Politics Tom Engelhardt

How the American Dream Became the American Scream

Isn’t it a strange form of science fiction that, in response to a crisis that could someday signal the end of civilization, the focus in this country is on Donald Trump and company?
Norway, artist Edvard Munch’s birthplace, has nothing on the U.S. when it comes to producing reasons for bloodcurdling screams. [“The Scream” by Edvard Munch / Flickr]

By Tom Engelhardt | TomDispatch

Honestly, if you had described this America to me more than half a century ago, I would have laughed in your face.

Donald Trump becoming president? You must be kidding!

If you want a bizarre image, just imagine him in the company of Abraham Lincoln. I mean, really, what’s happened to us?

Not, of course, that we haven’t had bizarre politicians in Washington before.  I still remember watching the mad, red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy on our new black-and-white television set in April 1953.  He was a brute and looked it (though, to my nine-year-old mind, he also seemed like every belligerent dad I knew). Still, whatever he was, he wasn’t president of the United States. At the time, that was former World War II military commander Dwight D. Eisenhower.

And whatever McCarthy might have been, he wasn’t a sign of American (or planetary) decline. The Donald? Well, he’s something else again. In some ways, he could be considered the strangest marker of decline in our history. After all, when he entered the Oval Office, he took over a country whose leaders had long considered it the greatest, most powerful, most influential nation ever.

Think of him, if you will, as the weirdest seer of our times. To put him in the context of the science fiction I was reading in the previous century, he might be considered a genuine Philip K. Dick(head).

As I wrote in April 2016 in the midst of Trump’s initial run for the presidency, he was exceptional among our political class and not for any of the obvious reasons either. No, what caught my attention was that slogan of his, the one he had trademarked in the wake of Mitt Romney’s loss to Barack Obama in 2012: Make America Great Again, or MAGA. The key word in it, I realized then, was that again. As I noted at the time, he was unique in a presidential race not just as a bizarre former TV personality or even a successful multiple bankruptee, but as “the first person to run openly and without apology on a platform of American decline.” In his own way, he had his eye — and what an eye it was! — on a reality no other politician in Washington even dared consider, not when it came to the “sole superpower” of planet Earth. He was, after all, insisting then that this country was no longer great.

Trump proved to be a one-of-a-kind candidate (not that he wouldn’t have been without that MAGA slogan). And as we now know, his message, which rang so few bells among the political class in Washington, rang all too many in the (white) American heartland. In other words, Donald Trump became the prexy of decline and what a decline it would be! According to one recent survey, half of all Americans, in this increasingly over-armed country of ours, have come to believe that an actual civil war is on the way in the near future.

Think of the miracle — if you don’t mind my using such a word in this context — of Donald Trump’s presidency this way: in some sense, he managed to turn not just Republicans but all of us into his apprentices. And those years of our apprenticeship occurred not just in an increasingly crazed and violent America, but on an ever stranger, more disturbed planet.

Yes, once upon a time I read sci-fi novels in a way I no longer do and felt then that I was glimpsing possible futures, however weird. But believe me, what’s happening today wouldn’t have passed as halfway believable fiction in the late 1960s or early 1970s.

So, let me say it again: honestly, Donald Trump?

Our Liz

Having lived through the antiwar movement of the 1960s and 1970s (often enough in the streets) and the madness of the American war of destruction in Vietnam, it’s strange to spend my waning years in a country where the main protest movement, the Trumpist one, represents a nightmare of potential destruction right here at home. And by “right,” of course, I mean wrong beyond belief. It’s led, after all, by a superduper narcissist who wouldn’t qualify as a fascist only because he prefers fans to followers, apprentices to jackbooted thugs. As the events of January 6, 2021, showed, however, he wouldn’t reject them either. In an earlier moment, in fact, he urged such thugs to “stand back and stand by.”

You know that you’re in a world from hell when the heroine of this moment is the politically faithful daughter of a former vice president who, along with President George W. Bush, used the 9/11 attacks to usher us into wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as into the expansive Global War on Terror — who, that is, remains an unindicted war criminal first class. Keep in mind as well that, before she became our Liz, she voted against impeaching President Trump in 2019 and voted for his programs (if you can faintly call them that) a mere 93% of the time.

