There can be no question about it. Donald Trump is Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts. “Off with his head!” was the president’s essential suggestion for — to offer just one example — a certain whistleblower who fingered him on that now notorious Ukrainian phone call. And if The Donald hasn’t also been playing the roles of White Rabbit, Mad Hatter, and other characters from Carroll’s classic nineteenth century children’s book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, then tell me what he’s been doing these last years.
Unfortunately, in attempting to explain the Trumpian world we’ve been plunged into, I’m not Lewis Carroll. If only I were! Still, I realized recently that, like Alice, I had gone down the proverbial rabbit hole and was still falling, falling as if into a deep, deep well or through the very center of the Earth. Now Alice, if you remember, first had to follow a White Rabbit with pink eyes who rushed by wearing a waistcoat, suddenly pulled a watch from its pocket, and said to itself, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” It then disappeared down that memorably large rabbit hole by a riverbank near her house in nineteenth-century England.
Willingly or not, I — and here, I suspect, I speak for most of the rest of us, too — had little choice, given election 2016, but to follow our own rabbit down a twenty-first-century version of that rabbit hole. It goes without saying that our rabbit, that famed impresario of (un)reality TV shows, was distinctly a white rabbit, too. (After all, he would be the first to assure you that he’s no “Mexican rapist,” nor a compatriot of the recently dead Congressman Elijah Cummings whom he labeled a “brutal bully” representing a “rat and rodent infested” district of Baltimore.)
In his own twitchy fashion, the president recently refused to throw out the first pitch at a World Series game in Washington, D.C., because he knew that the Secret Service would dress him up in “a lot of heavy armor” and he would, as he put it, “look too heavy.” In other words, he rejected his own armored version of a waistcoat, a Kevlar vest, because it might, he felt, make him seem fat. This sort of thing, now our everyday reality, even Lewis Carroll might have had trouble inventing. And if any of this seems petty to you, keep in mind that never in our history has there been a pettier or more self-absorbed president. (On his introduction at that baseball game, by the way, he was greeted with a chorus of boos and — a first — chants of “Lock him up!”)
For those of you who remember Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with its classic John Tenniel illustrations, here’s one image that, I think, captures our Trumpian moment. Alice, already in Wonderland, finds herself in a room with a door too little to exit through. (It seems to me that, since 2016, all of us have found ourselves in just such a room — updated to include an @realDonaldTrump Twitter account — with no exit in sight.) On a small table, she suddenly notices a tiny bottle, “which certainly was not here before.” As Carroll describes it, “Round the neck of the bottle was a paper label with the words ‘DRINK ME’ beautifully printed on it in large letters.”
After carefully checking to make sure it wasn’t marked “poison,” Alice sipped the liquid in that bottle. It had, she reported, a “mixed flavor of cherry-tart, custard, pineapple, roast turkey, toffy, and hot buttered-toast.” As she drank it, Alice found herself shrinking until she was 10 inches tall, just the size for that little door. She would later grow giant indeed in a world in which nothing seemed to remain expectably normal-sized.
Whatever we Americans may think, including the 30% percent or more of us who make up Donald Trump’s ever-loyal base, it seems to me that we’ve all shrunk quite a bit in the years since he entered the Oval Office, even as he’s grown, in his own strange way, to gigantic proportions, Kevlar vest or no. Through no fault of their own, in the last election season, many of those who would become part of that base were already far down a rabbit hole of inequality and feeling an increasing sense of hopelessness. No wonder that, recognizing a Queen of Hearts on their TV sets ready to insult the surrounding world of political propriety (“Low-energy Jeb,” “Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “Crooked Hillary“), they decided he would be the perfect messenger to give the finger to a Washington that had betrayed them.
Were he ever to enter the White House, they assumed, he might indeed take off the heads of some of those who had helped put them in such a spot. Since they undoubtedly had few illusions about just what sort of figure they were voting into the highest office in the land, they had no reason to reject or desert him almost three years later (though admittedly his administration and a Republican Congress have only increased inequality in this country). Today, with Donald Trump in Blunderland and themselves still falling, falling, they remain remarkably loyal to, and anything but disillusioned with, their very own Queen of Hearts.
The Donald’s Truest Moment in Blunderland
Now, consider for a moment just how wondrous (in a sense) all this has been. I mean, who, not in Blunderland, could ever have imagined that a bankrupted casino magnate and reality TV host might essentially — like his lawyer recently — butt-dial us all into a new form of (un)reality? Who could have imagined a world in which every camera would be focused on him and him alone, its red light seemingly always on? Who could have imagined that any bizarre thought our very own Queen of Hearts had or bit of braggadocio he tweeted or uttered (“[ISIS uses] the internet better than almost anybody in the world, perhaps other than Donald Trump”) would be the news of that day? Who could have imagined that, no matter how he insulted them, the “fake news media” would focus on him and him alone, assigning reporters to cover him in hordes that had been inconceivable in the pre-rabbit-hole history of journalism? In other words, in media terms, whatever Donald Trump drank, it made him far bigger than anything else on this planet.
And honestly, each day, when you tumble down that rabbit hole yet again, it hardly matters whether you’re heading there via CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News. What once would have been known as the politics of it all is now, in many ways, beside the point in what I once termed the White Ford Bronco presidency (in honor of the car O.J. Simpson drove down a California highway in a long-gone moment of no significance that was nonetheless blanketed by the TV news and watched by a nation).
