alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.

TomDispatch

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

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

Yes, when he was running for president, he did indeed say: "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK? It's, like, incredible."

Then he won -- and this November 3rd (or thereafter), whether he wins or loses, we're likely to find out that, when it comes to his base, he was right. He may not have lost a vote. Yes, Donald Trump is indeed a murderer, but here's where his prediction fell desperately short: as president, he's proven to be anything but a smalltime killer. It wasn't as if he went out one day, on New York City's Fifth Avenue or even in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and shot a couple of people.

Nothing so minimalist for The Donald! Nor is it as if, say, he had ploghed "the Beast" (as his presidential Cadillac is known) into a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters, as so many other drivers have done this year. Let's face it: that's for his apprentices, not the showman himself. After all, Donald J. Trump has proven to be America's twenty-first-century maestro of death and destruction, the P.T. Barnum of, as he put it predictively enough in his Inaugural Address, "American carnage." In fact, he's been a master of carnage in a way no one could then have imagined.

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

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

Death by Disease

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supreme Assassins?

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

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

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

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

A Murderous Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A vote for the apocalypse

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

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

"This is not an act of God"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our very own firenado

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2020 Tom Engelhardt

To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.


Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).

America's dark side: We've grown numb to Trump's madness and evil

What pops into your head when you hear the number 1,000 in a political-military context? Having studied German military history, I immediately think of Adolf Hitler's confident boast that his Third Reich would last a thousand years. In reality, of course, a devastating world war brought that Reich down in a mere 12 years. Only recently, however, such boasts popped up again in the dark dreams of Donald Trump. If Iran dared to attack the United States, Trump tweeted and then repeated on Fox & Friends, the U.S. would strike back with "1,000 times greater force."

Think about that for a moment. If such typical Trumpian red-meat rhetoric were to become reality, you would be talking about a monumental war crime in its disproportionality. If, say, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard shot a missile at an American base in the region and killed 10 U.S. military personnel, Trump is saying that, in response, he'd then seek to kill 10,000 Iranians -- an act that would recall Nazi reprisals in World War II when entire villages like Lidice were destroyed because one prominent Nazi official had been killed. Back then, Americans knew that such murderous behavior was evil. So why do so many of us no longer flinch at such madness?

If references to "evil" seem inappropriate to you, keep in mind that I was raised Catholic and one idea the priests and nuns firmly implanted in me then was the presence of evil in our world -- and in me as a microcosm of that world. It's a moral imperative -- so they taught me -- to fight evil by denying it, as much as humanly possible, a place in our lives, even turning the other cheek to avoid giving offense to our brothers and sisters. Christ, after all, didn't teach us to whip someone 1,000 times if they struck you once.

Speaking of large numbers, I still recall Christ's teaching on forgiveness. How many times, he asked, should we forgive those who offend us? Seven times, perhaps? No, seventy times seven. He didn't, of course, mean 490 acts of forgiveness. Through that hyperbolic number, Christ was saying that forgiveness must be large and generous, as boundless as we imperfect humans can make it.

Trump loves hyperbolic numbers, but his are plainly in the service of boundless revenge, not forgiveness. His catechism is one of intimidation and, if that fails, retribution. It doesn't matter if it takes the form of mass destruction and death (including, in the case of Americans, death by coronavirus). By announcing such goals so openly, of course, he turns the rest of us into his accomplices. Passively or actively, if we do nothing, we accept the possibility of mass murder in the service of Trump's dark dreams of smiting those who would dare strike at his version of America.

It's easy to dismiss his threats as nothing more than red meat to his base, but they are also distinctly anti-Christian. The saddest thing, however, is that they are, unfortunately, not at all un-American, as any quick survey of this country's record of wanton destructiveness in war would show.

So while I do reject all Trump's murderous words and empty promises, I find them strangely unexceptional and unnervingly all-American. Indeed, my own guess is that he's won such a boisterous following in this country precisely because he does so visibly, so thunderously, so bigly embody its darkest dreams of destruction, which have all too often become reality when visited upon recalcitrant peoples who refused to bend to our will.

Destruction as Salvation

Americans today are sold an image of war as almost antiseptic -- hardly surprising given our distance and detachment from this country's "forever wars." But as history reminds us, real war isn't like that. It never was, not when colonists were killing Native Americans in vast numbers; nor when we were busy killing our fellow Americans in our Civil War; nor when U.S. troops were ruthlessly putting down the Filipino insurrection in the early twentieth century; nor when our air force firebombed Dresden, Tokyo, and so many other cities in World War II and later nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki; nor when North Korea was flattened by bombing in the early 1950s; nor when Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were bludgeoned by bombs, napalm, and Agent Orange in the 1960s and early 1970s; nor when Iraqis were killed by the tens of thousands during the first Gulf war of 1990-1991.