And mind you, all of this is just scratching the surface of our world from hell.

Not even in my worst nightmares of half a century ago was this the American world I imagined. Not for a day, not for an hour, not for a second did I, for instance, dream of American school guards armed with assault rifles. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

I was born, of course, into an America on the rise in which you could still imagine — it seems ridiculous to use the word today — progress toward a genuinely better world of some sort. That world is evidently now something for the history books.

Think of Donald Trump as an all-too-literal sign of the times at a moment when about 70% of Republicans consider the last election to have been stolen and Joe Biden an illegitimate president. Perhaps 40% of them also believe that violence against the government can sometimes be justified. This in a country that had long fancied itself as the greatest of all time.

And if you really want a little sci-fi madness that would, in the 1960s, have blown my mind (as we liked to say then), consider climate change. As we argue like mad about the last election, while Trumpists pursue local secretary-of-state positions (not to speak of governorships) that could give them control over future election counts, as Americans arm themselves to the teeth and democracy seems up for grabs, let’s not forget about the true nightmare of this moment: the desperate warming of this planet.

Yes, “our” Earth is burning in an all-too-literal way — and flooding, too, with “superstorms” in our future. And don’t forget that it’s melting as well at a rate far more extreme than anyone imagined once upon a time. Recent research on the Arctic suggests that instead of warming, as previously believed, at a rate two to three times faster than the rest of the planet, it’s now heating four times as fast. In some areas, in fact, make that seven times as fast! So, in the future, see ya MiamiNew YorkHo Chi Minh CityShanghai, and other coastal metropolises as sea levels rise ever faster.

Kissing the Planet Goodbye?

Honestly, you’d hardly know it in parts of this country and among Republicans (even if that party’s key figures were, once upon a time, environmentalists), but this planet is literally going down — or maybe, in temperature terms, I mean up — in flames.

Greenhouse gases continue to pour into the atmosphere and certain heads of state, like Donald Trump in his White House days, remain remarkably dedicated to emitting yet more of them. The Mexican president is one example, the Russian president another. And you no longer have to turn to science fiction to imagine the results. An unnerving sci-fi-style future is becoming the grim present right before our eyes. This summer, for instance, Europe has seen unparalleled heat and drought, with both Germany’s Rhine River and Italy’s Po River drying up in disastrous fashion. And just to add to the mix, parts of that continent have also seen storms of a startling magnitude and staggering flooding.

Meanwhile, China has been experiencing a devastating more-than-two-month-long set of heat waves with record temperatures and significant drought, all of which has proved disastrous for its crops, economy, and people. And oh yes, like the Rhine and Po, the Yangtze, the world’s third-largest river, is drying up fast, while the heat wave there shows little sign of ending before mid-September. Meanwhile, the American southwest and west continue to experience a megadrought the likes of which hasn’t been seen on this continent in at least 1,200 years. Like the Rhine, Po, and Yangtze, the Colorado River is losing water in a potentially disastrous fashion, while the season for heat waves in the United States is now 45 days longer than in the 1960s. And that’s only to begin recording planetary weather catastrophes. After all, I haven’t even mentioned the ever-fiercer wildfires, or megafires, whether in AlaskaNew MexicoFrance, or elsewhere; nor have I focused on the increasingly powerful hurricanes and typhoons that have become part of everyday life (and destruction and death).

So, isn’t it a strange form of science fiction that, in response to such a world, such a crisis, one that could someday signal the end of civilization, the focus in this country is on Donald Trump and company? Don’t you find it odd that the two greatest greenhouse gas emitters and powers on the planet, the United States and China, have responded in ways that should appall us all?

Joe Biden and his top national-security officials have continually played up the dangers of the rise of China, put significant energy into developing military alliances against that country in the Indo-Pacific region, and functionally launched a new Cold War, more than 30 years after the old one went to its grave. In addition, Nancy Pelosi, a number of other congressional representatives, and even state ones have pointedly visited the island of Taiwan, purposely infuriating the Chinese leadership. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy has ever more regularly sent its vessels through the Taiwan Strait and aircraft carrier task forces into the South China Sea.

