it's not under your control. Besides, no one knows what will happen, and some prominent pundits have dismissed such apocalyptic soothsaying with assurances that the system will work the way it's supposed to and foil Trumpian malfeasance. Here's hoping.

In the meantime, let's summon what passes for optimism these days. Imagine that none of the alarmist denouements materializes. Biden wins the popular vote tally and the Electoral College. The GOP's leaders discover that they do, in fact, have backbones (or at least the instinct for political survival), refusing to echo Trump's rants about rigging. The president rages but then does go, unquietly, into the night.

Most of my friends on the left assume that a new dawn would then emerge. In some respects, it indeed will. Biden won't be a serial liar. That's no small matter. By the middle of this year, Trump had made false or misleading pronouncements of one sort or another more than 20,000 times since becoming president. Nor will we have a president who winks and nods at far-right groups or racist "militias," nor one who blasts a governor -- instead of expressing shock and solidarity -- soon after the FBI foils a plot by right-wing extremists to kidnap her for taking steps to suppress the coronavirus. We won't have a president who repeatedly intimates that he will remain in office even if he loses the election. We won't have a president who can't bring himself to appeal to Americans to display their patriotism through the simple act of donning masks to protect others (and themselves) from Covid-19. And we won't have a president who lacks the compassion to express sorrow over the 225,000 Americans (and rising) who have been killed by that disease, or enough respect for science and professional expertise, to say nothing of humility, to refrain from declaring, as his own experts squirm, that warm weather will cause the virus to vanish miraculously or that injections of disinfectant will destroy it.

And these, of course, won't be minor victories. Still, Joe Biden's arrival in the Oval Office won't alter one mega-fact: Donald Trump will hand him a monstrous economic mess. Worse, in the almost three months between November 3rd and January 20th, rest assured that he will dedicate himself to making it even bigger.

The motivation? Sheer spite for having been put in the position -- we know that he will never accept any responsibility for his defeat -- of facing what, for him, may be more unbearable than death itself: losing. The gargantuan challenge of putting the economy back on the rails while also battling the pandemic would be hard enough for any new president without the lame-duck commander-in-chief and Senate Republicans sabotaging his efforts before he even begins. The long stretch between Election Day and Inauguration Day will provide Donald Trump ample time to take his revenge on a people who will have forsaken, in his opinion, the best president ever.

More on Trump's vengeance, but first, let's take stock of what awaits Biden should he win in November.

Our Covid-Ravaged Economy

To say that we are, in some respects, experiencing the biggest economic disaster since the Great Depression of the 1930s is anything but hyperbole. The statistics make that clear. The economy had contracted at a staggering annual rate of 31.4% during the second quarter of this pandemic year. During the 2007-2009 Great Recession, unemployment, at its height, was 10%. This year's high point, in April, was 14.7%. Over the spring, 40 million jobs disappeared, eviscerating all gains made during the two pre-pandemic years.

There were, however, some relatively recent signs of a rebound. The Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank's survey of economic forecasters, released in mid-August, yielded an estimate of a 19.1% expansion for the third quarter of 2020. But that optimism came in the wake of Congress passing the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, on March 27th, which pumped about $2.2 trillion into the economy. The slowdown in job growth between July and September suggests that its salutary effects may be petering out. Even with that uptick, the economy remains in far worse shape than before the virus started romping through the landscape.

However, while useful, aggregate figures obscure stark variations in how the pain produced by a Covid-19 economy has been felt across different parts of American society. No, we aren't all in this together, if by "together" you mean anything remotely resembling equalized distress. A Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) release, for instance, reveals that September's 7.9% nationwide unemployment rate hit some groups far harder than others.

The jobless rate for whites dropped to 7%, but for Hispanics it was 10.3%, for African Americans 12.1%. Furthermore, high-skill, high-wage workers have gotten off far more lightly than those whose jobs can't be done from home, including restaurant servers and cooks, construction workers, meatpackers, housecleaners, agricultural laborers, subway, bus, and taxi drivers, first responders, and retail and hotel staff, among others. For workers like them, essential public health precautions, whether "social distancing" or stay-at-home decrees, haven't just been an inconvenience. They have proven economically devastating. These are the Americans who are struggling hardest to buy food and pay the rent.

More than 25 million of them fall in the lowest 20% of the earnings scale and -- no surprise here -- have, at best, the most meager savings. According to the Fed's calculations, of the bottom 25% of Americans, only 11% have what they require for at least six months of basic expenses and less than 17% for at least three. Yes, unemployment insurance helps, but depending on the state, it covers just 30% to 50% of lost wages. Moreover, there's no telling when, or whether, such workers will be rehired or find new jobs that pay at least as much. The data on long-term unemployment isn't encouraging. The BLS reports that, in September, 2.4 million workers had been unemployed for 27 weeks or more, another 4.9 million for 15 to 27 weeks.

These disparities and the steps the Fed has taken, including keeping interest rates low and buying treasury bills, mortgage-backed securities, and corporate bonds, help explain why high stock prices and massive economic suffering have coexisted, however incongruously, during the pandemic. The problem with bull markets, however, is that they don't bring direct gains to the chunk of American society that's been hurt the most.

Nearly half of American households own no stock at all, according to the Federal Reserve Bank, even if you count pension and 401k plans or Individual Retirement Accounts -- and for black and Hispanic families the numbers are 69% and 72%, respectively. Furthermore, the wealthiest 10% of households own 84% of all stock.

Trump preens when the stock market soars, as he did on April 10th, when 16 million Americans had just filed for unemployment. Tweets trumpeting "the biggest Stock Market increase since 1974" were cold comfort for Americans who could no longer count on paychecks.

The Signs of Suffering

Even such numbers don't fully reveal the ways in which prolonged joblessness has upended lives. To get a glimpse of that, consider how low-income workers, contending with extended unemployment, have struggled to pay for two basic necessities: housing and food.

Reuters reported in late July that Americans already owed $21.5 billion in back rent. Worse yet, 17.3 million of the country's 44 million renter households couldn't afford to pay the landlord and faced possible eviction. A fifth of all renters had made only partial payments that month or hadn't paid anything. Again, not surprisingly, some were in more trouble than others. In September, 12% of whites owed back rent compared to 25% of African Americans, 24% of Asians, and 22% of Latinos. A May Census Bureau survey revealed that nearly 45% of African Americans and Hispanics but "only" 20% of whites had little or no confidence in their ability to make their June rent payments. (Households with kids were in an even bigger bind.)

The rent crunch also varied depending on a worker's education, a reliable predictor of earnings. Workers with high school diplomas earned only 60% as much as workers who had graduated from college and only 50% of those with a master's degree. And the more education workers had, the less likely they were to be laid off. Between February and August, 2.5% of employees with college degrees lost their jobs compared to nearly 11% of those who hadn't attended college.

Those, then, are the Americans most likely to be at risk of eviction. Yes, the federal government, states, and cities have issued rent moratoriums, but the protections in them varied considerably and, by August, they had ended in 24 of the 43 states that enacted them; nor did they release renters from future obligations to pay what they owe, sometimes with penalties. In addition, eviction stays haven't stopped landlords nationwide from taking thousands of delinquent renters to court and even, depending on state laws, seeking to evict them. The courts are clogged with such cases. Eventually, millions of renters could face what a BBC report called a potential "avalanche" of evictions.

Nor have homeowners been safe. The CARES Act did include provisions to protect some of them, offering those with federal-backed mortgages the possibility of six-month payment deferrals, potential six-month extensions of that, and the possibility of negotiating affordable payment plans thereafter. In many cases, however, that "forbearance" initiative hasn't worked as intended. Often, homeowners didn't know about it or weren't aware that they had to file a formal request with their lenders to qualify or got the run around when they tried to do so. Still, mortgage forbearance helped millions, but it expires in March 2021 when many homeowners could still be jobless or have new jobs that don't pay as well. Just how desperate such people will be depends, of course, on how strongly Covid-19 resurges, what future shutdowns it produces, and when it will truly subside.

Meanwhile, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association, the residential mortgage delinquency rate hit 8.22% as the second quarter of 2020 ended, the highest since 2014. Meanwhile, between June and July, mortgage payments overdue 90 or more days increased by 20% to a total unseen since 2010. True, we're not yet headed for defaults and foreclosures on the scale of the Great Recession of 2007-2008, but that's a very high bar.

As for hunger, a September Census Bureau survey reports that 10.5% of adults, or 23 million people, stated that household members weren't getting enough to eat. That's a sharp increase from the 3.7% in a Department of Agriculture survey for 2019. In July, the Wall Street Journal reported, 12% of adults said their families didn't have enough food (compared to 10% in May). A fifth of them lacked the money to feed their kids adequately, a three-percent increase from May. Recent food-insecurity estimates for households with children range from 27.5% to 29.5%.

Meanwhile, enrollments in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (known until 2008 as the Food Stamp Program) grew by 17% between February and May, forcing the government to increase its funding. Food banks, overwhelmed by demand, are pleading for money and volunteers. In August, a mile-long line of cars formed outside a food bank in Dallas, one of many such poignant scenes in cities across the country since the pandemic struck.

What Happens After the Election?

For those who have lost their jobs, the CARES Act provided $600 a week to supplement unemployment benefits, as well as a one-time payment of $1,250 per adult and $2,400 for married couples. That stipend, though, ended on July 31st when the Republican Senate balked at renewing it. In August, by executive order, the president directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to step in with three weeks of $300 payments, which were extended for another three. That, however, was half what they would have received had the CARES supplement been extended and, by October, most states had used up the Trump allotments.

In the ongoing congressional negotiations over prolonging supplemental benefits and other assistance, President Trump engaged, only to disengage. With a September ABC News/IPSOS voter survey showing that just 35% of the public approved of his handling of the pandemic, and Joe Biden having opened a double-digit lead in many polls, the president suddenly offered a $1.8 trillion version of the CARES Act, only to encounter massive blowback from his own party.

And that's where we are as the election looms. If Trump loses (and accepts the loss), he will hand Joe Biden an economic disaster of the first order that he's made infinitely worse by belittling mask-wearing and social distancing, disregarding and undercutting his administration's own medical experts, peddling absurd nostrums, and offering rosy but baseless prognostications. And between November 3rd, Election Day, and January 20th, Inauguration Day, expect -- hard as it might be to imagine -- an angrier, more vengeful Trump.

For now, as his prospects for victory seem to dim, he has good reason to push for, or at least be seen as favoring, additional aid, but here's a guarantee: if he loses in November, he won't just moan about election rigging, he'll also lose all interest in providing more help to millions of Americans at the edge of penury and despair. Vindictiveness, not sympathy, will be his response, even to his base, for whom he clearly has a barely secret disdain. So accept this guarantee, as well: between those two dates, whatever he does will be meant to undermine the incoming Biden administration. That includes working to make the climb as steep as possible for the rival he's depicted as a semi-senile incompetent. He will want only one thing: to see his successor fail.

Once Trump formally hands over the presidency -- assuming his every maneuver to retain power flops -- he'll work to portray any measure the new administration adopts to corral the virus he helped let loose and to aid those in need as profligacy, and as "socialism" and governmental overreach imperiling freedom. Last guarantee: he won't waste a minute getting his wrecking operation underway, while "his" party will posture as the paragon of financial rectitude. It won't matter that Republican administrations have racked up the biggest budget deficits in our history. They, too, will ferociously resist Biden's efforts to help millions of struggling Americans.

And think of all of this, assuming Biden wins, as the "good news."

Rajan Menon, a TomDispatch regular, is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York, senior research fellow at Columbia University's Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His latest book is The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention.

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 Rajan Menon

Trump has committed nearly every sin found in Dante's Hell

by Ariel Dorfman

For some time now, I've wanted to send Donald Trump to Hell. I mean this literally, not as a figure of speech. I want him to inhabit the palpable, sensory Hell that religions have long conjured up with scenes of sulfur, damnation, and screams of perpetual pain from those who once caused grievous harm to their fellow humans.

The more Trump has abused his power and position in this world and the more he's escaped any retribution for his crimes, the more obsessed I've become with visualizing ways for him to pay in some version of the afterlife.

As I mulled over the treatment he deserved for the havoc he continues to wreak on the lives of countless others here in the United States and across the globe, I turned almost automatically to the work of Dante Alighieri, the Italian poet whose Divina Commedia minutely recreated in a verse called terza rima what awaited the readers of his time once they died. Dante (1265-1321) laid out his otherworldly landscape in three volumes—Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso—that have rightly been considered among the towering and influential literary achievements of humanity.

There was nothing abstract about the Hell he created. Dante pictured himself personally taking a voyage into the hereafter to meet men and women, both of his time and from the past, who were being rewarded for their virtue or eternally castigated for their offenses. Of that journey through purgatorial fires and heavenly wonders, guided by his dead childhood sweetheart Beatrice, it was the Florentine writer's descent into the saturated circles of Hell that most fascinated and enthralled readers throughout the centuries. We listen to stories of the wicked as they express their remorse and experience the excruciatingly sophisticated torments he dreamt up as suitable reprisals for the damage they did during their earthly existence.

Witnessing the infernal realities President Trump has unleashed on America, I can't help wondering where Dante would have placed our miscreant-in-chief in his afterlife of horror. In the end, perhaps not surprisingly, I realized one obvious thing: the 45th president has such a multitude of transgressions to his name that he fits almost every category and canto that Dante invented for the sinners of his age.

As I pondered what the Italian author would have made of Trump and his certainty that he was above the laws of society and nature, I was invaded by Dante's divinatory and lyrical voice. It came to me as if in a hallucination. Listening carefully, I managed to record the words with which that visionary poet of yesteryear would describe a man who, until recently, believed himself invincible and invulnerable, how he would be judged and condemned once his life was over.

Here, then, is my version of Dante's prophecy—my way, that is, of finally consigning Donald Trump to Hell for forever and a day.

Dante Greets Trump at the Gates of Hell and Explains What His Punishment Is to Be

My name, sir, is Dante Alighieri. Among the innumerable dead that inhabit these shores, I have been chosen to speak to you because an expert on the afterlife was needed to describe what awaits your soul when it passes, as all souls must, into this land of shadows. I was chosen, whether as an honor or not, to imagine your fate once you wind your way toward us.

