At the end of the 15th and start of the 16th centuries, England was devastated by a mysterious and deadly illness called sweating sickness. Even though it did not kill off millions, like its evil sister the Black Plague, sweating sickness felled thousands in Europe and tens of thousands, if not more, in London and other English towns.
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The disease, characterized by a sudden outbreak of profuse and heavy sweating, usually caused death within 18 hours after the appearance of the first symptoms of dizziness, headaches and muscle cramps. Before these physical symptoms appeared, however, those afflicted were filled with dread of their impending demise. They knew in advance that their death was near.
The deadly venom of the tiny northeast Australian jellyfish known as irukandji also triggers a sense of impending doom, which is often justified if the sting victim does not receive prompt medical treatment. Overindulgence in nutmeg, which is used by some people to get high, can also spark a sensation that “something wicked this way comes,” as the witches in Macbeth proclaim.
People who are about to suffer from a heart attack, pulmonary embolism or are experiencing a serious allergic reaction often feel as if their demise is imminent. Unlike canonized biblical prophets of doom like Jeremiah and Amos, people who go around warning that the end is nigh these days are usually referred to psychologists and psychiatrists and often diagnosed as suffering from anxiety, panic attacks or other mental health issues.
Statistically, there is no proof that Jews are individually more anxious than others, but a history rife with persecution and pogroms justifies their constant existential angst. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is understood to have doubts whether Israel will exist beyond its first 100 years, as Haaretz reported on Tuesday, he is expressing a quintessential Jewish fear, albeit one that Zionists had hoped would die in the Diaspora.
Some of Netanyahu’s best friends, the evangelicals, are consumed by Christian visions of an approaching cataclysm, replete with beasts, crocodiles, disease, end-all wars and an earthquake that splits Jerusalem in three. But this is all good news from their point of view, the prologue to the Second Coming and peace on earth.
There are times, of course, when a feeling of impending doom isn’t the outcome of a sixth sense, mental problems, a medical condition or religious belief, but of a cold and calculated assessment of the objective situation and its main protagonists.
Long before Adolf Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, many Europeans knew that a catastrophe was about to hit the Continent. More than a few experts – Netanyahu is not one of them – realized in advance that then-President George Bush’s plan to invade Iraq looked good only on paper.
Anyone who examines the current trends in global warming, the explosive growth of the earth’s population and the increasing difficulty of feeding all those people knows that a cataclysm is a done deal already.
And anyone who has followed Donald Trump recently and heard what some of his closest confidants have to say about him – including those who have studiously buried their heads in the sand until now – realizes that the U.S. president is a disaster waiting to happen, a calamity set to occur, an explosive device primed to go off. Like people paralyzed in the middle of a nightmare, the world looks at Trump today with trepidation and frustration, awaiting a catastrophe it feels helpless to avoid.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee marked the watershed moment. Within a few short days, the two brought fear of Trump and the damage he could cause to a critical mass that altered perceptions and hence changed reality in Washington.
Tillerson and Corker confirmed the worst fears and suspicions about Trump, which Republicans would only whisper about until now or simply dismiss as more sour grapes by disgruntled liberals. Tillerson described Trump as a moron, an ignoramus who is not aware of how much he doesn’t know, in what was initially reported as a reaction to an inappropriate speech by Trump to the Boy Scouts but is now being linked to reports, which Trump has denied, that he wanted to increase America’s nuclear arsenal by a factor of 10.
That claim is more in line with Corker’s more devastating depiction of Trump as an unstable punk who could start World War III. Coming from a respected and moderate lawmaker who supported Trump in the past, Corker’s words should have shocked anyone who isn’t detached from reality, a die-hard Trump fan or a member of the president’s immediate family.
Tillerson and Corker’s appraisals, accompanied as they are by media reports of an agitated president who is like a “pressure cooker” and “hates everyone at the White House,” are doubly scary against the backdrop of nuclear tensions with North Korea, which have been exacerbated by Trump’s belligerent rhetoric, and the impending crisis – which most of the world considers superfluous and dangerous – over the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
If you’re not scared enough yet, you can read the report published on Wednesday in Vanity Fair about how Secretary of Defense James Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly discuss ways of physically blocking Trump from reaching the suitcase that will allow him to launch a nuclear strike.
