Essay Tom Engelhardt

Donald Trump Knew Us Better Than We Knew Ourselves

Now that Trump's been defeated, count on one thing: he’ll take as much of this country with him as he can.
[Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0]

By Tom Engelhardt / TomDispatch

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.

A Vote for Doom

Now, let’s look on the bright side, because at such a moment who wants to just read a screed of negativity? So here’s the good news: thanks to President Trump’s defeat in election 2020 (however long it may take to play out in court), the world will go down more slowly, though how much more slowly remains to be seen. After all, there was one factor in any Trump second term that was going to be unlike any other.

Though it may not seem like it to us, the rest of what we would have seen from a Trump second term — autocratic behavior, raw racism, a red-hot version of nationalism (white and otherwise), aggrieved masculinity, all amid the pandemic of the century — would have been just another passing chapter in human history. In that long tale, autocrats and nationalists of every grim kind have been a dime-a-dozen and even nightmarish pandemics anything but unknown. Give it a decade, a century, a millennium, and it would be as if nothing had happened at all. Who but the historians (if they still exist) would even remember?

Unfortunately, that’s not true of one factor in election 2020, though it played the most modest of roles in the campaign itself. That was, of course, the phenomenon of climate change, the human heating of the planet through the never-ending release into the atmosphere (and the oceans) of greenhouse gasses from the burning of fossil fuels.

Certainly, since the coal-fired industrial revolution began in England in the eighteenth century, the warming of this planet has been sparked and fed by us humans, but it is not, in fact, part of human history. It will operate on a timescale likely to leave that history in the dust. Once released, and if not brought under some reasonable control (as is still possible), it’s a phenomenon that will stand, in the most devastating fashion imaginable, outside human history altogether. Unlike any other Trumpian phenomenon, once it truly sets in, give it a decade, a century, even a millennium, and it will still be working to ensure that Earth, to one degree or another, becomes a distinctly unlivable planet for humanity.

It’s little short of passing strange — you might actually call it suicidal — that Donald Trump (and the crew he brought to power) would be quite so intent not just on ignoring or “denying” climate change, as is often charged, but on amplifying it by, in essence, actively setting this planet afire. The president’s term for it was “unleashing American Energy Dominance.” How strange, however, that his intent to destroy a habitable planet proved quite so popular, not once, but twice — and who knows about a third time in 2024?

After all, a vote for Trump was, in essence, a vote for doom. At some level, it wasn’t even complicated, but from a base that seemed to glory in those mask-less, chanting love fests for their One and Only, perhaps none of this should have been a surprise at all.

If Donald Trump has become something like a god to his supporters, then perhaps it’s worth asking what kind of a god would be quite so intent on setting fire to the planet (and while he was at it murdering his own apprentices with Covid-19)? Perhaps we need to think of him, in fact, as our very own boatman Charon on the river Styx, paddling us all to what someday could quite literally be a hell on Earth.

After all, I’m writing this piece in New York City on a November day when it’s 74 degrees outside (and, no, that’s not a misprint). Yet another fierce tropical storm in a record year of them has drenched parts of Florida, a place that’s no longer a swing state but, like Mar-a-Lago, property of The Donald. Meanwhile, parts of the West, having burned and smoked and flamed in a historic fashion across millions and millions of charred acres amid heat waves galore, are still smoldering (though hardly noticed by anyone), and the world couldn’t be less together.

In a Senate controlled by Mitch McConnell, green new deals or two-trillion-dollar climate plans will become more fantastic than Donald Trump himself. Still, with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris at least partially running a deeply divided country in the midst of a pandemic and an economy that’s gone to hell, the pyromania will ease up somewhat. Some modest steps might even be taken toward alternate forms of energy and some to save the environment, as well as a humanity in distress. It won’t be what’s needed, but it won’t be a torch either and that’s the best thing to be said about our moment and why it truly mattered that Donald Trump was not reelected.

Now, return for a moment to 1991, when that other superpower, the Soviet Union, imploded. America’s power brokers then (including Joe Biden), believing themselves alone and powerful beyond imagining on Planet Earth, the inheritors of everything that had gone before, launched what would become disastrous forever wars, sure that this planet was theirs for the taking, even as history itself — just imagine — was ending.

