First as Tragedy, then as Farce

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W.J. Astore

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce.  Karl Marx used it to describe Napoleon’s cataclysmic reign followed by the far less momentous and far more ignominious reign of his nephew, Napoleon III.

Marx’s saying applies well to two momentous events in recent U.S. history: the 9/11 attacks of 2001 and the current coronavirus pandemic.  The American response to the first was tragic; to the second, farcical.

Let me explain.  I vividly recall the aftermath to the 9/11 attacks.  The world was largely supportive of the United States.  “We are all Americans now” was a sentiment aired in many a country that didn’t necessarily love America.  And the Bush/Cheney administration proceeded to throw all that good will away in a disastrous war on terror that only made terror into a pandemic of sorts, with American troops spreading it during calamitous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, among other military interventions around the globe.

Again, it was tragic for America to have thrown away all that good will in the pursuit of dominance through endless military action.  A great opportunity was missed for true American leadership achieved via a more patient, far less bellicose, approach to suppressing terrorism.

In this tragedy, the Bush/Cheney administration avoided all responsibility, first for not preventing the attacks, and second for bungling the response so terribly.  Indeed, George W. Bush was reelected in 2004 and has now been rehabilitated as a decent man and a friend by popular Democrats like Michelle Obama, who see him in a new light when compared to America’s current president.

Speaking of Donald Trump, consider his response to America’s second defining moment of the 21st century: the coronavirus pandemic.  It’s been farcical.  The one great theme that’s emerged from Trump’s 260,000 words about the pandemic is self-congratulation, notes the New York Times.  Even as America’s death toll climbs above 50,000, Trump congratulates himself on limiting the number of deaths, even as he takes pride in television ratings related to his appearances.  The farce was complete when the president unwisely decided to pose as a health authority, telling Americans to ingest or inject poisonous household disinfectants to kill the virus.

Tragedy, then farce.  But with the same repetition of a total failure to take responsibility. As Trump infamously said, “I don’t take responsibility at all” for the botched response to the pandemic.

9/11 and Covid-19 may well be the defining events of the last 20 years.  After 9/11, Bush/Cheney tragically squandered the good will of the world in rampant militarism and ceaseless wars.  Then came Covid, an even bigger calamity, and now we have our farcical president, talking about the health benefits of injecting or ingesting bleach and similar poisons.  At a time when the U.S. should lead the world in medical expertise to confront this virus, we’ve become a laughingstock instead.

What comes after farce, one wonders?  For too many Americans, the answer may well be further death and loss.

Trump’s Emerging Kleptocracy

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Trump’s latest “con man” hat puts USA front and center, with 45 on the side (Trump, sadly, will be America’s 45th president, unless widespread sanity breaks out)

W.J. Astore

Back in 2010, I wrote an article for TomDispatch.com in which I compared the U.S. government and its corporate handlers to a kleptocracy.  Here’s what I wrote:

What drives America today is, in fact, business — just as was true in the days of Calvin Coolidge. But it’s not the fair-minded “free enterprise” system touted in those freshly revised Texas guidelines for American history textbooks; rather, it’s a rigged system of crony capitalism that increasingly ends in what, if we were looking at some other country, we would recognize as an unabashed kleptocracy.

That’s what we’re witnessing right now with Trump and his family: crony capitalism. Unabashed kleptocracy.  It’s nothing new, except now it’s being done openly and unapologetically by the president-elect, who claims the law of the land says he can’t have conflicts of interest, because as president he’s exempted from those laws.

Recall the saying that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce.  Trump is both tragedy and farce, but more than anything, he’s a tragedy for our democracy.

Here’s more of what I wrote back in 2010.  It’s prescient, I think, and I’m not proud to say that:

An old Roman maxim enjoins us to “let justice be done, though the heavens fall.”  Within our kleptocracy, the prevailing attitude is an insouciant “We’ll get ours, though the heavens fall.”  This mindset marks the decline of our polity.  A spirit of shared sacrifice, dismissed as hopelessly naïve, has been replaced by a form of tribalized privatization in which insiders find ways to profit no matter what.

Tom Engelhardt documents Trump’s opportunistic greed in his latest introduction to Nick Turse’s humorously painful article on the farce that is Trump.  Here’s what Engelhardt has to say about Trump’s emerging kleptocracy:

Trump is a family man in every sense of the word. His business is a family business. No matter what anyone tells you, there’s no more way to separate him from his brand, with his kids running it, than there is to separate a shark from the ocean or Ivanka from her line of jewelry. There’s no way this administration can be anything but a walking, talking conflict of interest of a kind never before seen or even imagined in this country.  It’s easy, in fact, to guarantee one thing: that foreign business and political interests will have a field day when it comes to applying pressure to the new American president.

Truer words were never written.  Imagine placing Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko (he of cinematic “Wall Street” infamy) in charge of America, and that’s Trump, except Trump seems to have even fewer scruples.

Anyway, the intrepid Nick Turse journeyed to Trump Tower in Manhattan to survey the farce that is the Trump transition team.  I urge you to read his article in full, but here’s his conclusion:

Descending the switchback escalators [in the Trump Tower], I found myself gazing at the lobby where a scrum of reporters stood waiting for golden elevator doors to open, potentially disgorging a Trump family member or some other person hoping to serve at the pleasure of the next president. Behind me water cascaded several stories down a pink marble wall, an overblown monument to a bygone age of excess.  Ahead of me, glass cases filled with Trump/Pence 2016 T-shirts, colognes with the monikers “Empire” and “Success,” the iconic red “Make America Great Again” one-size-fits-all baseball cap, stuffed animals, and other tchotchkes stood next to an overflowing gilded garbage can.  Heading for the door, I thought about all of this and Joe [a secret service agent] and his commando-chic colleague and Trump’s deserted private-public park, and the army of cops, the metal barricades, and the circus that awaited me on the street.  I felt I’d truly been given some hint of the future, a whisper of what awaits. I also felt certain I’d be returning to Trump Tower — and soon.

Circus, indeed.  Trump has mastered that, but will he provide the bread as well to complete the bread and circuses pairing?  And will the people be satisfied with empty spectacle and a few crumbs of bread as Trump takes America for a kleptocratic ride?

It was said about the Emperor Nero that he fiddled while Rome burned.  Instead of fiddling, Trump, one assumes, will make deals and sell trinkets, all for his personal profit, even as American democracy burns.

Welcome to kleptocracy in the open, America.  As the inferno rages, remember this happy fact: For only $10,000 you too can wear Ivanka’s bracelet!

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One bracelet to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.