A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Donald Trump Knew Us Better Than We Knew Ourselves.
In 2016 as now, he was the candidate of chaos. Yes, he was a billionaire (or wanna-be billionaire or in-hock billionaire, not to mention a liar, a cheat, and a scoundrel), but from the beginning he appealed to the forces of order in America that were also, as it happened, the forces of chaos. Donald Trump entered the presidential sweepstakes, or to be completely accurate rode an escalator into it, from stage right. In another universe, he could have entered from stage left and he wouldn’t have given a damn either way.
After all, there never really was a left, right, or center for the king of apprentices. There was never anything but the imposing figure known as The Donald, the man of the hour, any hour, past, present, or future. Whatever his political position of the moment, he reflected one thing above all: the underlying chaos and bad faith of a world of wealth, power, and ever-growing inequality, a world, as it happened, just waiting to go down.
Now that he’s defeated, count on one thing: he’ll take as much of this country with him as he can. If he has his way, when he finally decides to jump ship, money in hand, he’ll leave the rest of us at a vast mask-less rally with death running wild in our midst. From the beginning, he was always the orange-faced, yellow-haired personification of chaos. Now, just as the Republican Party did in 2016, this country has taken on his chaos as our own and, in the wake of the recent election, one obvious question is: Are we, too, scheduled for the ventilator of history?
Do I sound extreme? I damn well hope so. We’re in a gridlocked, post-election moment of previously unimaginable extremity in an increasingly over-armed, ever more divided country that used to be known as the “last superpower” on Planet Earth. It matters (but not enough) that that aged Democratic centrist Joe Biden has taken the presidency and, if all goes faintly as previously expected, will make his way into the future White House. Without a Senate majority, however, and with a reduced majority in the House, without the Democrats having taken a single state legislature from the Republicans, and with Donald Trump’s America still fully mobilized and ready for… well, who knows what… don’t count on good tidings ahead.
The Personification of Carnage
From the start, he was imperial America’s candidate of decline, even if few recognized it at the time. Still, it should have been obvious enough in 2016 — it was to me anyway — that his trademark slogan, Make America Great Again, was nothing short of an admission that this “exceptional,” “indispensable” nation of ours, the greatest superpower in history (or so this country’s politicians then liked to believe) had, in fact, seen better times.
Donald Trump was then, and remains, a vengeful, preening peacock sent by god knows whom to make that reality obvious to one and all. That was certainly true of the slice of white, heartland, working-class America that decided to embrace the billionaire bankupteeand reality TV host. In a land of already staggering inequality, he was the one who would somehow give them back their lost status, their lost sense of American wellbeing and of a future that they could embrace for their children and grandchildren. And if he didn’t do that for them, he would at least be emotional payback when it came to all the loathed powers-that-be in Washington who had, they felt, taken them down.
His “base,” as they came to be known in the media, whom he abhorred, adored, and played like an accordion, embraced the man who, in the end, was guaranteed to leave them holding the bag without the slightest compunction. In those years, they became his property, his very own apprentices, like the political party he also absorbed without a second thought.
When it came to that base, he became, after a fashion, their god or perhaps their demon, and so he remains today, even in defeat. Of course, he won’t care if he ends up bankrupting them, leaves them in a ditch, or continues to rev them up at future rallies that, though they may spread death, leave him feeling whole and good and top of the line.
On the other hand, when Joe Biden, the definition of an old white man, finally limps into the Oval Office, he’ll represent a return to normalcy in Washington, the retrieval of an America that was. The only problem: the America that was — if you’ll excuse the repetition of a verb — was an America in decline, even if its leaders didn’t know it. It was a country on course for a previously un-American version of inequality and so instability that once would have been unimaginable.
Who can doubt that Donald Trump himself was the personification of hell on Earth? He was the witch in the wardrobe. He was a satanic art-of-the-dealer (every deal, by definition, meant only for himself). He was what this country vomited up from the depths of its disturbed innards as a uniquely symbolic president. From the moment he delivered that Inaugural Address of his on January 20, 2017, he would also be the personification of carnage.
And yes, goad me a little more, and believe me I could go on. But you get the drift, right?
And yet give Donald Trump the credit he deserves. However intuitively, he grasped just where this country was and was going (and, of course, how he could benefit from that). He understood its fault lines in a way no one else did. He even understood how to run a campaign for — instead of against — a pandemic in a way that should have left him 20,000 leagues under the sea, not floating in a heated pool at Mar-a-Lago.
There couldn’t be a grimmer moral to the American story than this: he knew all of us so much better than we knew ourselves. To so many Americans, he spoke what felt like reality itself. It mattered not at all that he looked like, felt like, and was a con man in a great American tradition, or that he had stiffed the government with those tax returns he’d never release. After all, whatever he was, he was the genuine (fraudulent) thing in a world where increasing numbers of Americans already felt conned by the 1% politics of a Washington that was filled with con artists of a different sort.
Now, despite the scads of lawyers he’s called into action to screw the works, Donald Trump has missed his chance for a second round in the Oval Office and, as a result, rest assured, we’ll all be left holding the bag. In the midst of the pandemic from hell — don’t doubt it for a second — this will be another kind of hell on earth.
A Vote for Doom
Now, let’s look on the bright side, because at such a moment who wants to just read a screed of negativity? So here’s the good news: thanks to President Trump’s defeat in election 2020 (however long it may take to play out in court), the world will go down more slowly, though how much more slowly remains to be seen. After all, there was one factor in any Trump second term that was going to be unlike any other.
