Tomgram: Engelhardt, History, Memory, and Donald Trump
By Tom Engelhardt Tom Dispatch September 6, 2018.
What Will Donald Trump Be Remembered For?
The World According to The Don(ald)
I know you won’t believe me. Not now, not when everything Donald Trump does — any tweet, any insult at any rally — is the news of the day, any day. But he won’t be remembered for any of the things now in our headlines. No human being, it’s true, has ever been covered the way he has, so what an overwhelming record there should be. News about him and his associates fills front pages daily in a way that only something like a presidential assassination once did and he has the talking heads of cable TV yakking about him as no one has ever talked about anyone. And don’t even get me started on social media and The Donald.
In a sense, like it or not, we are all now his apprentices and his transformational powers are little short of magical. Simply by revoking the security clearance of John Brennan — who even knew that America’s deep-staters could keep such clearances long after they left government — he managed to make the former Obama counterterrorism czar and CIA head, a once-upon-a-time “ enhanced interrogation techniques” advocate and drone-meister, into a liberal hero; by attacking former FBI head James Comey, he turned the first national security state official ever to intervene in and alter an American presidential election (and not in Hillary Clinton’s favor either) into a bestselling, well-reviewed, much-lauded author; by his dismissive taunts and enmity in life and death, he helped ensure that Senator John McCain would have a New York Times obituary of such laudatory length that, in the past, it might only have been appropriate for someone who had actually won the presidency; with his charges and passing insults, he even proved capable — miracle of all miracles — of turning Attorney General Jeff Sessions into a warrior for justice.
Donald Trump is, in the most bizarre sense possible, a transformational figure, not to speak of the man who makes the “fake news” fake, or at least grotesquely overblown and over-focused. He has the uncanny ability to draw every camera in the house, all attention, blocking out everything but himself. Still, omnipresent as he is — or He is — take my word for it, he won’t be remembered for any of this. It will all go down the media drain with him one of these days. Don’t be fooled by newspapers or the Internet. They are not history. They are anything but what will someday be remembered.
Still, don’t for a second imagine that Donald Trump won’t be remembered. He will — into the distant future in a way that no other American president is likely to be.
A Forgettable Presidency
Let me tell you first, though, what he won’t be remembered for.
He won’t be remembered for entering the presidential race on an escalator to Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World”; or for those “Mexican rapists” he denounced; or for that “big, fat, beautiful” wall he was promoting; or for how he dealt with “lyin’ Ted,” “low-energy Jeb,” and Carly (“Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?”) Fiorina, or the “highly overrated” Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle (“You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever”). He won’t be remembered for that pussy-grabbing video that didn’t determine the 2016 election; or for the size of his hands; or even for those chants, still in vogue, of “lock her up.” He won’t be remembered for his bromance with Vladimir Putin; or his bitter complaints about a rigged election, rigged debates, a rigged moderator, and a rigged microphone (before, of course, he won). He won’t be remembered for his “stormy” relationship with a porn star; or even the hush money he paid her and another woman he had an affair with to keep their mouths shut during election season and thereafter, or his three wives; or the book of Hitler’s speeches once by his bedside; or the five casinos that, as a great “businessman,” he took into bankruptcy; or the undocumented workers he hired at next to no pay; or all the people he stiffed; or the students he took to the cleaners at Trump “University”; or the private airplane with 24-carat gold-plated bathroom fixtures he flew in; or those giant gold letters he’s branded onto property after property globally; or the way he promoted his own children and in-laws and their businesses in the White House; or the hotel that he built in the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue and, once he entered the Oval Office, turned into a hub of corruption.
He won’t be remembered for the record crew of people who took positions in his administration only to find themselves, within a year or so (or even days), fleeing the premises or out on their noses, including Anthony Scaramucci (6 days), Michael Flynn (25 days), Mike Dubke (74 days), Sean Spicer (183 days), Reince Priebus (190 days), Sebastian Gorka (208 days), Steve Bannon (211 days), Tom Price (232 days), Dina Powell (358 days), Omarosa Manigault Newman (365 days), Rob Porter (384 days), Hope Hicks (405 days), Rex Tillerson (406 days), David Shulkin (408 days), Gary Cohn (411 days), H.R. McMaster (413 days), John McEntee (417 days), and Scott Pruitt (504 days). And White House Counsel Don McGahn was only recently tweeted out of office, too, with others to follow.