Meanwhile, two Democratic members of Congress have proposed a law that would curtail the president’s authority to launch a first strike all by himself. They could very well be commemorated one day, just like contrarian Israel Defense Forces officers on the eve of the 1973 war, as visionaries who foretold the future but were ultimately helpless to avert it.
The problem is that the more Trump is criticized and attacked, the more he responds with senseless rage and insults, thus intensifying the pushback against him, and so on and so forth.
Trump is a wiz, it turns out, at digging a hole, falling into it and then digging some more to sink even deeper. Trump isn’t the first president to get angry at the media, but he is the first, with the possible exception of Richard Nixon, to publicly question its right to criticize and to openly threaten its continued existence, as Trump did with NBC on Thursday.
Such bellicose rhetoric probably sparked jealousy in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, but in the United States Trump’s naked threats managed to shock some more Republicans. Nebraska senator Ben Sasse asked Trump whether he had already forgotten his vow to protect the Constitution, including the First Amendment right to free speech.
It’s a vicious circle. Trump’s outrageousness invites equally unrestrained negativity, as witnessed by rapper Eminem’s extraordinary hate video in which he invites fans who continue to support Trump – whom he describes as a racist kamikaze about to unleash a nuclear holocaust – to stop listening to him, as many probably will.
Every reaction invites a counterreaction that leads to spiraling polarization, hate, mistrust and dread. Officials and lawmakers find themselves trapped between a rock and a hard place: Many of them fear Trump more than they do any of America’s enemies, but they are also petrified by their militant voters who are pressing them to support Trump under any and all circumstances, if they are Republicans, or to take their gloves off and get him removed from office, if they are Democrats.
Given the atmosphere of fear and loathing, and the increasing paralysis of the Senate caused by his inexplicable spats with leading GOP senators, Trump is increasingly taking action in those areas in which he can make decisions by himself.
On the one hand he is furiously issuing regulations meant to erase any trace of President Barack Obama’s legacy – from environmental protection to Obamacare to women’s reproductive rights – and on the other, Trump is behaving like a bull in a china shop when dealing with America’s friends and adversaries. From threats to totally destroy North Korea to the Trump-initiated crisis with Iran to Thursday’s announcement that the United States was abandoning UNESCO in order to save money and to protest the organization’s anti-Israel policies, Trump is shooting in all directions, and the world is taking cover.
Jerusalem may view Trump as a friend indeed who has absolutely no interest in settlements or the Palestinians. But his statements and actions on Israel’s behalf are nonetheless tainted by the growing suspicion of his motives and the increasing alarm about his fitness for office.
A calmer U.S. president with more credibility might have been able to convince the world to change tack on the Iran nuclear deal. A president who was seen as solid and trustworthy might have made a case for shocking UNESCO back to fairness and decency. But Trump is like a “King Midas in Reverse,” as the Hollies once sang. Whatever he touches is automatically suspect. Anyone who seems to be supporting him or cajoling him, like Netanyahu, is automatically guilty and stained by association.
Given Trump’s wildly disproportionate and usually inappropriate reactions to criticism – now he’s thinking of stopping federal aid to hurricane-stricken Puerto Rico because the island’s residents don’t seem enthusiastic enough – one can understand why Netanyahu has decided to flatter Trump almost obsessively as a brave leader with a coherent view of the Middle East.
The rest of the world – with the exception of Israel and Trump’s white base, which view any leader, from Trump and Putin to Mussolini and Franco as preferable to leftist/liberal government – regards Trump as an irresponsible juvenile delinquent who can’t control his urges, is clueless about the world surrounding him and is close to causing global catastrophe.
Evangelicals will view such a development as the start of their divine deliverance. But for most of humanity, it’s the other way around: If the world somehow manages to survive Trump’s presidency without a major disaster, now that would truly be a miracle from heaven.