For its part, China’s officialdom, while continuing to push the building of coal-fired power plants, has recently launched military demonstrations of an escalating sort against Taiwan, while preparing to join Vladimir Putin’s Russia for the second year in a row in “military exercises,” even as the war in Ukraine, a first class carbon disaster, goes on and on and on. At the same time, furious about those Taiwan visits from Washington, China’s leaders have essentially cut off all relations with the U.S., including any further discussions about how to cooperate in dealing with climate change.

So, a second cold war amid a growing climate disaster? If you had put that into your sci-fi novel in 1969, it would undoubtedly have seemed too absurd a future to be publishable. You would have been laughed out of the room.

Admittedly, the history of humanity has largely been a tale of the triumph of the unreasonable. Still, you might think that, as a species, we would, at a minimum, not actively opt for the destruction of the very planet we live on. And yet, think again.

At least the Biden administration did recently get a bill through Congress (despite the opposition of every Trumpublican) that dealt with global warming in a reasonably significant way and the president may still invoke his executive powers to do more. It’s true as well that the Chinese have been working hard to create ever less expensive alternative energy sources. Still, none of this takes us far enough. Not on this planet. Not now.

And keep in mind that, were a desperate and disparate America to elect Donald Trump again in 2024 (by hook or crook), the country that historically has put more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere than any other land, might be kissing the planet we’ve known goodbye.

Believe me, it’s strange to find myself remembering a long-gone world in which the major destruction was happening thousands of miles away in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. I mean, that was bad enough to get me into the streets then. Now, however, the destruction we’re significantly responsible for is happening right here, right where you and I both live, no matter where that might be. 

What we’re watching is a tragedy of an unparalleled sort in the making for our children and grandchildren, which leaves me sad beyond words. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a sci-fi novel I’d rather not read and a sci-fi life I’d rather not be living.

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.

18 comments

  1. A little younger than you, and of course we’ve seen the US decline in recent decades. The point today’s liberals dare not make, however, is that Democrat Joe Biden proved to be the most dangerous president of all. We’ve been watching as he vigorously works to provoke Russia via and Ukraine, and China via Taiwan. Setting the stage for nuclear world war. Meanwhile, the party loyalists give their vague daily speeches about climate change, seemingly unaware that nuclear world war could have a rather negative impact on the environment…

  2. Oh, Tom… We are old, we are old. We wear the bottoms of our trousers rolled.

  3. Not strange at all. Do a search and replace, T for HRC, stealing vs erasing, and for however odious the comparison might seem, actually reasonable as a different form or erasure.

    1. “Not even in my worst nightmares of half a century ago was this the American world I imagined. ”

      Not even from Matt Groening, Life in Hell and the ascendency of Bart and Homer?
      Or reaching much further back, Hieronymous (Jerry) Bosch, an original spark plug?

  4. Oh, please. Can we please get past this nonsense about Trump? Yes, he’s a narcissistic, vile jerk. So what? He’s making American look bad? I think Americans have done a fine job of that without Trump’s help.

    All that really counts is what administrations actually DO. The president is just a figurehead representing one or another faction of the parasitic class. And each administration picks up where the previous one left off, then opens the door to hell a bit wider for the next.

    If there was ever an exception to this, it was Trump. He was so generally incompetent, and so uninterested in doing the actual job, that he was regularly attacked by his own party. He had to be forced to do much of the evil he did.

    But in any fair comparison, he was far less destructive than, say, Obama.

    Did Trump bail out the bankers with trillions of dollars and let every one of them off the hook while letting ordinary Americans be ruined — including most black Americans — standing between them and the “pitchforks”? No.

    Did Trump allocate a TRILLION dollars to modernize, refurbish, and renovate the US. nuclear weapons program (and this after winning a Nobel PEACE prize — you really can’t make this shit up), threatening all life on Earth? No.

    Did Trump destroy the Gulf of Mexico, frack everywhere, and authorize numerous pipelines and more drilling while pretending to be an “environmental” president? Nope.

