Engelhardt, An Overheated, Underwhelming World
[Note for TomDispatch Readers: As you can see, after 17 years in action, the ancient TomDispatch website has been elegantly and simply redesigned and updated. The main advantage: those of you who aren’t 76 years old like me (or are that age but not as technologically backward as I am) can now read TD comfortably on whatever new gadgets you’re using. I hope this redesign, which brings the site into the modern age in more than its analysis, also helps spread its articles ever more widely. There’s only one part of the site that hasn’t been updated and that, of course, is me. You’ll still get me — today for example — just as I always was. Now, onwards into this new year! Tom]
Saying Goodbye to the Con-Man-in-Chief
Demining America After The Donald
2021 has indeed begun and god knows what it has in store for us. But unless, somehow, we’re surprised beyond imagining, The Donald is indeed going to leave the White House soon and, much as I hate to admit it, in some strange fashion we’re going to miss him. Of course, it will be beyond a great relief to see his… well, let’s just say him in the rearview mirror. While occupying the White House, he was, in a rather literal sense, hell on earth. Nonetheless, he was also a figure of remarkable fascination for anyone thinking about this country or that strangest of all species, humanity, and what we’re capable of doing to ourselves.
So, here’s my look back at our final Trumpian months (at least for a while). As I review the weeks just past, however, you may be surprised to learn that I’m not planning to start with the president’s former national security adviser (of 23 days — “you’re fired!”) cum-convictee-cum-pardonee urging The Donald to declare martial law; nor will I review the president’s endless tweets and fulminations about the “fraudulent” 2020 election or his increasing lame (duck!) assaults on all those he saw as deserting his visibly sinking Titanic, including Mitch McConnell (“the first one off the ship”); nor do I have the urge to focus on the conspiracy-mongress who captured the president’s heart (or whatever’s in that chest of his) with her claims about how “Venezuelan” votes did him in; nor even his doom-and-gloom “holiday” trip to Mar-a-Lago, including on Christmas Day his 309th presidential visit to a golf course; nor will I waste time on how the still-president of these increasingly dis-United States, while pardoning war criminals and pals (as well as random well-connected criminals), managed to ignore the rest of a country slipping into pandemic hell — cases rising, deaths spiraling, hospitals filling to the brim in a fashion unequaled on the planet — about which he visibly couldn’t have cared less; nor will I focus on how, as Christmas arrived, he landed squarely on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s position of giving $2,000 checks to the American people and so for a few days became an honorary “socialist”; nor will I even spend time on his unique phone call for 11,780 votes in Georgia.
Instead, in this most downbeat of seasons, I’d like to begin with something more future-oriented, a little bit of December news you might have missed amid all the gloom and doom. So, just in case you didn’t notice as 2020 ended in chaos and cacophony, as the president who couldn’t take his eyes off a lost election sunk us ever deeper in his own version of the Washington swamp, there were two significantly more forward-looking figures in his circle. I’m thinking of his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner who plunked down $30 million on the most exclusive bit of real estate they could find in Florida, a small island with only 41 residences known among locals as the “billionaire’s bunker.”
They purchased a plot of land there on which they can assumedly build the most modest of multimillion-dollar mansions… but let the Hill describe it:
“The secluded spot sits on 1.8 acres and comes with 200 feet of waterfront and ‘breathtaking sunset views.’ A real estate listing dubs it an ‘amazing parcel of land,’ saying, ‘This sprawling lot provides a rare opportunity to build your waterfront dream estate.’ The listing boasts that the Miami island is ‘one of the most exclusive and private neighborhoods in the world with its private country club and golf course, police force, and 24/7 armed boat patrol.'”
And better yet, though just off the coast of Miami, it’s only 60 miles from what they may hope will be the alternate White House for the next four years, Mar-a-Lago.
The Future, Trump-Style
As far as I’m concerned, amid the year-ending chaos of the Trump presidency, nothing could have caught the essential spirit of the last four years better than that largely overlooked news story. Let’s start at its end, so to speak. Instead of brooding nonstop about a lost election like you-know-who, Ivanka and Jared, both key presidential advisers, are instead going to pour millions of dollars into what might be thought of as a personal investment in the future on that island off the southern coast of Florida.
When it comes to the planet, this catches in a nutshell the essence of what’s passed for long-term thinking in the Trump White House since January 2017. After all, the most notable thing about the southern coast of Florida, if you’re in an investing (and lifestyle) mood, is this: as the world’s sea levels rise (ever more precipitously, in fact) thanks to climate change, one of the most endangered places in the United States is that very coast. Flooding in the region has already been on the rise and significant parts of it could be underwater by 2050 with its inhabitants washed out of their homes well before that — and no personal police force or patrol boats will be able to protect Ivanka and Jared from that kind of global assault. Even Donald Trump, should he run and win again in 2024, won’t be able to pardon them for that decision.
Put another way, the future of those two key Trump family members is a living example of what, in this world of ours, is usually called climate denialism; the “children,” that is, have offered their own $30-million-plus encapsulation of the four-year environmental record of a 74-year-old president who couldn’t imagine anyone’s future except his own.
