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.
In the years that followed, it’s also become clear that neither spelling, nor pronouncing words is among his special skills or, put another way, that he’s a great, great misspeller and mispronouncer. Given that he managed to produce only 300 miles of wall on the U.S.-Mexico border in almost four years in office, almost all of it replacing already existing barriers (at the expense of the American taxpayer and a set of private donors-cum-suckers), we have to assume that the candidate on that first day either misspelled or mispronounced one word in that phrase of his.
Given what’s happened to this country since, it’s hard not to imagine that what he meant was not a great, great wall, but a great, great fall. And in this pandemic hell of a country, with its economy in the kind of tatters that no one has yet faintly come to grips with, its health (and mental health) in crisis mode, parts of it burnt to a crisp and others flooded and clobbered by intensifying storms, if that’s what he meant to say, his leadership of what remains the world’s lone superpower (despite a rising China) has indeed been a great, great success. For such a triumph, however, this country needs some new term, something to replace that old “indispensable nation” (and, for my money, “dispensable nation” doesn’t quite do the trick).
And I have a suggestion. Once upon a time when I was much, much younger, we spoke of three worlds on planet Earth. There was the first world (also known as “the free world”), which included the developed countries of North America, Europe, and Japan (and you could throw in South Korea and Australia, if you wanted); there was the second world, also known as the communist bloc, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China; and, of course, there was the third world, which included all the other poor and underdeveloped countries, many former European colonies, scattered around the globe’s south and often in terrible shape.
So many years later, with the first billionaire in the Oval Office presiding over an era of American carnage at home rather than in distant lands like Vietnam, I suspect we need a new “world” to capture the nature and state of this country at this moment. So how about fourth world? After all, the U.S. remains the richest, most powerful nation on the planet (first world!), but is also afloat in a sea of autocratic, climate-changing, economic, military, and police carnage that should qualify it as distinctly third world as well.
So, it’s really just a simple math problem: What’s 1 plus 3? Four, of course, making this country once again a leader on this ever less equal planet of ours; the United States, that is, is the first official fourth-world country in history. U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!
Or if you prefer, you could simply think of us as potentially the most powerful, wealthiest failed state on the planet.
A Hell on Earth?
Humanity has so far (and I use that phrase advisedly) managed to create just two ways of destroying human life on this planet. In doing so, it has, of course, taken over tasks that it once left to the gods (Armageddon! Apocalypse!). On both counts, Donald Trump is proving himself a master of destruction.
The first way, of course, would be by nuclear weapons, so far, despite close calls, used only twice, 75 years ago. However, the president and his crew have focused with striking intensity on tearing up nuclear arms pacts signed with the Soviet Union in the final years of the Cold War, backing out of the Iranian nuclear deal, pumping up the “modernization” of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and threatening other countries with the actual use of such weaponry. (Who could forget, for instance, The Donald’s threat to release “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea?)
In the process, the Trump administration has loosed what increasingly looks like a new global nuclear arms race, even as tensions grow, especially between China and the United States. In other words, while promising to end America’s “forever wars” (he didn’t), President Trump has actually pumped up the relatively dim possibility since the Cold War ended of using nuclear weapons, which obviously threatens a flash-bang end to human life as we know it.
And keep in mind that, when it comes to world-ending possibilities, that’s the lesser of his two apocalyptic efforts in these years.
While we’re still on the first of those ways of destroying this planet, however, let’s not forget to include not just the increased funding devoted to “modernizing” those nukes, but more generally the ever greater funding of the Pentagon and what’s still called “the national security state.” It hardly matters how little of that money goes to true national security in a twenty-first-century moment when we’re experiencing a pandemic that could be but the beginning of a new Black Plague-style era and the heating up of the atmosphere, oceans, and seas of this world in ways that are already making life increasingly unbearable via ever fiercer storms, ever more frequent wildfires, the ever greater melting of ice sheets, ever more violent flooding, ever greater drought — I mean, you name it, and if it’s somewhere between deeply unpleasant and life (and property) endangering, it’s getting worse in the Trumpian moment.
In that second category when it comes to destroying human life as we’ve known it via the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the president and his men (and they are basically men) have shown a particular flair. I’m still alone in doing so, but I continue to refer to the whole lot of them as pyromaniacs, because their simple denial of the reality of global warming is the least of it. Trump and crew are clearly determined to burn, burn, burn.
And lest you think any of this will ever bother the president or his top officials, think again. After all, having had an essentially mask-less, cheek-by-jowl election rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which spread the coronavirus and may have killed one of the president’s well-known supporters, he then doubled down in his acceptance speech for the presidential nomination. He gave it in front of the White House before the kind of crowd he glories in: 1,500 enthusiastic followers, almost all mask-less, untested for Covid-19, and jammed together cheering him for an hour. That should tell you all you need to know about his concern for the lives of others (even those who adore him) or anyone’s future other than his own.
Perhaps we need a new chant for this election season, something like: “Four more years and this planet will be a hell on earth!”
It was the worst of times, it was… no, wait, in Trumpian terms, it was the worstest of times since no one should ever be able to outdo him. And as CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite would have said in my youth, you (and I and the rest of humanity) were there. We truly were and are. For shame.
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, where this article first appeared, and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.