State of Chaos
Donald Trump Knew Us Better Than We Knew Ourselves
By Tom Engelhardt
November 10, 2020
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 bankuptee and 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.
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