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General News    H3'ed 9/8/20

Tomgram: Engelhardt, The Great, Great Fall

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Fourth World
Or American Carnage From a Pandemic President
By Tom Engelhardt

The year was 1991 and the United States was suddenly the globe's lone superpower, its ultimate hyperpower, the last and greatest of its kind, the soon-to-be-indispensable nation. The only one left -- alone, utterly alone and triumphant atop the world.

Who could have asked for more? Or better? It had been a Cold War fantasy of the first order -- until that other superpower, the Soviet Union, imploded. In fact, even that doesn't catch the true shock of the moment, since Washington's leaders simply hadn't imagined a world in which the Cold War could ever truly end.

Now, go ahead, blame me. In this pandemic moment that should perhaps be considered a sign of a burning, sickening future to come, I'm stoking your nostalgia for better times. Admittedly, even that past was, in truth, a fantasy of the first (or perhaps last) order. After all, in retrospect, that mighty, resplendent, lone superpower, victorious beyond the wildest dreams of its political elite, was already about to embark on its own path of decline. Enwreathed in triumph, it, too, would be heading for the exits, even if so much more slowly than the Soviet Union.

It's clear enough now that, in 1991, with Ronald Reagan's former vice president George H.W. Bush in the White House and his son, George W., waiting in the wings of history (while Iraqi autocrat and former U.S. ally Saddam Hussein was still perched in his palace in Baghdad, Iraq), the United States was already launching itself on the path to Donald Trump's America. No, he didn't know it. How could he? Who could have possibly imagined him as the president of the United States? He was still a tabloid phenomenon then (masquerading that year as his own publicist "John Miller" in phone interviews with reporters to laud the attractions and sexual conquests of one "Donald Trump"). He was also on the road to bankruptcy court since his five Atlantic City casinos would soon go down in flames. Him as a future candidate to head an America where life for so many would be in decline and its very greatness in need of being "made" great again... well, who coulda dreamt it? Not me, that's for sure.

Welcome to American Carnage

Let me apologize one more time. Yes, I was playing on your sense of nostalgia in this besieged American moment of ours. Mission accomplished, I assume.

So much, I'm afraid, for such Auld Lang Syne moments, since that one took place in a previous century, even if, remarkably enough, that wasn't actually so long ago. Only 29 years passed from that singular moment of triumph in Washington (a period that would then be fancied as "the end of history") to Donald Trump's America-not-First-but-Last world -- to, that is, genuine "American carnage" (and I'm not just thinking about the almost 190,000 Americans who have already died from Covid-19 with no end in sight). Less than a quarter of a century took us from the president who asked God to continue to "bless the United States of America" in the wake of a historic victory to the man who campaigned for president on the declinist slogan of making America great again.

And don't think Donald Trump was wrong in that 2017 inaugural address of his. A certain level of American carnage (particularly in the form of staggering economic inequality, not to speak of the "forever wars" still being fought so brainlessly by a military on which this country was spending its money rather than on health, education, and infrastructure) had helped bring him to power and he knew it. He even promised to solve just such problems, including ending those forever wars, as he essentially did again in his recent White House acceptance speech, even as he promised to keep "rebuilding" that very military.

Here was the key passage from that long-gone inaugural address of his:

"Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now."

Of course, more than 3½ years later, in that seemingly eternal "now" of his, the carnage seemed eternal -- whether in the form of those wars he swore he would get us out of; the spending on the military and the rest of what's still known as the national security state, which only increased; the economic inequality, which just grew, thanks in part to a humongous 2017 tax cut, a bonanza for the wealthiest Americans (and no one else), leaving the government and so the rest of us owing far more money than previously imaginable; and above all, the urge of his administration, from top to bottom, not just to deny that climate change exists but to burn this planet down by "unleashing" a program of "American energy dominance" and taking every imaginable restraint off the exploitation of fossil-fuels and opening up yet more areas for those industries to exploit. In other words, Donald J. Trump has given American carnage new meaning and, in his singular way, lent a remarkable hand to the transformation of this country.

A Simple Math Problem

When The Donald descended that Trump Tower escalator in June 2015 to declare himself a candidate for president, he made a promise to the disgruntled citizens of the American heartland. He would build what he hailed as a "great wall" (that the Mexican government would pay for) to seal us off from the lesser breeds on this planet (Mexican rapists!). Until that moment, of course, there had been just one "great" wall on planet Earth and it had been constructed by various Chinese dynasties over untold centuries to keep out nomadic invaders, the armed "caravans" of that moment.

As Americans would soon learn, however, being second best to or only as good as just about anything wasn't, to put it mildly, Donald Trump's signature style. So in that first speech of his, he instantly doubled the "greats" in his wall. He would create nothing less than a "great, great" one.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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