Still, give Lewis Carroll the credit he deserves for grasping something of our twenty-first-century American fate so long ago. After all, his book ends on what might be thought of as the Wonderland version of an impeachment trial. There, the blustering Queen and King of Hearts are eternally eager for the heads of everyone, while the jurors — small animals, birds, and a lizard — desperately try to write down ridiculously irrelevant “evidence,” and Alice suddenly begins to grow ever larger as she watches the spectacle.
Much as it may anger Donald Trump, impeachment will be his truest moment in Blunderland, the one in which the focus on him will only become more extreme (“Drink this!”). In fact, count on it growing to proportions never before imagined on this planet. All of us will, by then, have drunk that potion and, despite what Carroll imagined in balmier times, it has indeed proven a kind of poison. The question, of course, is: Will the rest of us ever reach the book-ending moment in which all the characters in Wonderland, having turned back into so many playing cards, rise up “into the air” and come “flying down upon” Alice? As she beats them off, she suddenly awakens on that riverbank near her house, “her head in the lap of her sister, who was gently brushing away some dead leaves that had fluttered down from the trees upon her face.”
Will we someday wake up, too, and discover that our version of Wonderland, The Donald’s Blunderland, was all a kind of strange dream? Or in our time, in our world, might waking on that riverbank no longer be possible?
The New Hostage Crisis
In his acts, statements, and tweets, in his very essence, Donald Trump is the living version of a mixed metaphor. So it seems appropriate enough here to desert Wonderland and Blunderland momentarily for another set of images from our past.
Who, of a certain age, doesn’t remember November 4, 1979? That day, a group of Iranian student militants seized the American embassy in Tehran. They were protesting the arrival in the U.S. of the Shah, the ruler Washington had installed in power in their country via a CIA-British intelligence coup that overthrew a democratic government there in 1953. Only months before, the Shah had fled his country in the face of an uprising inspired by a fundamentalist cleric.
Those Iranian students took the diplomats and employees in that embassy hostage and held most of them under harsh conditions for 444 (highly televised) days, despite a failed American military attempt to rescue them. As anyone who lived through that time will remember, the hostage crisis proved decisive in domestic politics, undoubtedly costing Jimmy Carter reelection as president and putting Ronald Reagan in the White House in his place. (Curiously enough, the students finally freed their hostages on the day of Reagan’s inauguration.)
That more-than-year-long saga represented an early, far more minor version of the Trumpian media madness that grips us today. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to suggest — here comes that non-Wonderland mixed metaphor I promised you — that we are now in the midst of a new hostage crisis. Yes, 40 Novembers later, it’s happening again, only here. With the help of that “fake news media” of his, Donald Trump, a very different kind of fundamentalist, has taken us all hostage. And more than 1,000 days into his presidency, there seems little sign of rescue in sight.
Like those diplomats of long ago, we are all in some fashion blindfolded and somewhere in the distance we can, like them, hear the jeering crowds or perhaps, in our case, it’s just the jeering of our self-promotional president.
Yes, we are now, all of us, hostages in a country spiraling who knows where. To take another brief step back (though perspective on any of this couldn’t be harder to get), Donald Trump isn’t so much the cause of our present dilemma as the symptom and bizarre personification of it — of, that is, the sudden and precipitous decline of the American imperium at home and abroad.
It’s hard to wrap one’s head around all of this, in part because the very words “empire” and “imperial” aren’t in the American lexicon, not when applied to us anyway. And that’s too bad because they might give us a little perspective on the Blunderland we find ourselves in and how we got here.
Unfortunately, in the wake of the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, this country’s leaders, who took such pride in presiding over the only indispensable superpower on Planet Earth, managed to lead us into hell (a hell that is now Donald Trump). After years of the growth of devastating inequality here and failed wars in distant lands, that unparalleled imperial power is now in deep trouble. And don’t blame The Donald for that. As he’s pointed out before, he didn’t order the invasion of Afghanistan or Iraq in the wake of 9/11. He wasn’t the one who pursued what really should be known (from the spread of terrorist groups in this period) as the American war not “on” but “for” terror.
Perhaps it’s time for us to pick up that other little bottle on Alice’s table, the one that says “failing empire: drink this.” Because 40 years after that first hostage crisis (which itself was a crisis of empire gone awry), we are all hostages to the blunderer who would never have been in the White House if it weren’t for a country that had already auctioned off its political system to the highest bidders and its government to the national security state. You know, what Donald Trump likes to denounce as the “deep state” (though its thinking couldn’t be more shallow). And here’s the irony: much as he decries it, he still can’t help feeding it ever more taxpayer dollars galore.
Welcome, in other words, to Blunderland, a country already at the edge of oligarchy with a feel of autocracy to it. Consider it an irony of the worst sort that the United States, founded in response to a Mad King George and his empire, is now itself an empire on a downward spiral, whose populace is mesmerized by, distracted by a Mad King Donald. After so many endless centuries of imperial struggle on a planet heading into a crisis of pyromania unlike any we humans have ever experienced, perhaps what we need is our own Lewis Carroll to record it all.
Now, drink this!
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 runs TomDispatch.com and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.
Originally published in TomDispatch
Copyright 2019 Tom Engelhardt