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Trump is just a symptom of our decline — but he’s proven to be the symptom from hell

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- Commentary
(AFP/File / Brendan Smialowski)

Here’s the question at hand — and I guarantee you that you’ll read it here first: Is Donald Trump the second or even possibly the third 9/11? Because truly, he has to be one or the other.

Let me explain, and while I do, keep this in mind: as 2019 ends, thanks to Brexit and the victory of Boris Johnson in Britain’s recent election, the greatest previous imperial power on this planet is clearly headed for the sub-basement of history. Meanwhile, that other superpower of the Cold War era, the Soviet Union, now Russia, remains a well-sauced Putinesca shadow of its former self. And then, of course, there’s the country that, not so long ago, every major American politician but Donald Trump proclaimed the most exceptionalindispensable nation ever.

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As it happens, the United States — if you didn’t catch the reference above — has been looking a bit peaked lately itself. You can’t say that it’s the end of the road for a land of such wealth and staggering military power, enough to finish off several Earth-sized planets. However, it’s clearly a country in decline on a planet in the same condition and its present leader, Tariff Man, however uniquely orange-faced he may be, is just the symptom of the long path to hell in a handbasket its leadership embarked on almost three decades ago as the Cold War ended.

Admittedly, President Trump has proved to be the symptom from hell. To give him full credit, he’s now remarkably hard-at-tweet dismantling the various alliances, agreements, and organizations that U.S. leaders had assembled, since 1945, to make this country the Great Britain (and beyond) of the second half of the twentieth century and that’s an accomplishment of the first order.

And keep in mind the context for so much of this: it’s happening in a country that may be experiencing an unprecedented kind of inequality. It’s producing billionaires at a staggering clip with just three men already possessing wealth equivalent to that of half the rest of the population; this, mind you, at a moment when the globe’s 26 richest people reportedly are worth as much as half of everyone else, or 3.8 billion people. And this in a world in which, as the income of that poorest half of humanity continues to decline, the wealth of billionaires increases by $2.5 billion a day and a new billionaire is minted every two days.

Had all of this not already been so and had a sense of decline not been in the air, it’s inconceivable that those heartland white Americans who had come to feel themselves on the losing end of developments in this country would have sent a charlatan billionaire into the White House to represent them (or at least to give the finger to the Washington establishment). And all this on a planet that itself, in climate terms, appears to be in unprecedented decline.

Think of the above as part of what’s come down, metaphorically speaking, since those towers in New York fell more than 18 years ago.

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Looking Back on 9/11

It’s in this context that we should all look back on what truly did come down that Tuesday morning in September 2001, an all-American day of the grimmest sort. That was, of course, the day when this country was attacked by 19 suicidal hijackers, most of them Saudi, using American commercial jets as their four-plane air force. They, in turn, were inspired by a man, Osama bin Laden, and his organization, al-Qaeda, part of a crew of radical Islamists that Washington had backed years earlier in an Afghan War against the Soviet Union. In response to the events of that day — though it seems unimaginable now — we could have joined a world already in pain, one that had experienced horrors largely unimaginable in this country until that moment, in a kind of global solidarity.

Instead, responding to the destruction of those towers in Manhattan and part of the Pentagon, the Bush administration essentially launched a war against much of the planet. They soon dubbed it a “Global War on Terror,” or GWOT, and key officials almost instantly claimed it would have more than 60 countries (or terror groups in them) in its sights. Eighteen years later, the U.S. is still at war across a vast swath of the globe, involved in conflict after conflict from the Philippines to AfghanistanIran and Iraq to northern Africa and beyond. In the process, that GWOT has produced failed state after failed state and terror group after terror group, enough to make the original al-Qaeda (still going) look like nothing at all. And of course, in all these years, the U.S. military, hailed here as “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known” (and similar formulations), lacks a single decisive (or even modest) victory. Meanwhile, everywhere, yet more towers, real or metaphorical, continue to fall; in fact, whole cities in the Middle East now lie in rubble.

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The top officials of President George W. Bush’s administration would, at the time, mistake 9/11 for a kind of upside-down stroke of luck, the perfect excuse for launching military operations, including invasions, geared to the ultimate domination of the planet (and its key oil supplies). Via drones armed with missiles and bombs, they would turn any president into an assassin-in-chief. They would, in the end, help spread terror groups in a fashion beyond imagining on September 12, 2001, while their never-ending wars would displace vast numbers of innocent people, creating a refugee crisis of a kind not seen since the end of World War II when significant parts of the planet stood in ruins. And all of that, in turn, would help spark, on a global scale, what came to be known as the “populist right,” in part thanks to the very refugees created by that GWOT. The response to what came down on 9/11, in other words, would create its own hell on Earth.

Who knew back then? Not me, that’s for sure. Not when I started what became TomDispatch 18 years ago, feeling, in the wake of 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, that something was truly wrong with our world, that something more than the World Trade Center might be in the process of coming down around all our ears. I can still remember the feeling in those weeks, as I saw the mainstream media’s focus narrow drastically amid nationwide self-congratulatory celebrations of this country as the greatest survivor, dominator, and victim on the planet. I watched with trepidation as we began to close down to the world, while essentially attempting to take all the roles in the global drama for ourselves except greatest evil doer, which was, of course, left to Osama bin Laden.

