What does it take for Donald Trump to appear commanding, decisive and ‘presidential’?
The answer, it appears, is a troop surge and a missile strike.
Trump is not currently in an enviable political position. His approval ratings hover below 40 per cent, having reached historic lows for a first-year US president. The opposition to Trump is emboldened, even as his own party is rife with disunity. Meanwhile, the mainstream media, to its credit, has often been willing to call out his inveterate lying.
Unfortunately, the same news commentators gush when the ‘Commander-in-Chief’ rattles his sabre.
As the watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting documented, when Trump announced in August that he would send an additional 4,000 US soldiers to Afghanistan, the move garnered glowing reviews. Foreign Policy magazine remarked admiringly that the declaration ‘was one of Donald Trump’s finest moments as president,’ while a leader at the hallowed Brookings Institution devoted an op-ed to Trump’s ‘difficult and very presidential decision’.
Rarely had Trump received such plaudits. Rarely, that is, since April… when editorial pages uniformly praised his decision to launch scores of Tomahawk missiles into Syria.
Of course, there is considerable hypocrisy in the president’s commitment to extend the engagement in Afghanistan – the longest war in US history. Candidate Trump campaigned as an ardent isolationist. Despite evidence that he supported the Iraq War early on, he tried to present himself as a consistent critic of military interventionism.
During the 2012 election, Trump tweeted: ‘Polls are starting to look really bad for Obama. Looks like he’ll have to start a war or major conflict to win. Don’t put it past him!’
Whether Trump himself is interested in pursuing a ‘wag the dog’ strategy, or whether he is merely adapting himself to Washington’s penchant for intervention, there is a deep-rooted tradition of presidents gaining esteem by stoking international conflict.
This is not merely a problem with the media. Deference to militaristic leadership infects our entire political establishment.
When George W Bush entered the White House, he was regarded as a lightweight, having lost the popular vote and having secured office only after the Supreme Court halted a recount of ballots in Florida. It wasn’t until after the 9/11 attacks, when Bush launched the ‘War on Terror’, that he could wield power with bipartisan backing.
For all the talk of Trump being a unique harbinger of fascism, it was Bush who enjoyed free rein as he vowed vengeance. Referring to the years when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq commenced, political scientist Corey Robin argues: ‘There was a moment in the recent memory of this country when dissent really was stifled… when the military and police were sanctified and sacralized, when the Constitution was called into question… when the two-party system was turned into a one-party state… [and] when questioning the nation-state’s commitment to violence and war provoked the most shameless heresy hunts.’
The danger Trump presents is real, but it is not unique in the American experience.
There is a saying that ‘politics ends at the water’s edge’. The idea is that, whatever disagreements lawmakers might have about domestic issues, they should unite in pursuit of the national interest abroad.
Few ideas could be more wrong-headed, especially when the country’s ‘interest’ has so often been defined as that which benefits United Fruit and ExxonMobil.
The scary thing is that many Democrats seem to believe this precept. When it comes to standing up for the latest troop deployment or promoting ever-larger military budgets, they eagerly fall in line.
Responding to Kim Jong-un’s nuclear arms tests, Trump stated that US ‘military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely’.
As long as the media and elected officials afford warmongering a dangerous dignity, our world will be in peril.