'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
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Wednesday, November 16, 2016
Trump in the White House: An Interview With Noam Chomsky // Tom Engelhardt - Empire of Chaos: Is the American Experiment Over?
What does Trump's
victory mean, and what can one expect from this megalomaniac when he takes over
the reins of power on January 20, 2017? What is Trump's political ideology, if
any, and is "Trumpism" a movement? Will US foreign policy be any
different under a Trump administration?
Some years ago, public
intellectual Noam Chomsky warned that the political climate in the US was ripe
for the rise of an authoritarian figure. Now, he shares his thoughts on the
aftermath of this election, the moribund state of the US political system and
why Trump is a real threat to the world and the planet in general.
for Truthout: Noam, the unthinkable has happened: In contrast to all forecasts,
Donald Trump scored a decisive victory over Hillary Clinton, and the man that
Michael Moore described as a "wretched, ignorant, dangerous part-time
clown and full-time sociopath" will be the next president of the United
States. In your view, what were the deciding factors that led American voters
to produce the biggest upset in the history of US politics?
Noam Chomsky: Before turning to this question, I think it is
important to spend a few moments pondering just what happened on November 8, a
date that might turn out to be one of the most important in human history,
depending on how we react. No exaggeration.
The most important
news of November 8 was barely noted, a fact of some significance in itself.
On November 8, the
World Meteorological Organization (WMO) delivered a report at the international
conference on climate change in Morocco (COP22) which was called in order to
carry forward the Paris agreement of COP21. The WMO reported that the past five
years were the hottest on record. It reported rising sea levels, soon to
increase as a result of the unexpectedly rapid melting of polar ice, most
ominously the huge Antarctic glaciers. Already, Arctic sea ice over the past
five years is 28 percent below the average of the previous 29 years, not only
raising sea levels, but also reducing the cooling effect of polar ice
reflection of solar rays, thereby accelerating the grim effects of global
warming. The WMO reported further that temperatures are approaching dangerously
close to the goal established by COP21, along with other dire reports and
Another event took
place on November 8, which also may turn out to be of unusual historical
significance for reasons that, once again, were barely noted. On November 8, the
most powerful country in world history, which will set its stamp on what comes
next, had an election. The outcome placed total control of the government --
executive, Congress, the Supreme Court -- in the hands of the Republican Party,
which has become the most dangerous organization in world history.
Apart from the last
phrase, all of this is uncontroversial. The last phrase may seem outlandish,
even outrageous. But is it? The facts suggest otherwise. The Party is dedicated
to racing as rapidly as possible to destruction of organized human life. There
is no historical precedent for such a stand.
Is this an
exaggeration? Consider what we have just been witnessing.
During the Republican
primaries, every candidate denied that what is happening is happening -- with
the exception of the sensible moderates, like Jeb Bush, who said it's all
uncertain, but we don't have to do anything because we're producing more
natural gas, thanks to fracking. Or John Kasich, who agreed that global warming
is taking place, but added that "we are going to burn [coal] in Ohio and
we are not going to apologize for it."
The winning candidate,
now the president-elect, calls for rapid increase in use of fossil fuels,
including coal; dismantling of regulations; rejection of help to developing
countries that are seeking to move to sustainable energy; and in general,
racing to the cliff as fast as possible.
Trump has already taken
steps to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by placing in
charge of the EPA transition a notorious (and proud) climate change denier,
Myron Ebell. Trump's top adviser on energy, billionaire oil executive Harold
Hamm, announced his expectations, which were predictable: dismantling
regulations, tax cuts for the industry (and the wealthy and corporate sector
generally), more fossil fuel production, lifting Obama's temporary block on the
Dakota Access pipeline. The market reacted quickly. Shares in energy
corporations boomed, including the world's largest coal miner, Peabody Energy,
which had filed for bankruptcy, but after Trump's victory, registered a 50
The effects of
Republican denialism had already been felt. There had been hopes that the COP21
Paris agreement would lead to a verifiable treaty, but any such thoughts were
abandoned because the Republican Congress would not accept any binding
commitments, so what emerged was a voluntary agreement, evidently much weaker.