Having accepted this task, I was tempted, sir, as I watched your every act in that life before death, to make this easier for myself and simply conjure up the circles of Hell I had already described in my terza rima. I would then have guided you down my cascade of verses, step by step, into the depths of darkness I had designed for others.

Were you not the selfish embodiment of so many sins I dealt with in my Commedia? Lust and adultery, yes! Gluttony, yes; greed and avarice, oh yes; wrath and fury, certainly; violence, fraud, and usury, yes again! Divisiveness and treachery, even heresy—you who did not believe in God and yet used the Bible as a prop—yes, one more time!

Did you not practice all those iniquities, a slave to your loveless appetites? Do you not deserve to be called to account in ways I once envisioned: buffeted by vicious winds, drowning in storms of putrefaction, choking under gurgling waters of belligerence, immersed in the boiling blood that echoes rage, thirsting across a burning plain, steeped in the excrement of flattery and seduction, clawed to pieces by the night demons of corruption, or feeling that throat and tongue of yours that tore so many citizens apart mutilated and hacked to bits? Would it not be fair that, like other perjurers and impostors, you be bloated with disease? Would it not make sense that you be trapped in ice or flames, endlessly chewed by the jaws of eternity, like those who committed treason against country and friends in my time?

And yet, in the end, I rejected all of that. After all, I was selected not to repeat myself but because I was trusted to be creative and find an appropriately new reckoning for you—something, said the authorities in charge of this place, less savage and fierce, more educational, even therapeutic. Thus have times changed since I wrote that poem of mine!

My mission, it seems, was not to insert you in rings of an already conceived Hell of terrifying revenge. So I began to seek inspiration from my fellow sufferers so many centuries later and there, indeed, they were—your multitudes of victims, the ones who need to heal, the ones you never wanted to see or mourn, whose pain you never shared, who now want to greet you, sir, in a new way.

Perhaps you haven't noticed yet, but I have. They've been lining up since the moment they arrived. Now, they're here by my side, counting the days until your time is up and you must face them. And so I decided that they would be given a chance to do exactly that, one by one, through all eternity.

After all, each of them was devastated because of you: a father who died of the pandemic you did less than nothing to prevent; a little boy shot with a gun you did not ban; a worker overcome by toxic fumes whose release your administration ensured; the protesters killed by a white supremacist inflamed by your rhetoric; a Black man who expired thanks to police violence you refuse to condemn; a migrant who succumbed to the desert heat on the other side of the wall that you stole taxpayer money to (only partially) build. And let us not forget that female Kurdish fighter slaughtered because you betrayed her people.

On and on I could go, naming the wrongfully dead, the untimely dead, the avoidable dead, now all huddled around me, otherwise unrepresented and forgotten but awaiting your arrival for their moment of truth. Each of them will have to be patient, since according to my plan, every single casualty of yours will be afforded whatever time he or she desires to relive a life and recount its last moments. You will be forced, sir, to listen to their stories again and again until you finally learn how to make their sorrow your own, until their tragedies truly lodge in the entrails of your mind, as long as it takes you to truly ask for forgiveness.

Trump Tries to Find a Way Out of Hell

Your first reaction will undoubtedly be to indulge in the fantasy that, just as you swore the pandemic would be magically dispatched, so this new predicament will miraculously melt into nothingness. When you open your eyes, however, and still find yourself here, your urge will be to call on all your old tricks, those of the ultimate con man, to avoid sinking deeper into the moral abyss I've prepared for you.

Just as you've bribed, bought, and inveigled your way out of scandals and bankruptcies, so you'll believe you can bluster and wriggle your way out of this moment, too. You'll try to pretend you're just hosting one more (ir)reality TV show where this Dante fellow can be turned into another of your apprentices, competing for your largesse and approval.

And when none of that works, you'll make believe that you have indeed atoned for your terrible deeds and fall again into the lies and macho bravado that were your second skin. You'll swear that you have repented so you can escape this confinement, these rooms where you have become the prey rather than the predator. You will present yourself as a savior, boast of having singlehandedly concocted a vaccine against accountability, discovered a manly cure for the terrors of Hell. You'll dream—I know you will—of reappearing victorious and, of course, maskless on that White House balcony.

This time, though, it just won't work, not here in this transparent abode of death. And yet you will certainly try to hurry the process up because you'll know -- I've already decided that much -- that those you ruined while you were still alive are only the start of your journey, not the end. You will become all too aware, while you spend hours, days, years, decades with the men, women, and children you consigned to an early mortality and permanent grief, that a multitude of others will be arriving, all those who will perish in the future due to your neglect and malevolence.

They will, I assure you, snake endlessly into your mind, accumulating through many tomorrows, all those who are yet to die but will do so prematurely as the brutality you worshipped and fueled takes its toll, as the earth, heavens, and waters you ravaged exact heat waves of revenge—hurricanes and droughts and famines and floods, ever more victims with each minute that slithers by, including the women who will die in botched back-alley abortions because of your judicial nominations. The decades to come are already preparing to welcome the legions of your dead.

That is the despair I imagine for you now that I am no longer the man bitterly exiled from his beloved Florence. The centuries spent in the afterlife have evidently softened me into compassion for those who have sinned. Beatrice, the love of my life, would have admired my transformation, the one that, as you are ground down and down, will also allow you to be lifted up and up until you really do repent, until you beg for an absolution, which (if you are truly sincere) will be granted.

Even so, even as I speak and divine, I find myself eaten by a worm of doubt. This, I am being told, has been tried before. The mists of time are filled with men who, like you, thought they were gods and who, upon their demise, were led howling into rooms overflowing with the lives they broke, with the irreparable damage they wrought. And these criminals—Benito Mussolini, Mao Zedong, Augusto Pinochet, Napoleon Bonaparte, Andrew Jackson, Saddam Hussein, Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin (oh, the list is endless!)—never left the twisted mirror of their own penitential rooms.

They are still stagnating in them. That's what's being whispered in my ear, that the redemptive prophecy of Dante Alighieri will never come true for you, Donald Trump. Perhaps like those other accursed malefactors, you will refuse responsibility. Perhaps you will continue to claim that you are the real victim. Perhaps you will prove as incorrigible and defective and stubbornly blind as they continue to be. Perhaps there is an evil in you and the universe that will never completely abate, a cruelty that has no end. Perhaps when pain is infinite, it is impossible to erase.

I fear, then, that it may be unkind to promise any kind of justice when there will be none for those who stand in line hoping to meet their tormentor on the other side of death. Why, I ask myself, resurrect the dead if it be only to dash their hopes again and again?

What Forever Means

And yet, what else can I do but complete the task given to me? Of all poets, I was chosen because of the Divina Commedia that I wrote when I was alive and banished from Florence, because I descended into the Inferno and climbed the mount of Purgatory and caught a glimpse of what the sun and stars of Paradise looked like. I was chosen from the fields of the dead to prepare these words for you as a warning or a plea or a searing indictment, an assignment I accepted and cannot now renounce.

What's left to me, then, but to conclude these words by responding to the one objection you might legitimately raise to my picture of your fate in the afterlife? I imagine you crying out—"But Dante Alighieri," you will say, "the future you've painted will take forever."

And I will answer: yes, Donald J. Trump, it will indeed take forever, but forever is all you have, all any of us have, after all.

Ariel Dorfman, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of Death and the Maiden. His most recent books are Cautivos, a novel about Cervantes in jail, and The Rabbits Rebellion, a story for adults and children. He lives with his wife Angélica in Chile and in Durham, North Carolina, where he is a Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Literature at Duke University.

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 Ariel Dorfman

How to take on Trump on the ground — and convince others to do the same

"Look, folks, the air quality is in the red zone today. The EPA says that means people with lung or heart issues should avoid prolonged activity outdoors."

That was J.R. de Vera, one of two directors of UNITE-HERE!'s independent expenditure campaign to elect Biden and Harris in Reno, Nevada. UNITE-HERE! is a union representing 300,000 workers in the hospitality industry -- that world of hotels and bars, restaurants and caterers. Ninety percent of its members are now laid off because of Trump's bungling of the Covid-19 pandemic and many are glad for the chance to help get him out of the White House.

"So some of you will want to stay in your hotel rooms and make phone calls today," JR continues. Fifty faces fall in the 50 little Zoom boxes on my laptop screen. Canvassers would much rather be talking to voters at their doors than calling them on a phone bank. Still, here in the burning, smoking West, the union is as committed to its own people's health and safety as it is to dragging Donald Trump out of office. So, for many of them, phone calls it will be.

My own job doesn't change much from day to day. Though I live in San Francisco, I've come to Reno to do back-room logistics work in the union campaign's cavernous warehouse of an office: ordering supplies, processing reimbursements, and occasionally helping the data team make maps of the areas our canvassers will walk.

Our field campaign is just one of several the union is running in key states. We're also in Arizona and Florida and, only last week, we began door-to-door canvassing in Philadelphia. Social media, TV ads, bulk mail, and phone calls are all crucial elements in any modern electoral campaign, but none of them is a substitute for face-to-face conversations with voters.

We've been in Reno since early August, building what was, until last week, the only field campaign in the state supporting Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. (Just recently, our success in campaigning safely has encouraged the Democratic Party to start its own ground game here and elsewhere.) We know exactly how many doors we have to knock on, how many Biden voters we have to identify, how many of them we have to convince to make a concrete voting plan, and how many we have to get out to vote during Nevada's two-week early voting period to win here.

We're running a much larger campaign in Clark County, where close to three-quarters of Nevada's population lives (mostly in Las Vegas). Washoe County, home of the twin cities of Reno and Sparks, is the next largest population center with 16% of Nevadans. The remaining 14 counties, collectively known as "the Rurals," account for the rest. Washoe and Clark are barely blue; the Rurals decidedly red.

In 2018, UNITE-HERE!'s ground campaign helped ensure that Jacky Rosen would flip a previously Republican Senate seat, and we helped elect Democrat Steve Sisolak as governor. He's proved a valuable union ally, signing the Adolfo Fernandez Act, a first-in-the-nation law protecting workers and businesses in Nevada from the worst effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Defying a threatened Trump campaign lawsuit (later dismissed by a judge), Sisolak also signed an election reform bill that allows every active Nevada voter to receive a mail-in ballot. Largely as a result of the union's work in 2018, this state now boasts an all-female Democratic senatorial delegation, a Democratic governor, and a female and Democratic majority in the state legislature. Elections, as pundits of all stripes have been known to say, have consequences.

Door-to-Door on Planet A

"¿Se puede, o no se puede?"

"¡Sí, se puede!"

("Can we do it?" "Yes, we can!")

Each morning's online canvass dispatch meeting starts with that call-and-response followed by a rousing handclap. Then we talk about where people will be walking that day and often listen to one of the canvassers' personal stories, explaining why he or she is committed to this campaign. Next, we take a look at the day's forecast for heat and air quality as vast parts of the West Coast burn, while smoke and ash travel enormous distances. Temperatures here were in the low 100s in August (often hovering around 115 degrees in Las Vegas). And the air? Let's just say that there have been days when I've wished breathing were optional.

Climate-change activists rightly point out that "there's no Planet B" for the human race, but some days it seems as if our canvassers are already working on a fiery Planet A that is rapidly becoming unlivable. California's wildfires -- including its first-ever "gigafire" -- have consumed more than four million acres in the last two months, sending plumes of ash to record heights, and dumping a staggering amount of smoke into the Reno-Sparks basin. Things are a little better at the moment, but for weeks I couldn't see the desert mountains that surround the area. Some days I couldn't even make out the Grand Sierra Reno casino, a quarter mile from the highway on which I drive to work each morning.

For our canvassers -- almost every one a laid-off waiter, bartender, hotel housekeeper, or casino worker -- the climate emergency and the Covid-19 pandemic are literally in their faces as they don their N95 masks to walk the streets of Reno. It's the same for the voters they meet at their doors. Each evening, canvassers report (on Zoom, of course) what those voters are saying and, for the first time I can remember, they are now talking about the climate. They're angry at a president who pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord and they're scared about what a potentially searing future holds for their children and grandchildren. They may not have read Joe Biden's position on clean energy and environmental justice, but they know that Donald Trump has no such plan.

Braving Guns, Germs, and Smoke

In his classic book Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond suggested that the three variables in his title helped in large part to explain how European societies and the United States came to control much of the planet in the twentieth century. As it happens, our door-to-door canvassers confront a similar triad of obstacles right here in Reno, Nevada (if you replace that final "steel" with "smoke.")

Guns and Other Threats

Nevada is an open-carry state and gun ownership is common here. It's not unusual to see someone walking around a supermarket with a holstered pistol on his hip. A 2015 state law ended most gun registration requirements and another allows people visiting from elsewhere to buy rifles without a permit. So gun sightings are everyday events.

Still, it can be startling, if you're not used to it, to have a voter answer the door with a pistol all too visible, even if securely holstered. And occasionally, our canvassers have even watched those guns leave their holsters when the person at the door realizes why they're there (which is when the campaign gets the police involved). Canvassers are trained to observe very clear protocols, including immediately leaving an area if they experience any kind of verbal or physical threat.

African American and Latinx canvassers who've campaigned before in Reno say that, in 2020, Trump supporters seem even more emboldened than in the past to shout racist insults at them. More than once, neighbors have called the police on our folks, essentially accusing them of canvassing-while-black-or-brown. Two days before I wrote this piece, the police pulled over one young Latino door-knocker because neighbors had called to complain that he was walking up and down the street waving a gun. (The "gun" in question was undoubtedly the electronic tablet he was carrying to record the results of conversations with voters.) The officer apologized.

Which reminds me of another apology offered recently. A woman approached an African-American canvasser, demanding to know what in the world he was doing in her neighborhood. On learning his mission, she offered an apology as insulting as her original question. "We're not used to seeing people like you around here," she explained.

Germs

Until the pandemic, my partner and I had planned to work together with UNITE-HERE! in Reno during this election, as we did in 2018. But she's five years older than I am, and her history of pneumonia means that catching Covid-19 could be especially devastating for her. So she's stayed in San Francisco, helping out the union's national phone bank effort instead.

