If you want to know where President Donald Trump came from, if you want to trace the long winding road (or escalator) that brought him to the Oval Office, don’t look to reality TV or Twitter or even the rise of the alt-right. Look someplace far more improbable: Iraq.
Donald Trump may have been born in New York City. He may have grown to manhood amid his hometown’s real estate wars. He may have gone no further than Atlantic City, New Jersey, to casino-ize the world and create those magical golden letters that would become the essence of his brand. He may have made an even more magical leap to television without leaving home, turning “You’re fired!” into a household phrase. Still, his presidency is another matter entirely. It’s an immigrant. It arrived, fully radicalized, with its bouffant over-comb and eternal tan, from Iraq.
Despite his denials that he was ever in favor of the 2003 invasion of that country, Donald Trump is a president made by war. His elevation to the highest office in the land is inconceivable without that invasion, which began in glory and ended (if ended it ever did) in infamy. He’s the president of a land remade by war in ways its people have yet to absorb. Admittedly, he avoided war in his personal life entirely. He was, after all, a Vietnam no-show. And yet he’s the president that war brought home. Think of him not as President Blowhard but as President Blowback.
“Go Massive. Sweep It All Up”
To grasp this, a little escalator ride down memory lane is necessary ― all the way back to 9/11; to, that is, the grimmest day in our recent history. There’s no other way to recall just how gloriously it all began than amid the rubble. You could, if you wanted, choose the moment three days after the World Trade Center towers collapsed when, bullhorn in hand, President George W. Bush ascended part of that rubble pile in downtown Manhattan, put his arm around a firefighter, and shouted into a bullhorn, “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you!... And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
If I were to pick the genesis of Donald Trump’s presidency, however, I think I would choose an even earlier moment ― at a Pentagon partially in ruins thanks to hijacked American Airlines flight 77. There, only five hours after the attack, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, already aware that the destruction around him was probably Osama bin Laden’s responsibility, ordered his aides (according to notes one of them took) to begin planning for a retaliatory strike against... yes, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. His exact words: “Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.” And swept almost instantly into the giant dustbin of what would become the Global War on Terror (or GWOT), as ordered, would be something completely unrelated to 9/11 (not that the Bush administration ever admitted that). It was, however, intimately related to the deepest dreams of the men (and woman) who oversaw foreign policy in the Bush years: the elimination of Iraq’s autocratic ruler, Saddam Hussein.
Yes, there was bin Laden to deal with and the Taliban and Afghanistan, too, but that was small change, almost instantly taken care of with some air power, CIA dollars delivered to Afghan warlords, and a modest number of American troops. Within months, Afghanistan had been “liberated,” bin Laden had fled the country, the Taliban had laid down their arms, and that was that. (Who in Washington then imagined that 15 years later a new administration would be dealing with a request from the 12th U.S. military commander in that country for yet more troops to shore up a failing war there?)
Within months, in other words, the decks were clear to pursue what George W. Bush, Dick Cheney & Co. saw as their destiny, as the key to America’s future imperial glory: the taking down of the Iraqi dictator. That, as Rumsfeld indicated at the Pentagon that day, was always where they were truly focused. It was what some of them had dreamed of since the moment, in the first Gulf War of 1990-1991, when President George H.W. Bush stopped the troops short of a march on Baghdad and left Hussein, America’s former ally and later Hitlerian nemesis, in power.
The invasion of March 2003 was, they had no doubt, to be an unforgettable moment in America’s history as a global power (as it would indeed turn out to be, even if not in the way they imagined). The U.S. military that George W. Bush would call “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known” was slated to liberate Iraq via a miraculous, high-tech, shock-and-awe campaign that the world would never forget. This time, unlike in 1991, its troops would enter Baghdad, Saddam would go down in flames, and it would all happen without the help of the militaries of 28 other countries.
It would instead be an act of imperial loneliness befitting the last superpower on planet Earth. The Iraqis would, of course, greet us as liberators and we would set up a long-term garrison state in the oil heartlands of the Middle East. At the moment the invasion was launched, in fact, the Pentagon already had plans on the drawing boards for the building of four permanent U.S. mega-bases (initially endearingly labeled “enduring camps”) in Iraq on which thousands of U.S. troops could hunker down for an eternity. At the peak of the occupation, there would be more than 500 bases, ranging from tiny combat outposts to ones the size of small American towns ― many transformed after 2011 into the ghost towns of a dream gone mad until a few were recently reoccupied by U.S. troops in the battle against the Islamic State.
