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America Last
Will Trump Set a Record for the History Books?
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In its own inside-out, upside-down way, it’s almost wondrous to behold. As befits our president’s wildest dreams, it may even prove to be a record for the ages, one for the history books. He was, after all, the candidate who sensed it first. When those he was running against, like the rest of Washington’s politicians, were still insisting that the United States remained at the top of its game, not an — but the — “indispensable nation,” the only truly “exceptional” one on the face of the Earth, he said nothing of the sort. He campaigned on America’s decline, on this country’s increasing lack of exceptionality, its potential dispensability. He ran on the single word “again” — as in “make America great again” — because (the implication was) it just isn’t anymore. And he swore that he and he alone was the best shot Americans, or at least non-immigrant white Americans, had at ever seeing the best of days again.

In that sense, he was our first declinist candidate for president and if that didn’t tell you something during the election season, it should have. No question about it, he hit a chord, rang a bell, because out in the heartland it was possible to sense a deepening reality that wasn’t evident in Washington. The wealthiest country on the planet, the most militarily powerful in the history of… well, anybody, anywhere, anytime (or so we were repeatedly told)… couldn’t win a war, not even with the investment of trillions of taxpayer dollars, couldn’t do anything but spread chaos by force of arms.

Meanwhile, at home, despite all that wealth, despite billionaires galore, including the one running for president, despite the transnational corporate heaven inhabited by Google and Facebook and Apple and the rest of the crew, parts of this country and its infrastructure were starting to feel distinctly (to use a word from another universe) Third Worldish. He sensed that, too. He regularly said things like this: “We spent six trillion dollars in the Middle East, we got nothing… And we have an obsolete plane system. We have obsolete airports. We have obsolete trains. We have bad roads. Airports.” And this: “Our airports are like from a third-world country.” And on the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, he couldn’t have been more on the mark.

In parts of the U.S., white working-class and middle-class Americans could sense that the future was no longer theirs, that their children would not have a shot at what they had had, that they themselves increasingly didn’t have a shot at what they had had. The American Dream seemed to be gaining an almost nightmarish sheen, given that the real value of the average wage of a worker hadn’t increased since the 1970s; that the cost of a college education had gone through the roof and the educational debt burden for children with dreams of getting ahead was now staggering; that unions were cratering; that income inequality was at a historic high; and… well, you know the story, really you do. In essence, for them the famed American Dream seemed ever more like someone else’s trademarked property.

Indispensable? Exceptional? This country? Not anymore. Not as they were experiencing it.

And because of that, Donald Trump won the lottery. He answered the $64,000 question. (If you’re not of a certain age, Google it, but believe me it’s a reference in our president’s memory book.) He entered the Oval Office with almost 50% of the vote and a fervent base of support for his promised program of doing it all over again, 1950s-style.

It had been one hell of a pitch from the businessman billionaire. He had promised a future of stratospheric terrificness, of greatness on an historic scale. He promised to keep the evil ones — the rapists, job thieves, and terrorists — away, to wall them out or toss them out or ban them from ever traveling here. He also promised to set incredible records, as only a mega-businessman like him could conceivably do, the sort of all-American records this country hadn’t seen in a long, long time.

And early as it is in the Trump era, it seems as if, on one score at least, he could deliver something for the record books going back to the times when those recording the acts of rulers were still scratching them out in clay or wax. At this point, there’s at least a chance that Donald Trump might preside over the most precipitous decline of a truly dominant power in history, one only recently considered at the height of its glory. It could prove to be a fall for the ages. Admittedly, that other superpower of the Cold War era, the Soviet Union, imploded in 1991, which was about the fastest way imaginable to leave the global stage. Still, despite the “evil empire” talk of that era, the USSR was always the secondary, the weaker of the two superpowers. It was never Rome, or Spain, or Great Britain.

When it comes to the United States, we’re talking about a country that not so long ago saw itself as the only great power left on planet Earth, “the lone superpower.” It was the one still standing, triumphant, at the end of a history of great power rivalry that went back to a time when the wooden warships of various European states first broke out into a larger world and began to conquer it. It stood by itself at, as its proponents liked to claim at the time, the end of history.

Applying Hard Power to a Failing World


As we watch, it seems almost possible to see President Trump, in real time, tweet by tweet, speech by speech, sword dance by sword dance, intervention by intervention, act by act, in the process of dismantling the system of global power — of “soft power,” in particular, and of alliances of every sort — by which the U.S. made its will felt, made itself a truly global hegemon. Whether his “America first” policies are aimed at creating a future order of autocrats, or petro-states, or are nothing more than the expression of his libidinous urges and secret hatreds, he may already be succeeding in taking down that world order in record fashion.

