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The De-Trumpification of America

Let’s assume that Donald Trump loses the election in November.

Yes, that’s a mighty big assumption, despite all the polls currently favoring the Democrats. If the economy begins to recover and the first wave of Covid-19 subsides (without a second wave striking), Donald Trump’s reelection prospects could improve greatly. The Republican Party has a huge war chest ready to fund ads galore, massive targeted outreach, and widespread voter suppression. And if all that isn’t enough, the president could borrow a tactic from the dictators he so admires and cancel the election outright out of concern over the coronavirus or some fabricated emergency.

Playing up fears of Trump’s reelection is a useful get-out-the-vote strategy, but for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that the election happens and the president loses unambiguously. A majority of Americans will sigh with relief. Still, don’t count on Trump — and more important, Trumpism — evaporating like a nightmare at daybreak.

To begin with, there’s the president’s legendary base of support, the one-third of Americans who’d continue to back him even if he were to shoot someone on New York City’s Fifth Avenue (or, through criminal negligence, effectively murder more than 100,000 people by ignoring a pandemic for 70 days). Such Trumpists aren’t going to suddenly emigrate en masse to New Zealand, as some liberals threatened to do after the last presidential election.

For the time being, the president still has an entire party apparatus behind him, having transformed the Republicans into little more than a personality cult, banishing dissenters like former Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker to the political hinterlands, and silencing the handful of so-called moderates that remain.

Trump enjoys institutional support as well, having replaced so many putative deep-staters with civil servants prepared to unquestioningly do his bidding. He’s personally fired his perceived government enemies, chief among them six inspectors general. Minions like former body man John McEntee, former Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, and presidential aide Stephen Miller have all purged experts, replacing them in the government bureaucracy with loyalists. Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell has done the heavy lifting in the Senate, filling the judicial system with Trump flunkies: two Supreme Court judges, more than 50 Court of Appeals judges, and 140 District Court judges so far.

Ever the money man, the president has secured a reliable cash flow, bringing the uber-wealthy class of conservative donors onto his team, a total of 80 billionaires, including Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman, Texas banker Andy Beal, World Wrestling Entertainment cofounder Linda McMahon, Silicon Valley guru Peter Thiel, and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Thanks to his violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, Trump has also funneled taxpayer money into his own business: millions spent on rooms at the Trump Organization’s hotels and golf clubs. Even before factoring in his money — Trump personally spent $66 million of his own dollars on the 2016 election — his campaign fund already has more than one-third of a billion dollars.

And then there’s the bulk of conservative civil society — ranging from think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and evangelicals like Franklin Graham to the anti-abortion lobby and the International Union of Police Associations — that now operates in his corner. Despite the entertainment world’s general loathing of the president, he’s even lined up a celebrity or two like rapper Kanye West and actress Roseanne Barr along with a handful of D-listers like actor Jon Voight and Barack Obama’s half-brother Malik. On the fringes roam the true “bad hombres”: white supremacists, live-free-or-die militiamen, and QAnon conspiracy theorists.

Taken together, these component parts of Trumpism form that most dangerous of creatures, a political chimera with the head of an establishment machine and the body of a radical social movement. This creature has its hands on the levers of power, its boots on the ground, and its eyes on the prize of four more years.

Are all these people and institutions true believers in Donald Trump? Probably not. Sporting more of a performative style than a coherent ideology, he is, to misquote Lenin, a “useful idiot.” When he’s no longer useful — that is, no longer in power — he’ll only be an idiot and the opportunists will move on.

While Trump may be expendable, Trumpism — which lies at the intersections of racial and sexual anxiety, hatred of government and the expert class, and opposition to cosmopolitan internationalism — is not so easily rooted out. Drawing heavily on American traditions of Know-Nothing-ism, America-First-ism, and Goldwater Republicanism, Trump’s essential worldview will survive the 2020 election.

If their candidate loses in November, Trumpists will dig in their heels just as their predecessors did after Barack Obama’s 2008 victory. Only a month after his inauguration, the Tea Party was already up and running. But the Tea Party will prove child’s play compared to the resistance the Trumpists are likely to mount if their candidate tanks on Election Day 2020. And such resistance could succeed in finishing what Trump started — disuniting the country and destroying the democratic experiment — unless, that is, the United States were to undergo a thorough de-Trumpification.