Effects may soon
become even more vividly apparent than they already are. In Bangladesh alone,
tens of millions are expected to have to flee from low-lying plains in coming
years because of sea level rise and more severe weather, creating a migrant
crisis that will make today's pale in significance. With considerable justice,
Bangladesh's leading climate scientist says that "These migrants should
have the right to move to the countries from which all these greenhouse gases
are coming. Millions should be able to go to the United States." And to
the other rich countries that have grown wealthy while bringing about a new
geological era, the Anthropocene, marked by radical human transformation of the
environment. These catastrophic consequences can only increase, not just in
Bangladesh, but in all of South Asia as temperatures, already intolerable for
the poor, inexorably rise and the Himalayan glaciers melt, threatening the
entire water supply. Already in India, some 300 million people are reported to
lack adequate drinking water. And the effects will reach far beyond.
It is hard to find
words to capture the fact that humans are facing the most important question in
their history -- whether organized human life will survive in anything like the
form we know -- and are answering it by accelerating the race to disaster. Similar observations
hold for the other huge issue concerning human survival: the threat of nuclear
destruction, which has been looming over our heads for 70 years and is now
increasing. It is no less
difficult to find words to capture the utterly astonishing fact that in all of
the massive coverage of the electoral extravaganza, none of this receives more
than passing mention. At least I am at a loss to find appropriate words.
Turning finally to the
question raised, to be precise, it appears that Clinton received a slight
majority of the vote. The apparent decisive victory has to do with curious
features of American politics: among other factors, the Electoral College
residue of the founding of the country as an alliance of separate states; the
winner-take-all system in each state; the arrangement of congressional
districts (sometimes by gerrymandering) to provide greater weight to rural
votes (in past elections, and probably this one too, Democrats have had a
comfortable margin of victory in the popular vote for the House, but hold a
minority of seats); the very high rate of abstention (usually close to half in
presidential elections, this one included). Of some significance for the future
is the fact that in the age 18-25 range, Clinton won handily, and Sanders had
an even higher level of support. How much this matters depends on what kind of
future humanity will face.
According to current
information, Trump broke all records in the support he received from white
voters, working class and lower middle class, particularly in the $50,000 to
$90,000 income range, rural and suburban, primarily those without college
education. These groups share the anger throughout the West at the centrist
establishment, revealed as well in the unanticipated Brexit vote and the collapse
of centrist parties in continental Europe. [Many of] the angry and disaffected
are victims of the neoliberal policies of the past generation, the policies
described in congressional testimony by Fed chair Alan Greenspan -- "St.
Alan," as he was called reverentially by the economics profession and
other admirers until the miraculous economy he was supervising crashed in
2007-2008, threatening to bring the whole world economy down with it. As
Greenspan explained during his glory days, his successes in economic management
were based substantially on "growing worker insecurity." Intimidated
working people would not ask for higher wages, benefits and security, but would
be satisfied with the stagnating wages and reduced benefits that signal a healthy
economy by neoliberal standards.
Working people, who
have been the subjects of these experiments in economic theory, are not
particularly happy about the outcome. They are not, for example, overjoyed at
the fact that in 2007, at the peak of the neoliberal miracle, real wages for
nonsupervisory workers were lower than they had been years earlier, or that
real wages for male workers are about at 1960s levels while spectacular gains
have gone to the pockets of a very few at the top, disproportionately a
fraction of 1%. Not the result of market forces, achievement or merit, but
rather of definite policy decisions, matters reviewed carefully by economist
Dean Baker in recently published work.
The fate of the
minimum wage illustrates what has been happening. Through the periods of high
and egalitarian growth in the '50s and '60s, the minimum wage -- which sets a
floor for other wages -- tracked productivity. That ended with the onset of
neoliberal doctrine. Since then, the minimum wage has stagnated (in real
value). Had it continued as before, it would probably be close to $20 per hour.
Today, it is considered a political revolution to raise it to $15.
With all the talk of
near-full employment today, labor force participation remains below the earlier
norm. And for working people, there is a great difference between a steady job
in manufacturing with union wages and benefits, as in earlier years, and a
temporary job with little security in some service profession. Apart from
wages, benefits and security, there is a loss of dignity, of hope for the
future, of a sense that this is a world in which I belong and play a worthwhile
The impact is captured
well in Arlie Hochschild's sensitive and illuminating portrayal of a
Trump stronghold in Louisiana, where she lived and worked for many years.
