Recently, a memory of my son as a small boy came back to me. He was, in those days, terrified of clowns. Something about their strange, mask-like, painted faces unnerved him utterly, chilled him to the bone. To the rest of us, they were comic, but to him — or so I came to imagine anyway — they were emanations from hell.
Those circus memories of long ago seem relevant to me today because, in November 2016, the American electorate, or a near majority of them anyway, chose to send in the clowns. They voted willingly, knowingly, for the man with that strange orange thing on his head, the result — we now know, thanks to his daughter — of voluntary “scalp reduction surgery.” They voted for the man with the eerily red face, an unearthly shade seldom seen since the perfection of Technicolor. They voted for the overweight man who reputedly ate little but Big Macs (for fear of being poisoned), while swinging one-handed from a political trapeze with fingers of a particularly contestable size. They voted for the man who never came across a superlative he couldn’t apply to himself. Of his first presidential moment, he claimed “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe”; he declared himself “the greatest jobs president that God ever created”; he swore to reporters that he was “the least racist person you have ever interviewed”; he offered his version of modesty by insisting that, “with the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that’s ever held this office”; and when his mental state was challenged, he responded that his “two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart,” adding, “I think that [I] would qualify as not smart, but genius… and a very stable genius at that!”
Of course, none of this is news to you, not if you have a screen in your life (or more likely your hand) — the very definition of twenty-first-century modernity. In fact, by the time this piece comes out, you’ll undoubtedly have a new set of examples to cite. After all, these days that essentially is the news: him and any outrageous thing he wants to say and not much else, which means that he is indisputably the greatest, possibly in the history of the universe, when it comes to yanking just about anybody’s chain.
And you certainly don’t need me to go on about that strange skill of his, since every time he says or tweets anything over the top or grotesque beyond belief, the media’s all over it 24/7. No one, for instance, could doubt that never in our history has the word “shithole” (or, in some cases, “s–hole”) or even “shithouse” been used more frequently than in the wake of the president’s recent wielding of it (or them or one or the other) for unnamed African countries and Haiti in a White House meeting on immigration. That meeting proved an ambush and a half, only spiraling further out of control when, in its wake, the president denied ever using the word “shithole” and was backed by Republican attendees evidently so desperate to curry favor that they pretended they hadn’t heard the word, which, by now, just about everyone on Earth has heard or seen in English or some translation thereof.
Since he rode down that Trump Tower escalator into our political lives in June 2015, this sort of thing and more or less nothing else has largely been “the news.” It goes without saying — which won’t stop me from saying it — that not since Nebuchadnezzar’s words were first scratched onto a cuneiform tablet has more focus been put on the passing words, gestures, and expressions of a single human being. And that’s the truest news about the news of this era. It’s been consumed by a single news hog. Which means that Donald Trump has already won, no matter what happens, since he continues to be treated as if he were the only three-ring circus in town, as if he were in himself that classic big-top Volkswagen filled to the brim with clowns.
The Imperial Presidency Exposed
Who could deny that much of the attention he’s received has been based on the absurdity, exaggeration, unsettling clownishness of it all, right down to the zany crew of subsidiary clowns who have helped keep him pumped up and cable newsed in the Oval Office?
In early October 2016, I suggested that a certain segment of voters in the white heartland, feeling their backs against the economic wall and the nation in decline — Donald Trump being our first true declinist candidate (hence that “again” in MAGA) — was prepared to send a “suicide bomber” into the White House. And I suggested as well that they were willing to do so even if the ceiling collapsed on them. (Had I thought of it at the time, I would have added that much of the mainstream media also had its back to the wall with its status and finances in decline, staffs shrinking, and fears rising that it might be eaten alive by social media. As a result, some of its key players were similarly inclined to escort that suicide bomber Washington-wards, no matter what fell or whom it hit.)
