climate crisis Politics Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt: The Decline and Fall of Everything (Including Me)

Will we find some way to write America's story that won’t end in the fall not just of this imperial power but of humanity itself?
[Jaan / CC BY 2.0 ]

By Tom Engelhardt | TomDispatch

I find nothing strange in Joe Biden, at 79 (going on 80), being the oldest president in our history and possibly planning to run again in 2024. After all, who wouldn’t want to end up in the record books? Were he to be nominated and then beat the also-aging Donald Trump, or Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, or even Fox News’s eternally popular Tucker Carlson, he would occupy the White House until he was 86.

Honestly, wouldn’t that be perfect in its own way? I mean, what could better fit an America in decline than a president in decline, the more radically so the better?

Okay, maybe, despite the Republican National Committee’s clip on the subject, when Joe Biden had to be guided to that red carpet in Israel, it wasn’t because he was an increasingly doddering old guy. Still…

I mean, I get it. I really do. After all, I just turned 78 myself, which leaves me only a year and four months behind Joe Biden in the aging sweepstakes. And believe me, when you reach anything close to our age, whatever White House spokespeople might say, decline becomes second nature to you. In fact, I’m right with Joe on that carpet whenever someone brings up a movie I saw or book I read years ago (or was it last month?) and I can’t remember a damn thing about it. I say to any of you of a certain age, Joe included: Welcome to the club!

It’s strange, if not eerie, to be living through the decline of my country — the once “sole superpower” on Planet Earth — in the very years of my own decline (even if Fox News isn’t picking on me). Given the things I’m now forgetting, there’s something spookily familiar about the decline-and-fall script in the history I do recall. As Joe and his top officials do their best to live life to the fullest by working to recreate a three-decades-gone Cold War, even as this country begins to come apart at the seams, all I can say is: welcome to an ever lousier version of the past (just in case you’re too young to have lived it).

Since the disappearance of the Neanderthals and the arrival of us, tell me that decline hasn’t been among the most basic stories in history. After all, every child knows that what goes up, must… I don’t even have to complete that sentence, do I, whatever your age? Thought of a certain way, decline and fall is the second oldest story around, after the rise and… whatever you want to call it.

Just ask the last emperors of China’s Han dynasty, or the once-upon-a-time rulers of Sparta, or Romulus Augustulus, the last head of the Roman Empire (thanks a lot, Nero!). But here, in the third decade of the twenty-first century, that ancient tale has a brand-new twist. After all that time when humanity, in its own bloody, brutal fashion, flourished, whether you want to talk about the loss of species, the destruction of the environment, or ever more horrific weather disasters arriving ever more quickly, it’s not just the United States (or me) going down… it’s everything. And don’t think that doesn’t include China, the supposedly rising power on Planet Earth. It also happens to be releasing far more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other country right now and suffering accordingly (even if the falling power of this moment, the United States, remains safely in first place as the worst carbon emitter of all time).

So, unless we humans can alter our behavior fast, it looks like only half our story may soon be left for the telling.

The Rise and Fall of Tom Engelhardt (and So Much Else)

To speak personally, I find myself experiencing three versions of that ultimate story: that of my own fall; that of my country; and that of an increasingly overheating planet as a habitable place for us all. With that in mind, let me take you on a brief trip through those three strangely intertwined tales, starting with me.

I was born in July 1944 into an America that had been roused from a grotesque depression, the “Great” one as it was known, and was then being transformed into a first-rate military and economic powerhouse by World War II. (My father was in that war as, in her own fashion, was my mother.) That global conflict, which mobilized the nation in every way, wouldn’t end until, more than a year later, two American B-29s dropped newly invented weapons of disastrous destructive power, atomic bombs, on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, more or less obliterating them. In those acts, for the first time in history, lay the promise of an ultimate end to the human story of a sort once left to the gods. In other words, V-J (or Victory over Japan) Day instantly had an underside that couldn’t have been more ominous.