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I still remember thinking then that the Vietnam years had been the worst and most embattled in my lifetime, but that somehow this — whatever it turned out to be — would be so much worse. And yet whatever I was sensing, whatever I was imagining, wouldn’t prove to be the half of it, not the quarter of it.

If you had told me then that we were heading for Donald Trump’s version of American decline and a corrupt global gilded age of unprecedented proportions, one in which showmanship, scam, and self-serving corruption would become the essence of everything, while god knows what kinds of nightmares — like those subprime mortgages of the 2007 economic meltdown — were quietly piling up somewhere just beyond our view, I would have thought you mad.

The Second 9/11

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All these years later, it’s strange to feel something like that moment recurring. Of course, in this elongated Trumpian version of it, no obvious equivalent to those towers in New York has come down. And yet, over the three years of The Donald’s presidency, can’t you just feel that something has indeed been coming down, even as the media’s coverage once again narrowed, this time not to a single self-congratulatory story of greatness and sadness, but to one strange man and his doings.

If you think about it, I suspect you can feel it, too. Looking back to 2016, mightn’t you agree that Donald Trump rather literally embodied a second 9/11? He certainly was, after a fashion, the hijacker-in-chief of that moment, not sent by al-Qaeda, of course, but… well, by whom? That is, indeed, the question, isn’t it? Whom exactly did he represent? Not his famed “base,” those red-hatted MAGA enthusiasts at his endless rallies who felt they had gotten lost in the shuffle of wealth and politics and corruption in this country. Perhaps, of course, the al-Qaeda of that moment was actually another kind of terrorist crew entirely, the one-percenters who had mistaken this country’s wealth for their own and preferred a billionaire of any sort in the White House for the first time in history. Or maybe, as a presidential hijacker first class, Donald Trump simply represented himself and no one else at all. Perhaps he was ready to bring a whole system to its knees (just as he had once bankrupted those five casinos of his in Atlantic City), as long as he could jump ship in the nick of time with the loot.

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On that first 9/11, those towers came down. The second time around, the only thing that came down, at least in the literal sense, was, of course, The Donald himself.  He famously descended that Trump Tower escalator into the presidential race in June 2015, promoting a “great wall” (still unbuilt years later and now, like everything The Donald touches, a cesspool of corruption) and getting rid of Mexican “rapists.”

From that moment on, Donald Trump essentially hijacked our world. I mean, try to tell me that, in the years since, he hasn’t provided living evidence that the greatest power in human history, the one capable of destroying the planet six different ways, has no brain, no real coordination at all. It’s fogged in by a mushroom cloud of largely senseless media coverage and, though still the leading force on the planet, in some rather literal fashion has lost its mind.

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No wonder it’s almost impossible to tell what we’re actually living through. Certainly, in a slo-mo version of 9/11, Donald Trump has been taking down the nation as we’ve known it. Admittedly, unlike Bolivia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and other such places on this increasingly unsettled planet of ours, true civil strife has (yet) to break out here (though individual mass shootings certainly have). Still, the president and some of his supporters have begun talking about, even threatening, “civil war” for our unsettled future.

On the first 9/11, the greatest power in history struck out at the planet. The second time around, it seems to be preparing to strike out at itself.

Was 11/9 the original 9/11?

Perhaps this is the time to bring up the possibility that September 11, 2001, might not really have been the first 9/11 and that Donald Trump might actually be the third, not the second 9/11.

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In a sense, the first 9/11 might really have been 11/9. I’m thinking, of course, of November 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall, that symbol of the Cold War, a divided Europe, and a deeply divided world, suddenly began to be torn down by East and West Germans. Believe me, in our nation’s capital, it was an event no less unexpected or shocking than September 11, 2001. Until that moment, Washington’s political class and the crew who ran the national security state had continued to imagine a future dominated by a never-ending Cold War with the Soviet Union. The shock of that moment is still hard to grasp.

Looked at a certain way, that November the people had hijacked history and Washington’s response to it would be no less monumentally misplaced than to the 2001 moment. Once the key officials of George H.W. Bush’s administration had taken in what happened, they essentially declared ultimate victory. Over everything. For all time.

With the U.S., the last standing superpower, ultimately victorious in a way never before imagined, history itself seemed to be at an end. The future was ours, forever, and we had every right to grab it for ourselves. The world in which so many of us had grown up was declared over and done with in a wave of self-congratulatory backslapping in Washington. The planet, it seemed, was now our oyster and ours alone. (And if you want to know how that turned out, just think of Donald Trump in the White House and then read Andrew Bacevich’s new book, The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.)

It’s in this context that Trump’s could be considered the third hijacking of our era. Given his sense of self, his might even be thought of not as the 1% hijacking moment, but as the .000000001% moment.

And be prepared: the next version of 9/11, however defined, is guaranteed to make Osama bin Laden and his 19 hijackers look like so many pikers. Depending on what tipping points are reached and what happens after that on our rapidly warming planet, so much could come down around humanity’s ears. And if so, that moment in 2015 when Donald Trump rode an escalator down into the presidential contest to the tune of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” will look very different — because it will be far clearer than it is even now that he was carrying a blowtorch with him.

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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.com and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.


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