She uses the image of a line in which residents are standing, expecting to move
forward steadily as they work hard and keep to all the conventional values. But
their position in the line has stalled. Ahead of them, they see people leaping
forward, but that does not cause much distress, because it is "the
American way" for (alleged) merit to be rewarded. What does cause real
distress is what is happening behind them. They believe that "undeserving
people" who do not "follow the rules" are being moved in front
of them by federal government programs they erroneously see as designed to
benefit African-Americans, immigrants and others they often regard with
contempt. All of this is exacerbated by [Ronald] Reagan's racist fabrications
about "welfare queens" (by implication Black) stealing white people's
hard-earned money and other fantasies.
Sometimes failure to
explain, itself a form of contempt, plays a role in fostering hatred of
government. I once met a house painter in Boston who had turned bitterly
against the "evil" government after a Washington bureaucrat who knew
nothing about painting organized a meeting of painting contractors to inform
them that they could no longer use lead paint -- "the only kind that
works" -- as they all knew, but the suit didn't understand. That destroyed
his small business, compelling him to paint houses on his own with substandard
stuff forced on him by government elites.
Sometimes there are
also some real reasons for these attitudes toward government bureaucracies.
Hochschild describes a man whose family and friends are suffering bitterly from
the lethal effects of chemical pollution but who despises the government and
the "liberal elites," because for him, the EPA means some ignorant
guy who tells him he can't fish, but does nothing about the chemical plants. These are just samples
of the real lives of Trump supporters, who are led to believe that Trump will
do something to remedy their plight, though the merest look at his fiscal and
other proposals demonstrates the opposite -- posing a task for activists who
hope to fend off the worst and to advance desperately needed changes.
Exit polls reveal that
the passionate support for Trump was inspired primarily by the belief that he
represented change, while Clinton was perceived as the candidate who would
perpetuate their distress. The "change" that Trump is likely to bring
will be harmful or worse, but it is understandable that the consequences are
not clear to isolated people in an atomized society lacking the kinds of
associations (like unions) that can educate and organize. That is a crucial
difference between today's despair and the generally hopeful attitudes of many
working people under much greater economic duress during the Great Depression
of the 1930s.
There are other
factors in Trump's success. Comparative studies show that doctrines of white
supremacy have had an even more powerful grip on American culture than in South
Africa, and it's no secret that the white population is declining. In a decade
or two, whites are projected to be a minority of the work force, and not too
much later, a minority of the population. The traditional conservative culture
is also perceived as under attack by the successes of identity politics,
regarded as the province of elites who have only contempt for the
''hard-working, patriotic, church-going [white] Americans with real family
values'' who see their familiar country as disappearing before their eyes.
One of the
difficulties in raising public concern over the very severe threats of global
warming is that 40 percent of the US population does not see why it is a
problem, since Christ is returning in a few decades. About the same percentage
believe that the world was created a few thousand years ago. If science
conflicts with the Bible, so much the worse for science. It would be hard to
find an analogue in other societies.
The Democratic Party
abandoned any real concern for working people by the 1970s, and they have
therefore been drawn to the ranks of their bitter class enemies, who at least
pretend to speak their language -- Reagan's folksy style of making little jokes
while eating jelly beans, George W. Bush's carefully cultivated image of a
regular guy you could meet in a bar who loved to cut brush on the ranch in
100-degree heat and his probably faked mispronunciations (it's unlikely that he
talked like that at Yale), and now Trump, who gives voice to people with
legitimate grievances -- people who have lost not just jobs, but also a sense
of personal self-worth -- and who rails against the government that they
perceive as having undermined their lives (not without reason).
One of the great
achievements of the doctrinal system has been to divert anger from the
corporate sector to the government that implements the programs that the
corporate sector designs, such as the highly protectionist corporate/investor
rights agreements that are uniformly mis-described as "free trade
agreements" in the media and commentary. With all its flaws, the
government is, to some extent, under popular influence and control, unlike the
corporate sector. It is highly advantageous for the business world to foster
hatred for pointy-headed government bureaucrats and to drive out of people's
minds the subversive idea that the government might become an instrument of
popular will, a government of, by and for the people.
representing a new movement in American politics, or was the outcome of this
election primarily a rejection of Hillary Clinton by voters who hate the
Clintons and are fed-up with "politics as usual?"
