"If Donald Trump is only the Symptom, What’s the Disease?"



by Selvam Canagaratna

"If we have our own why of life, we shall get along with almost any how."
– Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, 1888.

The political temperature of this country is rising fast," noted Tom Engelhardt, veteran journalist and co-founder of the American Empire Project who runs the website TomDispatch.com. ‟Call it Trump change or Trump warming, if you want, but grasp one thing: increasingly, you’re in a different land and, whatever happens to Donald Trump, the results down the line are likely to be ever less pretty."

Trump change isn’t just an American phenomenon, Engelhardt conceded, it’s distinctly global. ‟After all, from Australia to India, the Philippines to Hungary, Donald Trumps and their supporters keep getting elected or re-elected and, according to a recent CNN poll, a majority of Americans think Trump himself will win again in 2020 (though, at the moment, battleground-state polls look grim for him)."

Engelhardt, then, posed the question of the day, the sort you’d ask about any patient with a rising temperature: ‟If Donald Trump is only the symptom, what’s the disease?"

Let me say that the late Chalmers Johnson would have understood President Trump perfectly. The Donald clearly arrived on the scene as blowback – the CIA term of tradecraft Johnson into our everyday vocabulary – from at least two things: an American imperium gone wrong with its , ever-rising , and ever-expanding national security state, and a new "" in which (Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett) have more wealth than the bottom half of society and the .01% have one of their own, a billionaire, in the Oval Office.

Now, I don’t mean to sell Donald Trump short in any way. Give that former reality TV star credit. In the 2016 election campaign, he sensed that there were voters in profusion in the American heartland who felt that things were not going well and were eager for a candidate just like the one he was ready to become. (There were, of course, other natural audiences for a disruptive, self-promoting billionaire as well,

His skill, however, lay in his ability to catch the blowback mood of that moment in a single slogan – Make America Great Again, or MAGA – that he in November 2012, only days after Mitt Romney lost his bid for the presidency to Barack Obama.

Yes, four years later in the 2016 election, others began to notice the impact of that slogan. You couldn’t miss the multiplying , after all. But what few at the time really noted was the crucial word in that phrase: "again."

In 2016, Donald Trump functionally said what no other candidate or politician of any significance in America dared to say: that the United States was no longer the greatest, most indispensable, most exceptionable nation or superpower or hyper-power ever to exist on Planet Earth.

That represented a groundbreaking recognition of reality.

With that slogan, The Donald caught the spirit of a moment in which both imperial and economic decline, however unacknowledged by the Washington political elite, had indeed begun. In the process, he crossed a psychologically taboo line and became America’s first declinist candidate for President. MAGA captured a feeling already at large that tomorrow would be worse than today, which was already worse than yesterday. As it turned out, it mattered not at all that the billionaire conman spouting that trademarked phrase had long been part of the problem, not the solution.

He caught the essence of the moment, in other words, but certainly didn’t faintly cause it in the years when he financed Trump Tower, watched his five Atlantic City casinos , and hosted The Apprentice.

For example, I was already in June 2016, noted Tom, five months before he was elected President:

"In its halcyon days, Washington could overthrow governments, install Shahs or other rulers, do more or less what it wanted across significant parts of the globe and reap rewards, while (as in the case of Iran) not paying any price, blowback-style, for decades, if at all. That was imperial power in the blaze of the noonday sun. These days, in case you hadn’t noticed, blowback for our imperial actions seems to arrive as if by high-speed rail.

"Despite having a more massive, technologically advanced, and better funded military than any other power or even group of powers on the planet, the US has won nothing, nada, zilch. Its unending wars have, in fact, led nowhere in a world growing more chaotic by the second."

Yet, even in 2016, it shouldn’t have been hard to see that the was indeed ending well before its 100 years were up. It shouldn’t have been hard to grasp, as Donald Trump intuitively did, that this country, however powerful, was already both a declining empire and a declining economic system (both of which still looked great indeed, if you happened to be from them).

Despite the oddity of Donald Trump himself, there was little new in it. You don’t need to look far, after all, for evidence of the decline of empires. (Admittedly, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a brilliant imagineer, has brought back a facsimile of the old Soviet Union, even if, in reality, Russia is now a rickety, fraying petro-state.)

If you happen to be looking for imperial lessons, you could perhaps say that some empires end not with a bang but with a Brexit. [911] Here’s something hard to deny: with Brexit (no matter how it turns out), the Earth’s former superpower has landed in the sub-basement of history. Great Britain? Obviously that adjective has to change.

Meantime, China, another once great imperial power, perhaps the greatest in the long history of this planet, is clearly on the rise again from another kind of sub-basement. That, in turn, is deeply worrying the leadership, civilian and military, of the planet’s "lone superpower." Its President, in response, is wielding his weapon of choice – tariffs – while the US military for an almost unimaginable future war with that upstart nation, possibly starting in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, the still-dominant power on the planet is, however incrementally, heading down. It’s still a rich, immensely powerful land. Its unsuccessful wars, however, go on without surcease, the political temperature rises, and democratic institutions continue to fray – all of which began well before Donald Trump entered the Oval Office and, in fact, helped ensure that he would make it there in the first place.

And yet none of this, not even imperial decline itself, quite captures the "disease" of which The Donald is now such an obvious symptom. While the rise and fall of imperial powers has been an essential part of history, the planetary context for that process is now changing in an unprecedented way. It’s also because history, as we’ve known it, including the rise and fall of empires, is now, in a sense, melting away.

Trump change, the rising political temperature stirred by the growing populist right, is taking place in the context of (and, worse yet, ) record , the across the planet, the rise of sea levels and the future drowning of coastlines (and ), the creation of yet more , the increasing fierceness of and droughts, and the intensification of . In the midst of it all, an almost unimaginable of extinctions is occurring, with a possible plant and animal species, some crucial to human existence, already of departure.

Never before in history has the rise and decline of imperial powers taken place in the context of the decline of the planet itself. Try, for instance, to imagine what a "risen" China will look like in an age in which one of its most populous regions, the north China plain, may by century’s end be next to , given the killing heat waves of the future.

Concluded Tom: ‟In the context of both Trump change and climate change, we’re obviously still awaiting our true transformative president, the one who is not a symptom of decline, but a factor in trying to right this country and the Earth before it’s too late. You know, the one who will take as his or her slogan, MTPGA (Make The Planet Great Again)."

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