Other societies have gone through such processes, but those efforts — Reconstruction after the American Civil War, denazification in Germany after World War II, and de-Baathification after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 — have all been flawed in various ways. Reconsidering them, however, might help us avoid repeating the mistakes of history as we try to drive a stake through the heart of Trumpism.

Regime Change

The United States hasn’t recently been invaded, lost a major war in its homeland, or had its government fall to a popular uprising.

That’s usually what it takes to dislodge a deeply entrenched ruling ideology. The South lost the Civil War, the Nazis World War II, and Saddam Hussein the second Gulf War. Those defeats provided the winners with unprecedented opportunities to remake the old order, but don’t seem to apply to America in 2020. The electoral defeat of a president and party, if that’s even what happens in November, doesn’t constitute regime change. It’s just the kind of peaceful transition of power that’s the cornerstone of democratic stability.

But let’s face it: 2020 isn’t shaping up to be a normal election year. Conservative pundits, like military historian Victor Davis Hanson, believe that Barack Obama and the Democrats have brought the country to the brink of a literal civil war. During last year’s impeachment hearings, Trump himself tweeted approvingly a comment made by Robert Jeffress, an evangelical ally, that impeachment “will cause a Civil War-like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.” Meanwhile, typically enough, Clinton’s first secretary of labor, Robert Reich, suspects that President Trump’s flagrant disregard of the Constitution will precipitate major social unrest, even as comedian Bill Maher urges Democrats to reach out to Trump supporters as part of a bid to defeat the president — or risk civil war.

Many Americans seem to agree. In a 2018 Rasmussen poll, one-third of respondents thought it likely that another civil war would break out within five years. According to a 2019 civility poll from the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service, the consensus was that the country is already two-thirds of the way toward a civil war.

Nor is there much confidence that the 2020 presidential election will go smoothly. Take your pick from a menu of potential disruptions: allegations of voter fraud and Republican voter suppression, a resurgence of the coronavirus, voting machine software glitches, Russian hackers, confusion over mail-in ballots, or an authoritarian president who repeatedly jokes about serving more than two terms. A recent Georgia primary offered a warning of what might come, with fiascos aplenty, particularly for voters of color. There weren’t enough polling places, people waited in line for endless hours, absentee ballots never arrived at homes. Multiply Georgia by 50 and you’d have a full-blown crisis of political legitimacy.

Even if this country manages to pull off the 2020 presidential election, a post-election insurrection is not out of the question. During the lame-duck period, a defeated Trump might call on his supporters — gun owners, militia members, active-service military — to serve as a Praetorian guard to keep him in office. Mark Villalta, an attendee at Trumpstock in Arizona last October, was typical of some Trump supporters in confessing that he’s hoarding weapons just in case Trump loses. “Nothing less than a civil war would happen,” he told The New York Times. “I don’t believe in violence, but I’ll do what I got to do.”

It’s essential to ensure that the November 3rd election is free and fair, but if Trump loses, then the bigger problems are likely to begin.

Confederacy of Dunces

In the 1860 election, America confronted a polarized electorate, a stupendously mediocre president in James Buchanan, and a clear geographic divide between north and south, urban and rural. Not even the election of Abraham Lincoln could save the union. The attack on Fort Sumter, the opening salvo of the Civil War, took place roughly a month after his inauguration.

Donald Trump seems to have learned all the wrong lessons from the “War Between the States,” resisting as he’s done recently the removal of “beautiful” Confederate statues and the redesignation of U.S. military bases named after Confederate generals. In the last Oscar season, he even wished that Gone with the Wind had won rather than some South Korean film he’d never heard of. Such favoritism for the disgraced and vanquished should be as politically disqualifying as a Heil Hitler salute.

The reason that Trump can get away with his Confederate nostalgia comes, at least in part, from the failure of the Reconstruction era after the Civil War to extirpate racism and its associated economic inequality from American society. In fact, as historian Allen Guelzo points out, “Reconstruction did not fail so much as it was overthrown. Southern whites played the most obvious role in this overthrow, but they would never have succeeded without the consent of the Northern Democrats, who had never been in favor of an equitable Reconstruction.”