It's by no means new.
Both political parties have moved to the right during the neoliberal period.
Today's New Democrats are pretty much what used to be called "moderate
Republicans." The "political revolution" that Bernie Sanders
called for, rightly, would not have greatly surprised Dwight Eisenhower. The
Republicans have moved so far toward a dedication to the wealthy and the
corporate sector that they cannot hope to get votes on their actual programs,
and have turned to mobilizing sectors of the population that have always been
there, but not as an organized coalitional political force: evangelicals,
nativists, racists and the victims of the forms of globalization designed to
set working people around the world in competition with one another while
protecting the privileged and undermining the legal and other measures that
provided working people with some protection, and with ways to influence
decision-making in the closely linked public and private sectors, notably with
effective labor unions.
The consequences have
been evident in recent Republican primaries. Every candidate that has emerged
from the base -- such as [Michele] Bachmann, [Herman] Cain or [Rick] Santorum
-- has been so extreme that the Republican establishment had to use its ample
resources to beat them down. The difference in 2016 is that the establishment
failed, much to its chagrin, as we have seen.
Deservedly or not,
Clinton represented the policies that were feared and hated, while Trump was
seen as the symbol of "change" -- change of what kind requires a
careful look at his actual proposals, something largely missing in what reached
the public. The campaign itself was remarkable in its avoidance of issues, and
media commentary generally complied, keeping to the concept that true
"objectivity" means reporting accurately what is "within the
beltway," but not venturing beyond.
following the outcome of the election that he "will represent all
Americans." How is he going to do that when the nation is so divided and
he has already expressed deep hatred for many groups in the United States,
including women and minorities? Do you see any resemblance between Brexit and
Donald Trump's victory?
There are definite
similarities to Brexit, and also to the rise of the ultranationalist far-right
parties in Europe -- whose leaders were quick to congratulate Trump on his victory,
perceiving him as one of their own: [Nigel] Farage, [Marine] Le Pen, [Viktor]
Orban and others like them. And these developments are quite frightening. A
look at the polls in Austria and Germany -- Austria and Germany --
cannot fail to evoke unpleasant memories for those familiar with the 1930s,
even more so for those who watched directly, as I did as a child. I can still
recall listening to Hitler's speeches, not understanding the words, though the
tone and audience reaction were chilling enough. The first article that I
remember writing was in February 1939, after the fall of Barcelona, on the
seemingly inexorable spread of the fascist plague. And by strange coincidence,
it was from Barcelona that my wife and I watched the results of the 2016 US
presidential election unfold.
As to how Trump will
handle what he has brought forth -- not created, but brought forth -- we cannot
say. Perhaps his most striking characteristic is unpredictability. A lot will
depend on the reactions of those appalled by his performance and the visions he
has projected, such as they are.
Trump has no
identifiable political ideology guiding his stance on economic, social and
political issues, yet there are clear authoritarian tendencies in his behavior.
Therefore, do you find any validity behind the claims that Trump may represent
the emergence of "fascism with a friendly face?" in the United
For many years, I have
been writing and speaking about the danger of the rise of an honest and
charismatic ideologue in the United States, someone who could exploit the fear
and anger that has long been boiling in much of the society, and who could
direct it away from the actual agents of malaise to vulnerable targets. That
could indeed lead to what sociologist Bertram Gross called "friendly
fascism" in a perceptive study 35 years ago. But that requires an honest
ideologue, a Hitler type, not someone whose only detectable ideology is Me. The
dangers, however, have been real for many years, perhaps even more so in the
light of the forces that Trump has unleashed.
Republicans in the White House, but also controlling both houses and the future
shape of the Supreme Court, what will the US look like for at least the next
A good deal depends on
his appointments and circle of advisers. Early indications are unattractive, to
put it mildly. The Supreme Court will
be in the hands of reactionaries for many years, with predictable consequences.