In retrospect, that has, I think, proven an accurate assessment, but like all authors I reserve the right to change my imagery in midstream, which brings me back to my son’s childhood fear of clowns. At least for me, that now catches the most essential aspect of the age of Trump: its clownishness. And despite the fact that The Donald is often treated by his opponents as a laughing matter, an absurdity, a jokester (and a joke) in the Oval Office, I don’t mean those clowns, the ones that leave you rolling in the aisles. I mean my son’s clowns, the death’s-head ones whose absurd versions of the gestures of everyday life leave you chilled to the bone, genuinely afraid.
Donald Trump fits that image exactly because — though you wouldn’t know it from the usual coverage of him — he isn’t at all unique (except in the details, except in the exaggeration of it all). What makes him so clownish, in the sense I’m describing, is that he offers a chillingly exaggerated, wildly fiery-and-furious version of the very imperial American presidency we’ve come to know over these last seven decades: the one that has long ridden herd on a nuclear apocalypse; that killed millions on its journey to nowhere in Southeast Asia in the previous century; that hasn’t been able to stop itself from overseeing more than a quarter-century of war-making — two wars, to be exact — in Afghanistan of all places; that, in its pursuit of its never-ending “war” on terror, has made war on so much else as well, turning significant parts of the planet into zones of increasing chaos, failed states, fleeing populations, and wholesale destruction; the one whose “precision” military — the battle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria has been termed the “most precise campaign in history” – has helped transform cities from Ramadi and Fallujah to Mosul and Raqqa into landscapes that, in their indiscriminate wreckage, look like Stalingrad after the battle in World War II (and that now is threatening to develop a “precision” version of nuclear war as well); and that has, in this century, overseen the creation of “Saudi America” on a planet in which it was already easy enough to grasp that fossil fuels were doing the kinds of damage to the human environment that nothing short of a giant asteroid or nuclear war might otherwise do.
From his America First policies to his reported desire to see (and make use of) terrorist attacks on this country, the man who has declared climate change a Chinese hoax, threatened to loose “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” described other countries in language once considered unpresidential by presidents who nonetheless treated the very same countries like “shitholes,” and given “his” generals a remarkably free hand to “win” the war on terror is but an eerily clownish version of all that has gone before. He has, in a sense, ripped away the façade of dignity from the imperial presidency and let us glimpse just what is truly imperial (and imperious) about it. He continues to show us in new ways quite an old reality: how terrifying a force for destruction, possibly even on a planetary level, U.S. power can be.
And just in case you don’t think that Volkswagen of Trump’s (or maybe I mean that private plane with the golden bathroom fixtures) is filled with other clowns whose acts should similarly chill you to the bone, let’s skip Scott Pruitt as he secretly dismantles the Environmental Protection Agency and so many protections for our health, the Energy Department’s Rick Perry as he embraces the CEOs of Big Energy, that future oil-spill king, the Interior Department’s Ryan Zinke, and the rest of the domestic wrecking crew, and turn instead to “his” generals — the ones from America’s losing wars — that President Trump has made ascendant in Washington.
And even then, let’s skip their urge to create smaller, more “usable” nuclear weapons (a process started in the Obama years), or hike the nuclear budget, or redefine ever more situations, including cyber attacks on the U.S., as potential nuclear ones; and let’s skip as well their eagerness, from Niger to Yemen, Libya to Somalia, to expand and heighten the war on terror in an exaggerated version of exactly what we’ve been living through these past 16 years. Let’s concentrate instead on just one place, the ur-location for that war, the country about which those in the Pentagon are no longer speaking of war at all but of “generational struggle”: Afghanistan.
