The insult wars in Washington

How they blind us to our troubles

Published July 12, 2017 4:00AM (EDT)

 (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
(AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

I don’t tweet, but I do have a brief message for our president: Will you please get the hell out of the way for a few minutes? You and your antics are blocking our view of the damn world and it’s a world we should be focusing on!

Maybe it was the moment, more than a week ago, when I found myself reading Donald Trump’s double tweet aimed at MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski who, on "Morning Joe", had suggested that the president might be “possibly unfit mentally.”

“I heard,” the president tweeted, “poorly rated @Morning_Joe speaks badly of me (don't watch anymore). Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came... to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year's Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!”

In response to Trump’s eerie fascination with women’s blood, Brzezinski tweeted a shot of the back of a Cheerios box that had the phrase “Made for Little Hands” on it. And so it all began, days of it, including the anti-cyber-bullying First Lady's rush (however indirectly) to her husband’s side via her communications director who said, “As the First Lady has stated publicly in the past, when her husband gets attacked, he will punch back 10 times harder.”

But one tweet truly caught my attention, even if it was at the very beginning of a donnybrook that, with twists and turns, including claims of attempted White House blackmail over a National Enquirer article (and Trumpian rejoinders of every kind), would monopolize the headlines and fill the yak-o-sphere of cable TV for days.  That tweet came from conservative idol Bill Kristol, editor at large for the Weekly Standard.  It said: “Dear @realDonaldTrump, You are a pig. Sincerely, Bill Kristol.”

Blinded to our planet and its troubles

Strange but at that moment another moment — so distant it might as well have been from a different planet or, as indeed was the case, another century — came to my mind.  Donald Trump was still finishing his high school years at a military academy and I was a freshman at Yale.  It would have been a weekend in the late spring of 1963.  One of my roommates was a working-class kid from Detroit, more of a rarity at that elite all-male school than this New York Jew (in the years when Yale was just removing its Jewish quotas).  And here was another rarity: we had a double date with two young women from a local New Haven Catholic college.

That night, out of pure ignorance, we violated Yale’s parietal hours — a reality from another century that no one even knows about anymore.  Those young women stayed in our rooms beyond the time the school considered . . . well, in that world of WASPs, kosher might not be the perfect word, but you get what I mean.  Let me hasten to add that, in those forbidden minutes, I don’t believe I even exchanged a kiss with my date.

Note to readers: Be patient. Think of this as my version of a shaggy dog (or perhaps an over-combed Donald) tale. But rest assured that I haven’t forgotten our Tweeter-in-Chief, not for a second.  How could I?

Anyway, the four of us left our room just as a campus cop was letting another student, who had locked himself out, back into his room opposite ours.  When he saw us, he promptly demanded our names and recorded them in his notebook for violating parietal hours (which meant we were in genuine trouble).  As he walked down the stairs, my roommate, probably a little drunk, leaned over the bannister and began shouting at him.  More than half a century later, I have no memory of what exactly he yelled —with the exception of a single word.  As Bill Kristol did the other day with our president, he called that cop a “pig.”

Now, I wasn’t a working-class kid.  In the worst of times for my parents, the “golden” 1950s when my father was in debt and often out of work, I was already being groomed to move up the American class ladder.  I was in spirit upper middle class in the fashion of that moment.  I was polite to a T.  I was a genuine good boy of that era.  And good boys didn’t imagine that, in real life, even with a couple of beers under your belt, anyone would ever call the campus version of a policeman, a “pig.”  I had never in my life heard such a thing.  It simply wasn’t the way you talked to the police then, or (until last week) the way you spoke to or of American presidents. Not even Donald Trump.

In other words, when Kristol of all people did that, it shocked me.  Which means, to my everlasting shame, that I must still be a good boy, even if now of a distinctly antediluvian sort.  Mind you, within years of that incident, it had become a commonplace for activists of the left (though, I must admit, never me) to call the police — the ones out in the streets hassling antiwar protesters, black activists, and others — “pigs.”  Or rather “the pigs.”

So here’s a question I'm now asking myself.  If Kristol can do it with impunity, then why not Tom Engelhardt, 54 years later?  Why not me all these years after American presidents green-lighted secret prisons and torture, invaded and occupied countries around the world; ordered death and mayhem without surcease; sent robotic assassins across the planet to execute, on their say-so alone, those they identified as terrorists or enemies (and anyone else in the vicinity, children included); helped uproot populations in numbers not seen since World War II; oversaw the creation of a global and domestic surveillance state the likes of which would have stunned the totalitarian rulers of the twentieth century; and pumped more money into the U.S. military budget than the next eight major states spent combined, which of course is just to start down a long list?