The Democrats of the time, in other words, became a party of resistance — to Reconstruction, civil rights, and the radical Republicans of that moment. So the Confederacy continued to live on not only in the hearts and minds of defeated Southern whites but also in the racist policies that elected officials in both parts of the country would resurrect.

Here, then, is a lesson of the Civil War’s aftermath for this moment. Today’s Republicans, the equivalent of the northern Democrats of the post-Civil War era and a true confederacy of dunces, cannot be allowed to persist in their current incarnation as a vehicle for Trumpism. A thorough thumping at the polls in November is a necessary but insufficient response to what they’ve become.

Gaining a congressional majority, in other words, is not enough. The Democrats and chastened Republicans would have to work to make that party a far less extreme force in American politics, abandoning Trump and reclaiming Lincoln.

“We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards,” Barack Obama insisted as he entered office in 2009, sidestepping efforts to investigate the wrongdoing of the George W. Bush administration. He was convinced that such forward thinking would unite the country. He was wrong.

To avoid a Reconstruction-like fiasco, the next administration would have to drain the swamp Trump created, bring criminal charges against the former president and his key followers, and launch a serious campaign to change the hearts and minds of Americans who have been drawn to this president’s agenda.

Detoxifying Government

When Saddam Hussein fell and American troops took Baghdad, the United States established an occupation authority that attempted to expunge all traces of the former Iraqi autocrat’s Baath Party from that society. At the time, the State Department considered three basic positions on what came to be known as de-Baathification: focus just on Saddam’s inner circle of about 50 top-ranking officials, expand that circle to include a larger number of top politicians, or eradicate Baathism altogether because “democratization is simply not possible unless and until the entire apparatus of control and authority is uprooted.”

Thanks to Paul Bremer, the head of that Coalition Provisional Authority, the third option became its very first directive, which led to the ejection of between 35,000 and 50,000 Iraqi civil servants onto the streets of their country. “In effect, the United States dismantled the Iraqi state, leaving a deep security vacuum, administrative chaos, and soaring unemployment,” wrote pundit Fareed Zakaria in 2007. “We summarily deposed not just Saddam Hussein but a centuries-old ruling elite and then were stunned that they reacted poorly.”

That thoroughgoing purge, along with the literal dismantling of the Iraqi army, generated a deep distrust of the American occupation and provided an instant pool of recruits for any militant resistance, fueling an all-out war.

The good news is that since Trumpism has only been a governing ideology for three years, it hasn’t (yet) penetrated the civil service or the military to the degree that Baathism dominated the Iraqi government and armed forces. Since Trump appointees don’t form a particularly deep state, however much Trump would have liked to create one of his own, no Iraq-style resistance is on the horizon.

The judiciary is another matter. The roughly 200 judges that Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have already managed to appoint for life will do their best to block all attempts to deconstruct Trumpism. If it can be shown that any of these judges engaged in serious ethical or criminal misconduct, then impeachment would be an option. However, you can’t impeach judges just because you don’t like their rulings (though some Republican legislators did try to do just that in Pennsylvania a couple of years ago).

Instead of attempting to remove individual judges, it would be more strategic to go after their ideological backer, the Federalist Society, an uber-conservative legal organization that has functioned as a judicial matchmaker for Trump, providing him with a list of potential Supreme Court nominees. All but eight of his federal appellate court picks have been members of the society.

You can’t outlaw a legal society, however lunatic its interpretation of the Constitution may be. However, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who’s on the Judiciary Committee, proposes to make it illegal for judges to be members of the Federalist Society. An added benefit: such a move would also go after the big money behind the attempted right-wing takeover of the court system because, as Whitehouse points out, “the Federalist Society is at the center of a network of dark-money-funded conservative organizations whose purpose is to influence court composition and outcomes.”

Detoxifying the court system is crucial not only for reversing Trump’s regressive policies but for clearing the way to prosecute him for his wrongdoing.