    Did Trump pretend that America was “post racism” while increasing the militarization of the police by 2400%? Did he attack and destroy the most prosperous and democratic nation in AFRICA, turning it into a failed, broken slave state? No to both.

    Look at the numbers! Look at the REAL damage to people of color the world over done under Barack Obama and compare to that done under Trump. Who was really the more racist?

    Obama started or made much worse SEVEN wars. Trump? None. The current mess in Ukraine is the consequence of Obama and, especially, Biden, not Trump. Remember that when the missiles really start flying.

    Trump tried to reduce tensions with North Korea and the Russian Federation. Tried to avoid attacking Syria. It was the establishment — both the Democrats and the old school Republicans (like Liz Cheney) who forced him to be more belligerent.

    And let’s consider for a moment how their weapon of choice — the absurd and laughable “Russiagate” — was used not only to demonize Trump, but to destroy relations with the world’s second-largest nuclear power leading directly to today’s near-apocalyptic mess. Compare the damage that has done to the silly nonsense about Obama’s birth certificate.

    Biden’s unwilling and botched removal of US troops from Afghanistan was forced by Trump’s agreements with the Taliban. Who was the peacemaker? Not Biden. He promptly stole Afghanistan’s billions, no doubt causing the deaths of uncountable Afghans, mostly children, still to come.

    Speaking of children, Obama was the worst ever on immigration, deporting more children than any president in history, separating children from parents. Those cages that everyone blamed Trump for? Those began under Obama.

    Obama’s biggest “victory” is his biggest scam: his healthcare package. Everyone seems to forget that he promised to work for a single-payer option, then reneged immediately upon entering office and pushed through a weak plan written by the insurance companies themselves that guaranteed their profits and left many millions uninsured.

    In every category, Obama — the “more effective evil” as the brilliant, late Glen Ford called him — was far worse than Trump. Or rather he did a much better job of hiding the destruction done by his administration.

    Both Bushes were worse than Trump. Clinton was far worse. Reagan was enormously worse — virtually all of the considerable economic decline that Tom whines about, revealing that he still secretly believes that there was once a “great” America — began under Reagan or the latter part of the Carter administration, when neoliberalism reared its ugly head and began the transfer of many trillions of dollars worth of resources to the parasite class and the gross maldistribution of same we see today.

    Hell, take it back further. Did Trump drug himself up every day, have sex with women in White House closets (they were mere objects to him, as Seymour Hersh ably documented), and then flip a coin with the fate of all life on Earth in the balance just to save political face? JFK did, and he is still revered by people such as Tom. Sixty years later and the “left” is still burnishing JFKs image, FFS. And that of his nasty brother, too.

    What about Truman? Did Trump drop nuclear weapons on humans, mostly women, children, and the elderly — civilians all — not once but twice just to show the world that the US was the boss? I don’t think so.

    And what about the firebombing, which began under FDR and escalated under Truman? SIXTY-SEVEN Japanese cities destroyed, and how many animals — humans, cats, dogs, pigs, chickens, cows, etc? Horribly burned or suffocated? Did Trump do anything comparable?

    Did Trump start the Korean war that saw “North” Korea leveled, literally, with napalm and other incendiaries, more explosives than used in WWII, biological and chemical weapons, its population literally decimated? And let’s not forget the massacres of dissidents in South Korea that even preceded the conflict.

    Was Rolling Thunder Trump’s idea? Did he poison Southeast Asia with dioxin and litter it with mines? Toss tens of thousands out of helicopters? Invade two neighboring states and set the stage for the “killing fields”?

    When was this great America? Was it when nearly four million people were enslaved? Was it when women were property? Was it when the invaders were busy slaughtering the remnants of the original settlers of the continent, driving them into concentration camps called “reservations”, and stealing their lands and futures? Was it Jim Crow and the long period of lynchings — family events, of course, bring your kids and take mementos home!

    Was it when the government was experimenting on unwitting citizens? Spreading nuclear radiation? Conducting chemical warfare experiments? What about sterilizing people under its eugenics program, the model for the Nazis?