Under the circumstances, why not bring a barnyard animal to bear on the twenty-first-century presidency, the office that in its glory days decades ago used to be referred to as “the imperial presidency”?  After all, as I’ve written before, Donald Trump is no anomaly in the Oval Office, even when, as with Scarborough and Brzezinski, he tweets and rants in a startlingly anomalous fashion for a president. He is instead a bizarre symptom of American decline, of the very thing he staked his presidential run on: the fact that this country is no longer “great.”

Of course, tactically speaking, engaging in name-calling with Donald Trump is essentially aiding and abetting his presidency (something the media does daily, even hourly).  He and his advisers are of a schoolyard sticks-and-stones-will-break-my-bones-but-names-will-never-hurt-me mentality.  As the Washington Post reported recently, they consider such insult wars a form of “winning” and a way to eternally engage the “fake news media” on grounds they consider advantageous, in a way that will endlessly stoke the president’s still loyal base.

To my mind, however, that’s hardly the most essential problem with such language.  I suspect that the tweets and insults — whether Trump’s, Scarborough’s, or Kristol’s — act as a kind of smoke screen. In readership and viewership terms, of course, they’re manna from heaven for the very “fake news media” Trump loves to hate.  They're “wins” for them as well.  In the process, however, the blood, the pigs, and all the rest of the package of Washington’s insult wars help keep our eyes endlessly glued on the president and on next to nothing else in our world.  They blind us to our planet and its troubles.

Can there be any question that Donald Trump’s greatest talent is his eternal ability to suck the air out of the media room?  It was a skill he demonstrated in stunning fashion during the 2016 election campaign, accumulating an unprecedented $5 billion or so in free media coverage on his way to the White House.  It’s safe to say, I think, that never in history have so many cameras, so many reporters, and so many eyes been focused so never-endingly on one man.  He looms larger than life, larger than anything in our screen-rich world.  He essentially blocks the view, day and night.

In that sense — in the closest I’ve probably come to such an insult myself — I recently labeled him our own “little big man.”  He’s petty, small in so many ways, but he looms so large, tweet by bloody tweet, that it’s hard to see the burning forest for the one flaming tree.

The overheated present and an overheating future

Take North Korea. On Friday, June 30th, when the Scarborough-Brzezinski brouhaha was going full blast, Trump met with the new South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, and the two of them spoke to the media in the White House Rose Garden, taking no questions.  The president’s comments on the Korean situation were strikingly grim and blunt. “The era of strategic patience with the North Korean regime,” he said, “has failed. Frankly, that patience is over."  He then added, “We have many options with respect to North Korea.”

As it happens, we know (or at least could know) a little about the nature of those “options.”  Only the day before, Trump’s national security adviser, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, confirmed reports that a new set of options had indeed been prepared for the president. “What we have to do,” he told a Washington think tank, “is prepare all options because the president has made clear to us that he will not accept a nuclear power in North Korea and a threat that can target the United States and target the American population.”  As McMaster himself made clear, “all options” included new military ones, assumedly for hitting the North and its nuclear program hard.

Now keep in mind that, leaving its still modest but threatening nuclear arsenal aside, the conventional firepower the North Koreans have arrayed along their border with South Korea, aimed at that country’s capital, Seoul, a city of 25 million only 30 miles away, is believed to be potentially devastating.  Add to that the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in that country, most relatively close to the border, not to speak of 200,000 American civilians living there, and you undoubtedly have one of the most explosive spots on the planet.  If hostilities broke out and spiraled out of control, as they might, countless people could die, nuclear weapons could indeed be used for the first time since 1945, and parts of Asia could be ravaged (including possibly areas of Japan).  What a second Korean War might mean, in other words, is almost beyond imagining.

At the Trump-Moon Rose Garden event, the president also announced sanctions against a Chinese bank linked to North Korea and a $1.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan, both clearly meant as slaps at the Chinese leadership.  In other words, when it came to getting China's help on the Korean situation, Trump’s strategic patience, ignited in early April at his Mar-a-Lago meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, seems to have worn out, too, in mere months.

In this context, if you thought that the Trump-Scarborough-Brzezinski feud was a tinderbox, think again.  But tell me, did you even notice the Korean news?  If not, I’m hardly surprised.  On that Saturday morning, my hometown paper, the New York Times — you know, the all-the-news-that’s-fit-to-print rag of record — made “The Battle of ‘Morning Joe’: A Presidential Feud” its front page focal piece (with a carryover full page of coverage inside, including a second piece on the subject and that day’s lead editorial, “Mr. Trump, Melting Under Criticism.”)