Despite the mainstream pieties of the moment about the nature of the system Donald Trump appears to be dismantling in Europe and elsewhere, it was anything but either terribly “liberal” or particularly peaceable. Wars, invasions, occupations, the undermining or overthrow of governments, brutal acts and conflicts of every sort succeeded one another in the years of American glory. Past administrations in Washington had a notorious weakness for autocrats, just as Donald Trump does today. They regularly had less than no respect for democracy if, from Iran to Guatemala to Chile, the will of the people seemed to stand in Washington’s way. (It is, as Vladimir Putin has been only too happy to point out of late, an irony of our moment that the country that has undermined or overthrown or meddled in more electoral systems than any other is in a total snit over the possibility that one of its own elections was meddled with.) To enforce their global system, Americans never shied away from torture, black sites, death squads, assassinations, and other grim practices. In those years, the U.S. planted its military on close to 1,000 overseas military bases, garrisoning the planet as no other country ever had.

Nonetheless, the cancelling of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, threats against NAFTA, the undermining of NATO, the promise of protective tariffs on foreign goods (and the possible trade wars that might go with them) could go a long way toward dismantling the American global system of soft power and economic dominance as it has existed in these last decades. If such acts and others like them prove effective in the months and years to come, they will leave only one kind of power in the American global quiver: hard military power, and its handmaiden, the kind of covert power Washington, through the CIA in particular, has long specialized in. If America’s alliances crack open and its soft power becomes too angry or edgy to pass for dominant power anymore, its massive machinery of destruction will still be left, including its vast nuclear arsenal. While, in the Trump era, a drive to cut domestic spending of every sort is evident, more money is still slated to go to the military, already funded at levels not reached by combinations of other major powers.

Given the last 15 years of history, it’s not hard to imagine what’s likely to result from the further elevation of military power: disaster. This is especially true because Donald Trump has appointed to key positions in his administration a crew of generals who spent the last decade and a half fighting America’s catastrophic wars across the Greater Middle East. They are not only notoriously incapable of thinking outside the box about the application of military power, but faced with the crisis of failed wars and failing states, of spreading terror movements and a growing refugee crisis across that crucial region, they can evidently only imagine one solution to just about any problem: more of the same. More troops, more mini-surges, more military trainers and advisers, more air strikes, more drone strikesmore.

After a decade and a half of such thinking we already know perfectly well where this ends — in further failure, more chaos and suffering, but above all in an inability of the U.S. to effectively apply its hard power anywhere in any way that doesn’t make matters worse. Since, in addition, the Trump administration is filled with Iranophobes, including a president who has only recently fused himself to the Saudi royal family in an attempt to further isolate and undermine Iran, the possibility that a military-first version of American foreign policy will spread further is only growing.

Such “more” thinking is typical as well of much of the rest of the cast of characters now in key positions in the Trump administration. Take the CIA, for instance. Under its new director, Mike Pompeo (distinctly a “more” kind of guy and an Iranophobe of the first order), two key positions have reportedly been filled: a new chief of counterterrorism and a new head of Iran operations (recently identified as Michael D’Andrea, an Agency hardliner with the nickname “the Dark Prince”). Here’s how Matthew Rosenberg and Adam Goldman of the New York Times recently described their similar approaches to their jobs (my emphasis added):

“Mr. D’Andrea’s new role is one of a number of moves inside the spy agency that signal a more muscular approach to covert operations under the leadership of Mike Pompeo, the conservative Republican and former congressman, the officials said. The agency also recently named a new chief of counterterrorism, who has begun pushing for greater latitude to strike militants.”

In other words, more!

Rest assured of one thing, whatever Donald Trump accomplishes in the way of dismantling America’s version of soft power, “his” generals and intelligence operatives will handle the hard-power part of the equation just as “ably.”

The First American Laster?

If a Trump presidency achieves a record for the ages when it comes to the precipitous decline of the American global system, little as The Donald ever cares to share credit for anything, he will undoubtedly have to share it for such an achievement. It’s true that kings, emperors, and autocrats, the top dogs of any moment, prefer to take all the credit for the “records” set in their time. When we look back, however, it’s likely that President Trump will be seen as having given a tottering system that necessary push. It will undoubtedly be clear enough by then that the U.S., seemingly at the height of any power’s power in 1991 when the Soviet Union disappeared, began heading for the exits soon thereafter, still enwreathed in self-congratulation and triumphalism.


Had this not been so, Donald Trump would never have won the 2016 election. It wasn’t he, after all, who gave the U.S. heartland an increasingly Third World feel. It wasn’t he who spent those trillions of dollars so disastrously on invasions and occupations, dead-end wars, drone strikes and special ops raids, reconstruction and deconstruction in a never-ending war on terror that today looks more like a war for the spread of terror. It wasn’t he who created the growing inequality gap in this country or produced all those billionaires amid a population that increasingly felt left in the lurch. It wasn’t he who hiked college tuitions or increased the debt levels of the young or set roads and bridges to crumbling and created the conditions for Third World-style airports.

If both the American global and domestic systems hadn’t been rotting out before Donald Trump arrived on the scene, that “again” of his wouldn’t have worked. Thought of another way, when the U.S. was truly at the height of its economic clout and power, American leaders felt no need to speak incessantly of how “indispensable” or “exceptional” the country was. It seemed too self-evident to mention. Someday, some historian may use those very words in the mouths of American presidents and other politicians (and their claims, for instance, that the U.S. military was “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known”) as a set of increasingly defensive markers for measuring the decline of American power.

So here’s the question: When the Trump years (months?) come to an end, will the U.S. be not the planet’s most exceptional land, but a pariah nation? Will that “again” still be the story of the year, the decade, the century? Will the last American Firster turn out to have been the first American Laster? Will it truly be one for the record books?

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

(Republished from TomDispatch by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Donald Trump 
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  1. This lunatic keeps on coming up with new insanities.

    He appears to be saying that because Trump is withdrawing from the globalist agenda, that makes him a bad guy, and furthermore, it puts America last.

    Because we will lose our “soft” influence, Trump is making America “last.”

    Well, I swan! In all my days, I never thought I would live to see a liberal spout such utter, misguided horseshit.

    Tom, the lunatic, seems to believe that if America has no soft power anymore, then all they will have is hard power.

    Message to Tom: what has been being used in the World by the United States in the past 15 years, hell, in the past 65 years?

    Ever hear of world events, Tom?

    This guy. He’s so old he’s sounding like John McCain. Are you ok, buddy? Maybe you should get an MRI to check for brain rot.

    I’ll save you the funds. You do have brain rot. And this stuff you write is rotten to the core.

    • Agree: The Anti-Gnostic
    • Replies: @anonymous
  2. Renoman says:

    I can’t quite see how getting out of shitty trade deals and cutting back on that giant wad of goo that is NATO is going to wreck America? Increasing military spending seems stupid to me but it may be a stop gap to maintain the economy during the transition to a Public Works phase which the Country badly needs. As to the Wall and immigration in general how can anyone not see the turmoil it is causing pretty well everywhere else and not want to keep that from coming here? In an era of decreasing employment we do not need more of the great unwashed? If we must import help let’s choose the ones with the brains and some cash! The last twenty years of globalism have taken a big bite out of everyone but the very rich, enough of this crap, make the changes or there will be a civil war! Naa, I think the author is dead wrong.

    • Replies: @anonymous
  3. Sowhat says:

    One third of the population, the “experts” estimate, are mentally ill. I don’t have an incling whether the restless expat lives in a glass house or not but maturity or, rather, immaturity OR tequila may be in his soupy criticism. Throwing stones in the form of personal insult toward a writer? I don’t know. Thanks to Mr. Unz, many writers get a shot at making their point, as I have read, here. I would disagree with restless and Tom, but not completely.

    Mr. Trump made it clear that he loves the military and loves his generals. Oh well. When it takes up over 60% of the annual budget, what’s not to love. The 1% won’t be homeless or hungry, the tax code for which they lobbied is in place and secure. Individuals below them continue to take on debt. The nation continues to do the same. I sincerely desire that this country does go to hell in a handbasket even though I love the country. I don’t like Capitalist Imperialists. I don’t like usury. Like all “Great World Powers before them, the U.S. is set up to fail. As someone wrote here, before. Most Generals don’t have good records. My guess is that same lacking may be pervasive. Every government program has failed. Every war they have created for the U.S. to fight in has failed. Every “reform ” has been another fleecing of the worker. In recent decades, the money Exchangers have been given free license to steal from those who gambled for a better life. They would put the great J.P. Morgan to shame with their computer-generated theft schemes. “Now you see it. Now, you dont!” That will become America, land that I love.

    • Replies: @restless94110
  4. @Sowhat

    The restless expat? What the devil are you talking about? Tequila?

    Exactly what is it you think that you know about me, Mr. Sow? I don’t see anything in my post that talks about anything than the lunatic who wrote the essay.

    By the way, I’ve read many of this guy’s essays, and since the advent of Trump about 2 years ago? Tom Englehardt and Tom Dispatch has gone completely around the bend in lunacy. He features many other writers aside from himself.

    Recently he had one writer (who was featured here on Unz as well) who equated Trump with the monster that beat his girlfriend and murdered her little daughter in NYC 20 years ago.

    Tom has mentioned frequently his age and his history as a liberal and it goes back into the 60s.

    I know what I’m talking about, Mr. Sow. But you don’t. You know nothing about me, except my opinion on this matter and this writer.

    As for the rest of your rant, it has nothing at all to do with Englehardt’s essay and is apparently your own essay on a subject you chose.

    Sorry, Mr Sow. It’s you, the sad expat, sipping on tequila in a tropical beach bar, that needs to get back to your kahuna honey and do less nosing around.

  5. anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    “Message to Tom: what has been being used in the World by the United States in the past 15 years, hell, in the past 65 years?”

    After needing a moment to understand that poorly punctuated supremacist vile crap, I have to agree, you are absolutely right.

    The most evil weapons of death, destruction and suffering, and its usage, is by the United States of Evil.

    If you can’t see that, maybe you should have that MRI too.

    • Replies: @restless94110
  6. anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    “we do not need more of the great unwashed’

    Why do white nationalist scum always need to inject something disparaging about those wretched souls, who just happen to be the victims of said white nationalist scum’s, greed and psychopathy?

    *shakes head*

    The white race, “glorious” in this world, the great unwashed, in the next. xD

    • Replies: @The Anti-Gnostic
  7. @anonymous


    What part of my poorly puncuated supermicist crap did you not understand? You are saying the exact same thing as I am, you dolt.

    Tom, the lunatic who wrote the essay, is attempting to say that if the US “gives up” on the globalist agenda, that the US’s “soft” influence will be gone, leaving only its “hard” influence: it’s military

    I was saying, basically: Tom, you lunatic, what do you think the US has been doing for the past 65 years? It’s military and/or CIA has been doing hard operations in most of the countries of the rest of the world!! Tom, the lunatic’s point was that if Trump changes policy on the “soft” stuff, then the only thing left is the “hard” stuff and therefore the US will be even worse in the World than it is now.

    This is utterly preposterous. And it’s not true as well. If all the big bad US has left is its military then it will use its military? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe its military ain’t that big and bad anymore. Maybe the US would be in for a big surprise.

    Anonymouse? Could you cool your snarky nasty jets for 10 minutes? Try, try real hard to read the comments before you fly off the handle with your misreadings.

    And go get an MRI just to be sure that your eyesight is what you think it is. Or get an interpreter.

  8. @anonymous

    We don’t need their labor, we have no obligation to accept people from whatever part of the world that is–as usual–failing, and the rest of the world is not a prison where greedy Americans keep people locked up. They can stay put and make their own countries great again.

    • Replies: @Corvinus
  9. […] The Unz Review: America Last. Will Trump Set a Record for the History Books? TOM ENGELHARDT […]

  10. Stogumber says:

    Interestingly, when Engelhardt speaks about decline and “America Last” he means the decline of power. Whereas the Trumpistas spoke about the decline of infrastructure and living standards. Engelhardt quotes this correctly, but doesn’t see the difference.
    A problem of class consciousness, I suppose. Engelhardt doesnt suffer from declining living standards, so power (and reputation) is for him the utmost value in politics.

  11. Corvinus says:
    @The Anti-Gnostic

    “We don’t need their labor…”

    Capitalists say otherwise.

    “We have no obligation to accept people from whatever part of the world that is–as usual–failing…”

    Not an obligation, but a moral imperative. And, no, they are not “failing as usual”.

    “and the rest of the world is not a prison where greedy Americans keep people locked up. They can stay put and make their own countries great again.”

    Considering that Europeans created this “prison”…

    • Replies: @The Anti-Gnostic
  12. @Corvinus

    Per usual, you’re too wrong even to get to wrong.

    • Replies: @Corvinus
  13. Corvinus says:
    @The Anti-Gnostic

    “Per usual, you’re too wrong even to get to wrong.”

    Right on time with your smoke and mirrors.

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