NAPLES, Italy - You can still get to Sesame Street from here and just about everywhere else in spite of Donald Trump’s attempt to wall it off. So as Big Bird might have it, this dispatch about countless global crises is brought to you by the letter “I.”
Put aside 25 other letters in the alphabet and consider only what is happening behind that single capitalized vowel.
Iran, Iraq and Israel are at risk of accidental Armageddon. India’s demagogic Hindu nationalist leader plays chicken with Pakistan. Indonesia faces climate calamities and Islamist zealotry. Iceland, warming fast, may soon be Rockland. Ireland now has a border to protect.
And here in the heart of an Atlantic Alliance that just commemorated victory over Nazis and Fascists 75 years ago, easy-going Italy is making a sharp right turn. Matteo Salvini, vice premier, is gaining popularity fast by blaming Italian woes on migrants and liberals.
This is no time for America to obsess about itself. Yet the pronoun, “I,” and its inseparable partner, “me,” define thinking today in the White House, the Senate and among much of an apathetic electorate. A cohesive worldview has sunk into whatever.
I often liken Trump to Mussolini, but even many Italians who fear a return to fascism say that is unfair to Il Duce. He was no fool, they argue. When he put Italy first it was more than an excuse to bilk the poor and fatten up the rich. Nonetheless, he ended up hanged by his heels.
Viewed from Europe, Trump seems more like a Charlie Chaplin caricature of Hitler, a puffed-up martinet enraptured with himself. But unlike Hollywood’s Little Dictator, Trump has the means to trigger unstoppable conflicts and thwart global efforts to keep Earth habitable.
It is too early to worry much about Italy, with its entrenched family values and uncanny ability to get through just about anything as long as the coffee and grappa hold out. Those I-states in the Middle East are the real threat.
Before Trump rattles any more missiles, he needs a ten-minute briefing on what happened the last time someone invaded Iran – and on how Iran’s 27-century-deep Persian roots underlie a sophisticated society that belies stereotypes about extremist ayatollahs.
Even if John Bolton’s usual chest-bumping doesn’t ignite war, it solidifies hardline leaders. Crippling sanctions on a complex nation of 81 million only embitter moderate and Western-oriented Iranians eager to reconnect with the wider world.
Sanctions mean Iran has fewer funds to underwrite proxy guerrilla armies, but deepening hatreds increase their fervor. Low-cost weaponry and simple terror devices can take a heavy toll.
The “horrible Iran deal” that Trump excoriates was hard-won progress, linking the United States, Western Europe, Russian and China in joint diplomacy to pull Iran back from a headlong rush toward a nuclear arsenal.
Trump’s reaction is likely because Hillary Clinton was instrumental in negotiating the deal. It allows for de-escalation without unenforceable ultimatums. Sending troops that could spark hostilities is among the dumbest moves of an administration that excels at dumb moves.
In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini routed the Shah, who took power in 1953 after American and British agents engineered a coup against a popular prime minister who nationalized Iran’s oil. Saddam Hussein seized on the revolutionary upheaval to storm across the border.
For eight years, despite increasing American, Soviet and French military aid to Saddam, Iran fought Iraq to a standstill. Human waves of Koran-clutching volunteers faced air assaults and heavy artillery. The death toll among combatants and civilians soared above a half million.
The war cost Iraq $687 billion. Iran’s naval blockade, missile attacks and air strikes all but paralyzed shipping in the region. More than 500 commercial ships suffered damage. When it ended, Iran spent billions arming for any subsequent future threat.
And now Trump, clueless, tweets: “If Iran wants a fight, it’s the official end of Iran.” As with North Korea, his unhinged non-policy of alternating sticks with carrots has turned slow, steady diplomacy into a high-stakes game of liars’ poker.
The world is moving on. While Trump invented cheering crowds in a Britain that largely reviles him, then avoided the gaze of Normandy war heroes, Vladimir Putin embraced Xi Jinping in Beijing. After wary coexistence, they are bosom buddies with a common nemesis.
In Italy, as elsewhere, people ask how Trump gets away with what Robert Mueller made blindingly clear. How can he obstruct justice, condone Russian meddling, overstep authority, weasel out of taxes and promote personal interests? The answer is easy: no one stops him.
And that takes us back to Sesame Street. It’s not about money. The cost to taxpayers is chump change for a president who has squandered $106 million on golf holidays. He knows that the writers make young people think, and Big Bird is onto him.
In the 1980s, the show savaged Ronald Grump, who bulldozed a neighborhood to build a Grump Tower and yelled at evicted residents who protested. In 2005, Oscar the Grouch, who lives in a garbage can, lauded Donald Grump for having the most trash in the world.
When Trump targeted Sesame Street in 2017, Jimmy Kimmel responded in a monologue: “That show teaches so many things he needs to know: which thing is bigger than the other, how to spell, the importance of telling the truth and sharing, listening to others. Maybe throw in some ‘Schoolhouse Rock!’ He could find out how government works.”
Plenty of i-words apply to America’s man who would be king, including apt if uncharitable adjectives that start with “ig” or “im.” One reflects a distressing reality: incumbent. But there is also that keyword, which looms larger by the day: impeach.