And that, of course, is only a partial and selective accounting of the wanton carnage overseen by past presidents. In reality, Americans have never been shy about killing on a mass scale in the alleged cause of righteousness and democracy.

In that sense, Trump's rhetoric of mass destruction is truly nothing new under the sun (except perhaps in its pure blustering bravado); Trump, that is, just salivates more openly at the prospect of inflicting pain on a mass scale on peoples he doesn't like. And even that isn't as new as you might imagine.

In this century, Republicans have been especially keen to share their dreams of massively bombing others. On the campaign trail in 2007, to the tune of the Beach Boys' cover "Barbara Ann," Senator (and former bomber pilot and Vietnam POW) John McCain smirkingly sang of bombing Iran. ("Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran!") Similarly, during the Republican presidential debates of 2016, Senator Ted Cruz boasted of wanting to "utterly destroy" the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq by carpet-bombing its territory and, in doing so, making the desert sand "glow in the dark." The implication was, of course, that as president he'd happily use nuclear weapons in the Middle East. (Talk about all options being on the table!)

Alarming? Yes! Very American? USA #1!

Consider two examples from the nuclear era, then and now. In the depth of the Cold War years, in response to a possible Soviet nuclear attack, this country's war plans envisioned a simultaneous assault on the Soviet Union and China that military planners estimated would, in the end, kill 600 million people. That would have been the equivalent of 100 Holocausts, notes Pentagon whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who was privy to those plans.

Whether China had joined or even known about the Soviet attack didn't matter. As communists, they were guilty by association and so to be obliterated anyway. Ellsberg notes that only one man present at the briefing where this "plan" was presented objected to such a mindless act of mass murder, David Shoup, a Marine general and Medal of Honor winner who would later similarly object to the Vietnam War.

Fast forward to today and our even more potentially planet-ending nuclear forces are still being "modernized" to the tune of $1.7 trillion over the coming decades. Any Ohio-class SSBN nuclear submarine in the Navy's inventory, for example, could potentially kill millions of people with its 24 Trident II ballistic missiles (each carrying as many as eight nuclear warheads, each warhead with roughly six times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb). While such vessels are officially meant to "deter" nuclear war, they are, of course, ultimately built to fight one. Each is a submerged holocaust waiting to be unleashed.

Rarely, if ever, do we think about what those subs truly represent, historically speaking. Meanwhile, the Pentagon continues to "invest" (as the military likes to say) in ever-newer generations of nuclear-capable bombers and land-based missiles, promising a holocaust of planetary proportions if ever used. To grasp what an actual nuclear war would mean, you would have to update an old saying: one death is a tragedy; several billion is a statistic.

Aggravating such essential collective madness in this moment (and the president's fiery and furious fascination with such weaponry) is Trump's recent cynical call for what might be thought of as the nuking of our history: the installation of a truly "patriotic" education in our schools (in other words, a history that would obliterate everything but his version of American greatness). That would, of course, include not just the legacy of slavery and other dark chapters in our past, but our continued willingness to build weaponry that has the instant capacity to end it all in a matter of hours.

As a history professor, I can tell you that such a version of our past would be totally antithetical to sound learning in this or any world. History must, by definition, be critical of the world we've created. It must be tough-minded and grapple with our actions (and inactions), crimes and all, if we are ever to grow morally stronger as a country or a people.

History that only focuses on the supposedly good bits, however defined, is like your annoying friend's Facebook page -- the one that shows photo after photo of smiling faces, gourmet meals, exclusive parties, puppies, ice cream, and rainbows, that features a flurry of status updates reducible to "I'm having the time of my life." We know perfectly well, of course, that no one's life is really like that -- and neither is any country's history.

History should, of course, be about understanding ourselves as we really are, our strengths and weaknesses, triumphs, tragedies, and transgressions. It would even have to include an honest accounting of how this country got one Donald J. Trump, a failed casino owner and celebrity pitchman as president at a moment when most of its leaders were still claiming that it was the most exceptional country in the history of the universe. I'll give you a hint: we got him because he represented a side of America that was indeed exceptional, just not in any way that was ever morally just or democratically sound.