Though it may not seem like it to us, the rest of what we would have seen from a Trump second term — autocratic behavior, raw racism, a red-hot version of nationalism (white and otherwise), aggrieved masculinity, all amid the pandemic of the century — would have been just another passing chapter in human history. In that long tale, autocrats and nationalists of every grim kind have been a dime-a-dozen and even nightmarish pandemics anything but unknown. Give it a decade, a century, a millennium, and it would be as if nothing had happened at all. Who but the historians (if they still exist) would even remember?
Unfortunately, that’s not true of one factor in election 2020, though it played the most modest of roles in the campaign itself. That was, of course, the phenomenon of climate change, the human heating of the planet through the never-ending release into the atmosphere (and the oceans) of greenhouse gasses from the burning of fossil fuels.
Certainly, since the coal-fired industrial revolution began in England in the eighteenth century, the warming of this planet has been sparked and fed by us humans, but it is not, in fact, part of human history. It will operate on a timescale likely to leave that history in the dust. Once released, and if not brought under some reasonable control (as is still possible), it’s a phenomenon that will stand, in the most devastating fashion imaginable, outside human history altogether. Unlike any other Trumpian phenomenon, once it truly sets in, give it a decade, a century, even a millennium, and it will still be working to ensure that Earth, to one degree or another, becomes a distinctly unlivable planet for humanity.
It’s little short of passing strange — you might actually call it suicidal — that Donald Trump (and the crew he brought to power) would be quite so intent not just on ignoring or “denying” climate change, as is often charged, but on amplifying it by, in essence, actively setting this planet afire. The president’s term for it was “unleashing American Energy Dominance.” How strange, however, that his intent to destroy a habitable planet proved quite so popular, not once, but twice — and who knows about a third time in 2024?
After all, a vote for Trump was, in essence, a vote for doom. At some level, it wasn’t even complicated, but from a base that seemed to glory in those mask-less, chanting love fests for their One and Only, perhaps none of this should have been a surprise at all.
If Donald Trump has become something like a god to his supporters, then perhaps it’s worth asking what kind of a god would be quite so intent on setting fire to the planet (and while he was at it murdering his own apprentices with Covid-19)? Perhaps we need to think of him, in fact, as our very own boatman Charon on the river Styx, paddling us all to what someday could quite literally be a hell on Earth.
After all, I’m writing this piece in New York City on a November day when it’s 74 degrees outside (and, no, that’s not a misprint). Yet another fierce tropical storm in a record year of them has drenched parts of Florida, a place that’s no longer a swing state but, like Mar-a-Lago, property of The Donald. Meanwhile, parts of the West, having burned and smoked and flamed in a historic fashion across millions and millions of charred acres amid heat waves galore, are still smoldering (though hardly noticed by anyone), and the world couldn’t be less together.
In a Senate controlled by Mitch McConnell, green new deals or two-trillion-dollar climate plans will become more fantastic than Donald Trump himself. Still, with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris at least partially running a deeply divided country in the midst of a pandemic and an economy that’s gone to hell, the pyromania will ease up somewhat. Some modest steps might even be taken toward alternate forms of energy and some to save the environment, as well as a humanity in distress. It won’t be what’s needed, but it won’t be a torch either and that’s the best thing to be said about our moment and why it truly mattered that Donald Trump was not reelected.
Now, return for a moment to 1991, when that other superpower, the Soviet Union, imploded. America’s power brokers then (including Joe Biden), believing themselves alone and powerful beyond imagining on Planet Earth, the inheritors of everything that had gone before, launched what would become disastrous forever wars, sure that this planet was theirs for the taking, even as history itself — just imagine — was ending.
Almost three decades later, that same last superpower is a democracy in decline, not to say chaos; an imperial power in decline globally; a military power that can’t find a winning war to fight (even as Congress, no matter the president, appropriates yet more funding for the military-industrial complex). We have a 78-year-old man getting ready to inhabit the Oval Office and another 78-year-old preparing to oppose him in the Senate, while an 80-year-oldruns the House. Doesn’t this tell you something about a country swept away by a pandemic — 100,000 or more cases a day — and, despite assurances from Donald Trump, without a turnable “corner” in sight? And none of this would be the end of the world, so to speak, if it weren’t for climate change.
Admittedly, Covid-19 has turned this country into a kind of hell on Earth, having been left to roam in an unprecedented fashion by a killer president. Cases are soaring, hospitals overwhelmed, deaths rising, and almost half of America can’t think about anything but crowding together for presidential rallies, living mask-less lives, and “opening” the economy.
Trumpism has split America in two in a way that hasn’t been imaginable since the Civil War. The president and the Senate are likely to be in gridlock, the judicial system a partisan affair of the first order, the national security state a money-gobbling shadow empire, the citizenry armed to the teeth, racism rising, and life everywhere in an increasing state of chaos.
Welcome to the (Dis)United States. Donald Trump led the way and, whatever he does, I suspect that this, for at least the time being, is still in some sense his world, not Joe Biden’s. He was the man and, like it or not, we were all his apprentices in a performance of destructive power of the first order that has yet to truly end.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs TomDispatch and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.
Copyright 2020 Tom Engelhardt. First published by TomDispatch.