Almost three decades later, that same last superpower is a democracy in decline, not to say chaos; an imperial power in decline globally; a military power that can’t find a winning war to fight (even as Congress, no matter the president, appropriates yet more funding for the military-industrial complex). We have a 78-year-old man getting ready to inhabit the Oval Office and another 78-year-old preparing to oppose him in the Senate, while an 80-year-old runs the House. Doesn’t this tell you something about a country swept away by a pandemic — 100,000 or more cases a day — and, despite assurances from Donald Trump, without a turnable “corner” in sight? And none of this would be the end of the world, so to speak, if it weren’t for climate change.

Admittedly, Covid-19 has turned this country into a kind of hell on Earth, having been left to roam in an unprecedented fashion by a killer president. Cases are soaring, hospitals overwhelmeddeaths rising, and almost half of America can’t think about anything but crowding together for presidential rallies, living mask-less lives, and “opening” the economy.

Trumpism has split America in two in a way that hasn’t been imaginable since the Civil War. The president and the Senate are likely to be in gridlock, the judicial system a partisan affair of the first order, the national security state a money-gobbling shadow empire, the citizenry armed to the teeth, racism rising, and life everywhere in an increasing state of chaos.

Welcome to the (Dis)United States. Donald Trump led the way and, whatever he does, I suspect that this, for at least the time being, is still in some sense his world, not Joe Biden’s. He was the man and, like it or not, we were all his apprentices in a performance of destructive power of the first order that has yet to truly end.

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 runs TomDispatch and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.


  1. Tom – A fantastic piece of writing – ghoulish and true- sad,pathetic, and real. Thank you!

  2. Tom if you are reading this I think you are on a roll. But the narrative here is not quite right, although you have identified the proper elements of the story.

    Trump didn’t impose his chaos on us. We were there first. If anything he unwittingly began to impose order on the chaos. He wasn’t sent by “god knows whom”. Like everything, he was sent by God. God knows what They are doing.

    I think as individuals we are probably saner than we have ever been, but as a nation we are psychotic. All our institutions have been appropriated by the Empire and they uniformly spew the Empire’s propaganda line, so we are trapped in unreality. To most of us for example the Rs are “the party of the right” and the Ds are “the party of the left”. So naturally the world appears chaotic since our categories are unreal.

    Trump’s gift was to create a coherent counter-unreality, and since he is coherently Satanic it begins to impose order on the chaos. He isn’t Charon, he is Thanatos, and he appeals to those who unconsciously long for easeful death. We may hope that his creation of a party of Death may lead to the emergence of a party of Life. He has already created a significant difference between the D and R parties.

    Trump collaborated with the Empire to a point, but he was a loose cannon, and he expressed an alternative unreality. In reaction to this both the Empire and the actual left were driven into the D party. It remains to be seen what the outcome will be.

    1. Oddly Biden has at least of whiff of consciousness about Earth’s plight and today’s downtrodden whereas there’s scant evidence, not even a whiff of it, emanating from the Agent Chaos-Moscow Mitch-lock step Koch possessed Heritage Society cloned Congressional Republicans – so buried be they in mud gone so dry like bricks of mean gold for which their lust has turned them cold to feelings, their own or others, much less for that State of Poor, whether that of people or ravaged earth. Sufficient unto the day the evil thereof. Like gold there are even gradients of “evil.”

    2. Biden owes his office to the DNC but we can’t be sure that he will follow their orders. At 78 he may feel he won’t seek a second term so he is free to do the best job that he can. Let’s not foreclose on hope before it is necessary.

    3. “The enemy’s own Political Machine”………………………
      Wasn’t it amazing how quickly the rethugnicans jumped on the “Lone-wolf oafus dufus’s” Big Grift Wagon?
      So which group comprises said “Enemy’s Political Machine?
      The Rethugnicans – or The Dumbocrats…………..?

  3. tommy’s obsession w trump is self loathing narcissism; amerikans are the problem, not trump—less fascist than biden…if any group split amerikans it is the ruling class dems that promoted covidian fascism…interesting that it is the communists that protest against covid martial law in Europe/S. amerika—2 days ago 25,000 die linke in Leipsig (their motto is “we can do better than capitalism”. Sandaniista never succumbed to covid fascism–151 attributed deaths…it is the fascist nations that closed enterprises, require masks that are plagued w the most per capita deaths

      1. A Long Island Tea with a shot of Meyers rumon top usually relaxes one’s anxiety….. followed by a few tokes, it will propel one into The Electric Mist. You’ll feel just like Burgess Meredith ……..

    1. Do you think Yuri could pick it up? I think Yuri is a not too bright employee of the well known Moscow troll farm not proved to be funded by the Russian government. It might be a bit of a stretch for him to become an inspiring American Civil Rights icon.

    2. “The cure is almost surely going to be worse than the disease ever would have been. The sheer amount of people who will die from the consequences of shutting down the worlds economy, to the extent we did, will dwarf the number who likely would have died from covid had we not shut down.”

      And you know this, how?

    3. Yer ded right about the Dulles Bros. Dr King’s mantle? Well, read The Cold Six Thousand by James Ellroy. Covers everything from JFK’s murder (I was on the 5th flr of the NSA that day…) thru the murders of King & RFK. Meticulous, fascinating “fictional” acct of the mythical”Deep State”. Home of Linda Lovelace.

  4. the 70+ million who voted for The Big Orange Flaccid Sack of Rotting Suet have been besotting themselves for 400 years on the gibbering cartoon show of Christian fantasy, and for the last 40 on the nihilism of Jerry Springer, Howard Stern, and now Rush Limbaugh & Alex Jones.
    Donald will stay in the limelight – with his 2 flavors of arm candy, replete with their surgically distorted faces and big rubber hooters – to entertain his “base” and torture the rest of us into “the dustbin of history”
    At 77, all I’m concerned with is – who’ll bring the butter when the roll is called up yonder………..?

    1. You ain’t the onliest one swung a 32 oz Estwing wafflehead in rain, snow & blazing sun for 40 yrs, Bub……………………………..

    1. Selina, stop while you’re behind. He is owning you. Great points good citizen. Enjoyed reading your comments.

      1. My constant felt response to these wild, combative rants is, “Whew……………….”
        I wish I were as thoughtful, intelligent and obviously kind as you. I am about half as furious and crazy as Mr Z about what I’ve seen evolving since Reagan’s destructive shift in our political rhetoric: “Government isn’t the solution to the problem – government IS the problem”
        and: “The most frightening words in the english language are – ” I’m from the government, and I’m here to help”.
        We are, in a truly terrifying way, “dans le merde”. The Shadow we’ve been inflicting on the 3rd world for the last 150 yrs has finally metastasized and, as Rev Wright said, …………….”come home to roost”
        By the time Mitch & The Donald are done – in 60 days – we’ll be a shadow of The Shadow . Pogo said it: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” As Greg Palast titled it: “Armed Madhouse”.
        “Greatest country the world has ever known”.
        Well, it could have been. But, founded on racism, genocide & slavery?
        Not a chance………………………
        And now Trump is looking for military targets………
        And we’ve got a doddering 78 yr old coming into the Whitehouse……and a malevolent/malicious/malignant septuagenarian controlling the government…….
        Kamala’s going to have her hands full
        If she’s not assassinated by a Proud Boy, a Boogaloo Boi, or one of the Torch Carrying/Jew haters ….
        I want Cornell West on the expanded Supreme Court, for starters.
        Bill Maher, Keith Olbermann or Wanda Sykes as press secretary.
        And prison for the entire Trump Klan and for all the grifters who accompanied them,,,,,
        But Joe “doesn’t want to dwell on the past”.
        Which approach has, step by step, since Nixon’s treason in ’68, brought us to this cynical insanity. In other words, No Justice. 5 presidential elections stolen since ’68, through blatant treason , acts of criminality and voter suppression.
        I’ll be off the planet soon – but God (whoever SHE is ) help the ones who have to follow …..
        A stiff drink, indeed.

      2. I share all your sentiments. Were the crimes committed by the Black man in the street of the same order of magnitude as the skullduggery of today’s mis-leadership bunch, there’d be no hesitancy but to nail him in prison for a very lengthy term. Justice – were she to have a voice – would demand these thieves be held accountable to her and to The People. If Biden avoids this, it places him in collusion with the Capt Chaos et al mindset that says we’re untouchable. We’re above it and the American people. If Biden avoids this out of fear of facing the hullabaloo by the Republicans, he’s blurred Justice down a couple of notches and revealed his basic spinelessness. If Biden avoids this encounter with Justice for All under emotional inauthentic platitudes about peace and healing, he will have put an irretrievable wound in the trust of the People.What kind of feeling is instilled in the People when they witness two levels of justice? One for the Gingrich-ized Republican bullying coarsened loud mouthed Mis-Leadership, the Spineless Old Guard/Corporate Democratic Mis-Leadership and Big Time Grifters a la Wall Street /Corporate CEO’s and hedge fund managers . —- and the other bottom level of justice – for the rest of us. If he avoids this honoring of Justice For All, he is modeling the acceptability of lawlessness. Not mercy. And definitely, not healing which requires confession.