In fact, we didn't really expect that there would be a ground campaign this year, given the difficulties presented by the novel coronavirus. But the union was determined to eke out that small but genuine addition to the vote that a field campaign can produce. So they put in place stringent health protocols for all of us: masks and a minimum of six feet of distance between everyone at all times; no visits to bars, restaurants, or casinos, including during off hours; temperature checks for everyone entering the office; and the immediate reporting of any potential Covid-19 symptoms to our health and safety officer. Before the union rented blocks of rooms at two extended-stay hotels, our head of operations checked their mask protocols for employees and guests and examined their ventilation systems to make sure that the air conditioners vented directly outdoors and not into a common air system for the whole building.

To date, not one of our 57 canvassers has tested positive, a record we intend to maintain as we add another 17 full-timers to our team next week.

One other feature of our coronavirus protocol: we don't talk to any voter who won't put on a mask. I was skeptical that canvassers would be able to get voters to mask up, even with the individually wrapped surgical masks we're offering anyone who doesn't have one on or handy. However, it turns out that, in this bizarre election year, people are eager to talk, to vent their feelings and be heard. So many of the people we're canvassing have suffered so much this year that they're surprised and pleased when someone shows up at their door wondering how they're doing.

And the answer to that question for so many potential voters is not well -- with jobs lost, housing threatened, children struggling with online school, and hunger pangs an increasingly everyday part of life. So yes, a surprising number of people, either already masked or quite willing to put one on, want to talk to us about an election that they generally see as the most important of their lifetime.

Smoke

And did I mention that it's been smoky here? It can make your eyes water, your throat burn, and the urge to cough overwhelm you. In fact, the symptoms of smoke exposure are eerily similar to the ones for Covid-19. More than one smoke-affected canvasser has spent at least five days isolated in a hotel room, waiting for negative coronavirus test results.

The White House website proudly quotes the president on his administration's testing record: "We do tremendous testing. We have the best testing in the world." Washoe County health officials are doing what they can, but if this is the best in the world, then the world is in worse shape than we thought.

The Power of a Personal Story

So why, given the genuine risk and obstacles they face, do UNITE-HERE!'s canvassers knock on doors six days a week to elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris? Their answers are a perfect embodiment of the feminist dictum "the personal is political." Every one of them has a story about why she or he is here. More than one grew up homeless and never want another child to live that way. One is a DACA recipient who knows that a reelected Donald Trump will continue his crusade to end that amnesty for undocumented people brought to the United States as children. Through their participation in union activism, many have come to understand that workers really can beat the boss when they organize -- and Trump, they say, is the biggest boss of all.

Through years of political campaigning, the union's leaders have learned that voters may think about issues, but they're moved to vote by what they feel about them. The goal of every conversation at those doors right now is to make a brief but profound personal connection with the voter, to get each of them to feel just how important it is to vote this year. Canvassers do this by asking how a voter is doing in these difficult times and listening -- genuinely listening -- and responding to whatever answer they get. And they do it by being vulnerable enough to share the personal stories that lie behind their presence at the voter's front door.

One canvasser lost his home at the age of seven, when his parents separated. He and his mother ended up staying in shelters and camping for months in a garden shed on a friend's property. One day recently he knocked on a door and found a Trump supporter on the other side of it. He noticed a shed near the house, pointed to it, and told the man about living in something similar as a child. That Trumpster started to cry. He began talking about how he'd had just the same experience and the way, as a teenager, he'd had to hold his family together when his heroin-addicted parents couldn't cope. He'd never talked to any of his present-day friends about how he grew up and, in the course of that conversation, came to agree with our canvasser that Donald Trump wasn't likely to improve life for people like them. He was, he said, changing his vote to Biden right then and there. (And that canvasser will be back to make sure he actually votes.)

Harvard University Professor Marshall Ganz pioneered the "public narrative," the practice of organizing by storytelling. It's found at the heart of many organizing efforts these days. The 2008 Obama campaign, for example, trained thousands of volunteers to tell their stories to potential voters. The It Gets Better Project has collected more than 50,000 personal messages from older queer people to LGBTQ youth who might be considering suicide or other kinds of self-harm -- assuring them that their own lives did, indeed, get better.

Being the sort of political junkie who devours the news daily, I was skeptical about the power of this approach, though I probably shouldn't have been. After all, how many times did I ask my mother or father to "tell me a story" when I was a kid? What are our lives but stories? Human beings are narrative animals and, however rational, however versed in the issues we may sometimes be, we still live through stories.

Data can give me information on issues I care about, but it can't tell me what issues I should care about. In the end, I'm concerned about racial and gender justice as well as the climate emergency because of the way each of them affects people and other creatures with whom I feel connected.

A Campaign Within a Campaign

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of UNITE-HERE!'s electoral campaign is the union's commitment to developing every canvasser's leadership skills. The goal is more than winning what's undoubtedly the most important election of our lifetime. It's also to send back to every hotel, restaurant, casino, and airport catering service leaders who can continue to organize and advocate for their working-class sisters and brothers. This means implementing an individual development plan for each canvasser.

Team leaders work with all of them to hone their stories into tools that can be used in an honest and generous way to create a genuine connection with voters. They help those canvassers think about what else they want to learn to do, while developing opportunities for them to master technical tools like computer spreadsheets and databases.

There's a special emphasis on offering such opportunities to women and people of color who make up the vast majority of the union's membership. Precious hours of campaign time are also devoted to workshops on how to understand and confront systemic racism and combat sexual harassment, subjects President Trump is acquainted with in the most repulsively personal way. The union believes its success depends as much on fostering a culture of respect as on the hard-nosed negotiating it's also famous for.

After months of pandemic lockdown and almost four years of what has objectively been the worst, most corrupt, most incompetent, and possibly even most destructive presidency in the nation's history, it's a relief to be able to do something useful again. And sentimental as it may sound, it's an honor to be able to do it with this particular group of brave and committed people. Sí, se puede. Yes, we can.

Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and is now at work on a new Dispatch book on the history of torture in the United States.

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 Snce World War II.

Copyright 2020 Rebecca Gordon

The birth of American supremacy — and the carefully constructed myth of 'isolationism'

The so-called Age of Trump is also an age of instantly forgotten bestselling books, especially ones purporting to provide the inside scoop on what goes on within Donald Trump's haphazard and continuously shifting orbit. With metronomic regularity, such gossipy volumes appear, make a splash, and almost as quickly vanish, leaving a mark no more lasting than a trout breaking the surface in a pond.

Remember when Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House was all the rage? It's now available in hardcover for $0.99 from online used booksellers. James Comey's Higher Loyalty also sells for a penny less than a buck.

An additional forty-six cents will get you Omarosa Manigault Newman's "insider's account" of her short-lived tenure in that very White House. For the same price, you can acquire Sean Spicer's memoir as Trump's press secretary, Anthony Scaramucci's rendering of his tumultuous 11-day stint as White House communications director, and Corey Lewandowski's "inside story" of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Bibliophiles intent on assembling a complete library of Trumpiana will not have long to wait before the tell-all accounts of John Bolton, Michael Cohen, Mary Trump, and that journalistic amaneusis Bob Woodward will surely be available at similar bargain basement prices.

All that said, even in these dismal times genuinely important books do occasionally make their appearance. My friend and colleague Stephen Wertheim is about to publish one. It's called Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy and if you'll forgive me for being direct, you really ought to read it. Let me explain why.

The "Turn"

Wertheim and I are co-founders of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a small Washington, D.C.-based think tank. That Quincy refers to John Quincy Adams who, as secretary of state nearly two centuries ago, warned his fellow citizens against venturing abroad "in search of monsters to destroy." Were the United States to do so, Adams predicted, its defining trait -- its very essence -- "would insensibly change from liberty to force." By resorting to force, America "might become the dictatress of the world," he wrote, but "she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit." While his gendered punchline might rankle contemporary sensibilities, it remains apt.

A privileged man of his times, Adams took it for granted that a WASP male elite was meant to run the country. Women were to occupy their own separate sphere. And while he would eventually become an ardent opponent of slavery, in 1821 race did not rank high on his agenda either. His immediate priority as secretary of state was to situate the young republic globally so that Americans might enjoy both safety and prosperity. That meant avoiding unnecessary trouble. We had already had our revolution. In his view, it wasn't this country's purpose to promote revolution elsewhere or to dictate history's future course.

Adams was to secretaries of state what Tom Brady is to NFL quarterbacks: the Greatest Of All Time. As the consensus GOAT in the estimation of diplomatic historians, he brought to maturity a pragmatic tradition of statecraft originated by a prior generation of New Englanders and various slaveholding Virginians with names like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. That tradition emphasized opportunistically ruthless expansionism on this continent, avid commercial engagement, and the avoidance of great power rivalries abroad. Adhering to such a template, the United States had, by the beginning of the twentieth century, become the wealthiest, most secure nation on the planet -- at which point Europeans spoiled the party.

The disastrous consequences of one European world war fought between 1914 and 1918 and the onset of a second in 1939 rendered that pragmatic tradition untenable -- so at least a subsequent generation of WASPs concluded. This is where Wertheim takes up the story. Prompted by the German army's lightning victory in the battle of France in May and June 1940, members of that WASP elite set about creating -- and promoting -- an alternative policy paradigm, one he describes as pursuing "dominance in the name of internationalism," with U.S. military supremacy deemed "the prerequisite of a decent world."

The new elite that devised this paradigm did not consist of lawyers from Massachusetts or planters from Virginia. Its key members held tenured positions at Yale and Princeton, wrote columns for leading New York newspapers, staffed Henry Luce's Time-Life press empire, and distributed philanthropic largesse to fund worthy causes (grasping the baton of global primacy being anything but least among them). Most importantly, just about every member of this Eastern establishment cadre was also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). As such, they had a direct line to the State Department, which in those days actually played a large role in formulating basic foreign policy.

While Tomorrow, The World is not a long book -- fewer than 200 pages of text -- it is a tour de force. In it, Wertheim describes the new narrative framework that the foreign-policy elite formulated in the months following the fall of France. He shows how Americans with an antipathy for war now found themselves castigated as "isolationists," a derogatory term created to suggest provincialism or selfishness. Those favoring armed intervention, meanwhile, became "internationalists," a term connoting enlightenment and generosity. Even today, members of the foreign-policy establishment pledge undying fealty to the same narrative framework, which still warns against the bugaboo of "isolationism" that threatens to prevent high-minded policymakers from exercising "global leadership."

Wertheim persuasively describes the "turn" toward militarized globalism engineered from above by that self-selected, unelected crew. Crucially, their efforts achieved success prior to Pearl Harbor. The Japanese attack of December 7, 1941, may have thrust the United States into the ongoing world war, but the essential transformation of policy had already occurred, even if ordinary Americans had yet to be notified as to what it meant. Its future implications -- permanently high levels of military spending, a vast network of foreign bases stretching across the globe, a penchant for armed intervention abroad, a sprawling "national security" apparatus, and a politically subversive arms industry -- would only become apparent in the years ahead.

While Wertheim is not the first to expose isolationism as a carefully constructed myth, he does so with devastating effect. Most of all, he helps his readers understand that "so long as the phantom of isolationism is held to be the most grievous sin, all is permitted."

Contained within that all is a cavalcade of forceful actions and grotesque miscalculations, successes and failures, notable achievements and immense tragedies both during World War II and in the decades that followed. While beyond the scope of Wertheim's book, casting the Cold War as a de facto extension of the war against Nazi Germany, with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin as a stand-in for Adolf Hitler, represented an equally significant triumph for the foreign policy establishment.

At the outset of World War II, ominous changes in the global distribution of power prompted a basic reorientation of U.S. policy. Today, fundamental alterations in the global distribution of power -- did someone say "the rise of China"? -- are once again occurring right before our eyes. Yet the foreign-policy establishment's response is simply to double down.

So, even now, staggering levels of military spending, a vast network of foreign bases, a penchant for armed intervention abroad, a sprawling "national security" apparatus, and a politically subversive arms industry remain the taken-for-granted signatures of U.S. policy. And even now, the establishment employs the specter of isolationism as a convenient mechanism for self-forgiveness and expedient amnesia, as well as a means to enforce discipline.

Frozen Compass

The fall of France was indeed an epic disaster. Yet implicit in Tomorrow, The World is this question: If the disaster that befell Europe in 1940 could prompt the United States to abandon a hitherto successful policy paradigm, then why have the serial disasters befalling the nation in the present century not produced a comparable willingness to reexamine an approach to policy that is obviously failing today?

To pose that question is to posit an equivalence between the French army's sudden collapse in the face of the Wehrmacht's assault and the accumulation of U.S. military disappointments dating from 9/11. From a tactical or operational perspective, many will find such a comparison unpersuasive. After all, the present-day armed forces of the United States have not succumbed to outright defeat, nor is the government of the United States petitioning for a cessation of hostilities as the French authorities did in 1940.

Yet what matters in war are political outcomes. Time and again since 9/11, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, or lesser theaters of conflict, the United States has failed to achieve the political purposes for which it went to war. From a strategic and political perspective, therefore, the comparison with France is instructive, even if failure need not entail abject surrender.

The French people and other supporters of the 1930s European status quo (including Americans who bothered to pay attention) were counting on that country's soldiers to thwart further Nazi aggression once and for all. Defeat came as a profound shock. Similarly, after the Cold War, most Americans (and various beneficiaries of a supposed Pax Americana) counted on U.S. troops to maintain an agreeable and orderly global status quo. Instead, the profound shock of 9/11 induced Washington to embark upon what became a series of "endless wars" that U.S. forces proved incapable of bringing to a successful conclusion.

Crucially, however, no reevaluation of U.S. policy comparable to the "turn" that Wertheim describes has occurred. An exceedingly generous reading of President Trump's promise to put "America First" might credit him with attempting such a turn. In practice, however, his incompetence and inconsistency, not to mention his naked dishonesty, produced a series of bizarre and random zigzags. Threats of "fire and fury" alternated with expressions of high regard for dictators ("we fell in love"). Troop withdrawals were announced and then modified or forgotten. Trump abandoned a global environmental agreement, massively rolled back environmental regulations domestically, and then took credit for providing Americans with "the very cleanest air and cleanest water on the planet." Little of this was to be taken seriously.