Hauling Them into Court

At Nuremberg after World War II, the Allied victors put nearly 200 Nazis on trial for various crimes: 161 were convicted and 37 sentenced to death. The precedents established there and at other war crimes trials have guided contemporary tribunals culminating in the International Criminal Court (ICC).

It would be satisfying if the U.S. government could give Donald Trump and some of his top aides to the ICC for their violations of international law at the U.S.-Mexico border, the assassination of the head of the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, and similar actions. But that’s unimaginable even for a government led by President Joe Biden in which the Democrats had a veto-proof majority in the Senate. So it will be up to the American courts to charge and convict Trump, which has so far failed to happen, despite some cases related to his tax returns and allegations of sexual assault still inching forward.

The Nuremberg process developed new standards to prosecute the Nazis. Since the barriers have grown high indeed, the Trumpian opposition would have to get more creative to make sure that Trump goes to jail.

As soon as he is no longer president, federal prosecutors should label Donald Trump and his top associates an ongoing criminal organization and begin the process of bringing them to justice under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. For years, after all, the president has been acting like a mafia godfather, demanding loyalty, bullying competitors, and scorning “rats.” Last year, former Trump fixer Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee laid out in graphic detail ways in which the president and his gang were guilty of racketeering: bribery, fraud, obstruction of justice, and the like.

The House of Representatives impeached the president, but with the help of his Republican enablers, he managed to avoid removal from office. Getting read the RICO Act, on the other hand, could leave him facing years in prison and the Trump Organization would be liable for treble damages as compensation for victims. As Forbes contributor Steve Denning concluded during the impeachment proceedings:

While impeachment would obviously be a severe personal sanction for Donald Trump, convicting the Trump Organization as a RICO enterprise could be far worse. If Trump is ‘only’ impeached, he could always go back to his family business, sadder but perhaps wiser. But if the Trump Organization were to be convicted as a criminal enterprise under the RICO Act, there might be no business for Trump to go back to.

U.S. diplomat Herbert Pell, instrumental in bringing war-crimes charges against the Nazis during World War II, saw “how Confederate veterans in the South had created for themselves a misty-eyed mythology about the U.S. Civil War and was determined that the Nazis would not do the same.” As Dan Plesch explained in his study of international war crimes tribunals, “Pell’s motivation was to prevent postwar nostalgia for the Nazis breeding more war.”

Putting Trump on trial would not only remove him from the political equation but could effectively delegitimize Trumpism and prevent a second round of it from occurring.

The Popularity of Trumpism

Nazism didn’t die with Adolf Hitler’s suicide, the collapse of his regime, or those convictions at Nuremberg. More than 10% of the German population had belonged to the Nazi Party. Early efforts at denazification sputtered out largely because the United States and its allies needed a stable, prosperous Germany at the heart of Cold War Europe — and Germany quietly allowed former Nazis to remain in every echelon of society. Seven years after the war, for instance, 60% of the civil servants in Bavaria were former Nazis.

Nazi ideology was even more difficult to root out. According to a public opinion survey conducted in West Germany in 1947, 55% percent of those living under the U.S. occupation believed that “National Socialism was a good idea badly carried out.” Worse yet, the majority of those in this category were under 30, not just the old guard.

As bizarre as Donald Trump might be, Trumpism itself is not a new American phenomenon. The difference is that the far right never before had such access to power, not during the George W. Bush era, not even during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. It always remained on the margins, kept alive by the likes of the John Birch Society, the occasional extreme member of Congress, and weirdo talk show hosts like Alex Jones of InfoWars.

The danger of Trump lies in his remarkable capacity to mainstream views that previously had been beyond the pale (at least in official Washington). A significant number of Americans feel liberated, thanks to his imprimatur, to give voice to the worst angels of their nature. Transforming such deep-seated belief systems represents quite a different challenge than changing the guard in the Oval Office and beyond. After all, democratic societies don’t send people off to reeducation camps. Certain communities, like universities, can legislate against hate speech, but it’s people’s hearts and minds, not just their tongues, that must be reached.

