How the American Dream Became the American Scream
Honestly, if you had described this America to me more than half a century ago, I would have laughed in your face.
Donald Trump becoming president? You must be kidding!
If you want a bizarre image, just imagine him in the company of Abraham Lincoln. I mean, really, what’s happened to us?
Not, of course, that we haven’t had bizarre politicians in Washington before. I still remember watching the mad, red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy on our new black-and-white television set in April 1953. He was a brute and looked it (though, to my nine-year-old mind, he also seemed like every belligerent dad I knew). Still, whatever he was, he wasn’t president of the United States. At the time, that was former World War II military commander Dwight D. Eisenhower.
And whatever McCarthy might have been, he wasn’t a sign of American (or planetary) decline. The Donald? Well, he’s something else again. In some ways, he could be considered the strangest marker of decline in our history. After all, when he entered the Oval Office, he took over a country whose leaders had long considered it the greatest, most powerful, most influential nation ever.
Think of him, if you will, as the weirdest seer of our times. To put him in the context of the science fiction I was reading in the previous century, he might be considered a genuine Philip K. Dick(head).
As I wrote in April 2016 in the midst of Trump’s initial run for the presidency, he was exceptional among our political class and not for any of the obvious reasons either. No, what caught my attention was that slogan of his, the one he had trademarked in the wake of Mitt Romney’s loss to Barack Obama in 2012: Make America Great Again, or MAGA. The key word in it, I realized then, was that again. As I noted at the time, he was unique in a presidential race not just as a bizarre former TV personality or even a successful multiple bankruptee, but as “the first person to run openly and without apology on a platform of American decline.” In his own way, he had his eye — and what an eye it was! — on a reality no other politician in Washington even dared consider, not when it came to the “sole superpower” of planet Earth. He was, after all, insisting then that this country was no longer great.
Trump proved to be a one-of-a-kind candidate (not that he wouldn’t have been without that MAGA slogan). And as we now know, his message, which rang so few bells among the political class in Washington, rang all too many in the (white) American heartland. In other words, Donald Trump became the prexy of decline and what a decline it would be! According to one recent survey, half of all Americans, in this increasingly over-armed country of ours, have come to believe that an actual civil war is on the way in the near future.
Think of the miracle — if you don’t mind my using such a word in this context — of Donald Trump’s presidency this way: in some sense, he managed to turn not just Republicans but all of us into his apprentices. And those years of our apprenticeship occurred not just in an increasingly crazed and violent America, but on an ever stranger, more disturbed planet.
Yes, once upon a time I read sci-fi novels in a way I no longer do and felt then that I was glimpsing possible futures, however weird. But believe me, what’s happening today wouldn’t have passed as halfway believable fiction in the late 1960s or early 1970s.
So, let me say it again: honestly, Donald Trump?
Having lived through the antiwar movement of the 1960s and 1970s (often enough in the streets) and the madness of the American war of destruction in Vietnam, it’s strange to spend my waning years in a country where the main protest movement, the Trumpist one, represents a nightmare of potential destruction right here at home. And by “right,” of course, I mean wrong beyond belief. It’s led, after all, by a superduper narcissist who wouldn’t qualify as a fascist only because he prefers fans to followers, apprentices to jackbooted thugs. As the events of January 6, 2021, showed, however, he wouldn’t reject them either. In an earlier moment, in fact, he urged such thugs to “stand back and stand by.”
You know that you’re in a world from hell when the heroine of this moment is the politically faithful daughter of a former vice president who, along with President George W. Bush, used the 9/11 attacks to usher us into wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as into the expansive Global War on Terror — who, that is, remains an unindicted war criminal first class. Keep in mind as well that, before she became our Liz, she voted against impeaching President Trump in 2019 and voted for his programs (if you can faintly call them that) a mere 93% of the time.
And mind you, all of this is just scratching the surface of our world from hell.
Not even in my worst nightmares of half a century ago was this the American world I imagined. Not for a day, not for an hour, not for a second did I, for instance, dream of American school guards armed with assault rifles. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?
I was born, of course, into an America on the rise in which you could still imagine — it seems ridiculous to use the word today — progress toward a genuinely better world of some sort. That world is evidently now something for the history books.
Think of Donald Trump as an all-too-literal sign of the times at a moment when about 70% of Republicans consider the last election to have been stolen and Joe Biden an illegitimate president. Perhaps 40% of them also believe that violence against the government can sometimes be justified. This in a country that had long fancied itself as the greatest of all time.
And if you really want a little sci-fi madness that would, in the 1960s, have blown my mind (as we liked to say then), consider climate change. As we argue like mad about the last election, while Trumpists pursue local secretary-of-state positions (not to speak of governorships) that could give them control over future election counts, as Americans arm themselves to the teeth and democracy seems up for grabs, let’s not forget about the true nightmare of this moment: the desperate warming of this planet.
