History Is More or Less Bunk
The Light at the End of the Tunnel?
By Tom Engelhardt
Let me quote a Trumpian figure from long ago, Henry Ford. That's right, the bigot who created the Ford Motor Company (and once even ran for president). Back in 1916, in an interview with a Chicago Tribune reporter, he offered this bit of wisdom on the subject of history:
"Say, what do I care about Napoleon? What do we care about what they did 500 or 1,000 years ago? I don't know whether Napoleon did or did not try to get across and I don't care. It means nothing to me. History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker's dam is the history we make today."
As it happened, Napoleon Bonaparte died only 42 years before Henry Ford was born and I'm not sure he tried to cross anything except a significant part of Russia (unsuccessfully). My suspicion: Ford may have been thinking, in the associative fashion we've become used to in the age of Trump, of Julius Caesar's famed crossing of the Rubicon almost 2,000 years earlier. But really, who knows or cares in a world in which "bunk" has become the definition of history -- a world in which Donald Trump, in news conference after news conference, is the only person worth a tinker's dam (or damn)?
In fact, call Ford a prophet (as well as a profiteer) because so many years after he died in 1947 -- I was three then, but you already knew I was mighty old, right? -- we find ourselves in a moment that couldn't be bunkier. We now have a president who undoubtedly doesn't know Nero -- the infamous fiddling Roman emperor (although he was probably playing a cithara) -- from Spiro -- that's Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon's vice president who lived god knows how long ago. In fact, Agnew was the crook who fell even before his president was shown the door. But why linger on ancient history? After all, even yesterday's history is water through the gate, if not under the bridge, and in these glory days of Donald Trump, who cares? Not him, that's for sure.
A President Who Deserves the Medal of Honor?
All of this is my way of introducing a vivid piece of imagery that our president snatched out of the refuse pile of history and first used in late March. It was a figure of speech he's repeated since that didn't get the kind of media commentary -- hardly a bit of it -- it deserved. Nor did The Donald get the praise for it he deserved. Henry Ford would have been deeply proud of him for bunking, as well as debunking, history in such a fashion.
We're talking about a president who couldn't get a historical fact right if he tried, which he has absolutely no reason to do. After all, in early March, facing the coronavirus, he admitted that he had no idea anyone had ever died of the flu. Weeks later, he spoke at a news conference about mobilizing military personnel to deal with the modern equivalent of the flu pandemic of "1917." ("We'll be telling them where they're going. They're going into war, they're going into a battle that they've never trained for. Nobody's trained for, nobody's seen this, I would say since 1917, which was the greatest of them all.") He was, of course, referring to the catastrophic "Spanish flu" of 1918 in which his own grandfather died, but no matter. Truly, no matter. After all, that must have been 1,000 years ago in a past beyond the memory of anyone but a very stable genius. Under the circumstances, what difference could a year make?
Which brings me to the bunkable historical image I referred to above. At his March 24th coronavirus briefing, speaking of scary death counts to come (or perhaps, given what I'm about to mention, I should use that classic Vietnam-era phrase "body counts"), President Trump offered an upbeat glimpse into the future. His exact words were: "There's tremendous hope as we look forward and we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel."
Ah, yes, the light at the end of the tunnel. Such a bright, hopeful, and striking image that others among his supporters and administration figures promptly ran with it. Speaking of the then-latest grim coronavirus figures from New York state, for instance, Fox News's Laura Ingraham said: "If that trend does hold, it's really good news about when this nightmare actually peaks, and then we start seeing light at the end of the tunnel." Surgeon General Jerome Adams added, "What the president, in my mind, is doing is trying to help people understand that there is a light at the end of this tunnel." And Admiral Brett Giroir, the administration's coronavirus testing coordinator, chimed in: "There are beginning to be indicators that we are getting ahead of this -- that there's light at the head of the tunnel."
A week later when things had grown far worse than he predicted, the president added, "We're going to have a very tough two weeks" before the country sees the "light at the end of the tunnel."
Now, historically speaking, here's the strange thing: you could barely find a hint -- whether from Donald Trump, his advisers, or media sources of any kind -- of where, historically speaking, that striking image had come from. In official Washington, perhaps the sole echo of its ominous past lay in the sardonic response of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "The light at the end of the tunnel," she said, "may be a train coming at us." Or, as a friend commented to me, maybe it was light from a refrigerated truck like the ones New York hospitals are now using to store the overflow of dead bodies from the pandemic.
History? Yes, there actually is a history here, even if it's from a past so distant that no one, not even a president with a "very, very large brain," seems to remember it. And yet few who lived through the Vietnam War would be likely to forget that phrase. It was first used, as far as we know, in 1967 when the war's military commander, General William Westmoreland, returned to Washington to declare that the conflict the U.S. was fighting in a wildly destructive manner was successfully coming to an end, the proof being that "light" he spotted "at the end of the tunnel." (He later denied using the phrase.) That memorably ill-chosen metaphor would become a grim punch line for the growing antiwar movement of the era.
So let's say that there's a certain grisly charm in hearing it from the president who skipped that war, thanks to fake bone spurs, and has talked about his own "Vietnam" as having been his skill in avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs, in various home-front sleep-arounds. He once even claimed to radio personality Howard Stern that he should have gotten "the Congressional Medal of Honor" for doing so. ("It's Vietnam. It is very dangerous. So I'm very, very careful," he told Stern, speaking of those STDs.)
In any case, to have picked up that metaphorical definition of failure from the Vietnam era seems strangely appropriate for a president who first claimed the coronavirus was nothing, then a "new hoax" of the Democrats, then easy to handle, before declaring himself a "wartime president" (without the necessary tests, masks, or ventilators on hand). In some sense, President Trump has been exhibiting the sort of detachment from reality that American presidents and other officials did less openly in the Vietnam years. And for this president, Covid-19 could indeed prove to be the disease version of a Vietnam War.
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