He won’t be remembered for the way more of his associates and hangers-on found themselves in the grips of the legal system in less time than any other president in history, including Paul Manafort (convicted of tax fraud), Michael Cohen (pled guilty to tax evasion), Rick Gates (pled guilty to financial fraud and lying to investigators), Alex van der Zwaan (pled guilty to lying to investigators), Michael Flynn (pled guilty to lying to the FBI), and George Papadopoulos (ditto). With plenty more, it seems, to come. Nor will he be remembered for the number of close associates who turned on him — from his personal lawyer Michael Cohen, who once swore to take a bullet for him, only to testify against him; to the publisher of the National Enquirer, David Pecker, who had long buried salacious material about him, only to accept an immunity deal from federal prosecutors to blab about him; to the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, who did the same. Nor will The Don(ald) be remembered for his mafia-style language and focus (“RAT,” “loyalty,” and “flipping”), his familiar references to a mob boss, the way he clings to his personal version of omertà, the Mafia code of silence, or for being “a president at war with the law.”
He won’t be remembered for campaigning against the Washington “swamp” and, on arrival in the White House, creating an administration that would prove to be an instant swamp of personal corruption — from EPA head Scott Pruitt’s $43,000 soundproof office phone booth, the millions of taxpayer dollars he racked up for a 20-person, full-time security detail, and the more than $105,000 he spent on first-class air travel (and $58,000 more on charter and military planes) in his first year in office; to the near-million dollars of taxpayer money Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price poured into flights on private charter planes and military jets; to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s $12,000 charter plane ride on an oil executive’s private plane, his nifty $53,000 worth of helicopter rides on the public dole, and his $139,000 office “door”; to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s $31,000 office dining set. And that’s just to start down such a list (without even including the president and his family).
Nor will he be remembered for the sinkhole and stink hole of environmental pollution he and his crew are creating for the rest of us, nor for the estimated up to 1,400 extra premature deaths annually and “up to 15,000 new cases of upper respiratory problems, a rise in bronchitis, and tens of thousands of missed school days,” thanks to his administration’s easing of federal pollution regulations on coal-burning power plants. Nor for “greatly increased levels of air pollutants like mercury, benzene and nitrogen oxides,” thanks to its push to relax air pollution rules of many sorts. Nor for the suppression of news about pollution science. Nor for drastic cuts to the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, lest it protect us against anything at all that corporate America wants to do. Nor for the opening of America’s waterways to far greater dumping of waste and pollutants, including mining waste. And that, again, is just to start down a list.
By the time he’s done, the swampiness of Washington and the nation will undoubtedly be beyond calculation, but that is not what history will remember him for. Nor, in the country that may already have outpaced the inequality levels of the Gilded Age, will it remember him for the way in which he and his Republican colleagues, thanks to their tax “reform” bill, have ensured that inequality will only soar in a country in which just three men — Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Jeff Bezos — already have as much wealth as the bottom half of American society (160 million people). Nor will it remember the way Donald Trump reinforced racism and a growing tide of white supremacy (just the prerequisites needed for establishing a “populist” version of authoritarianism in the U.S.), including the “birtherism” by which he rose as a politician, his “evenhanded” remarks after Charlottesville (“very fine people, on both sides”), his implicit racial slurs, his obsession with black football players who take a knee in protest, his tweetingof a white supremacist conspiracy theory about South Africa — for which former Klan leader David Duke tweeted his thanks — and the rest of a now familiar litany.
Nor will the man who claimed in campaign 2016 that he could “win” better than the U.S. military high command (“I know more about ISIS than the generals do…”) when it came to America’s wars or get us out of them be remembered for have done neither. Nor for his urge to pour yet more tens of billions of taxpayer dollars into the Pentagon and the national security state (even as he regularly blasts its officials).
And keep in mind that this is just to graze the surface of the Trump presidency — and while all of it matters (or at least obsesses us now) and some of it will matter greatly for a long time to come, it’s not what history will remember Donald Trump for.