I was born, then, into a newly minted imperial power already exhibiting an unparalleled global punch. Soon, it would face off in a planet-wide struggle, initially focused on the Eurasian continent, against another superpower-in-the making, the Soviet Union (and its newly communized Chinese ally). That would, of course, be the not-quite-world war (thanks to the threat of those nuclear weapons, multiplied and improved many times over) that we came to call the Cold War. In it, what was then known as the “free world” — although significant parts of it were anything but “free” and the U.S. often worked its wiles to make other parts ever less so — was set against the communized “slave” version of the same.

In the United States, despite fears of a nuclear conflict that left children like me “ducking and covering” under our school desks, Americans experienced the hottest economy imaginable. In the process, an ever wealthier society was transformed from a good one into — as President Lyndon Johnson dubbed it in 1964 — the Great Society. Despite “red scares” and the like, it was one that would indeed prove better for many Americans, including Blacks in the wake of a Civil Rights Movement that finally ended the Jim Crow system of segregation that had succeeded slavery.

In the process, the U.S. developed a global system around what was then called the “Iron Curtain,” the lands the Soviet Union controlled. It would be anchored by military bases on every continent but Antarctica and alliances of every sort from NATO in Europe to SEATO in Southeast Asia, as well as secretive CIA operations across much of the globe.

As for me, I, too, was still rising (though sometimes, as in the Vietnam years, in full-scale protest against what my country was doing in the world), first as a journalist, then as an editor in publishing. I even wrote a version of the history of my times in a book I called The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation. Little did I know then quite how disillusioning the world we were creating would turn out to be. Meanwhile, in the 1980s and ’90s, during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, during what came to be known as the neoliberal moment, another kind of rise became more evident domestically. It was of a kind of corporate wealth and power, as well as a growing inequality, previously unknown in my lifetime.

In 1991, when I was 47 years old, the Cold War suddenly ended. In 1989, the Red Army had limped home from a decade-long disastrous war in Afghanistan (from which, of course, Washington would turn out to learn absolutely nothing) and the Soviet Union soon imploded. Miracle of miracles, after nearly half a century, the United States was left alone and seemingly victorious, “the sole superpower” on Planet Earth.

The former bipolar world order was no more and, in the phrase of conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, we were now in “the unipolar moment.” Uni because there was only one power that mattered left on this planet. Admittedly, Krauthammer didn’t expect that uni-ness to last long, but too many politicians in Washington felt differently. As it turned out, the top officials in the administrations of Bush the elder and then Bush the younger had every intention of turning that moment of unparalleled global triumph into a forever reality. What followed were wars, invasions, and conflicts of every sort meant to cement the global order, starting with President George H.W. Bush’s Operation Desert Storm against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1991, which (sadly enough) came to be known as the first Gulf War.

Hence, too, the missing “peace dividend” that had been promised domestically as the Cold War ended. Hence, too, after “peace” arrived came the never-ending urge to pour yet more taxpayer dollars into the Pentagon, into a “defense” budget beyond compare, and into the weapons-making corporations of the military-industrial complex, no matter what the U.S. military was actually capable of accomplishing.

All of this was to be the global legacy of that sole superpower, as its leaders worked to ensure that this country would remain so until the end of time. A decade into that process, horrified by the response of Bush the younger and his top officials to the 9/11 attacks, I created TomDispatch, the website that would see me through my own years of decline.

Bankruptcy, Inc.

Keep in mind that, in those years of supposed triumph, the third decline-and-fall story was just beginning to gain momentum. We now know that climate change was first brought to the attention of an American president, Lyndon Johnson, by a science advisory committee in 1965. In 1977, Jimmy Carter, who two years later would put solar panels on the White House (only to have them removed in 1986 by Ronald Reagan), was warned by his chief science adviser of the possibility of “catastrophic climate change.” And yet, in all the years that followed, remarkably little was done by the sole superpower, though President Barack Obama did play a key role in negotiating the Paris Climate agreement (from which Donald Trump would dramatically withdraw this country).

In its own fashion, Trump’s victory in 2016 summed up the fate of the unipolar moment. His triumph represented a cry of pain and protest over a society that had gone from “great” to something far grimmer in the lifetime of so many Americans, one that would leave them as apprentices on what increasingly looked like a trip to hell.

That narcissistic billionaire, ultimate grifter, and dysfunctional human being somehow lived through bankruptcy after bankruptcy only to emerge at the top of the heap. He couldn’t have been a more appropriate symptom and symbol of troubled times, of decline — and anger over it. It wasn’t a coincidence, after all, that the candidate with the slogan Make America Great Again won that election. Unlike other politicians of that moment, he was willing to admit that, for so many Americans, this country had become anything but great.

Donald Trump would, of course, preside over both greater domestic inequality and further global decline. Worse yet, he would preside over a global power (no longer “sole” with the rise of China) that wasn’t declining on its own. By then, the planet was in descent as well. The American military would also continue to demonstrate that it was incapable of winning, that there would never again be the equivalent of V-J Day.

Meanwhile, the political elite was shattering in striking ways. One party, the Republicans, would be in almost total denial about the very nature of the world we now find ourselves in — a fate that, in ordinary times, might have proven bad news for them. In our moment, however, it only strengthened the possibility of a catastrophe for the rest of us, especially the youngest among us.

And yes, recently West Virginia coal magnate Joe Manchin finally came around (in return for a barrel full of favors for his major donors in the oil and gas industry), but the country that created the Manhattan Project that once produced those atomic bombs is now strangely unrecognizable, even to itself. During World War II, the government had poured massive sums of money into that effort, while mobilizing large numbers of top scientists to create the nuclear weapons that would destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To this day, in fact, it still puts staggering sums and effort into “modernizing” the American nuclear arsenal.

When it comes to saving the world rather than destroying it, however, few in Washington could today even imagine creating a modern version of the Manhattan Project to figure out effective new ways of dealing with climate change. Better to launch a dreadful version of the now-ancient Cold War than deal with the true decline-and-fall situation this country, no less this civilization, faces.

Admittedly, though I recently stumbled across something I wrote in the 1990s that mentioned global warming, I only became strongly aware of the phenomenon in this century as my own decline began (almost unnoticed by me). Even when, at TomDispatch, I started writing fervently about climate change, I must admit that I didn’t initially imagine myself living through it in this fashion — as so many of us have in this globally overheated summer of 2022. Nor did I imagine that such devastating firesfloodsdroughts, and storms would become “normal” in my own lifetime. Nor, I must admit, did I think then that the phenomenon might lead to a future all-too-literal end point for humanity, what some scientists are starting to term a “climate endgame” — in other words, a possible extinction event.

And yet here we are, in a democratic system under unbelievable stress, in a country with a gigantic military (backed by a corporate weapons-making complex of almost imaginable size and power) that’s proven incapable of winning anything of significance, even if funded in a fashion that once might have been hard to imagine in actual wartime. In a sense, its only “success” might lie its remarkable ability to further fossil-fuelize the world. In other words, we now live in an America coming apart at the seams at a moment when the oldest story in human history might be changing, as we face the potential decline and fall of everything.

One thing is certain: as with all of us, when it comes to my personal story, there’s no turning around my own decline and fall. When it comes to our country and the world, however, the end of the story has yet to be written. The question is: Will we find some way to write it that won’t end in the fall not just of this imperial power but of humanity itself?

Copyright 2022 Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture.  A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

26 comments

  1. I’m with you all the way, Tom. Good portrayal of what has happened and how it led to the catastrophes we are now facing.

  2. While we may be inclined to write of our impending extinction, it may well be the case that younger generations who display more of a sense of responsibility for life and the environment, and who refuse to acquiesce in a zeitgeist of pessimism and defeat, may ensure that generations yet to be born will bring forth great scribes who will inform their contemporaries as to just how close we came to giving up altogether.

  3. Age has nothing to do with competency. Intelligence and compassion are what matters.
    Noam Chomsky and Daniel Ellsberg are evidence of that. Barring dementia, which is not inevitable, one gains wisdom and perspective as one ages. BTW, I’m 80.

    1. WISDOM v. POWER

      I was going to post something similar. I’m 74; the usual ’60s activism. Fought the Ivy D neolib LBO of what had been the New Deal party and subsequent abandonment of the majority working class.

      The FB groups of young Bernie supporters were often vehemently anti-Boomer. I’d bring up the class issue; few understood. Finally in sheer exasperation I said they must be white kids because no BIPOC person would be so stupid as to diss their own elders.

      Growing up on reservation land, I respected older people and enjoyed their stories. At 19, I knew what I wanted most was wisdom– I looked forward to growing old. But it’s the Rodney Dangerfield thing: no respect. The b.s. econ and its b.s. youth culture.

      No wonder the U.S. has no idea how to age gracefully when old people grasp at looking young (read immature) and pols cling to the remnants of their youthful power via neolib econ and neocon empire.

      We with the failing bodies know damn well the futility of trying to appear powerful. But those among us who found a little maturity also found some wisdom. It’s time our country grew up, too.

      1. “The FB groups of young Bernie supporters were often vehemently anti-Boomer.” FB? Hardly a valid source.

        The actual rallies I attended and my interactions with Sanders supporters of all ages, ethnicities, classes, and creeds had NO such conflicts. Looking to anonymous FB for evidence of anything is a fools errand. If/when it happens, the revolution that saves the world will not be fomented in the commoditized digital marketing known as “social media.”

    2. history disagrees —intelligence is a meaningless slogan as is compassion. great leaders centralize —they render opponents impotent. great leaders surround themselves with brilliant and competent advisors, specialists. great leaders are decisive—they are doers, not compromisers…Chomsky is an incompetent disgraced linguist that supports ruling class war criminals –Clinton, obama, etc…there is no guarantee that age provides either wisdom or perspective—this requires intellectual cultural, aesthetic development—living in non-anglo nations, speaking other languages, etc, Nietzsche Freud, Marx Berdayaev kojeve, Levinas Rilke Lacan Durkheim Goethe all share this perspective

    3. agree, older, experienced, wiser people are sidelined in this society/country b/c they have learned how the system works, which is the last thing the corptocracy wants revealed

  4. Tom,

    I’m right behind you with the decline thing. I learned along the way that the U.S. was never founded nor intended to be a democracy.

    Any veneer of such glosses over the fact that the U.S., once created by and for the landowners & merchant class, has become a country owned by an autocratic rentier class.

  5. “…few in Washington could today even imagine creating a modern version of the Manhattan Project to figure out effective new ways of dealing with climate change.” Even Lady Bird’s effort to beautify America or the national drive to clean up water and air pollution occurred on a scale apparently impossible for today’s Americans. Witnessing the hollowing out of the collective’s moral core, its “caring” for ourselves and others has been shocking to me over my 7 decades plus. Perhaps, it is oversimplifying to pin the decline on the obsessively money grubbing attitude of capitalism write large by the corporate coup of our 3 governmental legs, but it’s counterpart, it’s distressing to acknowledge, is the passivity of us in the face of the corporatizing of the public mind causing a stultifying dispossession by the citizenry of its own agency to put a leash on corporations-money-and-power-is-all-that-counts shallowness and insist that collective life be guided by matters of the mind and heart in partnership with the use of “right” power as in “right” action. Watching the sinister, vengeful, icy behavior of our government toward our neighbor Cuba whose dealing with its oil fire disaster typifies a government devoid of natural humanity, compassion. Disgusting and appalling.

  6. I have much respect for Tom’s work but unfortunately I think he’s shared a common misconception here in focusing our collective plight on climate change. Climate change, while a bracing existential issue, is a symptom of the larger problem of ecological overshoot- that is the hyper-exploitation of natural systems beyond their ability to regenerate and sustain us.

    For those interested, ecologist William Rees has some good lectures on YouTube on the subject.

  7. Interestingly you left out the Democratic Party’s culpability (Clinton’s NAFTA, Welfare Reform, Prison Reform, Repeal of the Taft Hartley, all of which negatively affected the poor and powerless and made the rich richer. Obama’s Obama Care BS (helping out the Insurance Industry), Bailing out the banks (allowing for millions of Americans to lose their homes), the coup in Ukraine, war in Syria and Libya (which brought with it slave markets), all of which hurt the poor and powerless and made the rich richer. And then there is demented Biden (there is a charge of elderly abuse in this presidency but at least we know it’s certainly not the president running things) who during the campaign made all kinds of bold promises to help the poor and powerless, but has done nothing but made the rich richer. This too is part of the reasoning behind the decline of this country. It is because of the Republicans but a big part also goes to the Democrats. Makes one wonder if they’re really on the same team, hmmm.