In the wake of the friendly occupation of now-democratic (and grateful) Iraq, the hostile Syria of the al-Assad family would naturally be between a hammer and an anvil (American-garrisoned Iraq and Israel), while the fundamentalist Iranian regime, after more than two decades of implacable anti-American hostility, would be done for. The neocon quip of that moment was: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.” Soon enough ― it was inevitable ― Washington would dominate the Greater Middle East from Pakistan to North Africa in a way no great power ever had. It would be the beginning of a Pax Americana moment on planet Earth that would stretch on for generations to come.
Such was the dream. You, of course, remember the reality, the one that led to a looted capital; Saddam’s army tossed out on the streets jobless to join the uprisings to come; a bitter set of insurgencies (Sunni and Shia); civil war (and local ethnic cleansing); a society-wide reconstruction program overseen by American warrior corporations linked to the Pentagon that resulted in vast boondoggle projects that achieved little and reconstructed nothing; prisons from hell (including Abu Ghraib) that bred yet more insurgents; and finally, years down the line, the Islamic State and the present version of American war, now taking place in Syria as well as Iraq and slated to ramp up further in the early days of the Trump era.
Meanwhile, as our new president reminded us recently in a speech to Congress, literally trillions of dollars that might have been spent on actual American security (broadly understood) were squandered on a failed military project that left this country’s infrastructure in disarray. All in all, it was quite a record. Thought of a certain way, in return for the destruction of part of the Pentagon and a section of downtown Manhattan that was turned to rubble, the U.S. would set off a series of wars, conflicts, insurgencies, and burgeoning terror movements that would transform significant parts of the Greater Middle East into failed or failing states, and their cities and towns, startling numbers of them, into so much rubble.
Once upon a time, all of this seemed so distant to Americans in a Global War on Terror in which President Bush quickly urged citizens to show their patriotism not by sacrificing or mobilizing or even joining the military, but by visiting Disney World and reestablishing patterns of pre-9/11 consumption as if nothing had happened. (“Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”) And indeed, personal consumption would rise significantly that October 2001. The other side of the glory-to-come in those years of remarkable peace in the United States was to be the passivity of a demobilized populace that (except for periodic thank-yous to its military) would have next to nothing to do with distant wars, which were to be left to the pros, even if fought to victory in their name.
That, of course, was the dream. Reality proved to be another matter entirely.
In the end, a victory-less permanent war across the Greater Middle East did indeed come home. There was all the new hardware of war ― the stingrays, the MRAPs, the drones, and so on ― that began migrating homewards, and that was the least of it. There was the militarization of America’s police forces, not to speak of the rise of the national security state to the status of an unofficial fourth branch of government. Home, too, came the post-9/11 fears, the vague but unnerving sense that somewhere in the world strange and incomprehensible aliens practicing an eerie religion were out to get us, that some of them had near-super powers that even the world’s greatest military couldn’t crush, and that their potential acts of terror were Topeka’s greatest danger. (It mattered little that actual Islamic terror was perhaps the least of the dangers Americans faced in their daily lives.)
All of this reached its crescendo (at least thus far) in Donald Trump. Think of the Trump phenomenon, in its own strange way, as the culmination of the invasion of 2003 brought home bigly. His would be a shock-and-awe election campaign in which he would “decapitate” his rivals one by one. The New York real estate, hotel, and casino magnate who had long swum comfortably in the waters of the liberal elite when he needed to and had next to nothing to do with America’s heartland would be as alien to its inhabitants as the U.S. military was to Iraqis when it invaded. And yet he would indeed launch his own invasion of that heartland on his private jet with its gold-plated bathroom fixtures, sweeping up all the fears that had been gathering in this country since 9/11 (nurtured by both politicians and national security state officials for their own benefit). And those fears would ring a bell so loud in that heartland that it would sweep him into the White House. In November 2016, he took Baghdad, USA, in high style.
