TUCSON — While America's uncouth and unclothed emperor-wannabe fantasized about how he would rush unarmed at a homicidal shooter, China placed imperial robes on Xi Jinping. He is now the world's de facto chairman-for-life.
Vladimir Putin, meantime, flips America the finger. He is helping Bashar al-Assad rain death on women and children. Pleased to see useful idiots in the White House and Congress, he doubles down on skewing elections.
North Korea, undeterred by empty threats, is shipping chemical-weapon components to Syria, U.N. investigators report. For other crises percolating toward long-term calamity, spin a globe and point pretty much anywhere.
Hans Christian Anderson's beloved tale, “The Emperor Has No Clothes,” seems apt for the moment. But more, think Lewis Carroll. America today is loonier than anything he imagined down Alice's rabbit hole.
As the nation recoils in shock from the Florida school massacre, a tone-deaf Donald Trump dined with the devil. He emerged from lunch with NRA leaders to tell us not to worry: “They are on our side.”
You can't make this shit up.
Jared Kushner, Trump's point man on vital foreign affairs, lost his top-secret clearance. He posed with Benjamin Netanyahu, saying America has never been so close to Israel, as the hard-line prime minister is charged with massive corruption.
Donald, Jr., flits about the world cutting shady deals to shore up the family's holdings. Robert Mueller's bloodhounds sniff outside the Oval Office. Rather than help them seek truth, Trump's response is, “No collusion.” It is all about him.
Hope Hicks resigned as communications director after saying she told white lies for the president. Stephen Colbert jumped on that: “Telling lies to white people is what got Trump elected.” Now, he added, the administration is truly hopeless.
The list is long, but China towers above it all. I am no expert on the opaque Middle Kingdom, and neither is anyone with clout in the Trump Administration. I listen to colleagues who have covered Beijing over the decades.
James Pringle, for instance, says nothing can now stop Xi's control of the South China Sea through which $5 trillion in trade transit each year. He sees in Xi a better-packaged Mao Zedong, and he fears a more sophisticated resurgence of the dreaded Red Guards.
Mao could sound reasonable. Remember, “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend”? Or, “Women hold up half the sky”? But don't forget the big one: “Political power comes out of the barrel of the gun.”
“'Emperor' Xi must be laughing up his sleeve,” Pringle wrote to friends. “He has said what he will do, but people don't want to believe him…Islands to the south of China will all belong to Xi and his cronies and, before we know it, American ships will not be allowed to get past on danger of attack. One waits to see what the Japanese will do. It will come slowly but the kindling for a new war is there. Probably Japan is on the way to nuclear weapons.”
In 1971, Pringle replaced a Reuters correspondent who spent more than two years under house arrest. “During the height of the Cultural Revolution,” he wrote in a 2009 New York Times op-ed, “Red Guards had broken into his home, pinioned his arms behind him, and strangled his pet kitten inches from his eyes.”
During the 1989 uprising at Tiananmen Square, Pringle found Deng Xiaoping eager to let the world know what to expect from violent protests.
“Deng said that to get rich was glorious,” he wrote. “But what happens when dreams of wealth stagnate? For a Communist Party that brought China the famine of the Great Leap Forward, the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and the brutal suppression of 1989, providing a decent life for the ordinary people of China has become essential. Without it, a regime that has so often discredited itself will lose the mandate of heaven.”
Xi has taken China out of poverty. Big time. Everyone on the Forbes 400 for China is a billionaire. A real estate magnate is worth $42.5 billion, and Jack Ma of Alibaba is closing in fast. Life is hard at the bottom, but enough wealth trickles down to mollify the masses. Expect no revolution.
China is working on a hypersonic jet that reaches Mach 7 — 5,371 miles an hour. That could carry passengers, or worse, from Beijing to New York in two hours. It pushes every area, from artificial intelligence to the ocean floor to deep space.
Despite all of China's advances, Pringle told me in an email, echoes from the past are unmistakable. Xi is now called Lingxiu — Leader — an honorific not used since Mao. His portrait is displayed in Beijing where Mao's used to be.
“Unbelievably,” he concluded, “it is all starting again, not just about to start — but already started.”
Meanwhile, back in America, a sizeable percentage of voters seem not to notice, or care, and believe that plainly observable facts are propaganda to discredit America's greatest president since Lincoln, who is already running for reelection.
Two weeks after the Parkland massacre, newscasts focus on little else. Trump's 2016 campaign received more than $30 million from the NRA. His hardcore resists even minimum age limits for buying weapons of mass murder.
And so Trump reminisces aloud about the good old days when if you thought someone might be a deranged threat to society you just lock him away in a mental institution. If he read, he would recognize that as a favorite ploy in the Soviet Union.
Our American rabbit hole is eerie beyond description. But small vignettes suggest how badly our society is now skewed.
The other day at Walgreens, I asked a cashier about large warning signs over the cigarette rack. Anyone under 40 is asked for ID. If he sells to anyone under 18, he told me, the store is heavily fined; he is fired and might even end up in prison.
He wouldn't go to jail. But he was scared, nonetheless. A state bill raising the age limit to 21 — even for e-cigarettes, failed last year, but some towns have done that on their own. Tobacco kills. It is far easier to buy a military-grade arsenal.
Obsessed with ourselves, we ignore real danger until it looms into our line of sight. Then we can only adapt to fait accompli. If we can't do better than a draft-dodger president with hero fantasies, we should probably start learning Chinese.