A Crime Against Humanity
On that score, the record is clear, in part because we are already beginning to live the very future that will remember Donald Trump in only one way. It’s a future that, at its core, has animated his presidency from its first days. Whatever else he thinks, says, tweets, or does, President Trump and his administration have been remarkably focused not just on denying that humanity faces a potential future of environmental ruin — as in the term “climate-change denial” so regularly attached to a startling list of people in his administration — but on aiding and abetting the disaster to come.
As everyone knows, Donald Trump is taking the world’s historic number one (and presently number two) emitter of greenhouse gases out of the Paris climate agreement. He is also, not to put the matter too subtly, a fossil-fuel nut, nostalgic perhaps for the polluted but energized American world of his 1950s childhood. From his first moments in office, he was prepared to turn his administration’s future energy policy into what Michael Klare has called, “a wish list drawn up by the major fossil fuel companies.” He has been obsessed with ensuring that the U.S. dominate the global oil market (think: Saudi America), saving the dying coal-mining business in this country, building yet more pipelines, rolling back Obama-era fossil fuel economy standards for autos and other vehicles, and letting the big energy companies drill just about anywhere from previously out-of-bounds waters off America’s coasts to Alaska’s protected Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In other words, every act of his related to energy reveals the leader of the planet’s “last superpower” as a climate-change enabler of a sort that once would only have been the fantasy of some energy company CEO.
This makes him and his administration criminals of a historic sort. After all, he and his cronies are aiming at what can only be thought of as terracide, the destruction of the environment of the planet that has sustained us for thousands of years. That would be a literal crime against humanity so vast that it has, until this moment, gone unnamed and, until relatively recently, almost unimagined.
In the wake of this summer, climate-change denial, however ascendant in Washington, is an obvious joke. You no longer have to be a scientist studying the subject or even particularly well informed to grasp that. As New York Times reporter Somini Sengupta put it recently, in covering the heat waves that have engulfed the planet, “For many scientists, this is the year they started living climate change rather than just studying it.” The rest of us are now living it as well.
The math is no longer even complicated. As Sengupta points out, 2018 is shaping up to be the fourth warmest year on record. The other three? 2015, 2016, and 2017. In fact, of the 18 warmest years on record, 17 took place in guess which century? For the lower 48 states, this was, May to July, the hottest summer ever; Japan had an “unprecedented” heat wave; Europe broiled; Sweden’s tallest mountain ceased to be so as its glacial peak melted; numerous fires broke out within the European part of the Arctic Circle; scientists were spooked by the fact that the oldest, strongest ice in Arctic waters started to break up; California, along with much of western North America burned amid air so polluted that warnings were regularly issued in a fire season that threatened never to end. The temperature set records at over 86 degrees Fahrenheit for 16 straight days in Oslo, Norway; over 91 degrees for 16 straight days in Hong Kong; 122 degrees in Nawabsha, Pakistan; and 124 degrees in Ouargla, Algeria. Ocean waters were experiencing record warmth, too.
And again, that’s just to start down a far longer list and but a taste of what the future, according to The Don(ald), has in store for us. Imagine, for instance, what the intensification of all this means: a California that never stops burning; coastal cities swamped by rising seas; significant parts of the North China plain (where millions of people live) made potentially uninhabitable thanks to devastating heat waves; tens of millions of human beings turned intothe very people Donald Trump hates most: migrants and refugees. This is the world that our president is preparing for our grandchildren and their children and grandchildren.
So tell me that he won’t be remembered for his absolute, if ignorant, dedication to the taking down of civilization.
In other words, the one thing Donald Trump will be remembered for — and what a thing it will be! — is his desire to put us all on an escalator to hell; to, that is, a future of fire and fury. It could make him and the executives of the largest energy companies the greatest criminalsin history. If the emissions of greenhouse gases aren’t significantly cut back and then halted in a reasonable period of time, the crime he is now aiding and abetting with such enthusiasm is the only one, other than a nuclear war, that could end history as we know it, which might mean that Donald Trump won’t be remembered at all. And if that isn’t big league, what is?
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 is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).
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Copyright 2018 Tom Engelhardt Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch.