Is Donald Trump the Second 9/11?
Or Is He the Third?
By Tom Engelhardt
Here's the question at hand -- and I guarantee you that you'll read it here first: Is Donald Trump the second or even possibly the third 9/11? Because truly, he has to be one or the other.
Let me explain, and while I do, keep this in mind: as 2019 ends, thanks to Brexit and the victory of Boris Johnson in Britain's recent election, the greatest previous imperial power on this planet is clearly headed for the sub-basement of history. Meanwhile, that other superpower of the Cold War era, the Soviet Union, now Russia, remains a well-sauced Putinesca shadow of its former self. And then, of course, there's the country that, not so long ago, every major American politician but Donald Trump proclaimed the most exceptional, indispensable nation ever.
As it happens, the United States -- if you didn't catch the reference above -- has been looking a bit peaked lately itself. You can't say that it's the end of the road for a land of such wealth and staggering military power, enough to finish off several Earth-sized planets. However, it's clearly a country in decline on a planet in the same condition and its present leader, Tariff Man, however uniquely orange-faced he may be, is just the symptom of the long path to hell in a handbasket its leadership embarked on almost three decades ago as the Cold War ended.
Admittedly, President Trump has proved to be the symptom from hell. To give him full credit, he's now remarkably hard-at-tweet dismantling the various alliances, agreements, and organizations that U.S. leaders had assembled, since 1945, to make this country the Great Britain (and beyond) of the second half of the twentieth century and that's an accomplishment of the first order.
And keep in mind the context for so much of this: it's happening in a country that may be experiencing an unprecedented kind of inequality. It's producing billionaires at a staggering clip with just three men already possessing wealth equivalent to that of half the rest of the population; this, mind you, at a moment when the globe's 26 richest people reportedly are worth as much as half of everyone else, or 3.8 billion people. And this in a world in which, as the income of that poorest half of humanity continues to decline, the wealth of billionaires increases by $2.5 billion a day and a new billionaire is minted every two days.
Had all of this not already been so and had a sense of decline not been in the air, it's inconceivable that those heartland white Americans who had come to feel themselves on the losing end of developments in this country would have sent a charlatan billionaire into the White House to represent them (or at least to give the finger to the Washington establishment). And all this on a planet that itself, in climate terms, appears to be in unprecedented decline.
Think of the above as part of what's come down, metaphorically speaking, since those towers in New York fell more than 18 years ago.
Looking Back on 9/11
It's in this context that we should all look back on what truly did come down that Tuesday morning in September 2001, an all-American day of the grimmest sort. That was, of course, the day when this country was attacked by 19 suicidal hijackers, most of them Saudi, using American commercial jets as their four-plane air force. They, in turn, were inspired by a man, Osama bin Laden, and his organization, al-Qaeda, part of a crew of radical Islamists that Washington had backed years earlier in an Afghan War against the Soviet Union. In response to the events of that day -- though it seems unimaginable now -- we could have joined a world already in pain, one that had experienced horrors largely unimaginable in this country until that moment, in a kind of global solidarity.
Instead, responding to the destruction of those towers in Manhattan and part of the Pentagon, the Bush administration essentially launched a war against much of the planet. They soon dubbed it a "Global War on Terror," or GWOT, and key officials almost instantly claimed it would have more than 60 countries (or terror groups in them) in its sights. Eighteen years later, the U.S. is still at war across a vast swath of the globe, involved in conflict after conflict from the Philippines to Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq to northern Africa and beyond. In the process, that GWOT has produced failed state after failed state and terror group after terror group, enough to make the original al-Qaeda (still going) look like nothing at all. And of course, in all these years, the U.S. military, hailed here as "the finest fighting force that the world has ever known" (and similar formulations), lacks a single decisive (or even modest) victory. Meanwhile, everywhere, yet more towers, real or metaphorical, continue to fall; in fact, whole cities in the Middle East now lie in rubble.
The top officials of President George W. Bush's administration would, at the time, mistake 9/11 for a kind of upside-down stroke of luck, the perfect excuse for launching military operations, including invasions, geared to the ultimate domination of the planet (and its key oil supplies). Via drones armed with missiles and bombs, they would turn any president into an assassin-in-chief. They would, in the end, help spread terror groups in a fashion beyond imagining on September 12, 2001, while their never-ending wars would displace vast numbers of innocent people, creating a refugee crisis of a kind not seen since the end of World War II when significant parts of the planet stood in ruins. And all of that, in turn, would help spark, on a global scale, what came to be known as the "populist right," in part thanks to the very refugees created by that GWOT. The response to what came down on 9/11, in other words, would create its own hell on Earth.
Who knew back then? Not me, that's for sure. Not when I started what became TomDispatch 18 years ago, feeling, in the wake of 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, that something was truly wrong with our world, that something more than the World Trade Center might be in the process of coming down around all our ears. I can still remember the feeling in those weeks, as I saw the mainstream media's focus narrow drastically amid nationwide self-congratulatory celebrations of this country as the greatest survivor, dominator, and victim on the planet. I watched with trepidation as we began to close down to the world, while essentially attempting to take all the roles in the global drama for ourselves except greatest evil doer, which was, of course, left to Osama bin Laden.
I still remember thinking then that the Vietnam years had been the worst and most embattled in my lifetime, but that somehow this -- whatever it turned out to be -- would be so much worse. And yet whatever I was sensing, whatever I was imagining, wouldn't prove to be the half of it, not the quarter of it.
If you had told me then that we were heading for Donald Trump's version of American decline and a corrupt global gilded age of unprecedented proportions, one in which showmanship, scam, and self-serving corruption would become the essence of everything, while god knows what kinds of nightmares -- like those subprime mortgages of the 2007 economic meltdown -- were quietly piling up somewhere just beyond our view, I would have thought you mad.