The Graveyard of Empires
Think of it: 28 years after the Soviet army limped out of that infamous “graveyard of empires” at the end of a decade-long struggle in which the U.S. had backed the most extreme groups of Islamic fundamentalists (including a rich young Saudi by the name of Osama bin Laden), 16 years after the U.S. returned to invade and “liberate” Afghanistan, they’re still at it. In December, with Donald Trump lifting various constraints on U.S. military commanders there, the generals were, for instance, sending in the planes. That month there were more U.S. air strikes — 455 in a winter period of minimal fighting — than not just the previous December (65) but December 2012 (about 200) when 100,000 U.S. troops were still in-country. The phrase of this moment among U.S. military officers in Afghanistan, according to Max Bearak of the Washington Post: “We’re at a turning point.” Another: “The gloves are off.” (Admittedly, no U.S. commander has as yet reported seeing “the light at the end of the tunnel,” but don’t rule it out.)
In the meantime, drones of both the armed and unarmed surveillance variety are being reassigned to Afghanistan in rising numbers (as well as more helicopters, ground vehicles, and artillery). With the recent announcement that 1,000 more personnel will soon head for that country, U.S. troop strength continues to grow, bringing the numbers of American advisers, trainers, and Special Operations forces there up to perhaps 15,000 or more (as opposed to the 11,000 or so when Donald Trump entered the Oval Office).
In addition, the military has plans to double the size of Afghanistan’s own special ops forces and triple the size of its air force, while the head of U.S. Central Command, General Joseph Votel, is calling for far more aggressive actions by those American-advised Afghan security forces in the upcoming spring fighting season. (To put this in perspective, a 2008 U.S. military plan to spend billions of dollars ensuring that the Afghan air force was fully staffed, supplied, trained, and “self-sufficient” by 2015 ended seven years later with it in a “woeful state” of disrepair and near ruin.) Meanwhile, as part of this ramp-up of operations, the Navy is planning to hire drone-maker General Atomics to fly that company’s surveillance drones in Afghanistan in what’s being termed “a ‘surge’ of intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance capabilities.”
If all of this sounds faintly familiar to you, I’m not surprised. In fact, if you’ve already stopped paying attention — as most Americans on the nonexistent “home front” seem to have done when it comes to most of America’s wars of this era — I just want you to know that I completely understand. Sixteen repetitive years later, with the Taliban again in control of something close to half of Afghanistan, your response couldn’t be more all-American. Surges, turning points, more aggressive actions, you’ve heard it all before — and when it comes to Afghanistan, the odds are that you’ll hear it all again.
And don’t for a moment think that this doesn’t add up to another version of sending in the clowns.
If you don’t believe that retired General James Mattis, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, and retired General James Kelly, aka the secretary of defense, the national security adviser, and the White House chief of staff, respectively, are clowns, if you’re still convinced that they’re the “adults” in the Trumpian playroom, check out Afghanistan and think again. But don’t blame them either. What else can a clown do, once those giant floppy shoes are on their feet, their faces are painted, and the bulbous red nose is in place, but act the part? So many years later, they simply can’t imagine another way to think about the world of American war. They only know what they know. Give them a horn and they’ll honk it; give them Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy and they’ll still honk that horn.
For the last decade and a half, through invasions and occupations, surges and counterinsurgency operations, bombing runs and drone strikes, commando raids and training missions, they and their colleagues in the U.S. high command have helped spread terror movements across significant parts of the planet, while playing a major role in creating a series of failing or failed states across the Greater Middle East and Africa. They’ve helped uproot whole populations and transform major cities into spectacles of ruin. Think of this as their twenty-first-century destiny. They’ve proven to be key actors in what has become an American empire of chaos or perhaps simply an empire of graveyards.
They can’t help themselves. Forgive them, Father, for they are clowns led by the greatest clownster-in-chief in the history of this country. Yes, he makes even them uncomfortable because no one can pull the curtains back from the reality of the imperial presidency in quite the way he can. No one can showcase our grim American world, tweet by outrageous tweet, in quite his fashion.
And yes, it can all look ludicrous as hell, but don’t laugh. Don’t even think about it. Not now, not when we’re all at the circus watching those emanations from hell perform. Instead, be chilled — chilled to the bone. Absurd as every pratfall may be, it’s distinctly a vision from hell, an all-American vision for the ages.
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 TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.