    When was the U.S.A. ever a “great” nation? Surely not during WWII, where the US attacked the Japanese with an embargo to start the war, then dragged their feet in Europe to ensure the maximum number of Soviet citizens dead, then looted the remains of former empires and betrayed their erstwhile allies?

    Every time someone rants about how awful Donald Trump was as a president without mentioning how much WORSE virtually every other administration has been, including the present Biden administration — has Biden done any better with COVID or the economy? did Trump sacrifice Ukraine to weaken Russia? — then I know that they are full of shit.

    It’s not about reality for them. They are not really anti-US-hegemony. They are not really concerned for the ~40,000 children who die each DAY thanks to the US-led world “economy”. They don’t care that our technology — our “progress” — is a headlong rush to apocalypse.

    They just want better appearances. They want plausible deniability, a cloak of respectability behind which the US can get on with destroying the viability of the planet for the sake of a few more years of wanton dissipation.

    It’s virtue signaling, nothing more. But it’s actually worse than the Trumps of the world. Trump is a WYSIWYG guy: what you see is what you get. His bark is worse than his bite. The truly evil among us appear as saviors, and because people buy that bullshit they are able to do orders of magnitude more evil than Trump ever will.

    Yeah, Trump is vile and disgusting, but it’s right on the surface. The rot is clear for all to see. But by focusing on these appearances, the faux left can ignore the real circumstances that led to literally tens of millions of Americans voting for someone so obviously corrupt. Is anyone on the “left” really working to address those issues? Or are those “deplorables” simply not worth the effort?

    In short, the liberal left loves Trump because he is the magician’s other hand — the one that is distracting you while the hand you’re not watching is busy picking your pocket, or worse. Look! Over there! It’s a Trump!

    How utterly pathetic.

    1. As bad and phony as Democrats are, the Evangelicals that Trump catered to his entire term- crave a nuclear war. They dream about such an event. Christian Fascism is extremely worrisome, like Taliban or ISIS level of scary. That being said, I’m in favor of abstaining from voting and I reject the Democratic Party, and condemn the liberal Managerial Elites. Both D and R parties are guilty of murder.

      1. You must be joking. The Democrats are the biggest cheerleaders for nuclear war (while pretending they oppose it). If Clinton had won in 2016, it is much more likely that we’d have had a nuclear war by now. She was hell bent to start one with Russia. And Biden is doing everything he can to start one now (with (im)plausible deniability, of course).

        Democrats start wars. Republicans end them. Not that there aren’t plenty of crazy Republicans.

        But the whole thing is a joke. Democrats and Republicans are not opposing parties. They are two hands of the corporate/oligarchic party. And the oligarchy is just fine with “limited” nuclear war (meaning: America gets to use them and “they” don’t).

    2. correct—Richard Sennet in 1974 described the american obsession w JFK money and sex life: “mobilized narcissism, passivity ideological senility….americans prefer to obsess over 1 disgaced leader after another rather than addressing social forces”

  5. Case in point:

    “Believe me, it’s strange to find myself remembering a long-gone world in which the major destruction was happening thousands of miles away in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. I mean, that was bad enough to get me into the streets then. Now, however, the destruction we’re significantly responsible for is happening right here, right where you and I both live, no matter where that might be.”

    Put simply, the chickens have come home to roost. And while many might call that karma or justice, to Engelhardt it is “worse”.

    Forgive me if I think that those who inflict misery and death on others should have that misery and death redirected back on themselves. It will never end as long as America can rape, murder, and destroy with impunity.

    If you build a bomb to kill innocents and the bomb goes off in your hands, well, that seems like the best possible outcome, not the worst.

    Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Tom. America is not the shining city on the hill and never has been. It is hell on Earth: the logical outcome of infantile greed and intellectual hubris.

    But what a great con it has been! Most of humanity still can’t quite bring themselves to believe that they’ve been fooled, even as their children suffer and die.

    As I’ve said before, you really can’t make this shit up.