To do so, it’s imperative to separate the legitimate grievances of Trump supporters from the illegitimate ones. Yes, “bad hombres” are attracted to Trump’s racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, but many of the disenfranchised who voted for him were motivated by a disgust at political elites and the raging economic inequality they produced in this land. After the triple whammy of the coronavirus pandemic (and its disproportionate impact on the working poor), the economic semi-collapse that followed its spread (and the disproportionate benefits Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and other billionaires drew from it), and an epidemic of police violence (visited on people of color), more and more Americans are coming to feel that the status quo is simply unacceptable. They’re disgusted by Republican duplicity but also by the Democrats’ version of business as usual.

Because Trumpism is a cancer on the body politic, the treatment will require radical interventions, including the transformation of the Republican Party, a purge of Trumpists from government, and the indictment of the president and his top cronies as a criminal enterprise. To avoid a second Civil War, however, a second American Revolution would need to address the root causes of Trumpism, especially political corruption, deep-seated racism, and extreme economic inequality.

Otherwise, even if The Donald loses this election, the political creature he represents will rise from the ashes and eventually return to power (President Tom Cotton? President Ivanka?!). America can’t survive another civil war, but neither can it afford another failed Reconstruction, a half-hearted de-Trumpification of America, and a return to the previous status quo.

TomDispatch, June 26, 2020

Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

How Donald Trump Changed Everything (2016-2020)

I didn’t vote in the pivotal American election of 2016. Thirty-five years ago, in that unseasonably warm month of November, I was in Antarctica’s Allan Hills taking ice core samples with a hand augur. The pictures I have from that time show my team drilling deep into the blue ice, but what we were actually doing was digging a million years into the planetary past to gaze upon the panorama of climate change. The election was a bad soap opera playing out far beyond my field of vision.

At the time, I lived in Washington, D.C. So my vote, I told myself for years afterward, wouldn’t have made any difference in that overwhelmingly Democratic city. And of course, I never had a doubt about the result, nor did my family and friends, nor did the pollsters, the media, and the entertainment industry, nor the members of the political and economic elite of both major parties. Ours was a confidence composed in equal parts of ignorance and arrogance. We underestimated the legitimate anger and despair of large sections of the country — as well as the other darker motivations much discussed in the years since.

“Remember, Rachel,” my ex-husband used to say, “Homo homini lupus: man is wolf to man.” I criticized him for slandering the poor wolf, but he was right. Beastliness has always lain just beneath the surface of our world.

My ex-husband, the author Julian West, is a man who cared little about ice or nature. We couldn’t have been more ill-suited in that regard. He was always focused on politics. At that moment, he was less worried about Donald Trump winning the presidency than a far slicker populist coming along to galvanize the same anti-establishment constituency four years after a Trump defeat. In 2016, Julian was still a relatively conventional political scientist. The election would change all that, setting in motion the events that ultimately inspired his seminal bestseller, Splinterlands, which, as you no doubt remember, was published in 2020 and predicted — with considerable accuracy — the broke-down, shattered world all of us now live in.

I used to think geologically, which transformed the grand sweep of human history into a mere sliver in the planet’s 4.6-billion-year timeline. The Earth had repeatedly warmed and cooled in a set of protracted mood swings that encompassed the epochs. Don’t imagine, though, that just because I thought in million-year intervals I was entirely above the fray. By examining those columns of ice we were extracting from Antarctica, I hoped to understand far more about our own era of global warming.

What I’d learned by 2016 was not encouraging.

In every previous cycle, the Earth had regulated itself. Then we humans came along and started fiddling with the global thermostat. The era of climate change that began in the nineteenth century with our concerted use of fossil fuels would prove unprecedented. Scientists began to speak of our 11,700-year epoch, the Holocene, as the Anthropocene, the first period in which the actions of a particular species, our very own anthropos, changed the planet. (I used to half-jokingly call our era the Anthro-obscene.)

Already by 2016, we were experiencing “the hottest summer on record” year after dismal year. By then, we’d raised the global temperature by one degree, and that fall the Arctic was an astonishing 36 degrees warmer than normal. In Antarctica, where our 12-person team was using a Badger-Eclipse drill and hand augurs to collect samples, the ground seemed to be turning liquid beneath us as we worked.

