Class of 2020, wherever you are, I had planned to address you on this graduation day. But how can I?
Yes, I know that former President Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Tom Hanks all took part in elaborate online graduation ceremonies, offering commentary, advice, and encouragement in our now campus-less world, but I’m a hapless old guy with a flip phone from another age. And, of course, you’re not here on this glorious, sunny graduation day. There’s no verdant campus. No gowns. No caps to toss in the air. No gate to walk out of into a future that many of you mortgaged your lives to be part of. Nor is there a crowd of joyous parents and grandparents, some of whom may even have grown desperately sick and possibly died in these last months thanks to the Trump administration’s catastrophic response to a global pandemic.
Nor are there other more eminent speakers to give you hope or inspiration. Just me. Just here. Just now. All alone in this room — and you there, wherever you are, perhaps alone or with family, brooding about a world that may never be, about a future that, it seems increasingly likely, can’t be and won’t be.
Your future, as previously imagined, is — not to put too fine a gloss on it — no more. In a sense, it has already become my future and since, at almost 76, I really don’t have much of a future, that’s a terrible thing for an old man to have to say.
The Pandemic Shock
Still, since I’m here and you’re there, let me address you in my own way by starting with the obvious: You deserved so much better than this. I’m ashamed, deeply so. Every adult in this country (except perhaps the front-line caregivers and workers who have sacrificed so much in this pandemic moment for the rest of us) should be similarly ashamed.
And that brings me to one obvious question: Why aren’t so many of us, especially those in that deeply loyal base of Donald Trump’s, more ashamed of the world they’re preparing to leave you, even as their own worlds crash and burn around them?
In the end, we could be talking about nothing less than the destruction of the planet as we humans have known it for thousands of years. To put matters bluntly, that base helped elect, and continues to support, a president who aims to be nothing less than a planet destroyer. That’s been an obvious goal of Donald Trump and his Republican allies and sycophants since his election. It’s what they were clearly dedicated to (however they explained it to themselves) even before the coronavirus arrived to offer such a helping hand.
But let me say this: at my age, I’m still shocked by what’s happened in these last months. It wasn’t that I didn’t know about the Black Death and the destruction it wreaked on Medieval Europe or China in the fourteenth century or even the devastation and death caused by the Spanish Flu barely a century ago. Still, never for a second did I actually imagine this happening to us in the here and now, with the dead and dying, the sick and desperate, jobs lost by the tens of millions, businesses destroyed. I never thought that such a pandemic would descend on us or that it would do so with such a president and crew in power in Washington.
I mean, what else do you need to know about our world at this moment than that a series of countries led by democratically inclined women (Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, and Taiwan) have more or less suppressed the coronavirus (at least for now)? Meanwhile, in the viral sweepstakes presently engulfing parts of the earth, the three leading lands when it comes to record numbers of cases are Donald Trump’s America, Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In other words, it’s no happenstance that three autocratically inclined right-wing “populists” who give more of a damn about themselves than anything else imaginable are winning the race to hell.
There’s something about our world growing ever worse amid a Covid-19-induced instant Great Depression that makes you — that is, me — feel so small, so inconsequential, which is, of course, exactly what I am, what just about any of us is in this coronaviral moment. But why me or you and not him? That question’s been preying on my mind — and you know just who I mean.
In these last weeks, only Donald Trump’s most devoted followers, those at the heart of his base, could really do anything they wanted in public, because, following him as they did, they didn’t believe in shutting themselves in, social distancing, wearing masks, or anything else that the scientists tell us might help slow down this deadly virus or bring it under control. So they’ve felt free to mix and match and destroy (themselves above all).
The question is: how did we get here? How did we make it to such a leader and such followers in such a crisis? We’re talking about a man who, unlike President Herbert Hoover, may usher us into a true Great Depression and possibly not suffer a staggering defeat at the polls in November, as that president did in 1932. (Of course, to put things in perspective, Joe Biden isn’t exactly Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is he?)
If you’re wondering how all this could have happened in such a fashion, and why that base of the president’s remains so remarkably faithful amid the rubble of our world, I offered my own answer years ago. After all, there never was much of a question about Donald Trump himself. He was, without a doubt, a self-aggrandizing, narcissistic, self-absorbed monster of a man and — to give him full credit — he never made the slightest secret of who he was. Nonetheless, in the middle of election season 2016, when it became increasingly obvious to me that he had a real shot at beating Hillary Clinton and becoming president of the United States, I started wondering why that might be so.
That June, as the presidential race was heating to a boil, I offered my own pre-answer to all such future questions. In a piece at TomDispatch, I suggested that, in a country of already grotesque inequality, “a significant part of the white working class, at least, feels as if, whether economically or psychologically, its back is up against the wall and there’s nowhere left to go. Under such circumstances, many of these voters have evidently decided that they’re ready to send a literal loose cannon into the White House; they’re willing, that is, to take a chance on the roof collapsing, even if it collapses on them.”
Yes, even if it collapses on them. I also pointed out that “The Donald represents, as a friend of mine likes to say, the suicide bomber in us all,” adding that a vote for him would be “an act of nihilism, a mood that fits well with imperial decline.”
Nihilism indeed. Donald Trump, the birther king, was then visibly the opposite of great, despite that MAGA slogan of his. He was, from the beginning, a degraded (or, if you prefer, de-greated) personification of imperial decline. And now that the roof has indeed collapsed on his base, among so many others, his personal responsibility for the severity with which it’s happened should be obvious enough. Still, don’t kid yourself: everything about this America of ours suggests that, for a significant minority of the population, it’s not. Not yet, perhaps not ever.
And here’s the weirdest thing for me: I answered that question in 2016, but all these years later, as I address you on graduation day 2020, I have yet to fully accept it. At some level, I still can’t believe it and I’ll bet you can’t either.
What It Means to “Transition to Greatness” in 2020 America
One thing is now clear enough to me. If Covid-19 hadn’t helped that roof collapse, something else would have because, even before the pandemic broke out, even before he was in office, Donald Trump and his crew-to-be were already intent on the destruction of the world as we’ve known it. Don’t think, by the way, that I’m speaking figuratively. Imagine the three obvious ways our world could be desperately degraded — climate change, nuclear Armageddon, or massive environmental destruction — and in the years before Covid-19 arrived on our shores, Trump and crew were hard at work on all three.
This was, after all, the man who called climate change a “Chinese hoax” long before he ever got near the White House. And erratic as he may look, he’s been remarkably steadfast in a deeper way ever since. Note, for instance, that even then he was already blaming every problem in the world on two things: China and Barack Obama, as he is now. (“Wuhan virus!” “Obamagate!”) And long before the pandemic hit, he and his crew were deeply engaged in ensuring that this planet would become the hothouse from hell. Whether by leaving the Paris climate accord or opening the way for methane gas releases, expanding offshore drilling or encouraging Arctic drilling while freeing coal plants to release more mercury into the atmosphere, he and his associates have engaged in a grim version of “make it so,” the famed line of Jean-Luc Picard, the captain of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s USS Enterprise. In these years, largely in the service of Big Energy, he and his crew have transformed themselves into so many pyromaniacs.
In a similar fashion, Trump and his team have turned their attention to ensuring that this planet would once again be swept up in a nuclear arms race. In these years, from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty to the Open Skies Treaty, his administration has systematically withdrawn from Cold War-era nuclear pacts. At the same time, they’ve been pouring money into what’s euphemistically called the “modernization” of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in amounts only matched by the other eight nuclear powers combined. They are now reportedly even considering restarting underground nuclear testing (abandoned 28 years ago) and possibly pulling out of the final significant Cold War nuclear agreement, the New START Treaty, early next year.
Similarly, as with climate change, his administration, especially the Environmental Protection Agency, has worked with striking intensity to roll back environment rules and regulations of every sort — the New York Times recently toted up 100 of them — again largely in the service of the desires of Big Energy. In other words, they’ve focused on ensuring that this country has significantly dirtier, more polluted air, water, and wetlands, while far more toxic chemicals are floating in our all-American world. Meanwhile, he and his people have been similarly hard at work endangering the Endangered Species Act.
And this was all before the president ignored his own scientists and advisers on the coming pandemic, ensuring that tens of thousands of extra Americans (or, in his terms perhaps, extraneous Americans) would die by shutting down the country significantly too late and remarkably ineptly. He then guaranteed that yet more would die by reopening it too soon — and by swearing, while he was at it, that no matter what hit this country next, he would never “close it down” again. All of this he recently termed a “transition to Greatness.”
And imagine what will happen when any of these areas of destruction begin to reinforce one another. Consider, for instance, that in a climate-changing world, the intensity of storms is now on the rise and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center expects an “above normal” Atlantic hurricane season this fall. So check out the cyclone of record intensity that only recently hit India in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, leaving desperate people anything but socially distanced in shelters, and then think about the coming fall here on the East Coast of the U.S. or, for that matter, what will happen when you combine the coronavirus with intensifying wildfires in the West.
A Conundrum Planet
So that roof I was thinking about in 2016 has indeed come down to varying degrees on just about every American and yet Donald Trump may not be the new Herbert Hoover.
Or put another way, on this, your graduation day, I’m sending you out into his world and that of the Mitch McConnellized party that hitched its wagon to his horse. (Imagine that, once upon a time, the Republicans were considered the party of the environment!) On such a planet, there is just one thing that matters to those in power — and no, I’m sorry to say that it’s not you. It’s his reelection, which means so much more than life, liberty, or the pursuit of anyone’s happiness other than his own. If his numbers weaken the slightest bit among aging evangelicals, for instance, then it’s time to open the churches NOW!! If, however, your numbers weaken, as indeed they have, tough luck.
If he wants a full-scale in-person convention (and so the televised extravaganza that will go with it) for that reelection bid, then make it so and to hell with the delegates themselves or their hosts in Charlotte, North Carolina (or wherever it ends up). And good luck to the Democrats keeping Joe Biden in a basement somewhere and potentially holding a virtual convention!
Donald Trump’s base elected a planet destroyer and he’s never let them (or himself) down. In that sense, he’s been fulfilling his duties big time. So, on your graduation day, welcome to a world in which the ceiling’s on the floor. I know I’m supposed to offer you words of wisdom and encouragement today, but how can I? Not when we’ve now reached the true moment of Trumpian nihilism. Why not golf while scores of Americans die even if you did criticize the previous president for his golfing habits? (“Can you believe that, with all of the problems and difficulties facing the U.S., President Obama spent the day playing golf?”)
This is the moment when I would normally say: class of 2020, gather yourselves together and, arm in arm, take this path through that gate and off this beautiful campus where you’ve just spent four years of your life. It’s time for you to enter our world and make it a better place.
Today, however, there is no path; there is no gate; and you can’t join hands (not unless you’re fervent supporters of Donald Trump). You’re graduating not into a world but into a conundrum. I know you’ll do your damnedest. After all, what can any of us do but that? Still, my heart goes out to you, though little good that’s likely to do.
I’m sorry. I truly am. You didn’t deserve this.
Copyright 2020 Tom Engelhardt