In this context, let’s think for a moment about how strangely the invasion of Iraq, in some pretzeled form, blew back on America.
Like the neocons of the Bush administration, Donald Trump had long dreamed of his moment of imperial glory, and as in Afghanistan and again in Iraq in 2001 and 2003, when it arrived on November 8, 2016, it couldn’t have seemed more glorious. We know of those dreams of his because, for one thing, only six days after Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama in the 2012 election campaign, The Donald first tried to trademark the old Reagan-inspired slogan, “Make America great again.”
Like George W. and Dick Cheney, he was intent on invading and occupying the oil heartlands of the planet which, in 2003, had indeed been Iraq. By 2015-2016, however, the U.S. had entered the energy heartlands sweepstakes, thanks to fracking and other advanced methods of extracting fossil fuels that seemed to be turning the country into “Saudi America.” Add to this Trump’s plans to further fossil-fuelize the continent and you certainly have a competitor to the Middle East. In a sense, you might say, adapting his description of what he would have preferred to do in Iraq, that Donald Trump wants to “keep” our oil.
Like the U.S. military in 2003, he, too, arrived on the scene with plans to turn his country of choice into a garrison state. Almost the first words out of his mouth on riding that escalator into the presidential race in June 2015 involved a promise to protect Americans from Mexican “rapists” by building an unforgettably impregnable “great wall” on the country’s southern border. From this he never varied even when, in funding terms, it became apparent that, from the Coast Guard to airport security to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as president he would be cutting into genuine security measures to build his “big, fat, beautiful wall.”
It’s clear, however, that his urge to create a garrison state went far beyond a literal wall. It included the build-up of the U.S. military to unprecedented heights, as well as the bolstering of the regular police, and above all of the border police. Beyond that lay the urge to wall Americans off in every way possible. His fervently publicized immigration policies (less new, in reality, than they seemed) should be thought of as part of a project to construct another kind of “great wall,” a conceptual one whose message to the rest of the world was striking: You are not welcome or wanted here. Don’t come. Don’t visit.
All this was, in turn, fused at the hip to the many irrational fears that had been gathering like storm clouds for so many years, and that Trump (and his alt-right companions) swept into the already looted heartland of the country. In the process, he loosed a brand of hate (including shootings, mosque burnings, a raft of bomb threats, and a rise in hate groups, especially anti-Muslim ones) that, historically speaking, was all-American, but was nonetheless striking in its intensity in our present moment.
Combined with his highly publicized “Muslim bans” and prominently publicized acts of hate, the Trump walling-in of America quickly hit home. A drop in foreigners who wanted to visit this country was almost instantly apparent as the warning signs of a tourism “Trump slump” registered, business travel bookings took an instant $185 million hit, and the travel industry predicted worse to come.
This is evidently what “America First” actually means: a country walled off and walled in. Think of the road traveled from 2003 to 2017 as being from sole global superpower to potential super-pariah. Thought of another way, Donald Trump is giving the hubristic imperial isolation of the invasion of Iraq a new meaning here in the homeland.
And don’t forget “reconstruction,” as it was called after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In relation to the United States, the bedraggled land now in question whose infrastructure recently was given a D+ grade on a “report card” issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers, Donald Trump promises a trillion-dollar infrastructure program to rebuild America’s highways, tunnels, bridges, airports, and the like. If it actually comes about, count on one thing: it will be handed over to some of the same warrior corporations that reconstructed Iraq (and other corporate entities like them), functionally guaranteeing an American version of the budget-draining boondoggle that was Iraq.
As with that invasion in the spring of 2003, in 2017 we are still in the (relative) sunshine days of the Trump era. But as in Iraq, so here 14 years later, the first cracks are already appearing, as this country grows increasingly riven. (Think Sunni vs. Shia.)
And one more thing as you consider the future: the blowback wars out of which Donald Trump and the present fear-gripped garrison state of America arose have never ended. In fact, just as under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, so under Donald Trump, it seems they never will. Already the Trump administration is revving up American military power in Yemen, Syria, and potentially Afghanistan. So whatever the blowback may have been, you’ve only seen its beginning. It’s bound to last for years to come.
There’s just one phrase that could adequately sum all this up: Mission accomplished!
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.