At that point, of course, the looming reality of global warming should have been obvious to everyone, not just scientists. But in that era of fake news and rampant conspiracy theories, climate change proved to be just one more “debatable” topic. In the past, at comparable moments, wisdom had eventually won out over wrongheadedness, whether the shape of the world or the position of Earth in the universe was in question. Alas, in the most important debate of them all, the one on which the very existence of human life on this planet depended, calmer heads did not prevail — not in time anyway.

As time itself began to telescope, many of us, in the United States in particular, simply closed our eyes and pretended that species death was not staring humanity (and many other species) in the face. Geologic time would, of course, go marching on, just not for us.

The four-year term of Donald Trump proved such a disaster that a chastened nation, instead of christening public buildings after the disgraced president, bestowed his name on the devastating, climate-change-energized hurricane that struck the country’s East Coast in 2022. Like its namesake, Hurricane Donald began as a squall, only later to develop into the destructive force that ruined the national capital and caused billions of dollars of damage.

Julian and I lost our home in Hurricane Donald. Having never liked Washington, I was, in the end, happy enough to leave the city to the floodwaters. I divorced my husband (no need to go into that story here), reverted to Rachel Leopold, the name I’d previously used only for my scientific publications, and retreated to Vermont.  There, in our community of Arcadia, I’ve cultivated my garden and watched the inexorable rise of the global thermometer ever since.

The good news: our citrus crop was excellent this year. The bad news: a significant coastal chunk of what was once the habitable world is now underwater.

How much of that is the responsibility of President Trump, how much his shortsighted predecessors’ and his blinkered successors’, I leave to scholars like my ex-husband to mull over. I can tell you only what I saw with my own eyes. I was pretty good with an augur back in the day, so let me drill down one last time through the crust of history.

The Trump Years

Since I take the long view, I know that time can march backward. Just ask the graptolites. Oh, sorry, actually you can’t.

Graptolites were tiny sea creatures that once lived in colonies huddled at the bottom of oceans or floating like ribbons of seaweed on the water’s surface. For nearly 200 million years, they prospered in their aquatic world. They probably thought — if they thought at all — that such longevity guaranteed them eternal life on this planet. Then came the Carboniferous Period and a brief but severe ice age. Poof, the graptolites were gone, along with 86% of all other species.

Before evolution culminated in its most glorious and destructive creation — and you know just who I mean — the planet experienced five mass extinctions. The most devastating came at the end of the Permian era, around 250 million years ago, when 96% of all species died out because a huge volcano exploding in present-day Siberia set off a chain reaction that raised the temperature of the seas radically. All of those long-gone creatures left behind no more than a few marks on stone or some petro-carbon pools beneath the Earth’s surface.

The essential law of evolution is the survival of the fittest. Many species die out thanks to some spectacular event or other: an asteroid crashing into the Earth, say, or a massive volcanic eruption. But no wrathful god or malevolent alien force proved necessary for human beings: we were quite capable of being our own worst cataclysm. In an instant of geologic time, we heedlessly burned through our natural resources, while creating weapons of mass destruction that could do in the world hundreds of times over. And then, in 2016, roughly half the voting population of the United States walked into the polls and pulled the lever for doomsday.

My ex-husband loved to regale me with comparable stories from history — of empires that rose and fell, great civilizations that left behind not much more than the poor graptolites had. He believed, however, that the Enlightenment had fundamentally changed human consciousness, that history thereafter was slated to move forward, with only a few stutter steps, into a radiant future. The election of 2016 changed him and his thinking on such subjects irrevocably.

Definition of a pessimist: an optimist mugged by current events.

I, too, didn’t quite realize how quickly a country could move backward, dragging the world with it. I watched helplessly as the Trump administration toppled one scientific enterprise after another, like a sullen child kicking over the sand castles of other kids. As soon as he took office, the new president green-lighted every dirty energy project within reach. Over the objections of environmentalists, scientists, and anyone with a modicum of common sense, his administration boosted a dying coal industry, lifted regulations on carbon emissions, opened up federal land to drilling and fracking, and okayed pipelines that pumped out yet more oil and gas to turn into carbon emissions and further heat the planet. It was the equivalent of a second Industrial Revolution in Saudi America, at the very moment when the planet could ill afford another fossil fuel spree.

