Why Trump Was Able to Sucker the World on Syria
By NEAL GABLER | APRIL 12, 2017
It is pretty amazing how quickly the media and suck-up politicians can transform a mendacious, hypocritical, amateurish, ignorant, incoherent, bigoted buffoon who is way, way out of his depth into a man of courage, which is what they did to President Trump this past weekend. All it takes is some saber rattling and launching a few dozen missiles. Granted, the Trump brand is already so tarnished that he didn’t get the bounce or the adulation that the Bushes, pere and fils, got when they began their wars. According to one poll, only 51 percent of Americans approved of Trump’s action, but given that Trump’s favorability rating has hovered around or even south of 40 percent, this is an improvement.
And don’t think Donald Trump isn’t gloating over the bounce. In fact, don’t think that isn’t exactly why he acted. It is hard to believe he launched those missiles because he was deeply moved by “beautiful babies” gassed in Syria when he was never moved by the beautiful babies dying from conventional weapons or from fleeing the Assad regime. Trump has always been moved by one thing and one thing only: his ego.
Of course, military action is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Demagogues typically use it to rally support, and the public typically falls for it, which makes von Clausewitz’s famous dictum that war is the continuation of policy by other means seem obsolete. Politics, yes. Policy, no. Trump, as detractors were quick to point out, has no policy on Syria or much of anything else. He isn’t a strategic thinker, to say the least. He is a huckster, which isn’t a bad thing to be if you are also a politician. Trump’s sudden pivot from nationalist isolationist to sort-of interventionist was a huckster’s ploy, and by and large it worked. Brian Williams on MSNBC rhapsodized over the attack and quoted Leonard Cohen: “I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.”
Of course, Republicans, the very ones who wouldn’t give President Obama authorization to attack Syria, were beside themselves with joy, but so were many Democrats, including Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer. Trump turned the entire world into a bunch of suckers.
Without debating whether it was the right or wrong thing to do, and without mentioning that it seemed to have had no effect on whatsoever on Assad’s capability to kill civilians, the ploy was bald, and it was shameless. So why did it work yet again? There is a vast body of literature on the appeal of war, including Barbara Ehrenreich’s Blood Rites, which describe the ways in which warfare arose from predation and assumed aspects of religion, and Chris Hedges’ impassioned and moving book-length essay, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, which incorporates its thesis into its title. War is pretty hard to resist. Hedges compares it to a drug — an addictive drug.
What Trump did with his launch is give us an exciting episode of the Donald Trump presidential reality show.
But while Trump was certainly tapping atavistic and nationalistic nerves, he was also tapping popular culture ones. So let me pose a far less high-minded and far less profound reason both for why Trump decided to launch the missiles and why so many fell for it — a reason that addresses the confluence of modern war, modern politics, modern media and Trump himself: War is great entertainment. More specifically, it is one of the highest forms of reality TV. What Trump did with his launch is give us an exciting episode of the Donald Trump presidential reality show.
The affinity between entertainment and warfare is as old as that between demagogues and warfare. War provides great narratives. (Think of Homer.) It provides heroes and villains. It provides action. It provides a deep rooting interest that gets the blood pumping. In short, it does just about all the things that movies do, and I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that war informs war movies far less than our war movies have come to inform war. It is one reason, I think, Americans usually seem so eager to go to war — even though as a war slogs on, they are less enthusiastic about continuing it. The fact is, war isn’t really very much like the movies, and by movies, I don’t mean just war movies but blockbuster super hero pictures where evil is invariably defeated in a great, ear-splitting Gotterdammerung of destruction. But if real war isn’t a movie or a video game, a quick, antiseptic strike without American casualties can fool you into believing it is.
Donald Trump knows all this. He is as much a creature of the media as Ronald Reagan was. Frankly, so are we all now. The bond between Reagan and the public was largely a function of our mutual assimilation of the media. Reagan internalized the movies. He erased the line between the cinematic and the real, both psychologically (he often confused movie scenes with scenes from real life) and politically. This was, as I have written elsewhere, his great accomplishment. He created a character, affable but with gimlet-eyed strength, that was the very personification of what a movie president would be, and he turned his presidency into a movie, making the audience/public happy by telling them what they wanted to hear. And because he bought his own pitch, he was genuine doing it.
You could accurately describe reality TV as plot without content, which, not at all incidentally, is also a way to describe the Trump presidency.
Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two LA Times Book Prizes, Time magazine’s non-fiction book of the year, USA Today‘s biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.