Trump is our Chernobyl Disaster

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Back in 2019, before the dark times, I watched the HBO special on the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the former USSR. I had a somewhat guilty pleasure watching a dysfunctional nation with a corrupt & out-of-touch government, playing on the patriotism of the masses to downplay, to deceive, and eventually to recruit hundreds of thousands to dig them out of the greatest environmental disaster in world history.

As the year 2020 descends from bad to awful to terrible, the U.S.A. is going through a Chernobyl of it’s own. The disaster began in November of 2016, and the toxic spillage has poisoned the land and will continue to do so for what feels like the next thousand years.

I learned that the stumbling, then middling, and finally desperate efforts to contain the Chernobyl disaster were not unlike Trump’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic. “It will go away” was his first response, “We’re doing a great job” was the response as things began to unravel, and finally, “stop thinking about it” became the mantra, now that the USA is the runaway #1 in cases, in lies, and in deaths.

What struck me about those sad Soviets, is that they lived their lives incapable of changing their government, helpless to affect structural change even before the 1986 toxic explosion rendered uninhabitable a region of central Russia, hundreds of square miles wide, and which had threatened to render uninhabitable massive swaths of the Asian supercontinent.

But as the cascade of horrors unfolded in that “cold war” enemy, what eventually was revealed was that the ongoing disaster destroyed the stability of the nation. After witnessing the death, the lies and destruction of the radioactive plume and middling response, the Soviet masses were shocked into recognition that their government will let them die rather than take care of them. It wiped out the unquestioned patriotism of millions of proud Soviets. It destroyed the global ‘prestige’ of the Communist country, and led directly to the disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics within five years.

Despite all of the political and economic factors, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has stated plainly that the Chernobyl explosion was “perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union.” With the policy of perestroika (“the opening”) which provided for greater voices of dissent established by Gorbachev, the snowball of outrage and protest grew into something no engineering team could put a lid on.

I remember thinking, even before the disaster took shape, what a flock of sheep those Soviet peasants were, just plodding along with their lives, knowing their government had nothing to offer them except decrees inducing more misery. But within that submission was an echo of a larger commitment to nationhood, to discipline, to Country, however abstract, that kept such disparate people together, from the borders of Poland to the Pacific Ocean.

As Mark Joseph Stern wrote in a 2013 Slate article: “Before the explosion, most Soviets … believed in the Soviet system, forgave its flaws, and hoped for a better future within its confines. But after Chernobyl, the system seemed potentially unredeemable—and actively dangerous.”

The results of this wholesale turning against the government by the people of the “former soviet union” led to a series of uprisings, of coups, of secessions and a final decree to dissolve the USSR in December of 1991. Barely five years after the explosion that fractured the relationship of the people to their government, that government was over.

The media narrative in the West told us that Ronald Reagan and his ballooning defense budget bankrupted the USSR. However it was likely this internal disaster that ruined it. The internal implosion of the Soviet Union was not brought about because of US military might, but an infrastructure unable to function with humanity toward its humanity.

As much as Trumpers tout their heroes’ glorious leadership, everything points to a country so fractured that its destiny may not be different from the USSR. Trump did not so much as “drain the swamp” as he in fact poisoned it. The attacks on respected institutions, the press, science, diplomacy and decorum, were ravaged by a series of fiercely corrupt anti-press, anti-truth, anti-science trolls such as Kelyanne Conway, William Barr and Betsy DeVos. Then the ransacking of the Departments of Housing, Justice, Education, Transportation, Health, and most tragically Centers for Disease Control, all were poisoned by an aggressively politicized viciousness that no one else was prepared to engage in. This type of political pollution – common in shit-hole countries – had never been attempted so brazenly in this US of A.

Nothing reflects this more than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s abuse of the judicial process to introduce three right-wing Supreme Court Justices under Trumps term. History may reveal to us that these unproven, inexperienced, ideologues will do little more than seek their guidance from literal readings the Bible and the sage wisdom of extreme ideologue Clarence Thomas. Unfit for generations to come, this SCOTUS portends a poisonous path that will subsist throughout our lifetimes.

At the peak of the Chernobyl outbreak, the entire global community was forced to consider – in real time – the worst possible circumstances. Would the entire continent be irradiated? Would half of Europe & Asia be rendered uninhabitable? Would it take thousands of years to recover from this? The fact that there are people still advocating for the expansion of nuclear power is chilling in and of itself. And what of the disastrous Trump presidency?

From my vantage point, Trumps’ threats to peaceful – legal – protestors, and the willingness to apply federal military troops in crowd control, now portends to be backed up unconditionally by the final law of the land, the SCOTUS. Trumps’ demands that people go to work during the pandemic despite the health risks, reeks of a totalitarian nation – an utterly undemocratic and inhumane example of extreme and unchecked corporate capitalism—views that to me I’m afraid will be endorsed uncritically by the SCOTUS.

A SCOTUS that will claim “states rights” when it comes to armed “militias” capable of eliminating political opposition, voter suppression and workers rights, and yet pivot on a dime when it comes to affirming anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ mandates nationwide.

As we witness a measure of “minority rule” unseen in the West since the era of European Colonialism in the 19th century, we can be reassured that the colonialism playbook will be studied and implemented by operatives of the far-right for generations to come.

The official state program for decommissioning the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant has set a timetable for the Nuclear cleanup of Chernobyl – by 2065. Will it take that long for a democracy to recover from the deadly disaster of Trumpism in the U.S.A.?

Dr. Rickey Vincent is Associate Professor of Critical Ethnic Studies at California College of The Arts in San Francisco.

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