If Trump follows through on his Paul Ryan-style fiscal programs, there will be
huge benefits for the very rich -- estimated by the Tax Policy Center as a tax
cut of over 14 percent for the top 0.1 percent and a substantial cut more
generally at the upper end of the income scale, but with virtually no tax
relief for others, who will also face major new burdens. The respected
economics correspondent of the Financial Times, Martin Wolf, writes that,
"The tax proposals would shower huge benefits on already rich Americans
such as Mr Trump," while leaving others in the lurch, including, of
course, his constituency. The immediate reaction of the business world reveals
that Big Pharma, Wall Street, the military industry, energy industries and
other such wonderful institutions expect a very bright future.
development might be the infrastructure program that Trump has promised while
(along with much reporting and commentary) concealing the fact that it is
essentially the Obama stimulus program that would have been of great benefit to
the economy and to the society generally, but was killed by the Republican
Congress on the pretext that it would explode the deficit. While that charge
was spurious at the time, given the very low interest rates, it holds in spades
for Trump's program, now accompanied by radical tax cuts for the rich and
corporate sector and increased Pentagon spending.
There is, however, an
escape, provided by Dick Cheney when he explained to Bush's Treasury Secretary
Paul O'Neill that "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter" --
meaning deficits that we Republicans create in order to gain popular support,
leaving it to someone else, preferably Democrats, to somehow clean up the mess.
The technique might work, for a while at least.
There are also many
questions about foreign policy consequences, mostly unanswered.
There is mutual
admiration between Trump and Putin. How likely is it therefore that we may see
a new era in US-Russia relations?
One hopeful prospect
is that there might be reduction of the very dangerous and mounting tensions at
the Russian border: note "the Russian border," not the Mexican
border. Thereby lies a tale that we cannot go into here. It is also possible
that Europe might distance itself from Trump's America, as already suggested by
[German] Chancellor [Angela] Merkel and other European leaders -- and from the
British voice of American power, after Brexit. That might possibly lead to
European efforts to defuse the tensions, and perhaps even efforts to move
towards something like Mikhail Gorbachev's vision of an integrated Eurasian
security system without military alliances, rejected by the US in favor of NATO
expansion, a vision revived recently by Putin, whether seriously or not, we do
not know, since the gesture was dismissed.
Is US foreign
policy under a Trump administration likely to be more or less militaristic than
what we have seen under the Obama administration, or even the George W. Bush
I don't think one can
answer with any confidence. Trump is too unpredictable. There are too many open
questions. What we can say is that popular mobilization and activism, properly
organized and conducted, can make a large difference. And we should bear in
mind that the stakes are very large.
As our first declinist candidate for president, Donald J.
Trump did at least express something new and true about the nature of our
country. In the phrase that he tried to trademark in 2012 and with which he launched his presidential campaign in 2015 -- “Make America Great Again" -- he caught a deeply felt
sense among millions of Americans that the empire of chaos had indeed arrived
on our shores and that, like the Soviet Union a quarter-century ago, the U.S.
might ever so slowly be heading into an era in which (minus him, naturally)
“greatness” was a goner...In the end, those
seeds, first planted in Afghan and Pakistani soil in 1979, led to the attacks
of September 11, 2001. That day was the very definition of chaos brought
to the imperial heartland, and spurred the emergence of a new, post-Constitutional governing structure, through the
expansion of the national security state to monumental proportions and a staggering version of
imperial overreach. On the basis of the supposed need to keep Americans
safe from terrorism (and essentially nothing else), the national security state
would balloon into a dominant -- and dominantly funded -- set of institutions
at the heart of American political life (without which, rest assured, FBI
Director James Comey’s public interventions in an American election would have
been inconceivable). In these years, that state-within-a-state became the
unofficial fourth branch of government, at a moment when two of
the others -- Congress and the courts, or at least the Supreme Court -- were
The one thing you
could say about empires is that, at or near their height, they have always
represented a principle of order as well as domination. So here’s the
confounding thing about the American version of empire in the years when this
country was often referred to as “the sole superpower,” when it was putting
more money into its military than the next 10 nations combined: it’s been an empire of chaos. Back in September 2002,
Amr Moussa, then head of the Arab League, offered a warning I’ve never
forgotten. The Bush administration’s intention to invade Iraq and topple
its ruler, Saddam Hussein, was already obvious. Were they to take such a step, Moussa insisted, it would “open the gates of hell.” His
prediction turned out to be anything but hyperbole -- and those gates have
never again closed.