    1. You see it as it is. Greed , power and they don’t really give a care about anything but being in charge of everything they possibly can. AND getting everything they can get while in office. Which they do. They have the inside scoop on it all.
      And as far as this world’s decline, it has been written about a long time ago. IT comes as no shock to me, the way people are today.

    2. the Clinton era was marked by the wholesale sellout to Wall Street by co-opted/corporate dems, which I believe when Ted Kennedy lost to Carter

      we, the dems-US-gop, are all blind war mongers

  8. Like Noam Chomsky, Tom Englehardt has passed his pull date. The glue factory of regressives like LA Regressive
    Awaits…just like Robert Reich.
    The Anti Mandate crowd will sweep to power in November!!
    This lifelong communist will vote republican…chew on that
    You regressive warmongers of the imo left!!

  9. Historians that study empire comprehend that empires suicide due to decadence immorality imperial over-reach etc— a few exceptions regard colonization–Incas or natural disaster Mayans….empires never reform themselves—they fade into nations with little cultural, economic or military influence…if Johan Galtung is correct US empire will collapse before 2030

  10. I always love TomDispatch insights and self-analyzation of our times. A nice history lesson for those who have not lived as long as Mr. Engelhardt. As I’ve spent a lifetime studying human history and political events, the nature and quality of human beings evolves, as does the natural world and the decline of our country and the world around us. Take our tough as leather pioneers in the 1800s and the treks and sacrifices and back breaking work they endured to settle our Western lands, our glorified Manifest Destiny. Each generation gets softer and more out of touch with the physical environment around them. I look around today and shudder. When it all hits the fan, current generations will be like insects in a bug zapper, unable to fend for themselves.

    I must also insert a whopping missing part in Tom’s essay. He missed the 8-Billion People Monster in the Room now living on Planet Earth. This un-sustainable factor can not deliver a pretty picture for our future, as all past and present problems stem from this issue. It is the invisible taboo rarely talked about. Process this staggering fact and it puts most all things in perspective. So humanity needs to start there to create any kind of fix we’re in. And indeed, the End Game is upon us.

    1. Lmfao @ YOUR “tough as leather” pioneers… You mean genocidal sociopaths who prosecuted the grim work of destroying an entire civilization and ancient culture in the pursuit of slaves and “lebensraum”? Those rustic adventurers who from the moment they set boots upon “new lands” began dehumanizing and massacring the native populations? Such amazing sacrifices were endured by their victims and their ancestors still living today. Just a little insight into the thoughts of younger generations on YOUR “tough as leather” sociopath pioneers, we can’t wrap our heads around such cruelty or the horror of the deranged nature of the genocide and enslavement of not only the natives of North America but of any culture unfortunate enough to have curiosity or compassion enough to try and help ragged travelers arriving from distant lands. At this late hour at least have the decency to not pile even more lies and “dumb as fuck” reminiscing on top of the gross and despicable destruction and displacements of entire peoples and ways of life. We look around today and shudder then study YOUR “tough as leather” pioneers and say “A hah! Now I see why this crap is falling apart”

      1. Hear effing hear!
        While we were slaughtering – literally – the Native American populations, we were torturing the kidnapped Africans. The “tough as leather” fantasy is what keeps it all going . Real, red-blooded, he-men, twin flags flying from giant pickups & guzzling SUV’s in ludicrous expressions of “patriotism”. The “red” states will switch their elector’s votes and we will be finished with “democracy” Never a dull moment………………..

  11. Someone should research the obsession of left-ish, Neo Progressive obsession with doom-n’-gloom narratives and prophetic delusions…

    1. Yes – it’s all getting better. The Beatles said it best. Or – maybe it was Frank Zappa….. My banker’s name is Kassandra….. Is “Thinking outside the box” a reference to Pandora? The perfectly timed arrival of Trumpism should make us all optimistic: just when we were flogging ourselves with Liberal guilt & remorse, we learned that we could be Great Again. What a relief!