Worse yet was the new administration’s decidedly lukewarm attitude toward the Paris Accordon climate change. Even as the president revised his earlier contention that global warming was a Chinese hoax, the United States turned its back on its pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in concert with the other industrialized powers. It also stopped all payments to other countries to help them reduce such emissions. In the space of months, years of patient negotiations unraveled.

The Trump energy stimulus — along with tax cuts for the wealthy, military budget increases, and a major, privatizing infrastructure program — provided a short-term boost to the American economy. It was like giving an exhausted worker a hit of meth. Even then, it hardly took an Einstein to know that what goes up must inevitably come down. The new president’s “plan” threw the American economy into even more serious debt, and the initial spike in employment it caused — the new jobs in mining, pumping, fracking, and building — proved unsustainable, even as an already yawning gap between rich and poor continued to widen. The global economy responded by sliding into stagnation (and then worse), while the positive effects of the short-term stimulus in the United States soon evaporated.

Perhaps if there had been more resistance to the Trump juggernaut, we wouldn’t find ourselves in the present situation. Most critics saw the new president as only a variation, however strange, on all-American themes. They acted as if the normal melody of politics was continuing to play. They ignored the growing cacophony in the country and the world.  They simply didn’t see the true nature of the threat.

They didn’t understand how fracked we all were.

Of course, we did finally stop fracking — the pumping of high-pressure liquid under the ground to extract otherwise hard-to-get hydrocarbons — once we fully understood more than two decades ago the devastating consequences it had for the environment and for us. But by then it was too late. Donald Trump had already fulfilled his promise to get at those hidden reserves of oil and gas. In doing so, he ensured that yet more rounds of carbon emissions would head into the atmosphere, unleashing a wave of destructive force that widened the existing cracks in American society.

It’s no surprise that the world began to splinter. But I don’t want to cover the ground my ex-husband has already explored. I have my own story to tell.

From Reconstruction to Deconstruction

Here in this Vermont community where I’ve lived for the past quarter century, I’ve had a lot of time to read. I no longer take ice core samples. There isn’t much point (or much ice left either). Instead, we survive as best we can, while bracing for yet another tempo shift that will force us to measure our lives not in decades but in years, or even days.

We have a good library here in Arcadia, assembled from the basements and attics of farmhouses in the area. No one reads books any more, so we had our pick. In addition to taking charge of the greenhouses in our community, I teach science in our school. In the evenings, when I have the time, I also read history. For all those years we were together, I listened to my husband’s take on the world of the past. Now I’ve developed my own interpretation.

From my reading, I think I understand what happened to the United States in the aftermath of Hurricane Donald. I think I know now why the country cracked into so many pieces. At the time, I believed it was because of the political divisions of the day, the disagreements over immigration and guns and trade. I didn’t realize that all of these disputes stemmed from a much older conflict built into the very foundations of this country.

Like most Americans, I assumed that our forefathers beat the British in the Revolutionary War and, in short order, created a new experiment in democracy. I’d forgotten — or never even knew — that a decentralized group of not-so-united states existed for six years between the end of that war and the Constitutional Convention of 1787. In those years, the 13 states that had agreed to the Articles of Confederation were quite interested in forming a more perfect union. They evidently liked their status and felt resistant to replacing an imperial overlord with a federal one. Only through a sleight of hand did the founding fathers conjure up an American federation. It was a brilliant piece of politics, but Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and the others never fully convinced those skeptical of federation.

Indeed, the Constitution papered over the problem by forging compromises between the one government and the many states that would prove increasingly vexing over the ensuing decades. Ultimately, it was brought to a head by the Civil War, thanks to the perennial disagreement about whether new states admitted to the Union would be “slave” or “free.” It wasn’t so much the North as the federal government that emerged victorious from that war and then tried to impose a solution on the rebellious states, which balked at constitutional amendments enfranchising freed slaves as equal citizens and — for the men at least — members of the political community. The post-war Reconstruction project remained unfinished until, a century later, the civil rights movement successfully challenged the refusal of the southern states to abide fully by those amendments.