Yes, “our” Earth is burning in an all-too-literal way — and flooding, too, with “superstorms” in our future. And don’t forget that it’s melting as well at a rate far more extreme than anyone imagined once upon a time. Recent research on the Arctic suggests that instead of warming, as previously believed, at a rate two to three times faster than the rest of the planet, it’s now heating four times as fast. In some areas, in fact, make that seven times as fast! So, in the future, see ya Miami, New York, Ho Chi Minh City, Shanghai, and other coastal metropolises as sea levels rise ever faster.
Kissing the Planet Goodbye?
Honestly, you’d hardly know it in parts of this country and among Republicans (even if that party’s key figures were, once upon a time, environmentalists), but this planet is literally going down — or maybe, in temperature terms, I mean up — in flames.
Greenhouse gases continue to pour into the atmosphere and certain heads of state, like Donald Trump in his White House days, remain remarkably dedicated to emitting yet more of them. The Mexican president is one example, the Russian president another. And you no longer have to turn to science fiction to imagine the results. An unnerving sci-fi-style future is becoming the grim present right before our eyes. This summer, for instance, Europe has seen unparalleled heat and drought, with both Germany’s Rhine River and Italy’s Po River drying up in disastrous fashion. And just to add to the mix, parts of that continent have also seen storms of a startling magnitude and staggering flooding.
Meanwhile, China has been experiencing a devastating more-than-two-month-long set of heat waves with record temperatures and significant drought, all of which has proved disastrous for its crops, economy, and people. And oh yes, like the Rhine and Po, the Yangtze, the world’s third-largest river, is drying up fast, while the heat wave there shows little sign of ending before mid-September. Meanwhile, the American southwest and west continue to experience a megadrought the likes of which hasn’t been seen on this continent in at least 1,200 years. Like the Rhine, Po, and Yangtze, the Colorado River is losing water in a potentially disastrous fashion, while the season for heat waves in the United States is now 45 days longer than in the 1960s. And that’s only to begin recording planetary weather catastrophes. After all, I haven’t even mentioned the ever-fiercer wildfires, or megafires, whether in Alaska, New Mexico, France, or elsewhere; nor have I focused on the increasingly powerful hurricanes and typhoons that have become part of everyday life (and destruction and death).
So, isn’t it a strange form of science fiction that, in response to such a world, such a crisis, one that could someday signal the end of civilization, the focus in this country is on Donald Trump and company? Don’t you find it odd that the two greatest greenhouse gas emitters and powers on the planet, the United States and China, have responded in ways that should appall us all?
Joe Biden and his top national-security officials have continually played up the dangers of the rise of China, put significant energy into developing military alliances against that country in the Indo-Pacific region, and functionally launched a new Cold War, more than 30 years after the old one went to its grave. In addition, Nancy Pelosi, a number of other congressional representatives, and even state ones have pointedly visited the island of Taiwan, purposely infuriating the Chinese leadership. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy has ever more regularly sent its vessels through the Taiwan Strait and aircraft carrier task forces into the South China Sea.
For its part, China’s officialdom, while continuing to push the building of coal-fired power plants, has recently launched military demonstrations of an escalating sort against Taiwan, while preparing to join Vladimir Putin’s Russia for the second year in a row in “military exercises,” even as the war in Ukraine, a first class carbon disaster, goes on and on and on. At the same time, furious about those Taiwan visits from Washington, China’s leaders have essentially cut off all relations with the U.S., including any further discussions about how to cooperate in dealing with climate change.
So, a second cold war amid a growing climate disaster? If you had put that into your sci-fi novel in 1969, it would undoubtedly have seemed too absurd a future to be publishable. You would have been laughed out of the room.
Admittedly, the history of humanity has largely been a tale of the triumph of the unreasonable. Still, you might think that, as a species, we would, at a minimum, not actively opt for the destruction of the very planet we live on. And yet, think again.
At least the Biden administration did recently get a bill through Congress (despite the opposition of every Trumpublican) that dealt with global warming in a reasonably significant way and the president may still invoke his executive powers to do more. It’s true as well that the Chinese have been working hard to create ever less expensive alternative energy sources. Still, none of this takes us far enough. Not on this planet. Not now.
And keep in mind that, were a desperate and disparate America to elect Donald Trump again in 2024 (by hook or crook), the country that historically has put more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere than any other land, might be kissing the planet we’ve known goodbye.
Believe me, it’s strange to find myself remembering a long-gone world in which the major destruction was happening thousands of miles away in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. I mean, that was bad enough to get me into the streets then. Now, however, the destruction we’re significantly responsible for is happening right here, right where you and I both live, no matter where that might be.
What we’re watching is a tragedy of an unparalleled sort in the making for our children and grandchildren, which leaves me sad beyond words. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a sci-fi novel I’d rather not read and a sci-fi life I’d rather not be living.
Copyright 2022 Tom Engelhardt