      3. Selina
        When Obama & Holder each made statements that The Big Swindle that collapsed the economy was, in fact, just “the atmosphere” of the time and that “it was actually perfectly legal” and that “no one person could be identified as being responsible” (there were tens of thousands) and that, finally, per Obama, “we don’t want to dwell on the past”…… I want to email the W.H. and arrange for my presidential pardon for stealing enough money (5 mil or so) to keep myself comfortable for the final few years.
        Each time the dumbocrats have elided responsibility using the same limp, lame-ass excuses – ie, not wanting to cause turmoil, but, in fact, not having the balls to confront the rethugs, they’ve enabled them to go further. Gee, how did someone as awful as BigOrangeSnakeShit ever get into the W.H? Biden is giving every indication he’s about to do the same thing. Goddam him if he does. “We just want to heal the country and bring everyone together”
        F**K that shit……………………….

      4. He isn’t owning sh*t with his opaque, pretentious, hyper-theatrical “crusty old bastard” persona. I grew up in a tough place too, swung a framing hammer for 35 years, ran “rough, manly crews” (usually slobbering fools who couldn’t talk about anything at lunch but pussy and duck hunting – y’know M’boy: salt o’ the earth. Not like those fey, limp-wristed, libral college punks), but I don’t need to pretend I’m a cross between Eric Hoffer & Long John Silver. A=r=r=r=r= Meboy……….

      5. Was “a man among men”. But never an overbearing cowardly bully. Verbally or physically.
        Now just a 77 Y/O retiree fending off my own permutation of the big “C”. Not long for the Planet, sissy fuss. That should give you pleasure & satisfaction. Bon Voyage. In French that means “good trip”

  5. Gosh, please, join Mr Yuri and go get a stiff drink. Maybe reconsider the downsides of dwelling in such lofty heights. Didn’t Caliban wind up a pure fool?

  6. When Haysoos comes down – any day now (and you better be ready with your “Love Offerings”) on his White Charger wildly waving his
    Flaming Sword, those Media Guys will rue the day. Lemme tell ya…….

  7. By the way Sissy Fuss – that’s an ESTwing 32 – not an EASTwing. Guess you missed your spelling lessons in jail. I went into the army instead…..

    1. My 32 ozers were Vaughans. Always tho’t the Estwings were aesthetically superior – but the grips were too slim for my paws.
      I was a lousy carpenter compared to most., mostly because I hated it…… the rain, the mud, the snow, the ice, the aching cold mornings, the cuts & slivers, the asshole, lying contractors, the asshole lying clients. But, at the end of every day, a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction with a physical product well done…….
      Years in cabinet & furniture shops gave me an appreciation of the artistry of journeymen framers.
      Every time I drive by a site I think, “Thank Christ (whoever the fuck HE was) I don’t have to do THAT shit anymore………………..
      We’re – at this age – clinging to the outer rim of The Big Wheel, fighting the centrifugal force trying to fling us into The Void……………………
      Be well and prosper Mr Z

  8. Sissy Fuss – U no who U R……
    WAY OUT OF MY LEAGUE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Thanks fer th’ laff, you old Galoot.

    1. Actually, “dans le merde” translates as “in the shit” – which is where we all are at this point. So much for your H.S. French.
      You’re schizophrenic, hypocritical, self-contradictory asswipery never ends sissy fuss.
      I’ll leave you in your “slough of despond”. With all your offensive, pretentious blather, you haven’t, in all these posts, ever said anything intelligible. It’s all a megalomaniacal Trumpephrenic spewing of egotistitcal B.S. My condolences to anyone within 50 feet of you.

  9. The trap here is evident, duress and confrontation continue the game of” I win you lose” assuring that real cooperation, and, hopefully, some sort of resolution might be achieved. This sport of victory access is part of the conditioning which perpetuates the corrupt system we suffer. Rather than kick a Klansman in the balls, ask what is wrong with minimum wage, universal health care, clean water, a future for our children. No matter what, do not give up on hope, all of us are in a very small boat, floating through the cosmos.

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