  12. My exwife, who claimed she saw fairies in the garden (I believed her ala The Magic of Findhorn) also believed that an Alien race of reptiles (known generally as the “Palladians” – since no one in the woo-woo counterculture could figure out how to pronounce “Pleiadians) were living among us disguised as humans and causing all the troubles. I now believe that too. But I’m convinced that a genetically distinct strain of homo sapiens descended from velociraptors have, finally, been drawn inexorably together into a rapacious conglomeration represented by the “republican” party. Like Komodo Dragons, (and the rest of us) they’re drawn by the rotting odor of carrion – so who better to mesmerize them than a 300 lb sack of rancid, orange, cancerous suet, who happens to be the greatest and most demented showman in the ongoing Amerikan sitcom. The humor is getting blacker by the minute and no one is laughing. This is not going to end well – or anytime soon. I’m 78 and my sister is 80 – and we remark daily how lucky we are to be getting out of here just before the shit starts really hitting the fan…………………

  13. I, too, at 75 am in decline, as is the USA and the planet. However, my version includes criticism of the Democratic Party leaders equal to that of Republicans. Clinton and Obama led military incursions and growth of USA bases around the world, and Obama became the drone bomber in chief. You also failed to take into account the uncredible and growing disparities in wealth in the USA (and probably in many places around the world). Trump was all the things you said, but sadly you gave Obama and Hillary Clinton passes they do not deserve. We seniors in decline owe it to future generations and the planet to take a more truthful look at the decades we lived, take a side for survival of the planet, and be willing to man the front lines if there are to be a livable planet and future generations.

  14. Almost all of the above are painfully accurate. According to J.E. Lovelock – 30 years ago – we’re caught in a riptide of climate change and have no idea how fast and hard it’s going to come. Divine retribution. Uncontrollable appetite.
    All the old myths hold true: Midas, Pandora, Narcissus, et al. We had a shot after Nixon’s EPA, but the reactionary billionaires weren’t having it. “Democracy ” is self governance and, as Ray-gun said – “Government isn’t the solution to the problem, government IS the problem”. But government does what the majority asks it to – ie, the government is us. The Great Experiment started with the extermination of millions of Native Americans and the enslavement & torture of 4 million Africans. The pointless slaughter of the Passenger Pigeons and the Buffalo, the madness of the gold rush. What could possibly go wrong…..?

  15. When Biden was selected President, my first thought was “he’s perfect for the role”. Just what the script called for a “Commander in grief”. His whole story is based on tragic loss, untimely deaths, and the ultimate acceptance of disappointing failures.

  16. I could take him at his word that Tom Engelhardt is in decline, but if he’d not stated it I’d think so anyway, by the poor quality of this awful, misbegotten and actually lazy-minded article. Or perhaps he never had it to begin with.

    Old does not equal “in mental decline.” Bertrand Russell and Roger Penrose and many others demonstrated that in fact if you were to choose your leaders wisely rather than accepting the garbage foisted by a political machine process, old is actually better in mental acquity. This because age is the true source of wisdom in gifted person – in a gifted person. The leadership we choose is supposed to be gifted, not just pretty or rich or famous. Joe Biden is not gifted to begin with, he was a “declined” or substandard mind & spirit 40 years ago; a grifter, a liar, an inveterate political animal not to be trusted managing a city zoo never mind the Senate seat of N.J. His perceived decline flies in the face of that you can watch him lie about his own history on Youtube, yet this guy was still foisted as President. If Tom Engelhardt can’t acknowledge that from the start, and instead reverts to slamming old age, he’s not qualified to judge leadership.

    And so throughout this crappy little essay, the wrong starting points, analyzed from inside the box, without vision and with blinders. All the boxes checked; No longer being #1 means horrible things, Cold War summed up poorly, one term inconsequential Trump condemned but Reagan handled with kid gloves. The worst enemy of the people, the Democrat Party, overlooked cuz you know, the audience here might get red ears. The weather. Ugh yes Tom Engelhardt you are in decline.

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