Jingoistic history says, "My country, right or wrong, but my country." Trump wants to push this a goosestep further to "My country and my leader, always right." That's fascism, not "patriotic" history, and we need to recognize that and reject it.

Learning without Flinching from History

The United States has been the imperial power of record on this planet since World War II. Lately, the economic and moral aspects of that power have waned, even as our military power remains supreme (though without being able to win anything whatsoever). That should tell you something about America. We're still a "SmackDown" country, to borrow a term from professional wrestling, in a world that's increasingly being smacked down anyway.

Harold Pinter, the British playwright, caught this country's imperial spirit well in his Nobel Prize lecture in 2005. America, he said then, has committed crimes that "have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It's a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis."

Anyone with a knowledge of our history knows that there was truth indeed in what Pinter said 15 years ago. He noticed how this country's leaders wielded language "to keep thought at bay." Like George Orwell before him, Pinter was at pains to use plain language about war, noting how the Americans and British had "brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery, degradation and death to the Iraqi people and call[ed] it bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East."

The point here was not simply to bash America. It was to get us to think about our actions in genuine historical terms. A decade and a half ago, Pinter threw down a challenge, and even if you disagreed with him, or maybe especially if you did so, you need the intellectual tools and command of the facts to grapple with that critique. It should never be enough simply to shout "USA! USA!" in an ever-louder fashion and hope it will drown out not only critics and dissenters but reality itself -- and perhaps even your own secret doubts.

And we should have such doubts. We should be ready to dissent. We should recognize, as America's current attorney general most distinctly does not, that dissenters are often the truest patriots of all, even if they are also often the loneliest ones. We should especially have doubts about a leader who threatens to bring violence against another country 1,000 times greater than anything that country could visit upon us.

I don't need the Catholic Church, or even Christ in the New Testament, to tell me that such thinking is wrong in a Washington that now seems to be offering a carnivorous taste of what a future American autocracy could be like. I just need to recall the wise words of my Polish mother-in-law: "Have a heart, if you've got a heart."

Have a heart, America. Reject American carnage in all its forms.

William Astore, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, taught history for 15 years. A TomDispatch regular, he also has a personal blog, Bracing Views.

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 J. Astore

Trump and the threat of an unrestrained mob

The white mobs didn't care whom they killed as long as the victims were Black. They murdered people in public with guns and rocks. They set fire to houses and slaughtered families trying to escape the flames. In East St. Louis in July 1917, white vigilantes lynched Blacks with impunity.

It was the prelude to what civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson would ultimately call Red Summer. The "red" referred to the blood that ran in the streets. The "summer" actually referred to the months from April to October 1919, when violence against African Americans peaked in this country.

In reality, though, that Red Summer stretched across six long years, beginning in East St. Louis in 1917 and ending with the destruction of the predominantly African-American town of Rosewood, Florida, in 1923. During that time, white mobs killed thousands of Blacks in 26 cities, including Chicago, Houston, and Washington, D.C. In 1921, in a slaughter that has been well documented, white citizens of Tulsa, Oklahoma, destroyed the country's wealthiest African American community ("Black Wall Street," as it was then known), burning down more than 1,000 houses as well as churches, schools, and even a hospital.

During this period of violence, the mobs sometimes cooperated with the authorities. Just as often, however, they ignored the police, even breaking through jail walls with sledgehammers to gain access to Black detainees whom they executed in unspeakable ways. In Tulsa, for example, that campaign of murder and mayhem began only after the local sheriff refused to hand over a Black teenager accused of sexual assault.

Although white America repressed the memories of Red Summer for many decades, that shameful chapter of our history has gained renewed scrutiny in this era of Black Lives Matter. The Tulsa massacre, for instance, features prominently in the recent Watchmen series on HBO and several documentaries are in the works for its centennial anniversary in 2021. Other recent documentaries have chronicled killings that took place in the immediate aftermath of World War I in Elaine, Arkansas, and Knoxville, Tennessee.

But memories of that Red Summer are resurfacing for another, more ominous reason.

White mobs have once again moved out of the shadows and into the limelight during this Trump moment. Militia movements and right-wing extremists are starting to turn out in force to intimidate racial justice and anti-Trump demonstrators. Predominantly white and often explicitly racist, these groups now regularly use social media to threaten their adversaries. This election season, they're gearing up to defend their president with an astonishing degree of support from Republican Party regulars.