    1. Thanks for that. I began reading Zinn’s book recently and had to pause. Not because of the 700 page length, but 400 pages in, it was a never ending list of horrors perpetrated in the name of greed. Watching what’s happening today, I know the next 300 will just be a continuation of the same, as I/we are all still living that journey of destruction in furtherance of greed.

      1. Precisely. It was only happening “thousands of miles away” because Engelhardt is a white male and the ubiquitous violence heaped on women, minorities, children, and the flora and fauna all around him was largely invisible to him and certainly unfelt by him. We’re talking Yale and Harvard here, not Harlem or the Pine Ridge ghetto/concentration camp.

        It is a vile and pernicious delusion that there was once a “good” America. Good for whom? At whose expense?

        In those days there was still a periphery to be exploited. The victims were segregated and, with the collusion of the media, largely invisible.

        Those in the power group at the center could still keep the victims of their greed and lust out of sight and mind (and smell). What has changed is that capitalism is eating itself and the destruction has begun to encroach on the people of Engelhardt’s class, or at least be difficult to deny.

        Even back then it was obvious to anyone who cared to look. This is the source of Engelhardt’s liberal guilt, which prompted him to save the world by whining about it and “demanding” change — as in “I have no power to do anything myself here in my comfortable, safe home, so you please do it”.

        That we continue to praise these skunks for leaping up onto their soapboxes to tell us how awful things are while never really risking anything themselves is why we are doomed as a species. And each of us who thinks reading their whiny shit means we’ve already done our part is equally to blame.

        There is no “demanding” change. You either have the power to change things, or you don’t. If we don’t, then we’re screwed. But we do.

        True power always rests with the masses, which is why the huge propaganda machine (and the iron fist behind it) is needed. The parasite class knows it has no power except the power it can fool us into surrendering to it.

        Until we as individuals are willing to take serious risks to make a better world for everyone, nothing will change, and we will continue our headlong rush to auto-genocide.

        It’s a shame, really. We had some promise as a species. We produced some truly enlightened individuals. But most of us have remained infants.

        Don’t blame the “leaders”. They are just our scapegoats, people we “elevate” to “high places” and then pretend have all the power so we don’t have to be accountable for the evil we do.

        Tom Engelhardt, like so many others, reinforces our delusion of impotence by stressing that the power lies elsewhere, and that the best we can do is to demand (read: beg for) change.

        Nice work, Tom, and you never missed a meal. You can wander off now. Someone else will take it from here.

      2. “Zinn is well intentioned but a terrible historian” as the left wing historian Michael Kosick at Georgetown writes

  6. dear Tom:
    If I had written an article at this time yours would have been mine!!! You hit all the nails on the heads. Even though we did not anticipate exactly this, we were being warned by several people: the
    Stanford Profs Earhart , Kevin Phillips, Prof Wolff, and many others, were warning us, and all this is is not a surprise ( even though it was hard to imagine in the 1960’s) You article is a great article!!!

  7. A better word than ‘Trumpublican’ is one I coined for my limerick “An Ode to MAGA”©: ReTRUMPlican. Please use it freely, everyone.

    1. “the american liberal/progressive wants to preserve the essence of the past the US conservative wants more and more progress; the European radical wants to hasten the transformation of the future, the European conservative wants to preserve the essence of the past”. Geoffrey Gorer
      “the monolingual inevitably confuses style with content”. George Simmel
      “american radicals both black and white adopted radical style without any radical content”. Christopher Lasch

  8. Maybe you missed “Make Room! Make Room!”, a 1966 science fiction novel written by Harry Harrison. In it he explores the consequences of both unchecked population growth on society (2022 Supreme court decisions) and the hoarding of resources by a wealthy minority (visible every single day). It was expanded on in the 1973 movie “Soylent Green”, which, aside from it’s unfortunate final sentences, is an even more apt description of where we may be headed.

  9. We were warned about this by many writers, of various different topics. It’s just that it is so scary now, because we are in IT. 30 -40 years ago, it all seemed so far off. I even sent copies of some of these warnings to congressmen and people I knew and they, couldn’t even comprehend NOW!!! not much do this shit really surprises me!!!!!!!!

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