Trump's legacy as a statesman will undoubtedly amount to the diplomatic equivalent of Mulligan stew. Examine the contents closely enough and you'll be able to find just about anything. Yet taken as a whole, the concoction falls well short of being nutritious, much less appetizing.

On the eve of the upcoming presidential election, the entire national security apparatus and its supporters assume that Trump's departure from office will restore some version of normalcy. Every component of that apparatus from the Pentagon and the State Department to the CIA and the Council on Foreign Relations to the editorial boards of the New York Times and Washington Post yearns for that moment.

To a very considerable degree, a Biden presidency will satisfy that yearning. Nothing if not a creature of the establishment, Biden himself will conform to its requirements. For proof, look no further than his vote in favor of invading Iraq in 2003. (No isolationist he.) Count on a Biden administration, therefore, to perpetuate the entire obsolete retinue of standard practices.

As Peter Beinart puts it, "When it comes to defense, a Biden presidency is likely to look very much like an Obama presidency, and that's going to look not so different from a Trump presidency when you really look at the numbers." Biden will increase the Pentagon budget, keep U.S. troops in the Middle East, and get tough with China. The United States will remain the world's number-one arms merchant, accelerate efforts to militarize outer space, and continue the ongoing modernization of the entire U.S. nuclear strike force. Biden will stack his team with CFR notables looking for jobs on the "inside."

Above all, Biden will recite with practiced sincerity the mantras of American exceptionalism as a summons to exercise global leadership. "The triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy created the free world. But this contest does not just define our past. It will define our future, as well." Those uplifting sentiments are, of course, his from a recent Foreign Affairs essay.

So if you liked U.S. national security policy before Trump mucked things up, then Biden is probably your kind of guy. Install him in the Oval Office and the mindless pursuit of "dominance in the name of internationalism" will resume. And the United States will revert to the policies that prevailed during the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama -- policies, we should note, that paved the way for Donald Trump to win the White House.

The Voices That Count

What explains the persistence of this pattern despite an abundance of evidence showing that it's not working to the benefit of the American people? Why is it so difficult to shed a policy paradigm that dates from Hitler's assault on France, now a full 80 years in the past?

I hope that in a subsequent book Stephen Wertheim will address that essential question. In the meantime, however, allow me to make a stab at offering the most preliminary of answers.

Setting aside factors like bureaucratic inertia and the machinations of the military-industrial complex -- the Pentagon, arms manufacturers, and their advocates in Congress share an obvious interest in discovering new "threats" -- one likely explanation relates to a policy elite increasingly unable to distinguish between self-interest and the national interest. As secretary of state, John Quincy Adams never confused the two. His latter-day successors have done far less well.

As an actual basis for policy, the turn that Stephen Wertheim describes in Tomorrow, The World has proven to be nowhere near as enlightened or farseeing as its architects imagined or its latter day proponents still purport to believe it to be. The paradigm produced in 1940-1941 was, at best, merely serviceable. It responded to the nightmarish needs of that moment. It justified U.S. participation in efforts to defeat Nazi Germany, a necessary undertaking.

After 1945, except as a device for affirming the authority of foreign-policy elites, the pursuit of "dominance in the name of internationalism" proved to be problematic. Yet even as conditions changed, basic U.S. policy stayed the same: high levels of military spending, a network of foreign bases, a penchant for armed intervention abroad, a sprawling "national security" apparatus, and a politically subversive arms industry. Even after the Cold War and 9/11, these remain remarkably sacrosanct.

My own retrospective judgment of the Cold War tends toward an attitude of: well, I guess it could have been worse. When it comes to the U.S. response to 9/11, however, it's difficult to imagine what worse could have been.

Within the present-day foreign-policy establishment, however, a different interpretation prevails: the long, twilight struggle of the Cold War ended in a world historic victory, unsullied by any unfortunate post-9/11 missteps. The effect of this perspective is to affirm the wisdom of American statecraft now eight decades old and therefore justify its perpetuation long after both Hitler and Stalin, not to mention Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, are dead and gone.

This paradigm persists for one reason only: it ensures that statecraft will remain a realm that resolutely excludes the popular will. Elites decide, while the job of ordinary Americans is to foot the bill. In that regard, the allocation of privileges and obligations now 80 years old still prevails today.

Only by genuinely democratizing the formulation of foreign policy will real change become possible. The turn in U.S. policy described in Tomorrow, The World came from the top. The turn needed today will have to come from below and will require Americans to rid themselves of their habit of deference when it comes to determining what this nation's role in the world will be. Those on top will do all in their power to avert any such loss of status.

The United States today suffers from illnesses both literal and metaphorical. Restoring the nation to good health and repairing our democracy must necessarily rate as paramount concerns. While Americans cannot ignore the world beyond their borders, the last thing they need is to embark upon a fresh round of searching for distant monsters to destroy. Heeding the counsel of John Quincy Adams might just offer an essential first step toward recovery.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

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 Andrew Bacevic

Americans have always spun tales of conpiracy — but Trump takes delusion to a new level

By Steve Fraser

News is "faked"; elections are "rigged"; a "deep state" plots a "coup"; Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died suspiciously in bed with a pillow over his face; aides of ex-president Barack Obama conspire to undermine foreign policy from a "war room"; Obama himself was a Muslim mole; the National Park Service lied about the size of the crowd at the president's inauguration; conspiracies are afoot in nearly every department and agency of the executive branch, including the State Department, the CIA, the Justice Department, the Federal Drug Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI ("What are they hiding?"). Thus saith, and maybe even believeth, the president of the United States.

Donald Trump is not the first commander-in-chief to believe in conspiracies. And some of those conspiracies were real enough, but he is our first conspiracist president. "Conspire" in Latin means to "breathe together." Conspiracy thinking is the oxygen that sustains the political respiration of Trumpism. Oval Office paranoid fantasies metastasize outside the Beltway and ignite passions -- fear and anger especially -- that leave armies of Trump partisans vigilant and at the ready.

Members of the administration's inner circle keep the heat on. Michael Flynn, whose career as national security adviser lasted but a nanosecond, tweets "New York Police Department blows whistle on new Hillary emails: Money Laundering, Sex Crimes with Children, etc... MUST Read." Michael Caputo, now on leave from his post at the Department of Health and Human Services, uncovered a supposed "resistance unit" at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention committed to undermining the president, even if it meant raising the Covid-19 death toll.

On a planet far, far away -- but not so far as to prevent the president from visiting when he's in the mood or the moment seems propitious -- is QAnon, where the conspiratorial imagination really exhales and goes galactic.

The earliest moments of QAnon, the conspiracy theory, centered around "Pizzagate," which alleged that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex-trafficking ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria where children were supposedly stockpiled in tunnels below the store. (There were no tunnels -- the restaurant didn't even have a basement -- but that didn't stop it from nearly becoming a murder scene when a believer in Pizzagate walked into the shop armed with an assault rifle and began shooting wildly.)

But QAnon was playing for bigger stakes than just child sex-trafficking. Q (him or herself a purported ex-government agent) supposedly relayed inside information on Trump's heroic but hidden plans to stage a countercoup against the "deep state" -- a conspiracy to stop a conspiracy, in which the president was being assisted by the Mueller investigation flying under a false flag.

QAnon supporters are only the best known among conspiracy-oriented grouplets issuing alerts about a covert CIA operation to spread lesbianism or alt-right warnings that FEMA storm shelters are really "death domes" and/or places where "Sharia law will be enforced"; or dark revelations that the "mark of the beast" is affixed to the universal price code, smart cards, and ATMs; or, even grislier, radio talk show performer Alex Jones's rants about "false flag" events like the slaughter of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where (he claimed) "crisis actors" were employed, paid by George Soros, to simulate a massacre that never happened.

The point of it all is to make clear how close we are to The End; that is, to the overthrow or destruction of the Constitution and the Christian Republic for which it stands.

President Trump flirts with such a world of conspiracy thinking. He coyly acknowledges an affinity with it, then draws back from complete consummation, still sensing that it's good medicine for what otherwise threatens to shorten his political life expectancy. QAnon "members" show up in the thousands at Trump rallies with signs and shirts reading "We Are QAnon." (And 26 QAnon-linked candidates are running for Congress this November.)

Conspiracy thinking has always been an American pastime, incubating what the novelist Phillip Roth once called "the indigenous American berserk." Most of the time, it's cropped up on the margins of American life and stayed there. Under certain circumstances, however, it's gone mainstream. We're obviously now living in just such a moment. What might ordinarily seem utterly bizarre and nutty gains traction and is ever more widely embraced.

It's customary and perhaps provides cold comfort for some to think of this warped way of looking at the world as the peculiar mental aberration of the sadly deluded, the uneducated, the left-behind, those losing their tenuous hold on social position and esteem, in a word (Hillary Clinton's, to be exact), the "deplorables." Actually, however, conspiracy mongering, as in the case of Trump, has often originated and been propagated by elites with fatal effect.

Sometimes, this has been the work of true believers, however well educated and invested with social authority. At other times, those at the top have cynically retailed what they knew to be nonsense. At yet other moments, elites have themselves authored conspiracies that were all too real. But one thing is certain: whenever such a conspiratorial confection has been absorbed by multitudes, it's arisen as a by-product of some deeper misalignment and fracturing of the social and spiritual order. More often than not, those threatened by such upheavals have resorted to conspiracy mongering as a form of self-defense.

There at the Creation

Witch-hunting, of which the president tediously reminds us he is the victim, began long, long ago, before the country was even a country. Cotton Mather, a leading Puritan theologian in a society where the church exercised enormous power and influence, detected a "Diabolical Compact" in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. There, Satan's servants were supposedly conspiring to destroy the righteous (sicken and kill them) and overthrow the moral order. By the time the witch frenzy had run its course, it had infected 24 surrounding towns, incarcerated 150 people, coerced 44 into confessing diabolical designs, executed 20 of the irredeemable, left four to languish and die in prison, and killed the husband of an alleged witch by pressing him to death under a pile of heavy rocks.

Salem is infamous today, mainly as a cautionary tale of mass hysteria, but from its outset it was sanctioned and encouraged by New England's best and brightest. Cotton Mather was joined by local ministers and magistrates eager to allow "spectral evidence" to convict the accused. Social fissures fueled anxiety.

Worries about uppity women (widows in particular), especially with their own sources of income and so free of patriarchal supervision, added to the sense of disorientation. Slavery and the undercurrent of fear and foreboding it generated among the enslavers may also have raised temperatures. Can it be a mere coincidence that the first to "confess" her knowledge of satanic gatherings was Tituba, a slave whose fortune-telling to a group of four young girls set the witch-hunt process in motion? Fear of slave conspiracies, real or imagined, was part of the psychic underbelly of the colonial enterprise and continued to be so for many years after independence was won.

Elites, whether theocratic or secular, may be inclined, like Mather, to resort to conspiracy mongering and even engage in their own conspiracies when the social order they preside over seems seriously out of joint. Take the founding fathers.

Revolution and Counter-Revolution

Soon after independence was won, the founding fathers began conspiring against their fellow revolutionists among the hoi polloi. The Constitution is a revered document. Nonetheless, it was born in the shadows, midwifed by people who feared for their social position and economic well-being.

Most, if not all, of the revolution's leaders were men of affairs, embedded in trans-Atlantic commerce as planters, ship owners, merchants, bankers, slave brokers, lawyers, or large-scale landowners. But the revolution had given voice to another world of largely self-sufficient small farmers in towns and villages, as well as frontier settlers, many of them at odds with the commercial and fiscal mechanisms -- loans, debts, taxes, stocks and bonds -- of their seaboard-bound countrymen.

Tax revolts erupted. State legislatures commanded by what was derisively referred to as the "democratical element" declared moratoria on, or cancelled, debts or issued paper currencies effectively devaluing the assets of creditors. Civil authority was at a discount. Farmers took up arms.

Men of property responded. They drafted a constitution designed to restore the authority of the prevailing elites. The new federal government was to be endowed with powers to tax, to borrow, to make private property inviolate, and to put down local insurrections. That was the plan.

Gaining consent for this, however, wasn't easy in the face of so much turmoil. For that reason, the founding fathers met secretly in Philadelphia -- all the windows and doors of Independence Hall were deliberately closed despite stifling heat -- so no word of their deliberations could leak out. And for good reason. The gathering was authorized only to offer possible amendments to the existing Articles of Confederation, not to do what it did, which was to concoct a wholly new government. When the Philadelphia "conspirators" eventually presented their handiwork to the public, there was a ferocious reaction and the Constitution was nearly stillborn. Its authors were frequently labeled counter-revolutionary traitors.

Less than 10 years later the Constitution's godfathers would themselves dissolve in fraternal enmity. Once again, charges of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary cabals would superheat the political climate.

John Adams and Alexander Hamilton would denounce Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as agents of godless Jacobinism, conniving in secret with revolutionary French comrades to level the social landscape and let loose a mobocracy of "boys, blockheads, and ruffians." Jefferson and Madison returned the favor by accusing their erstwhile brothers of conspiring to restore the monarchy (some had indeed tried to persuade George Washington to accept a kingship), of being "tory aristocrats" seeking to reestablish a hierarchical society of ranks and orders. (Again, it was true that Hamilton had advocated a lifetime presidency and something along the lines of the House of Lords.) Everything seemed to hang in the balance back then, so much so that the feverish conspiratorial imaginings of the high and mighty became the emotional basis for the first mass political parties in America: Jefferson's Republican-Democrats and Adams's Federalists.

If you think Donald Trump has introduced an unprecedented level of vitriol and character assassination into public life, think again. Little was considered out of bounds for those founding fathers, including sexual innuendo linked to political deceit and scabrous insinuations about "aliens" infecting the homeland with depraved ideologies. It was a cesspool only a conspiracy monger could have completely enjoyed. Two centuries later those ventures into the dark side, even if largely forgotten, should have a familiar ring.

God Killers

Conspiracy mongering may not have been the happiest legacy of the revolutionary era, but it was a lasting one. New England's social and religious elites, for instance, feared the atheism that seemed embedded in the revolution and its implicit challenge to all hierarchies, not merely clerical ones. So, for example, Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale College and a pastor, had nightmares about "our daughters" becoming the "concubines of the Illuminati," an alleged secret society, atheist to the core, whose members, it was claimed, used pseudonyms and arranged themselves in complex hierarchies for the purpose of engineering the godless French revolution.