According to a January 2020 survey by political scientist Larry Bartels, most Republicans believe "the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it." More than 40% agree that "a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands." In a recent essay on his survey's findings, Bartels concludes that ethnic antagonism "has a substantial negative effect on Republicans' commitment to democracy."

As the 2020 election nears, that party is also desperately trying to flip the script by using fear of "their mobs" and "Antifa terrorists" to drive its base to the polls. "We have a Marxist mob perpetrate historic levels of violence & disorder in major American cities," tweeted Florida Senator Marco Rubio in response to the Democratic National Convention in August. Not to be outdone, the president promptly said: "I'm the only thing standing between the American dream and total anarchy, madness, and chaos."

Of course, this country has no such Marxist mobs. The only real groups of vigilantes with a demonstrated history of violence and the guns to back up their threats congregate on the far right. The white supremacist Atomwaffen Division, for instance, has been linked to at least five killings since 2017. In late May and early June, members of the far-right Boogaloo Bois conducted two ambushes of police officers and security personnel, killing two of them and injuring three more. Over the summer, as far-right organizations spread the meme "All Lives Splatter" around the internet, dozens of right-wingers drove vehicles of every sort into crowds of Black Lives Matter protesters.

The prospect of far-right vigilantes or "militias" heading into the streets to contest the results of the November election has even mainstream institutions worried. "Right-wing extremists perpetrated two thirds of the attacks and plots in the United States in 2019 and over 90% between January 1 and May 8, 2020," reports the centrist think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. "If President Trump loses the election, some extremists may use violence because they believe -- however incorrectly -- that there was fraud or that the election of Democratic candidate Joe Biden will undermine their extremist objectives."

As the violence of Red Summer demonstrated, such acts were once a mainstay of American life. Indeed, the not-so-hidden history of this country has featured periodic explosions of mob violence. Racial justice activists rightly call for the radical reform of police departments. As November approaches, however, uniformed representatives of the state are hardly the only perpetrators of racist violence. Beware the white mobs, militias, and posses that are desperate to establish their own brand of justice.

Mob History

When Donald Trump paints a picture of lawlessness sweeping through the United States, he's effectively accusing the institutions of government of not doing their jobs. In a September 2nd memo, the Trump administration laid out its charges:

"For the past few months, several State and local governments have contributed to the violence and destruction in their jurisdictions by failing to enforce the law, disempowering and significantly defunding their police departments, and refusing to accept offers of Federal law enforcement assistance."

As president, Donald Trump has refused to take responsibility for anything, not the more than 200,000 Covid-19 deaths in the United States, not the pandemic-induced economic collapse, and certainly not the racial injustices that prompted this summer's wave of protests. Simultaneously above the law and outside it, the president consistently portrays himself as a populist leader who must battle the elite and its "deep state." With conspiracy-tinged tirades about Democrat-run cities failing to enforce the law, he has already symbolically put himself at the head of a mob -- for this is just how such groups justified their extra-legal actions throughout our history.

The right-wing racists who currently bear arms in defense of the president are part of a long tradition of Americans resorting to vigilantism when they believe the law is not protecting their interests. Whether it was the displacement and massacre of Native Americans, the horrors that slaveowners inflicted on African Americans, the wave of lynching that followed Reconstruction, the bloodletting of Red Summer around World War I, the murders conducted by the Ku Klux Klan and other extremist organizations, or even everyday resistance to federal policies like school desegregation, gangs of Americans have repeatedly taken the law into their own hands on behalf of white supremacy.

To be sure, mobs are hardly responsible for all the racist ills of this country. America has always been a place of institutional racism and violence. Slavery, after all, was legal until 1865. The U.S. government and its military did the bulk of the dispossessing of Native Americans. Police departments cooperated early on with the Ku Klux Klan and today's police officers continue to kill a disproportionate number of African Americans. Mobs have eagerly cooperated with state institutions on the basis of shared racism. But they have also stood at the ready to enforce the dictates of white supremacy even when the police and other guardians of order treat everyone equally before the law.

The mob has occupied an unusually prominent place in our history because Americans have cultivated a unique hostility toward the state and its institutions that goes back to the early years of the Republic. As historian Michael Pfeifer notes in his groundbreaking book, The Roots of Rough Justice, the violent libertarianism associated with the American Revolution and the subsequent lack of a strong, centralized state gave rise to mob violence that gathered force before the Civil War. He writes,

"Antebellum advocates of vigilantism in the Midwest, South, and West drew on Anglo-American and American revolutionary traditions of community violence that suggested that citizens might reclaim the functions of government when legal institutions could not provide sufficient protections to persons or their property."