As for the Korean story, it made the bottom of page eight (“Trump Adopts a More Aggressive Stance with U.S. Allies and Adversaries in Asia”) and didn’t even mention the president’s “strategic patience” comments until its 16th paragraph.  (There was also a page eight story on Trump’s Chinese bank sanctions and arms deal with Taiwan.)

And the Times was anything but atypical.  Under the circumstances, you might be forgiven for thinking that the greatest story in our world (and its greatest danger) now lies in the Tweet-o-sphere.  It took the first North Korean test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, carefully scheduled for July 4th, to break that country into the news in a noticeable way and even then Trump's tweets were at the center of the reportage.

Similarly, if Trump and his antics didn’t take up so much room in our present American world, it might be easier to take in so many other potential dangers on a planet where matches seem in good supply and the kindling prepared for burning. You could look to the Middle East, for example, and the quickly morphing war against ISIS, which could soon become a Trump administration-lit fire involving Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and even Russia, among other states and groups.  Or you could look to the possible future passage of some version of a Republican health care bill and the more than 200,000 preventable deaths that are likely to result from it in the coming decade.

Or you could focus on a president who has turned his back on the Paris climate agreement and is now plugging not just North American “energy independence” but full-scale“American energy dominance” on a planet on which he promises a new fossil-fueled “golden age for America.” In such an age, with such a president — if you’ll excuse the word — hogging the limelight, who’s even thinking about the estimated 1.4 billion “climate-change refugees” who could be produced by 2060 as the world’s lowlands flood?  As a comparison, the 2016 figure on “forcibly displaced people” globally that set a post-World War II record, according to the U.N. refugee agency, is 65.6 million, a staggering number that would be but a drop in the bucket in our overheating future if those 2060 figures prove even close to accurate.

A world of a Tweeter-in-Chief and “Some stirred-ip Moslems”

Donald Trump’s recent tweets do make one thing clear: we’ve been on quite an American journey over the last four decades, one that in some ways could be thought of as a voyage from Brzezinski (Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew, who just died) to Brzezinski (Mika, his daughter).

In a way, you might say that, back in 1979, Brzezinski, the father, first ushered us into a new global age of imperial conflict.  He was, after all, significantly responsible for ensuring that the U.S. would engage in a war in Afghanistan in order to give the Soviet Union its own Vietnam, or what Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would later call its “bleeding wound.”  He launched what would become a giant CIA-organized, Saudi- and Pakistani-backed program for funding, training, and arming the most fundamental of Afghan fundamentalists, and other anti-Soviet jihadists, including a young Saudi by the name of Osama bin Laden.  (President Ronald Reagan would later term those Afghan Islamist rebels “the moral equal of our Founding Fathers.”)  In doing so, Brzezinski set in motion a process that would drive an Islamic wedge deep into the heart of the Soviet Union and, after Soviet intervention in Afghanistan resulted in a disastrous decade-long war, would send the Red Army limping home in defeat, all of which would, in turn, play a role in the implosion of the Soviet Union.

On this subject, he would be forever unrepentant.  As he said in 1998, “What is most important to the history of the world?  The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire?  Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?” And as for those millions of Afghans who would end up dead, wounded, or uprooted from their homes and lives, well, really, who cared?

We are now, of course, fully in that world of “stirred-up Moslems” and, as it happens, the U.S. is still fighting a war in Afghanistan as the new administration gets ready to surgemilitarily there, perhaps for the fourth or fifth time since October 2001, and who’s even paying attention? Who could with the latest presidential tweets headlining the news and all hands on deck in Washington for the insult wars?

If, in 1978, you had predicted that, between 1979 and 2017, the U.S. would twice find itself at war (for more than a quarter of a century so far) in, of all places, Afghanistan, and with no end to its Second Afghan War in sight, any American would have laughed you out of the room.  And if you had tried to explain that, almost 40 years in the future, a billionaire president, literally a casino capitalist, would be running the White House as an adjunct to his family business and sending out bizarre messages about the daughter of Zbigniew Brzezinski, which would functionally be the news of that moment, you would surely have been institutionalized as a raving madman.  A media obsessed with the travails of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s daughter Mika at the fervently tweeting hands of President Donald J. Trump? Who woulda thunk it?

Make America great again? You must be kidding. It’s time to stop insulting pigs and focus instead on the state of our planet.

By Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).

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