Still, even that movement could not resolve the fundamental divide. In the 1990s and the first years of the new century, economic globalization took the top spot as the issue that split America into two parts — an A team of the economically successful and a B team of the left behind. At first blush, the election of Donald Trump seemed to represent a victory, at long last, for Team B. Certainly, economics did drive enough voters in the Rust Belt to abandon their traditional allegiance to the Democratic Party to lift him to victory in the electoral college.

As his administration got down to work, it became clear that economics only went so far in explaining his victory. Rather, it was again the old issue of whether the federal government had the mandate to implement policies for the entire nation. Those who supported Trump thought not. They didn’t want comprehensive national health care. They were not happy with the way the federal government permitted abortion and same-sex marriage and yet outlawed prayer in school and kept creationism out of the textbooks. They didn’t like the way the government taxed them, regulated them, and kept their cattle off public lands. They didn’t want the government resettling immigrants in their communities. They cared little for affirmative action, feminism, or transgender activism. And they were leery of any restrictionson their access to guns.

Trump supporters were not against elites, at least not all elites. After all, they’d just elected a celebrity billionaire who promptly filled his administration with his equally wealthy friends and colleagues. No, they were against the elites they associated with the imposition of federal authority.

America B didn’t want to secede territorially from the United States. Rather, it wanted to deconstruct federal power. As a result, the United States pushed the rewind button and, in some sense, went all the way back to 1781. The Trump administration began to undo the ties that bound the country together, and we very quickly became less than the sum of our parts. The so-called red states, unshackled from federal requirements, went their own way. Liberal East Coast and West Coast states, appalled by the hijacking of federal authority for the ultimate purpose of undermining federal authority, tried to hold onto constitutional values as they understood them. It didn’t take long — in fact, the pundits regularly commented on the blinding speed of the process — for the failure of the larger project of integration to become self-evident.  By 2022, the United States existed in name only (and an increasingly ironic one at that).

The Age of Diminished Expectations

Imagine that you are a 16-year-old girl, healthy and happy and looking forward to many decades of love and life. And then, one terrible day, you’re blindsided by a Stage Four cancer diagnosis. You had been measuring the future in decades. Suddenly, those decades disappear, leaving you with possibly only a few years to go. Your parents, once skeptical about vaccinating you as a child, now reject conventional cancer treatments. First they deny the diagnosis outright. Then they urge you to eat ground-up apricot pits, drink special teas, and go on a high-fat diet. Nothing works, and the years turn into months, and those months into days, as the world closes in.

Yes, it’s a real tearjerker, but substitute “human race” for “16-year-old girl” and “climate change” for “cancer” and you’ll see how accurate it is.  At the time, though, many people just looked away and shrugged. By that pivotal year of 2016, the world had already received a poor diagnosis. The election of Donald Trump was our way, as a country, of first denying that there was even a problem, then refusing medical treatment, and finally embracing one quack remedy after another.

In the aftermath of that election, I struggled with the contraction of time and space, as geologic time shifted into human time, as we all came to terms (or not) with the obvious planetary diagnosis. So, too, did the map of my world shrink. During the first part of my adult life, I imagined myself as part of an international community of scientists. Then I worked at a national level to save my country.

Here in Vermont, I’ve ended up confined to quite a small plot of land: our intentional community of Arcadia, which we’ve walled off from an increasingly dangerous and hostile world. Soon enough, I’ll find myself in an even smaller space: an urn in the community’s mausoleum.

We’re doing fine here in Arcadia. Climate change has turned northern Vermont into a farming paradise. No federal government interferes with our liberal community guidelines. We have enough guns to defend ourselves against outside aggressors. Everything that has killed the larger community beyond our walls has only made us stronger.

Perhaps, like the monasteries of the Middle Ages, communities like ours will preserve knowledge until the distant day when we exit this era of ignorance and pain. Or perhaps, like the graptolites, we’ll fade away and evolution will produce another species without the flawed operating system that doomed us.

The graptolites were mute. We humans can speak and write and film ourselves in glorious 3-D. These skills haven’t saved us, but our ability to document our times will perhaps save someone someday somewhere.  Everyone prefers a happy ending to a tearjerker. With these documents, these core samples of our era, perhaps we can still, somehow, save the future.

TomDispatch, December 6, 2016