Those mobs didn't necessarily think of themselves as anti-democratic. Rather, they imagined that they were improving on democracy. As Pfeifer points out, many of the vigilante outfits that targeted minorities practiced democratic procedures of a sort. Some adopted bylaws and even elected their own leaders. They held mock trials and votes on what punishments to mete out: hanging or burning alive.

Such mobs functioned both as a parallel military and, to a certain extent, a parallel state.

The two, in fact, went hand in hand. German sociologist Max Weber famously defined the state as possessing a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, but that was the German tradition. In the United States, particularly during its first 150 years, the state only aspired to possess such a monopoly.

Instead, a rough form of frontier justice often prevailed. Before and just after the American Revolution, even whites were its targets, but increasingly its victims were people of color. Slave owners, slave patrols, and ad hoc mobs dispensed justice throughout antebellum America and the tradition of "Judge Lynch" continued long after the abolition of slavery. The pushing of the frontier westward involved not only the Army's killing of Native Americans but extrajudicial violence by bands of settlers. Historian Benjamin Madley estimates that the Native population in California declined by more than 80% between 1846 and 1873, with as many as 16,000 killings in 370-plus massacres. This "winning" of the West also involved the widespread lynching of Latinos.

The "Right" to Bear Arms

Mobs were able to dispense frontier justice not only thanks to a strong libertarian tradition and a weak state, but also because of the widespread availability of guns. Coming out of the Civil War, this country developed a distinct gun culture sustained by a surge in firearm production. Gun prices fell and so guns fell into the hands of more and more citizens.

Mobs used firearms in the infamous Draft Riot in New York in 1863, which ended up targeting the city's Black community, and in New Orleans in 1866 when enraged whites attacked a meeting of Republicans determined to extend civil rights protections to African Americans. In their drive westward, settlers favored Winchester rifles with magazines that could fire 15 rounds, giving them a staggering advantage over the people they were displacing. Early gun control laws seldom prevented whites from acquiring firearms because they were mainly designed to keep guns out of the hands of Blacks and other racial minorities.

Even today, widespread gun ownership distinguishes the United States from every other country. Approximately 40% of American households own one or more firearms, a figure that has remained remarkably consistent for the last 50 years. If you look at guns per capita, the United States ranks number one in the world at 120 firearms per 100 civilians. The next country on the list, war-torn Yemen, comes in a distant second with 52 per hundred. With more guns than people within its borders, it's no wonder that the federal government has often struggled to maintain its monopoly over the legitimate use of physical force.

Gun enthusiasts have erroneously enlisted the Constitution to justify this extreme democracy of firepower. To guard against tyrannical federal behavior, the Second Amendment of the Constitution preserved the right of state militias to bear arms. However, organizations like the National Rifle Association have campaigned for years to reinterpret that amendment as giving any individual the right to bear arms.

That has, in turn, provided ammunition for both the "castle doctrine" (the right to use armed force to defend one's own home) and "stand your ground" laws (the right to use force in "self-defense"). Armed extremist groups now imagine themselves as nothing less than the Second Amendment's "well-regulated Militia" with a constitutionally given "right" to own weapons and defend themselves against the federal government (or anyone else they disapprove of).

Improbably enough, for the last four years, the head of the federal government has become one of their chief supporters.

Donald Trump: Leader of the Pack

Long before becoming president, Donald Trump was already acting as if he were the head of a lynch mob. In 1989, he published full-page ads in the New York Times and three other local papers calling for New York City to reinstate the death penalty in response to a brutal gang rape in Central Park. He swore that the city was then "ruled by the law of the streets" and that "muggers and murderers... should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes."

It was language distinctly reminiscent of white mobs bitter about the failure of local law enforcement to execute Blacks accused of crimes. Like many of their predecessors, the accused Black and Latino teenagers were, in the end, found to be quite innocent of the crime. After a long legal struggle, the Central Park Five (as they came to be known) were released from prison. Trump has never apologized for his campaign to kill innocent people.

When he ran for president, he quickly moved beyond mere "law and order" rhetoric. In his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump deliberately cultivated a following among armed extremists. At a rally in North Carolina, for instance, he warned of what might happen to the Supreme Court if Hillary Clinton were to win.

