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Tomgram: William Astore, America's Dark Side in the Age of Trump

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

History? This is history?

I mean, in this country it is historic when this president, in one of his classically chaotic "news" conferences, refuses in advance to accept the results of the coming election unless they please him E-normously. ("We're going to have to see what happens, you know that. I've been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster.") It is historic when Lindsey Graham, the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says of his own pledge in 2016 to never confirm a Supreme Court justice in an election year, even with a Republican president in office, that everything he mouthed then is null and void now. ("I want you to use my words against me," he commented at the time. "If there's a Republican president in 2016 and a vacancy occurs in the last year of the first term, you can say Lindsey Graham said let's let the next president, whoever it might be, make that nomination.") Essentially, it didn't even happen. Who cares if it was caught on video? None of it matters. Not a whit. Not today. Not with Donald Trump in the Oval Office. (As Graham put it, "I am certain if the shoe were on the other foot, you would do the same.") It's no less historic when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell turns his own 2016 refusal to consider President Barack Obama's nominee for the court many months before an election into an insistence that doing so weeks before an election is the only possible way to go. ("The historical precedent is overwhelming and it runs in one direction. If our Democratic colleagues want to claim they are outraged, they can only be outraged at the plain facts of American history.") American history indeed!

But you're a historian of this moment, too. Who isn't? Who can't help being one? So you've been watching history-in-the-making, moment by egregious moment, in this godforsaken country of ours and you know that we certainly are making history now -- making it, you might say, a thousand times over. Or so retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and history professor, as well as TomDispatch regular, William Astore suggests today.

Of course, the ultimate question in this ever stranger, ever more embattled moment of ours is: Are we -- the America we've known with all its problems, disasters, and glories -- history? Tom

A Thousand Times Worse
Or How to Nuke History
By William J. Astore

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.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("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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