Those "Illuminati" came and went, but the specter of atheism endured as a vital element of the pre-Civil War conspiratorial political imagination. An anti-Masonic movement, for instance, emerged in the 1830s to deal with the Freemasons, a secret order alleged to harbor anti-republican and especially unchristian intentions and to engage in pagan rituals, including drinking wine out of human skulls.

Anti-Masonic sentiments became a real force and even developed into a political party (the Anti-Masonic Party), which exercised considerable leverage in New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and elsewhere -- yet more evidence of how easily the specter of conspiracies against God could inflame public life. We are reliving that today.

Mongrel Firebugs

Along with American culture more generally, the conspiratorial imagination of the upper classes became increasingly secular as time passed. What most came to alarm them was class rather than spiritual warfare. From the years after the Civil War through the Great Depression of the 1930s, this country was the site of a more or less uninterrupted battle, in the phrase of the time, between "the masses and the classes"; between, that is, the exploited and their exploiters or what we might now call the 99% and the 1%.

One way to justify dealing harshly, even murderously, with the chronically restless lower orders was to claim that scheming among them were the covert agents of social revolution. If there were uprisings by anthracite coal miners in Pennsylvania, blame and then hang the Molly Maguires, alleged Irish terrorists imported from the old country. If there were hunger demonstrations demanding public relief and work during five miserable years of economic depression in the 1870s, blame it on refugee subversives from the Paris Commune, workers who had only recently taken rebellious control of that city and now threatened the sanctity of private property in the United States.

If there were nationwide strikes for the eight-hour day in the 1880s, it must be the work of secret anarchist cells inciting "mongrel firebugs" -- immigrants, also known to respectable opinion as "Slavic wolves" -- to riot in the streets. It was okay in 1913 for the Colorado National Guard and the Rockefeller company's private army of guards to machine gun a tent colony of striking Colorado miners, including their wives and children, killing at least 21 of them, because they were, after all, the pawns of syndicalist plotters from the Industrial Workers of the World (colloquially known as "Wobblies") who advocated One Big Union for all working people.

Upper-class hysteria, which consumed the captains of industry, leading financiers, the most respectable newspapers like the New York Times, elders of all the mainstream Protestant denominations, hierarchs of the Catholic Church, and politicians from both parties, including presidents, ran amuck through World War I. It culminated in the infamous Red Scare that straddled the war and post-war years.

Mass arrests and deportations of radicals and immigrants; the closing down of dissenting newspapers and magazines; the raiding and pillaging of left-wing headquarters; the banning of mass meetings; the sending in of the Army, from the Seattle waterfront to the steel country of Pennsylvania and Ohio, to suppress strikes -- all were perpetrated by national and local political elites who claimed the country was mortally threatened by a global Bolshevik conspiracy headquartered in St. Petersburg, Russia. Attempts to overthrow the government by force and violence were, so they also claimed, just around the corner.

So it was that the conspiratorial mentality in those years became weaponized and the night terrors it conjured up contagious, leaping from the halls of Congress and the cabinet room in the White House into the heartland. A Connecticut clothing salesman went to jail for six months for saying Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin was smart. In Indiana, a jury took two minutes to acquit a man for killing an "alien" who had shouted, "To hell with the United States." Evangelist Billy Sunday thought it might be a good idea to "stand radicals up before a firing squad and save space on our ships."

The Great Fear

Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer best expressed the imagined reach of "the Great Fear," an all-embracing dread of a fiendish conspiracy that supposedly sought to strike at the very foundations of civilized life. Denouncing "the hysterical neurasthenic women who abound in communism," he warned of a hellish conspiracy "licking at the altars of churches, leaping into the belfry of the school bell, crawling into the sacred corners of American homes to replace marriage vows with libertine laws."

You can hear something similar echoed in Donald Trump's recent inveighing against "socialism" and the way Joe Biden and the Democrats threaten God, family, and country.

Arguably, America never truly recovered from that first Red Scare.

A generation later that same cosmological nightscape, brought to a fever pitch during the early years of the Cold War by the claims of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy that communists lurked in the highest reaches of the government, would terrify legions of Americans. His notorious "conspiracy so immense" reached everywhere, he claimed, from the State Department and the Army to movie studios, the Boy Scouts, advertising agencies, and the Post Office. No place in America, it seemed, was free of red subversion.

Still, it's instructive to remember that McCarthy's Cold War conspiracy culture was, in fact, set in motion soon after World War II not by him but by highly positioned figures in the administration of President Harry Truman, as loyalty oaths became commonplace and purges of the government bureaucracy began. And note the irony here: it wasn't communist conspirators but the national security state itself, in particular the Central Intelligence Agency, which first conducted an ever-expanding portfolio of mind control and behavioral modification experiments, while launching disinformation campaigns, assassination plots, coups, and every other variety of covert action globally. That, as it happened, was America's true new reality and it was indeed as conspiratorial as any on offer from the lunatic zone.

All of this nationalized the conspiratorial mindset at the highest levels of our society and helped make it into a permanent part of how millions of people came to understand the way the world works.

The Conspirator-in-Chief Lost in Space

Donald Trump might then be seen as but the latest in a long line of the empowered who either believed in or, for reasons of state, class interest, or political calculation, feigned a belief in grand conspiracies. Yet, as in so many other ways, Trump is, in fact, different.

Past conspirators offered a general worldview, which also came with meticulously detailed descriptions of how all the parts of the conspiracy supposedly worked together. Sometimes these proved to be dauntingly intricate jigsaw puzzles that only the initiated could grasp. Such cosmologies were buttressed by "evidence," at least of a sort, that tried to trace links between otherwise randomly occurring events, to prove how wily the conspiracy was in its diabolical designs. And there was always some great purpose -- a Satanic takeover or world domination -- for which the whole elaborate conspiracy was put in motion, something, however loathsome, that nonetheless reached into the far beyond where the fate of humankind would be settled.

None of this characterizes the reign of the present conspirator-in-chief. Trump and his crew simply load up the airwaves and Internet with a steady flow of disconnected accusations, a "data set" of random fragments. No evidence of any kind is thought necessary. Indeed, when evidence is actually presented to disprove one of his conspiracies, it's often reinterpreted as proof of a cover-up to keep the plot humming. Nor is there any grand theory that explains it all or points to a higher purpose... except one. Abroad in the land is, in Senator McCarthy's classic 1950s phrase, a "conspiracy so immense" to -- what else? -- do in the Donald. The Donald is the one and only "elect" without whom America is doomed.

We live in conspiratorial times. The decline of the United States as an uncontestable super-power and its descent into plutocratic indifference to the wellbeing of the commonwealth is the seedbed of such conspiracy-mindedness. Soldiers are sent off to fight interminable wars of vague purpose against elusive "enemies" with no realistic prospect of resolution, much less American-style "victory" whatever that might mean these days. "Dark money" undermines what's left of democratic protocols and ideals. Gross and still growing inequalities in the distribution of wealth and income are accepted year after year as business as usual.

All of this breeds entirely justified resentment and suspicion.

To the degree that political conspiracies take root among broader populations today, it is in part as a kind of folk sociology that tries to make some sense, however addled, of a world in which real conspiracies flourish. It's a world where the complexities of globalization threaten to overwhelm everybody and a sense of loss of control, especially in pandemic America, is now a chronic condition as mere existence grows ever more precarious.

Trump is the chief accomplice in this to be sure. And his narcissism has produced a distinctive, if degraded and far less coherent version of the grander conspiracies of the past. Still, as in the past, when we try to come to terms with what one historian of the CIA has called this conspiratorial "wilderness of mirrors" we are all compelled to inhabit, we might better turn our attention to America's "best and brightest" than to the "deplorables" who are so easy to scapegoat.

Steve Fraser, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of Mongrel Firebugs and Men of Property: Capitalism and Class Conflict in American History. His previous books include Class Matters, The Age of Acquiescence, and The Limousine Liberal. He is a co-founder and co-editor of the American Empire Project.

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 Steve Fraser

Why Trump's claims to be a peacemaker are absurd on their face

The United States has the dubious distinction of being the world's leading arms dealer. It dominates the global trade in a historic fashion and nowhere is that domination more complete than in the endlessly war-torn Middle East. There, believe it or not, the U.S. controls nearly half the arms market. From Yemen to Libya to Egypt, sales by this country and its allies are playing a significant role in fueling some of the world's most devastating conflicts. But Donald Trump, even before he was felled by Covid-19 and sent to Walter Reed Medical Center, could not have cared less, as long as he thought such trafficking in the tools of death and destruction would help his political prospects.

Look, for example, at the recent "normalization" of relations between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel he helped to broker, which has set the stage for yet another surge in American arms exports. To hear Trump and his supporters tell it, he deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for the deal, dubbed "the Abraham Accords." In fact, using it, he was eager to brand himself as "Donald Trump, peacemaker" in advance of the November election. This, believe me, was absurd on the face of it. Until the pandemic swept everything in the White House away, it was just another day in Trump World and another example of the president's penchant for exploiting foreign and military policy for his own domestic political gain.

If the narcissist-in-chief had been honest for a change, he would have dubbed those Abraham Accords the "Arms Sales Accords." The UAE was, in part, induced to participate in hopes of receiving Lockheed Martin's F-35 combat aircraft and advanced armed drones as a reward. For his part, after some grumbling, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to one-up the UAE and seek a new $8 billion arms package from the Trump administration, including an additional squadron of Lockheed Martin's F-35s (beyond those already on order), a fleet of Boeing attack helicopters, and so much more. Were that deal to go through, it would undoubtedly involve an increase in Israel's more than ample military aid commitment from the United States, already slated to total $3.8 billion annually for the next decade.

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

This wasn't the first time President Trump tried to capitalize on arms sales to the Middle East to consolidate his political position at home and his posture as this country's dealmaker par excellence. Such gestures began in May 2017, during his very first official overseas trip to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis greeted him then with ego-boosting fanfare, putting banners featuring his face along roadways leading into their capital, Riyadh; projecting a giant image of that same face on the hotel where he was staying; and presenting him with a medal in a surreal ceremony at one of the kingdom's many palaces. For his part, Trump came bearing arms in the form of a supposed $110 billion weapons package. Never mind that the size of the deal was vastly exaggerated. It allowed the president to gloat that his sales deal there would mean "jobs, jobs, jobs" in the United States. If he had to work with one of the most repressive regimes in the world to bring those jobs home, who cared? Not he and certainly not his son-in-law Jared Kushner who would develop a special relationship with the cruel Saudi Crown Prince and heir apparent to the throne, Mohammed bin Salman.

Trump doubled down on his jobs argument in a March 2018 White House meeting with bin Salman. The president came armed with a prop for the cameras: a map of the U.S. showing the states that (he swore) would benefit most from Saudi arms sales, including -- you won't be surprised to learn -- the crucial election swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

Nor will it surprise you that Trump's jobs claims from those Saudi arms sales are almost entirely fraudulent. In fits of fancy, he's even insisted that he's creating as many as half a million jobs linked to weapons exports to that repressive regime. The real number is less than one-tenth that amount -- and far less than one-tenth of one percent of U.S. employment. But why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

American Arms Dominance

Donald Trump is far from the first president to push tens of billions of dollars of arms into the Middle East. The Obama administration, for example, made a record $115 billion in arms offers to Saudi Arabia during its eight years in office, including combat aircraft, attack helicopters, armored vehicles, military ships, missile defense systems, bombs, guns, and ammunition.

Those sales solidified Washington's position as the Saudis' primary arms supplier. Two-thirds of its air force consists of Boeing F-15 aircraft, the vast bulk of its tanks are General Dynamics M-1s, and most of its air-to-ground missiles come from Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. And mind you, those weapons aren't just sitting in warehouses or being displayed in military parades. They've been among the principal killers in a brutal Saudi intervention in Yemen that has sparked the world's worst humanitarian catastrophe.

A new report from the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy (which I co-authored) underscores just how stunningly the U.S. dominates the Middle Eastern weapons market. According to data from the arms transfer database compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in the period from 2015 to 2019 the United States accounted for 48% of major weapons deliveries to the Middle East and North Africa, or (as that vast region is sometimes known acronymically) MENA. Those figures leave deliveries from the next largest suppliers in the dust. They represent nearly three times the arms Russia supplied to MENA, five times what France contributed, 10 times what the United Kingdom exported, and 16 times China's contribution.

In other words, we have met the prime weapons proliferator in the Middle East and North Africa and it is us.

The influence of U.S. arms in this conflict-ridden region is further illustrated by a striking fact: Washington is the top supplier to 13 of the 19 countries there, including Morocco (91% of its arms imports), Israel (78%), Saudi Arabia (74%), Jordan (73%), Lebanon (73%), Kuwait (70%), the UAE (68%), and Qatar (50%). If the Trump administration goes ahead with its controversial plan to sell F-35s and armed drones to the UAE and brokers that related $8 billion arms deal with Israel, its share of arms imports to those two countries will be even higher in the years to come.

Devastating Consequences

None of the key players in today's most devastating wars in the Middle East produce their own weaponry, which means that imports from the U.S. and other suppliers are the true fuel sustaining those conflicts. Advocates of arms transfers to the MENA region often describe them as a force for "stability," a way to cement alliances, counter Iran, or more generally a tool for creating a balance of power that makes armed engagement less likely.

In a number of key conflicts in the region, this is nothing more than a convenient fantasy for arms suppliers (and the U.S. government), as the flow of ever more advanced weaponry has only exacerbated conflicts, aggravated human rights abuses, and caused countless civilian deaths and injuries, while provoking widespread destruction. And keep in mind that, while not solely responsible, Washington is the chief culprit when it comes to the weaponry that's fueling a number of the area's most violent wars.

In Yemen, a Saudi/UAE-led intervention that began in March 2015 has, by now, resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians through air strikes, put millions at risk of famine, and helped create the desperate conditions for the worst cholera outbreak in living memory. That war has already cost more than 100,000 lives and the U.S. and the United Kingdom have been the primary suppliers of the combat aircraft, bombs, attack helicopters, missiles, and armored vehicles used there, transfers valued in the tens of billions of dollars.

There has been a sharp jump in overall arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia since that war was launched. Dramatically enough, total arms sent to the Kingdom more than doubled between the 2010-2014 period and the years from 2015 to 2019. Together, the U.S. (74%) and the U.K. (13%) accounted for 87% of all arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia in that five-year time frame.

In Egypt, U.S.-supplied combat aircraft, tanks, and attack helicopters have been used in what is supposedly a counterterror operation in the Northern Sinai desert, which has, in reality, simply become a war largely against the civilian population of the region. Between 2015 and 2019, Washington's arms offers to Egypt totaled $2.3 billion, with billions more in deals made earlier but delivered in those years. And in May 2020, the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced that it was offering a package of Apache attack helicopters to Egypt worth up to $2.3 billion.

According to research conducted by Human Rights Watch, thousands of people have been arrested in the Sinai region over the past six years, hundreds have been disappeared, and tens of thousands have been forcibly evicted from their homes. Armed to the teeth, the Egyptian military has also carried out "systematic and widespread arbitrary arrests -- including of children -- enforced disappearances, torture, extrajudicial killings, collective punishment, and forced eviction." There is also evidence to suggest that Egyptian forces have engaged in illegal air and ground strikes that have killed substantial numbers of civilians.

In several conflicts -- examples of how such weapons transfers can have dramatic and unintended impacts -- U.S. arms have ended up in the hands of both sides. When Turkish troops invaded northeastern Syria in October 2019, for instance, they faced Kurdish-led Syrian militias that had received some of the $2.5 billion in arms and training the U.S. had supplied to Syrian opposition forces over the previous five years. Meanwhile, the entire Turkish inventory of combat aircraft consists of U.S.-supplied F-16s and more than half of its armored vehicles are of American origin.

In Iraq, when the forces of the Islamic State, or ISIS, swept through a significant part of that country from the north in 2014, they captured U.S. light weaponry and armored vehicles worth billions of dollars from the Iraqi security forces this country had armed and trained. Similarly, in more recent years, U.S. arms have been transferred from the Iraqi military to Iranian-backed militias operating alongside them in the fight against ISIS.

Meanwhile, in Yemen, while the U.S. has directly armed the Saudi/UAE coalition, its weaponry has, in fact, ended up being used by all sides in the conflict, including their Houthi opponents, extremist militias, and groups linked to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This equal-opportunity spread of American weaponry has occurred thanks to arms transfers by former members of the U.S.-supplied Yemeni military and by UAE forces that have worked with an array of groups in the southern part of the country.

Who Benefits?

Just four companies -- Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and General Dynamics -- were involved in the overwhelming majority of U.S. arms deals with Saudi Arabia between 2009 and 2019. In fact, at least one or more of those companies played key roles in 27 offers worth more than $125 billion (out of a total of 51 offers worth $138 billion). In other words, in financial terms, more than 90% of the U.S. arms offered to Saudi Arabia involved at least one of those top four weapons makers.

In its brutal bombing campaign in Yemen, the Saudis have killed thousand of civilians with U.S.-supplied weaponry. In the years since the Kingdom launched its war, indiscriminate air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition have hit marketplaces, hospitals, civilian neighborhoods, water treatment centers, even a school bus filled with children. American-made bombs have repeatedly been used in such incidents, including an attack on a wedding, where 21 people, children among them, were killed by a GBU-12 Paveway II guided bomb manufactured by Raytheon.

A General Dynamics 2,000-pound bomb with a Boeing JDAM guidance system was used in a March 2016 strike on a marketplace that killed 97 civilians, including 25 children. A Lockheed Martin laser-guided bomb was utilized in an August 2018 attack on a school bus that slaughtered 51 people, including 40 children. A September 2018 report by the Yemeni group Mwatana for Human Rights identified 19 air strikes on civilians in which U.S.-supplied weapons were definitely used, pointing out that the destruction of that bus was "not an isolated incident, but the latest in a series of gruesome [Saudi-led] Coalition attacks involving U.S. weapons."

It should be noted that the sales of such weaponry have not occurred without resistance. In 2019, both houses of Congress voted down a bomb sale to Saudi Arabia because of its aggression in Yemen, only to have their efforts thwarted by a presidential veto. In some instances, as befits the Trump administration's modus operandi, those sales have involved questionable political maneuvers. Take, for instance, a May 2019 declaration of an "emergency" that was used to push through an $8.1 billion deal with the Saudis, the UAE, and Jordan for precision-guided bombs and other equipment that simply bypassed normal Congressional oversight procedures completely.

At the behest of Congress, the State Department's Office of Inspector General then opened an investigation into the circumstances surrounding that declaration, in part because it had been pushed by a former Raytheon lobbyist working in State's Office of Legal Counsel. However, the inspector general in charge of the probe, Stephen Linick, was soon fired by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for fear that his investigation would uncover administration wrongdoing and, after he was gone, the ultimate findings proved largely -- surprise! -- a whitewash, exonerating the administration. Still, the report did note that the Trump administration had failed to take adequate care to avoid civilian harm by U.S. weaponry supplied to the Saudis.

Even some Trump administration officials have had qualms about the Saudi deals. The New York Times has reported that a number of State Department personnel were concerned about whether they could someday be held liable for aiding and abetting war crimes in Yemen.

Will America Remain the World's Greatest Arms Dealer?

If Donald Trump is re-elected, don't expect U.S. sales to the Middle East -- or their murderous effects -- to diminish any time soon. To his credit, Joe Biden has pledged as president to end U.S. arms and support for the Saudi war in Yemen. For the region as a whole, however, don't be shocked if, even in a Biden presidency, such weaponry continues to flow in and it remains business as usual for this country's giant arms merchants to the detriment of the peoples of the Middle East. Unless you're Raytheon or Lockheed Martin, selling arms is one area where no one should want to keep America "great."

William D. Hartung, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy and the co-author of "The Mideast Arms Bazaar: Top Arms Suppliers to the Middle East and North Africa 2015 to 2019."

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 William Hartung

The US is playing a dangerous game of nuclear chicken

On August 21st, six nuclear-capable B-52H Stratofortress bombers, representing approximately one-seventh of the war-ready U.S. B-52H bomber fleet, flew from their home base in North Dakota to Fairford Air Base in England for several weeks of intensive operations over Europe. Although the actual weapons load of those giant bombers was kept secret, each of them is capable of carrying eight AGM-86B nuclear-armed, air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) in its bomb bay. Those six planes, in other words, could have been carrying 48 city-busting thermonuclear warheads. (The B-52H can also carry 12 ALCMs on external pylons, but none were visible on this occasion.) With such a load alone, in other words, those six planes possessed the capacity to incinerate much of western Russia, including Moscow and St. Petersburg.

The B-52 Stratofortress is no ordinary warplane. First flown in 1952, it was designed with a single purpose in mind: to cross the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean and drop dozens of nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union. Some models were later modified to deliver tons of conventional bombs on targets in North Vietnam and other hostile states, but the remaining B-52s are still largely configured for intercontinental nuclear strikes. With only 44 of them now thought to be in active service at any time, those six dispatched to the edge of Russian territory represented a significant commitment of American nuclear war-making capability.

What in god's name were they doing there? According to American officials, they were intended to demonstrate this country's ability to project overwhelming power anywhere on the planet at any time and so remind our NATO allies of Washington's commitment to their defense. "Our ability to quickly respond and assure allies and partners rests upon the fact that we are able to deploy our B-52s at a moment's notice," commented General Jeff Harrigian, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe. "Their presence here helps build trust with our NATO allies... and affords us new opportunities to train together through a variety of scenarios."

While Harrigian didn't spell out just what scenarios he had in mind, the bombers' European operations suggest that their role involved brandishing a nuclear "stick" in support of an increasingly hostile stance toward Russia. During their sojourn in Europe, for example, two of them flew over the Baltic Sea close to Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania that houses several key military installations. That September 25th foray coincided with a U.S. troop buildup in Lithuania about 65 miles from election-embattled Belarus, a Russian neighbor.

Since August 9th, when strongman Alexander Lukashenko declared victory in a presidential election widely considered fraudulent by his people and much of the international community, Belarus has experienced recurring anti-government protests. Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that his country might intervene there if the situation "gets out of control," while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has implicitly warned of U.S. intervention if Russia interferes. "We stand by our long-term commitment to support Belarus' sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as the aspiration of the Belarusian people to choose their leader and to choose their own path, free from external intervention," he insisted on August 20th. The flight of those B-52s near Belarus can, then, be reasonably interpreted as adding a nuclear dimension to Pompeo's threat.

In another bomber deployment with no less worrisome implications, on September 4th, three B-52s, accompanied by Ukrainian fighter planes, flew over the Black Sea near the coast of Russian-held Crimea. Like other B-52 sorties near its airspace, that foray prompted the rapid scrambling of Russian interceptor aircraft, which often fly threateningly close to American planes.

At a moment when tensions were mounting between the U.S.-backed Ukrainian government and Russian-backed rebel areas in the eastern part of the country, the deployment of those bombers off Crimea was widely viewed as yet another nuclear-tinged threat to Moscow. As Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), tweeted, "Extraordinary decision to send a nuclear bomber so close to contested and tense areas. This is a real in-your-face statement."

And provocative as they were, those were hardly the only forays by U.S. nuclear bombers in recent months. B-52s also ventured near Russian air space in the Arctic and within range of Russian forces in Syria. Meanwhile other B-52s, as well as nuclear-capable B-1 and B-2 bombers, have flown similar missions near Chinese positions in the South China Sea and the waters around the disputed island of Taiwan. Never since the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 have so many U.S. nuclear bombers been engaged in "show-of-force" operations of this sort.

"Demonstrating Resolve" and Coercing Adversaries

States have long engaged in military operations to intimidate other powers. Once upon a distant time, this would have been called "gunboat diplomacy" and naval vessels would have been the instruments of choice for such missions. The arrival of nuclear arms made such operations far more dangerous. This didn't, however, stop the U.S. from using weaponry of this sort as tools of intimidation throughout the Cold War. In time, however, even nuclear strategists began condemning acts of "nuclear coercion," arguing that such weaponry was inappropriate for any purpose other than "deterrence" -- that is, using the threat of "massive retaliation" to prevent another country from attacking you. In fact, a deterrence-only posture eventually became Washington's official policy, even if the temptation to employ nukes as political cudgels never entirely disappeared from its strategic thinking.

At a more hopeful time, President Barack Obama sought to downsize this country's nuclear arsenal and prevent the use of such weapons for anything beyond deterrence (although his administration also commenced an expensive "modernization" of that arsenal). In his widely applauded Nobel Peace Prize speech of April 5, 2009, Obama swore to "put an end to Cold War thinking" and "reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy." Unfortunately, Donald Trump has sought to move the dial in the opposite direction, including increasing the use of nukes as coercive instruments.

The president's deep desire to bolster the role of nuclear weapons in national security was first spelled out in his administration's Nuclear Posture Review of February 2018. In addition to calling for the accelerated modernization of the nuclear arsenal, it also endorsed the use of such weapons to demonstrate American "resolve" -- in other words, a willingness to go to the nuclear brink over political differences. A large and diverse arsenal was desirable, the document noted, to "demonstrate resolve through the positioning of forces, messaging, and flexible response options." Nuclear bombers were said to be especially useful for such a purpose: "Flights abroad," it stated, "display U.S. capabilities and resolve, providing effective signaling for deterrence and assurance, including in times of tension."

Ever since, the Trump administration has been deploying the country's nuclear bomber fleet of B-52s, B-1s, and B-2s with increasing frequency to "display U.S. capabilities and resolve," particularly with respect to Russia and China.

The supersonic B-1B Lancer, developed in the 1970s, was originally meant to replace the B-52 as the nation's premier long-range nuclear bomber. After the Cold War ended, however, it was converted to carry conventional munitions and is no longer officially designated as a nuclear delivery system -- though it could be reconfigured for this purpose at any time. The B-2 Spirit, with its distinctive flying-wing design, was the first U.S. bomber built with "stealth" capabilities (meant to avoid detection by enemy radar systems) and is configured to carry both nuclear and conventional weaponry. For the past year or so, those two planes plus the long-lived B-52 have been used on an almost weekly basis as the radioactive "stick" of U.S. diplomacy around the world.

Nuclear Forays in the Arctic and the Russian Far East

When flying to Europe in August, those six B-52s from North Dakota's Minot Air Force Base took a roundabout route north of Greenland (which President Trump had unsuccessfully offered to purchase in 2019). They finally descended over the Barents Sea within easy missile-firing range of Russia's vast naval complex at Murmansk, the home for most of its ballistic missile submarines. For Hans Kristensen of FAS, that was another obvious and "pointed message at Russia."

Strategically speaking, Washington had largely ignored the Arctic until a combination of factors -- global warming, accelerated oil and gas drilling in the region, and increased Russian and Chinese military activities there -- sparked growing interest. As global temperatures have risen, the Arctic ice cap has been melting at an ever-faster pace, allowing energy firms to exploit the region's extensive hydrocarbon resources. This, in turn, has led to feverish efforts by the region's littoral states, led by Russia, to lay claim to such resources and build up their military capabilities there.

In light of these developments, the Trump administration, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has called for an expansion of this country's Arctic military forces. In a speech delivered at the Arctic Council in Rovaniemi, Finland, in May 2019, Pompeo warned of Russia's growing military stance in the region and pledged a strong American response to it. "Under President Trump," he declared. "We are fortifying America's security and diplomatic presence in the area."

In line with this, the Pentagon has deployed U.S. warships to the Arctic on a regular basis, while engaging in ever more elaborate military exercises there. These have included Cold Response 2020, conducted this spring in Norway's far north within a few hundred miles of those key Russian bases at Murmansk. For the most part, however, the administration has relied on nuclear-bomber forays to demonstrate its opposition to an increasing Russian role there. In November 2019, for example, three B-52s, accompanied by Norwegian F-16 fighter jets, approached the Russian naval complex at Murmansk, a move meant to demonstrate the Pentagon's capacity to launch nuclear-armed missiles at one of that country's most critical military installations.

If the majority of such nuclear forays have occurred near Norway's far north, the Pentagon has not neglected Russia's far eastern territory, home of its Pacific Fleet, either. In an unusually brazen maneuver, this May a B-1B bomber flew over the Sea of Okhotsk, an offshoot of the Pacific Ocean surrounded by Russian territory on three sides (Siberia to the north, Sakhalin Island to the west, and the Kamchatka Peninsula to the east).

As if to add insult to injury, the Air Force dispatched two B-52H bombers over the Sea of Okhotsk in June -- another first for an aircraft of that type. Needless to say, incursions in such a militarily sensitive area led to the rapid scrambling of Russian fighter aircraft.

The South China Sea and Taiwan

A similar, equally provocative pattern can be observed in the East and South China Seas. Even as President Trump has sought, largely unsuccessfully, to negotiate a trade deal with Beijing, his administration has become increasingly antagonistic towards the Chinese leadership. On July 23rd, Secretary of State Pompeo delivered a particularly hostile speech in the presidential library of Richard Nixon, the very commander-in-chief who first reopened relations with communist China. Pompeo called on American allies to suspend normal relations with Beijing and, like Washington, treat it as a hostile power, much the way the Soviet Union was viewed during the Cold War.

While administration rhetoric amped up, the Department of Defense has been bolstering its capacity to engage and defeat Beijing in any future conflict. In its 2018 National Defense Strategy, as the U.S. military's "forever wars" dragged on, the Pentagon suddenly labeled China and Russia the two greatest threats to American security. More recently, it singled out China alone as the overarching menace to American national security. "In this era of great-power competition," Secretary of Defense Mark Esper declared this September, "the Department of Defense has prioritized China, then Russia, as our top strategic competitors."

The Pentagon's efforts have largely been focused on the South China Sea, where China has established a network of small military installations on artificial islands created by dredging sand from the sea-bottom near some of the reefs and atolls it claims. American leaders have never accepted the legitimacy of this island-building project and have repeatedly called upon Beijing to dismantle the bases. Such efforts have, however, largely fallen on deaf ears and it's now evident that the Pentagon is considering military means to eliminate the island threat.

In early July, the U.S. Navy conducted its most elaborate maneuvers to date in those waters, deploying two aircraft carriers there -- the USS Nimitz and the USS Ronald Reagan -- plus an escort fleet of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. While there, the two carriers launched hundreds of combat planes in simulated attacks on military bases on the islands the Chinese had essentially built.

At the same time, paratroopers from the Army's 25th Infantry Division were flown from their home base in Alaska to the Pacific island of Guam in what was clearly meant as a simulated air assault on a (presumably Chinese) military installation. And just to make sure the leadership in Beijing understood that, in any actual encounter with U.S. forces, Chinese resistance would be countered by the maximum level of force deemed necessary, the Pentagon also flew a B-52 bomber over those carriers as they engaged in their provocative maneuvers.

And that was hardly the first visit of a nuclear bomber to the South China Sea. The Pentagon has, in fact, been deploying such planes there on a regular basis since the beginning of 2020. In April, for example, the Air Force dispatched two B-1B Lancers on a 32-hour round-trip from their home at Ellsworth Air Force Base, North Dakota, to that sea and back as a demonstration of its ability to project power even in the midst of the pandemic President Trump likes to call "the Chinese plague."

Meanwhile, tensions have grown over the status of the island of Taiwan, which China views as a breakaway part of the country. Beijing has been pressuring its leaders to foreswear any moves toward independence, while the Trump administration tacitly endorses just such a future by doing the previously unimaginable -- notably, by sending high-level officials, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar among them, on visits to the island and by promising deliveries of increasingly sophisticated weapons. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has upped its military presence in that part of the Pacific, too. The Navy has repeatedly dispatched missile-armed destroyers on "freedom of navigation" missions through the Taiwan Strait, while other U.S. warships have conducted elaborate military exercises in nearby waters.

Needless to say, such provocative steps have alarmed Beijing, which has responded by increasing the incursions of its military aircraft into airspace claimed by Taiwan. To make sure that Beijing fully appreciates the depth of American "resolve" to resist any attempt to seize Taiwan by force, the Pentagon has accompanied its other military moves around the island with -- you guessed it -- flights of B-52 bombers.

Playing with Fire

And where will all this end? As the U.S. sends nuclear-capable bombers on increasingly provocative flights ever closer to Russian and Chinese territory, the danger of an accident or mishap is bound to grow. Sooner or later, a fighter plane from one of those countries is going to get too close to an American bomber and a deadly incident will occur. And what will happen if a nuclear bomber, armed with advanced missiles and electronics (even conceivably nuclear weapons), is in some fashion downed? Count on one thing: in Donald Trump's America the calls for devastating retaliation will be intense and a major conflagration cannot be ruled out.

Bluntly put, dispatching nuclear-capable B-52s on simulated bombing runs against Chinese and Russian military installations is simply nuts. Yes, it must scare the bejesus out of Chinese and Russian officials, but it will also prompt them to distrust any future peaceful overtures from American diplomats while further bolstering their own military power and defenses. Eventually, we will all find ourselves in an ever more dangerous and insecure world with the risk of Armageddon lurking just around the corner.On August 21st, six nuclear-capable B-52H Stratofortress bombers, representing approximately one-seventh of the war-ready U.S. B-52H bomber fleet, flew from their home base in North Dakota to Fairford Air Base in England for several weeks of intensive operations over Europe. Although the actual weapons load of those giant bombers was kept secret, each of them is capable of carrying eight AGM-86B nuclear-armed, air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) in its bomb bay. Those six planes, in other words, could have been carrying 48 city-busting thermonuclear warheads. (The B-52H can also carry 12 ALCMs on external pylons, but none were visible on this occasion.) With such a load alone, in other words, those six planes possessed the capacity to incinerate much of western Russia, including Moscow and St. Petersburg.

The B-52 Stratofortress is no ordinary warplane. First flown in 1952, it was designed with a single purpose in mind: to cross the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean and drop dozens of nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union. Some models were later modified to deliver tons of conventional bombs on targets in North Vietnam and other hostile states, but the remaining B-52s are still largely configured for intercontinental nuclear strikes. With only 44 of them now thought to be in active service at any time, those six dispatched to the edge of Russian territory represented a significant commitment of American nuclear war-making capability.

What in god's name were they doing there? According to American officials, they were intended to demonstrate this country's ability to project overwhelming power anywhere on the planet at any time and so remind our NATO allies of Washington's commitment to their defense. "Our ability to quickly respond and assure allies and partners rests upon the fact that we are able to deploy our B-52s at a moment's notice," commented General Jeff Harrigian, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe. "Their presence here helps build trust with our NATO allies... and affords us new opportunities to train together through a variety of scenarios."

While Harrigian didn't spell out just what scenarios he had in mind, the bombers' European operations suggest that their role involved brandishing a nuclear "stick" in support of an increasingly hostile stance toward Russia. During their sojourn in Europe, for example, two of them flew over the Baltic Sea close to Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania that houses several key military installations. That September 25th foray coincided with a U.S. troop buildup in Lithuania about 65 miles from election-embattled Belarus, a Russian neighbor.

Since August 9th, when strongman Alexander Lukashenko declared victory in a presidential election widely considered fraudulent by his people and much of the international community, Belarus has experienced recurring anti-government protests. Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that his country might intervene there if the situation "gets out of control," while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has implicitly warned of U.S. intervention if Russia interferes. "We stand by our long-term commitment to support Belarus' sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as the aspiration of the Belarusian people to choose their leader and to choose their own path, free from external intervention," he insisted on August 20th. The flight of those B-52s near Belarus can, then, be reasonably interpreted as adding a nuclear dimension to Pompeo's threat.

In another bomber deployment with no less worrisome implications, on September 4th, three B-52s, accompanied by Ukrainian fighter planes, flew over the Black Sea near the coast of Russian-held Crimea. Like other B-52 sorties near its airspace, that foray prompted the rapid scrambling of Russian interceptor aircraft, which often fly threateningly close to American planes.

At a moment when tensions were mounting between the U.S.-backed Ukrainian government and Russian-backed rebel areas in the eastern part of the country, the deployment of those bombers off Crimea was widely viewed as yet another nuclear-tinged threat to Moscow. As Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), tweeted, "Extraordinary decision to send a nuclear bomber so close to contested and tense areas. This is a real in-your-face statement."

And provocative as they were, those were hardly the only forays by U.S. nuclear bombers in recent months. B-52s also ventured near Russian air space in the Arctic and within range of Russian forces in Syria. Meanwhile other B-52s, as well as nuclear-capable B-1 and B-2 bombers, have flown similar missions near Chinese positions in the South China Sea and the waters around the disputed island of Taiwan. Never since the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 have so many U.S. nuclear bombers been engaged in "show-of-force" operations of this sort.

"Demonstrating Resolve" and Coercing Adversaries

States have long engaged in military operations to intimidate other powers. Once upon a distant time, this would have been called "gunboat diplomacy" and naval vessels would have been the instruments of choice for such missions. The arrival of nuclear arms made such operations far more dangerous. This didn't, however, stop the U.S. from using weaponry of this sort as tools of intimidation throughout the Cold War. In time, however, even nuclear strategists began condemning acts of "nuclear coercion," arguing that such weaponry was inappropriate for any purpose other than "deterrence" -- that is, using the threat of "massive retaliation" to prevent another country from attacking you. In fact, a deterrence-only posture eventually became Washington's official policy, even if the temptation to employ nukes as political cudgels never entirely disappeared from its strategic thinking.

At a more hopeful time, President Barack Obama sought to downsize this country's nuclear arsenal and prevent the use of such weapons for anything beyond deterrence (although his administration also commenced an expensive "modernization" of that arsenal). In his widely applauded Nobel Peace Prize speech of April 5, 2009, Obama swore to "put an end to Cold War thinking" and "reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy." Unfortunately, Donald Trump has sought to move the dial in the opposite direction, including increasing the use of nukes as coercive instruments.

The president's deep desire to bolster the role of nuclear weapons in national security was first spelled out in his administration's Nuclear Posture Review of February 2018. In addition to calling for the accelerated modernization of the nuclear arsenal, it also endorsed the use of such weapons to demonstrate American "resolve" -- in other words, a willingness to go to the nuclear brink over political differences. A large and diverse arsenal was desirable, the document noted, to "demonstrate resolve through the positioning of forces, messaging, and flexible response options." Nuclear bombers were said to be especially useful for such a purpose: "Flights abroad," it stated, "display U.S. capabilities and resolve, providing effective signaling for deterrence and assurance, including in times of tension."

Ever since, the Trump administration has been deploying the country's nuclear bomber fleet of B-52s, B-1s, and B-2s with increasing frequency to "display U.S. capabilities and resolve," particularly with respect to Russia and China.

The supersonic B-1B Lancer, developed in the 1970s, was originally meant to replace the B-52 as the nation's premier long-range nuclear bomber. After the Cold War ended, however, it was converted to carry conventional munitions and is no longer officially designated as a nuclear delivery system -- though it could be reconfigured for this purpose at any time. The B-2 Spirit, with its distinctive flying-wing design, was the first U.S. bomber built with "stealth" capabilities (meant to avoid detection by enemy radar systems) and is configured to carry both nuclear and conventional weaponry. For the past year or so, those two planes plus the long-lived B-52 have been used on an almost weekly basis as the radioactive "stick" of U.S. diplomacy around the world.

Nuclear Forays in the Arctic and the Russian Far East

When flying to Europe in August, those six B-52s from North Dakota's Minot Air Force Base took a roundabout route north of Greenland (which President Trump had unsuccessfully offered to purchase in 2019). They finally descended over the Barents Sea within easy missile-firing range of Russia's vast naval complex at Murmansk, the home for most of its ballistic missile submarines. For Hans Kristensen of FAS, that was another obvious and "pointed message at Russia."

Strategically speaking, Washington had largely ignored the Arctic until a combination of factors -- global warming, accelerated oil and gas drilling in the region, and increased Russian and Chinese military activities there -- sparked growing interest. As global temperatures have risen, the Arctic ice cap has been melting at an ever-faster pace, allowing energy firms to exploit the region's extensive hydrocarbon resources. This, in turn, has led to feverish efforts by the region's littoral states, led by Russia, to lay claim to such resources and build up their military capabilities there.

In light of these developments, the Trump administration, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has called for an expansion of this country's Arctic military forces. In a speech delivered at the Arctic Council in Rovaniemi, Finland, in May 2019, Pompeo warned of Russia's growing military stance in the region and pledged a strong American response to it. "Under President Trump," he declared. "We are fortifying America's security and diplomatic presence in the area."

In line with this, the Pentagon has deployed U.S. warships to the Arctic on a regular basis, while engaging in ever more elaborate military exercises there. These have included Cold Response 2020, conducted this spring in Norway's far north within a few hundred miles of those key Russian bases at Murmansk. For the most part, however, the administration has relied on nuclear-bomber forays to demonstrate its opposition to an increasing Russian role there. In November 2019, for example, three B-52s, accompanied by Norwegian F-16 fighter jets, approached the Russian naval complex at Murmansk, a move meant to demonstrate the Pentagon's capacity to launch nuclear-armed missiles at one of that country's most critical military installations.

If the majority of such nuclear forays have occurred near Norway's far north, the Pentagon has not neglected Russia's far eastern territory, home of its Pacific Fleet, either. In an unusually brazen maneuver, this May a B-1B bomber flew over the Sea of Okhotsk, an offshoot of the Pacific Ocean surrounded by Russian territory on three sides (Siberia to the north, Sakhalin Island to the west, and the Kamchatka Peninsula to the east).

As if to add insult to injury, the Air Force dispatched two B-52H bombers over the Sea of Okhotsk in June -- another first for an aircraft of that type. Needless to say, incursions in such a militarily sensitive area led to the rapid scrambling of Russian fighter aircraft.

The South China Sea and Taiwan

A similar, equally provocative pattern can be observed in the East and South China Seas. Even as President Trump has sought, largely unsuccessfully, to negotiate a trade deal with Beijing, his administration has become increasingly antagonistic towards the Chinese leadership. On July 23rd, Secretary of State Pompeo delivered a particularly hostile speech in the presidential library of Richard Nixon, the very commander-in-chief who first reopened relations with communist China. Pompeo called on American allies to suspend normal relations with Beijing and, like Washington, treat it as a hostile power, much the way the Soviet Union was viewed during the Cold War.

While administration rhetoric amped up, the Department of Defense has been bolstering its capacity to engage and defeat Beijing in any future conflict. In its 2018 National Defense Strategy, as the U.S. military's "forever wars" dragged on, the Pentagon suddenly labeled China and Russia the two greatest threats to American security. More recently, it singled out China alone as the overarching menace to American national security. "In this era of great-power competition," Secretary of Defense Mark Esper declared this September, "the Department of Defense has prioritized China, then Russia, as our top strategic competitors."

The Pentagon's efforts have largely been focused on the South China Sea, where China has established a network of small military installations on artificial islands created by dredging sand from the sea-bottom near some of the reefs and atolls it claims. American leaders have never accepted the legitimacy of this island-building project and have repeatedly called upon Beijing to dismantle the bases. Such efforts have, however, largely fallen on deaf ears and it's now evident that the Pentagon is considering military means to eliminate the island threat.

In early July, the U.S. Navy conducted its most elaborate maneuvers to date in those waters, deploying two aircraft carriers there -- the USS Nimitz and the USS Ronald Reagan -- plus an escort fleet of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. While there, the two carriers launched hundreds of combat planes in simulated attacks on military bases on the islands the Chinese had essentially built.

At the same time, paratroopers from the Army's 25th Infantry Division were flown from their home base in Alaska to the Pacific island of Guam in what was clearly meant as a simulated air assault on a (presumably Chinese) military installation. And just to make sure the leadership in Beijing understood that, in any actual encounter with U.S. forces, Chinese resistance would be countered by the maximum level of force deemed necessary, the Pentagon also flew a B-52 bomber over those carriers as they engaged in their provocative maneuvers.

And that was hardly the first visit of a nuclear bomber to the South China Sea. The Pentagon has, in fact, been deploying such planes there on a regular basis since the beginning of 2020. In April, for example, the Air Force dispatched two B-1B Lancers on a 32-hour round-trip from their home at Ellsworth Air Force Base, North Dakota, to that sea and back as a demonstration of its ability to project power even in the midst of the pandemic President Trump likes to call "the Chinese plague."

Meanwhile, tensions have grown over the status of the island of Taiwan, which China views as a breakaway part of the country. Beijing has been pressuring its leaders to foreswear any moves toward independence, while the Trump administration tacitly endorses just such a future by doing the previously unimaginable -- notably, by sending high-level officials, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar among them, on visits to the island and by promising deliveries of increasingly sophisticated weapons. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has upped its military presence in that part of the Pacific, too. The Navy has repeatedly dispatched missile-armed destroyers on "freedom of navigation" missions through the Taiwan Strait, while other U.S. warships have conducted elaborate military exercises in nearby waters.

Needless to say, such provocative steps have alarmed Beijing, which has responded by increasing the incursions of its military aircraft into airspace claimed by Taiwan. To make sure that Beijing fully appreciates the depth of American "resolve" to resist any attempt to seize Taiwan by force, the Pentagon has accompanied its other military moves around the island with -- you guessed it -- flights of B-52 bombers.

Playing with Fire

And where will all this end? As the U.S. sends nuclear-capable bombers on increasingly provocative flights ever closer to Russian and Chinese territory, the danger of an accident or mishap is bound to grow. Sooner or later, a fighter plane from one of those countries is going to get too close to an American bomber and a deadly incident will occur. And what will happen if a nuclear bomber, armed with advanced missiles and electronics (even conceivably nuclear weapons), is in some fashion downed? Count on one thing: in Donald Trump's America the calls for devastating retaliation will be intense and a major conflagration cannot be ruled out.

Bluntly put, dispatching nuclear-capable B-52s on simulated bombing runs against Chinese and Russian military installations is simply nuts. Yes, it must scare the bejesus out of Chinese and Russian officials, but it will also prompt them to distrust any future peaceful overtures from American diplomats while further bolstering their own military power and defenses. Eventually, we will all find ourselves in an ever more dangerous and insecure world with the risk of Armageddon lurking just around the corner.

Michael T. Klare is the Five College Professor of Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. His newest book, The Race for What's Left: The Global Scramble for the World's Last Resources, has just recently been published. His other books include: Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy and Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Dependence on Imported Petroleum. A documentary version of Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation.

The costs and the long haul of our shared COVID nightmare

After all these months and 210,000 deaths, you'd think I'd be used to it all, but I'm not. It doesn't seem even a little normal yet. I'm still full of absences, missing so much I used to take for granted: hugs and handshakes, rooms crowded for funerals and weddings, potluck dinners and house parties. I miss browsing the stacks at the library and the racks at the thrift shop. I miss going to our Unitarian Universalist congregation and the robust community connection we enjoyed every Sunday.

I should count myself lucky, of course, that such human encounters and quotidian pleasures are all that I miss. I have yet to lose friends or family to Covid-19, I haven't lost my job, and our home is not in danger of foreclosure. Still, I'm at a loss to figure out how to go on.

But that's the work, isn't it? Going on somehow because, if the experts are on target -- and they're hard to hear above the din of the bombast and threats of carnage coming out of Washington -- they say that things won't get back to normal for a year or longer. They say this is the new normal: masks, distance, existential dread over every sore throat.

Another year... at least. How do I pace myself and my family for the long haul of the pandemic? How do we figure out how to mitigate our risks and still live lives of some sort? Who do we trust? Who do we listen to? And who do we call if a spiking fall or winter pandemic hits us directly?

I'm full of missing and longing, but the thing I miss most poignantly and sharply isn't something (or someone) you could see or touch. What I miss is the privileged (and ultimately false) notion, almost an article of faith for white, middle-class people like me, that the future is predictable, that there is a "normal." I miss good old-fashioned American optimism, that "aw shucks" sentiment that absolves and salves and says with a twang or lilt: It'll be okay. They'll figure it out. Things will get back to normal. This is only temporary.

Pandemic Plus

While most of the developed world has been dealing with the impact of the pandemic in a reasonable fashion -- caring for the sick, burying the dead, enforcing lockdowns and the sort of distancing and masking that seems so necessary -- it's played out differently here in the good old U.S. of A. Here, we have a pandemic-plus -- plus a broken social safety net, a for-profit healthcare system, a war of disinformation, and that's just to start down a list of add-on disasters.

In addition, parts of the United States have been beset by record wildfires, hurricanes, and deadly storms. So add on the impact of catastrophic climate change.

Here in the land of the fearful and the home of the riven, it's been a pandemic plus poverty, plus staggering economic inequality, plus police violence, plus protest, plus white supremacy. It's a nightmare, in other words and, despite those more than 210,000 dead Americans, it's not slowing down. And no matter the facts on the ground, and the bodies below the ground, the president's supporters regularly deny there's the slightest need for masks, social distancing, shutdowns, or much of anything else. So, it's a pandemic plus lunacy, too -- a politically manipulated lunacy spiced with violence and the threat of violence heading into an increasingly fraught election, which could even mean a pandemic plus autocracy or a chaotic American version of fascism. In other words, it's a lot.

Still, it's also the fall and, after this endless summer, my three kids have started school again -- sort of. They are in first, third, and eighth grade. Right now, there's more coaching around masks and distancing than instruction in math and the ABCs. Still, the teachers are working hard to make this happen and my kids are so happy to be away from us that they don't even seem to mind those masks, or the shields around their desks, or the regimented way lunch and recess have to happen. Over the whole experiment, of course, hangs an unnerving reality (or do I mean unreality?): that in-person schooling could dissolve in an errant cough, a spiking fever, and a few microscopic germs catapulting through the air. In fact, that's already been happening in other areas of Connecticut where I live.

After all these months of lockdown, my husband and I automatically wear masks everywhere, arranging the odd outdoor gathering of a handful of friends and trying to imagine how any of this will work in winter, no less long term. Still, bit by bit, we're doing our best to quilt together an understanding of how to live in the midst of such a pandemic -- and that's important because it's so obvious that there's going to be no quick fix in the chaotic new world we've been plunged into.

Seven months in, I'm finally realizing what so many marginalized people have always known: we're on our own. It came to me like a klaxon call, a scream from the depths of my own body, all at once. I still whisper it, with sorrow and wonder: we are on our own.

It's as if our small city of New London and the state of Connecticut had been untethered from the federal government and, despite the crazy game of telephone that passes for federal public-healthcare policy, are faring better than most due to a mixture of our state's reputation as the "Land of Steady Habits," our small-city web of mutual aid, and our own family's blend of abundance and austerity. Still, the fact that, relatively speaking, we're doing okay doesn't make the realization that we're on our own any less stark or troubling.

It's not complicated, really. You can't beat a pandemic with a mixture of personal responsibility and family creativity. Science, policy, and a national plan are what's needed. My own vision for such a plan in response to Covid-19 would be the passage of a universal basic income, robust worker protections, and Medicare for all. But that's just me... well, actually, it's probably the secret dream of the majority of Americans and it's certainly the opposite of the position of Trump and his ilk. It says that we really all are in this together and we better start acting like it. We need to take care of one another to survive.

In spite of it all, I'm doing my best to manage this new normal by focusing on what I actually can do. At least I can feed people.

Our city was poor even before the state ordered a lockdown in mid-March and few had the extra money to panic-buy. So the food justice organization I work for started planting extra carrots, peas, and collards back in March. We built public garden boxes and painted signs telling people to harvest for free. We distributed soil and seeds to people all over the city and gave them some gardening 101 guidance.

And now, as October begins, we're still finishing harvesting all that food and distributing it every week. On Fridays, I also help pack boxes of milk and eggs, meat and vegetables, which we then deliver to more than 100 families. The rhythm involved in harvesting the produce and packing the boxes, each an immersive physical task, helps banish my darker thoughts, at least for a while.

"We Are Going to Be in Very Good Shape"

The president held a news conference on March 30th. Of course, that's ancient history now, separated as it is from the present by long months of deaths and hospitalizations, layoffs and political in-fighting. The CEOs of Honeywell, Jockey, MyPillow, United Technologies, and other companies were gathered alongside administration officials that day. It should have been a briefing on where we Americans were a month into what was clearly going to be a long slog. Above all, it should have honored those who had already died. Instead -- no surprise looking back from our present nightmarish vantage point -- it proved to be an extended advertisement for those companies and a chance for their CEOs to spout patriotic pablum and trade compliments with the commander-in-chief.

I was crying a lot then. When the president said, "We have to get our country back to where it was and maybe beyond," I began to sob and dry heave. After I finally wiped away the tears and blew my nose, I checked out the website of a company that makes homeopathic remedies. A friend had sent me a list of ones doctors were supposedly using to treat coronavirus symptoms in Germany, Italy, and China.

"Get these if you can," she texted. It wasn't science. I admit it. It was desperation. As one of millions of Americans on state insurance with no primary-care doctor or bespoke concierge service, I feared the worst.

As the CEO from MyPillow was telling the American people to use the time of the shutdown to "get back in the Word, read our Bibles," I made my own faith gesture and pressed the buy button. When the order arrived, it was full of tiny, archaic vials labelled with names like Belladonna and Drosera. Even now, when I feel anxious and cloudy, I rummage through that box of vials and read the names like incantations. Better that than heeding the president's assertion on that long-gone day that "we are going to be in very good shape."

A Handful of Chickens

We are not in very good shape and it's getting worse every day. As the November election looms and Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death (as well as the grim Republican response to it) casts an ever more massive shadow over the country, the subtext of the administration's message -- however convoluted its delivery -- is simple enough: you're on your own. Over the last half-year, whether discussing the pandemic or the vote to come, Donald Trump has made one bizarre, bombastic, patently untrue assertion after another. In the process, he's vacillated between a caricature of a dictator from some long-lost Isabel Allende novel and of an insecure middle manager (The Office's Michael Scott on steroids).

Critical medical information, public health guidelines, and the disbursement of necessary protective equipment have all been thoroughly messed up and politicized in ways that are harmful today and could be devastating for years to come. As Peter Baker of the New York Times reported in September, so many of us are indeed confused:

"With Mr. Trump saying one thing and his health advisors saying another, many Americans have been left to figure out on their own whom to believe, with past polls sharing that they have more faith in the experts than their president."

That's me! I do have faith in the experts. I'm wearing a mask and digging into the idea that mask wearing is going to be a part of our lives for at least the next year or so. In other words, the new normal will be ever more of the same, which means careful, awkward, tentative engagement with a wildly unpredictable world full of pathogens and unmasked "patriots." The new normal will mean trading in the old sock masks my mother-in-law fashioned for us and investing in more high tech and effective masks. Beyond that, my answer to all this couldn't be more feeble. It's taking care of my backyard chickens and my front-yard garden and adding strands to our small web of mutual aid.

This spring and summer, I dug up more of my lawn to plant carrots, sweet potatoes, and squash in an ever larger garden, while learning how to store rainwater from the gutters of our roof in big barrels. I joked with my friends about growing rice -- and might even try it next year. I acquired a chicken coop, built a rudimentary run, and ordered six beautiful chickens from a farm in a quiet corner of Connecticut: two Golden Copper Marans, two Black Marans, and two Easter Eggers. The kids named them after characters in the Harry Potter series, which they've all but memorized during the shutdown. One chicken ran away and one died, but I love everything about taking care of them and harvesting the perfect magical protein orbs they produce with religious regularity.

These things bring me pleasure and a feeling of accomplishment, while leaving me with a set of tasks that I have to complete even when I feel despondent and overwhelmed. That's all to the good, but a handful of chickens and a few collard plants don't add up to self-sufficiency. They are not a bulwark against national insanity and ineptitude. They will not solve the problem of Donald Trump and Company.

Still, in bad, bad times, at least they keep me going and let's face it, all of us -- at least those of us who survive Covid-19 -- are in it for the long haul.

Frida Berrigan is the author of It Runs In The Family: On Being Raised by Radicals and Growing into Rebellious Motherhood. She is a TomDispatch regular and writes the Little Insurrections column for WagingNonviolence.Org. She has three children and lives in New London, Connecticut, where she is a gardener and community organizer.

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 Frida Berrigan

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