"If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks," he lamented. Then he added in his typically confused and elliptical manner of speaking: "Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don't know." He was, in other words, suggesting that followers with guns could do something about Clinton's choices by shooting her or her judicial picks.

Throughout that campaign season, he regularly retweeted white supremacist claims and memes. At the time, it was estimated that more than 60% of the accounts he was retweeting had links to white supremacists. At his rallies, he encouraged his supporters to get "rough" with protesters.

As president, he's continued to side with the mob. He infamously refused to denounce neo-Nazis gathering in Charlottesville in August 2017, applauded the armed demonstrators who demanded the reopening of the economy in the pandemic spring of 2020, and defended 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse after he killed two Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August.

Trump has stood up for the Confederate flag, Confederate statues, and keeping the names of Confederate generals on U.S. military bases. In a recent speech denouncing school curricula that teach about slavery and other unsavory aspects of our history, he pledged to erect a statue of a slaveowner in a project he's been promoting -- building a National Garden of American Heroes park. The current administration has cultivated direct links to white nationalists through disgraced figures like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, as well as current advisers like Stephen Miller.

In his reelection bid, Trump pointedly held his first pandemic rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he excoriated Democrats who "want to take away your guns through the repeal of your Second Amendment" and "left-wing radicals [who] burn down buildings, loot businesses, destroy private property, injure hundreds of dedicated police officers." In a literal whitewashing of history, he made no mention of the White mobs that had looted businesses and destroyed property in that very city in 1921.

Trump's exhortations to his followers over the heads of state and local officials appeal to the mob belief that citizens must reclaim the functions of government, if necessary through force. Right-wing militias explicitly embrace that history. The "Three Percenters," a militia movement that emerged in 2008 after the election of Barack Obama, purports to protect Americans from tyrannical government. Their name derives from the inaccurate belief that only 3% of Americans took up arms to fight the British empire in the eighteenth century.

Of course, three percent of Americans are not now members of such militias and White nationalist movements, but their numbers are on the rise. White nationalist groups increased from 100 in 2017 to 155 in 2019. The several hundred militia groups now in existence probably have a total of 15,000 to 20,000 members, including an increasing number of veterans with combat experience. Far from a homogeneous force, some are focused on patrolling the southern border and targeting the undocumented. Others are obsessed with resisting the federal government, even in a few cases opposing Trump's various power grabs.

West Virginia University professor John Temple argues, in fact, that not all right-wing militias hold extremist views. "I have listened to many hours of 'patriot' conversations that didn't sound all that different from what you would hear during a typical evening on Fox News," he writes. "Many seemed to have joined the cause for social reasons, or because they liked guns, or because they wanted to be part of something they saw as historic and grandiose -- not because their views were far more radical than those of typical right-leaning Americans."

This is not exactly reassuring, since the politics of right-leaning, Fox News-watching Americans have grown more extreme. With nearly half of the Republicans surveyed by Larry Bartels prepared to take the law into their own hands, Trump has nearly succeeded in transforming his party into a mob of vigilantes.

Don't be fooled into thinking that the president is a law-and-order candidate. He flourishes in chaos and routinely flouts the law. By siding with right-wing militias and their ilk, he daily undermines the state's monopoly on legitimate violence.

The debate over defunding the police must be seen in this context. In a country awash in guns and grassroots racism, with a major party flirting with mob violence, getting rid of police departments would be akin to jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire of uncontained extremism. Sure, local law enforcement needs major reforms, massive civic oversight, and right-sized budgets. Police departments must be purged of white nationalists and neo-Nazis. The Pentagon has to stop supplying the cops with military-grade weaponry.

But remember: the police can be reformed. What was once an all-white force now better reflects America's diversity. The mob, by definition, is not subject to reforms or any oversight whatsoever.

This is no time to permit the return of frontier justice administered by white mobs and a lawless president, especially with a critical election looming. Mob violence has often accompanied elections in the past, with rival factions fighting over the results, as in the street battles of 1874 in New Orleans between Republican integrationists and racist Democrats. Like nineteenth-century Louisiana, the struggle this November is not just about Democrats versus Republicans. It's about the rule of law versus racist vigilantism.

White supremacy is not going to give up its hold on power without a fight. If you thought you'd seen real American carnage in Trump's four years in office, prepare yourself for the chaotic aftermath of the November election. The mob is itching to take the law into its own hands one more time on behalf of its very own mobster-in-chief.

John Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest novel is Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original and book two of his Splinterlands series.

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 John Feffer

BRAND NEW STORIES