Though climate denialism is indeed the term normally used for this phenomenon, as a descriptor in the Trump years it fell desperately short of the mark. It’s a far too-limited way of describing what the U.S. government has actually been doing. Withdrawing from the Paris climate accords, promoting oil exploration and drilling galore, and deep-sixing energy-related environmental regulations, Trump and his crew have not just been denying the obvious reality of climate change (as the West Coast burned in a historic fashion and the hurricane season ramped up dramatically in 2020), but criminally aiding and abetting the phenomenon in every way imaginable. They have, in fact, done their best to torch humanity’s future. As I’ve written in these years, they rather literally transformed themselves into pyromaniacs even as they imagined unleashing, as the president proudly put it, “American energy dominance.” The promotional phrase they used for their fossil-fuelized policies was “the golden era of American energy is now underway” — that golden glow assumedly being the flames licking at this overheating planet of ours.
So, a climate-change endangered island? Why even bother to imagine such a future? In fact, the president made this point all too vividly when it came to Tangier Island, a 1.3-square-mile dot in the middle of Chesapeake Bay that global warming and erosion are imperiling and that is, indeed, expected to be gone by 2050. In 2017, the president called the mayor of its town (after CNN put out a story about the increasing problems of that Trump-loving isle). He assured him, as the mayor reported, that “we shouldn’t worry about rising sea levels. He said that ‘your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.’”
IED-ing the American System
And of course, let’s not forget that, for the president’s daughter and son-in-law, dropping $30 million is just another day at the office. In that, they distinctly follow in the tradition of the bankruptee who has similarly dished out dough to his heart’s content, while repeatedly leaving others holding the bag for his multiple business failures. (Undoubtedly, this is something the American people will experience when he finally jumps ship on January 20th, undoubtedly leaving the rest of us holding that very same bag.) Pardon me, but that $30 million being plunked down on a snazzy plot of land — someday to be water — should remind us that we’re talking about a crew who are already awash in both money (of every questionable sort) and, at least in the case of the president, staggering hundreds of millions of dollars in debts. It should remind us as well that we’re dealing with families evidently filled with grifters and a now-pardoned criminal, too.
Make no mistake, from the moment Donald Trump walked into the White House, he was already this country’s con-man-in-chief. Back when he was first running for president, this was no mystery to his ever-loyal “base,” those tens of millions of voters who opted for him then and continue to stick by him no matter what. As I wrote in that distant 2016 election season,
“Americans love a con man. Historically, we’ve often admired, if not identified with, someone intent on playing and successfully beating the system, whether at a confidence game or through criminal activity. [At] the first presidential debate… Trump essentially admitted that, in some years, he paid no taxes (‘that makes me smart’) and that he had played the tax system for everything it was worth… I guarantee you that Trump senses he’s deep in the Mississippi of American politics with such statements and that a surprising number of voters will admire him for it (whether they admit it or not). After all, he beat the system, even if they didn’t.”
And admire him they did and, as it happens, still do. He was elected on those very grounds and, despite his loss in 2020 (with a staggering 74 million voters still opting for him), a couple of weeks from now, he’ll walk away from the White House with a final con that will leave him floating in a sea of money for months (years?) to come. Here’s how New York Times reporters Shane Goldmacher and Maggie Haberman describe the situation:
“Donald J. Trump will exit the White House as a private citizen next month perched atop a pile of campaign cash unheard-of for an outgoing president, and with few legal limits on how he can spend it… Mr. Trump has cushioned the blow by coaxing huge sums of money from his loyal supporters — often under dubious pretenses — raising roughly $250 million since Election Day along with the national party. More than $60 million of that sum has gone to a new political action committee, according to people familiar with the matter, which Mr. Trump will control after he leaves office.”
He was, in other words, in character from his first to last moment in office and, in his own way (just as his followers expected), he did beat the system, even if he faces years of potential prosecution to come.
Oh, and one more thing when it comes to The Donald. With a future Biden administration in mind, you might think of him not just as the con-man president but the Taliban president as well. After all, he’s not only torn up but land-mined, or in Taliban terms IED-ed, both the federal government, including that “deep state” he’s always denounced, and the American system of governing itself. (“This Fake Election can no longer stand…”) And those improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, he and his crew have buried in that system, whether in terms of health care, the environment, or you name it are likely to go off at unexpected moments for months, if not years, to come.
So, when you say so long, farewell, aufwiedersehn, adieu to you-know-who, his children, and his pals, the odds are you won’t ever be saying goodbye. Not really. Thanks to that $60 million-plus fund, that base of his, and all those landmines (many of which we don’t even know are there yet), he’ll be with us in one form (of disaster) or another for years to come — he, his children, and that island that, unfortunately, just won’t sink fast enough.
Like it or not, after these last four years, whatever the Biden era may hold for us, Donald Trump proved a media heaven and a living hell. It’s going to be quite a task in a world that needs so much else just to demine the American system after he leaves the White House (especially with Mitch McConnell and crew still in place). Count on one thing: we won’t forget The Donald any time soon. And give him credit where it’s due. There’s no denying that, in just four years, he’s helped usher us into a new American world that already couldn’t be more overheated or underwhelming.
Copyright 2020 Tom Engelhardt
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