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Tomgram: Engelhardt, Campaign 2016 as a Demobilizing Spectacle

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.

You may not know it, but you're living in a futuristic science fiction novel. And that's a fact. If you were to read about our American world in such a novel, you would be amazed by its strangeness. Since you exist right smack in the middle of it, it seems like normal life (Donald Trump and Ben Carson aside). But make no bones about it, so far this has been a bizarre American century.

Let me start with one of the odder moments we've lived through and give it the attention it's always deserved. If you follow my train of thought and the history it leads us into, I guarantee you that you'll end up back exactly where we are -- in the midst of the strangest presidential campaign in our history.

To get a full frontal sense of what that means, however, let's return to late September 2001. I'm sure you remember that moment, just over two weeks after those World Trade Center towers came down and part of the Pentagon was destroyed, leaving a jangled secretary of defense instructing his aides, "Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not."

I couldn't resist sticking in that classic Donald Rumsfeld line, but I leave it to others to deal with Saddam Hussein, those fictional weapons of mass destruction, the invasion of Iraq, and everything that's happened since, including the establishment of a terror "caliphate" by a crew of Islamic extremists brought together in American military prison camps -- all of which you wouldn't believe if it were part of a sci-fi novel. The damn thing would make Planet of the Apes look like outright realism.

Instead, try to recall the screaming headlines that labeled the 9/11 attacks "the Pearl Harbor of the twenty-first century" or "a new Day of Infamy," and the attackers "the kamikazes of the twenty-first century." Remember the moment when President George W. Bush, bullhorn in hand, stepped onto the rubble at "Ground Zero" in New York, draped his arm around a fireman, and swore payback in the name of the American people, as members of an impromptu crowd shouted out things like "Go get 'em, George!"

"I can hear you! I can hear you!" he responded. "The rest of the world hears you! And the people -- and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!"

"USA! USA! USA!" chanted the crowd.

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Then, on September 20th, addressing Congress, Bush added, "Americans have known wars, but for the past 136 years they have been wars on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941." By then, he was already talking about "our war on terror."

Now, hop ahead to that long-forgotten moment when he would finally reveal just how a twenty-first-century American president should rally and mobilize the American people in the name of the ultimate in collective danger. As CNN put it at the time, "President Bush... urged Americans to travel, spend, and enjoy life." His actual words were:

"And one of the great goals of this nation's war is to restore public confidence in the airline industry and to tell the traveling public, get on board, do your business around the country, fly and enjoy America's great destination spots. Go down to Disney World in Florida, take your families and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed."

So we went to war in Afghanistan and later Iraq to rebuild faith in flying. Though that got little attention at the time, tell me it isn't a detail out of some sci-fi novel. Or put another way, as far as the Bush administration was then concerned, Rosie the Riveter was moldering in her grave and the model American for mobilizing a democratic nation in time of war was Rosie the Frequent Flyer. It turned out not to be winter in Valley Forge, but eternal summer in Orlando. From then on, as the Bush administration planned its version of revenge-cum-global-domination, the message it sent to the citizenry was: go about your business and leave the dirty work to us.

Disney World opened in 1971, but for a moment imagine that it had been in existence in 1863 and that, more than seven score years ago, facing a country in the midst of a terrible civil war, Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg had said this:

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"It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom at Disney World -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish for lack of vacations in Florida."

Or imagine that, in response to that "day of infamy," the Pearl Harbor of the twentieth century, Franklin Roosevelt had gone before Congress and, in an address to the nation, had said:

"Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger. With confidence in our airlines, with the unbounding determination of our people to visit Disney World, we will gain the inevitable triumph -- so help us God."

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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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