The Wars Come Home
From the moment of the
invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, in fact, everything the U.S. military
touched in these years has turned to dust. Nations across the Greater
Middle East and Africa collapsed under the weight of American interventions
or those of its allies, and terror movements, one grimmer than the next, spread
in a remarkably unchecked fashion. Afghanistan is now a disaster zone;
Yemen, wracked by civil war, a brutal U.S.-backed Saudi air campaign, and
various ascendant terror groups, is essentially no more; Iraq, at best, is a
riven sectarian nation; Syria barely exists; Libya, too, is hardly a state
these days; and Somalia is a set of fiefdoms and terror movements. All in
all, it’s quite a record for the mightiest power on the planet, which, in a
distinctly un-imperial fashion, has been unable to impose its military will or
order of any sort on any state or even group, no matter where it chose to act
in these years. It’s hard to think of a historical precedent for this.
Meanwhile, from the
shattered lands of the empire of chaos stream refugees by the millions,numbers not seen since vast swaths of the globe were
left in rubble at the end of World War II. Startling percentages of the
populations of various failed and failing states, including stunning numbers
have been driven into internal exile or sent fleeing across borders and, from Afghanistan to North Africa to Europe, they are
shaking up the planet in unsettling ways (as their fantasy versions shook up the election here in the
It’s something of a
cliché to say that, sooner or later, the frontier wars of empires come home to
haunt the imperial heartland in curious ways. Certainly, such has been
the case for our wars on the peripheries. In various forms -- from
the militarization of the police to the loosing of spy drones in American skies and of surveillance technology tested on distant battlefields
-- it’s obvious that America’s post-9/11 conflicts have returned to "the
homeland," even if, most of the time, we have paid remarkably little
attention to this phenomena.
that, I suspect, is the least significant way in which our wars have been
repatriated. What Election 2016 made clear was that the empire of chaos
has not remained a phenomenon of the planet's backlands. It’s with us in
the United States, right here, right now. And it’s come home in a fashion
that no one has yet truly tried to make sense of. Can’t you feel the deep
and spreading sense of disorder that lay at the heart of the bizarre election
campaign that roiled this country, brought the most extreme kinds of racism and xenophobia back into the
mainstream, and with Donald Trump's election, may never really end? Using
the term of tradecraft that Chalmers Johnson borrowed from the CIA and
popularized, think of this as, in some strange fashion, the ultimate in
There’s a history to
be written of how such disorder came home, of how it warped the American system
and our democratic form of governance, of how a process that began decades ago
not in the stew of defeat or disaster but in a moment of unparalleled imperial
triumph undermined so much. If I had to choose a date to begin that
history, I think I would start in 1979 in Afghanistan, a country that, if you
were an American but not a hippie backpacker, you might then have had trouble locating
on a map. And if someone had told you at the time that, over the next
nearly four decades, your country would be involved in at least a
quarter-century of wars there, you would undoubtedly have considered him mad.
Thought of a certain
way, the empire of chaos began in a victory so stunning, so complete, so
imperial that it essentially helped drive the other superpower, that “Evil
Empire” the Soviet Union, to implode. It began, in fact, with the desire
of Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, to give the Soviets a bloody nose, or
to be more precise, a taste of America’s Vietnam experience, to trap the Red
Army in an Afghan quagmire. In that light, the CIA would run a massive,
decade-long covert program to fund, arm, and train fundamentalist opponents of
the leftwing Afghan government in Kabul and of the occupying Red Army. To
do so, it fatefully buddied up with two unsavory “allies”: the Saudis, who were
ready to sink their oil money into support for Afghan mujahedeen fighters
of the most extreme sort, and the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI,
which was intent on controlling events in that land, no matter the nature of
the cast of characters it found available.
In the fashion of
Vietnam for the Americans, Afghanistan would prove to be what Soviet leader
Mikhail Gorbachev called "the bleeding wound” for the
Russians. A decade later, the Red Army would limp home in defeat and
within two years a hollowed-out Soviet Union, never as strong as Washington
imagined, would implode, a triumph so stunning that the American political
elite initially couldn’t take it in. After almost half a century, the
Cold War was over; one of the two remaining “superpowers” had left the global
stage in defeat; and for the first time since Europeans set out on wooden ships
to conquer distant parts of the globe, only a single great power was left
standing on the planet… read more: