One of the more annoying features of the most annoying presidential campaign in history was the mainstream media’s attempts to normalize candidate Donald Trump. Possibly this treatment arose because the press didn’t initially take him seriously enough to characterize him and his positions with the appropriate degree of horror. Sure, he’s crazy, but what are ya gonna do, they seemed to shrug. Meanwhile, he was good for ratings.
After a brief hiatus of barely concealed horror following his inauguration, the media is back to normalization, albeit with a new tack. As opposed to the campaign coverage’s tactic of normalization-by-trivialization, the new approach is one of strange new respect for a man who has grown into the job.
The occasion for this reappraisal was Trump’s ordering up a strike by 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles on the Shayrat airbase in Syria. For all the theatrics of this military action, the strategic results were a lot less than would have met the eye of a credulous consumer of mainstream U.S. media accounts.
Nine Syrian aircraft were reported destroyed by the strike – as opposed to the 20 initially claimed by the Pentagon – but whatever the number of aircraft actually destroyed, Syrian aircraft took off from the base within 24 hours. More important, the cruise missile strike did not change the dynamic of the Syrian civil war to any measurable degree. To the extent the strike was simply checking a box and moving on, it may dampen whatever appetite existed in Washington to attempt to end the conflict and limit civilian suffering.
But that is not how the American media reported the operation. Adam Johnson of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting determined that of the hundred leading U.S. newspapers, “47 ran editorials on President Donald Trump’s Syria airstrikes last week: 39 in favor, seven ambiguous and only one opposed to the military attack.” CNN’s foreign policy panjandrum Fareed Zakaria rhapsodized over Trump’s action, pompously claiming that “Trump became president of the United States” by ordering the cruise missiles launched. Not to be outdone in the histrionics department, MSNBC’s Brian Williams, sounding like a bad translation from the German of the pro-war odes of Ernst Jünger, described the cruise missiles as “beautiful.”
The panegyrics to Trump’s decisiveness have set the stage for the pundit wise men to evaluate him, less than a hundred days into his presidency, as a historical figure. Foreign policy warhorse David Ignatius has seen fit to compare Trump to Harry S. Truman; although Trump comes out second best in his evaluation, the hook on which he hangs his piece is that both men came to the presidency unprepared to deal with foreign policy.
The merest notion that Trump and Truman became president with equivalent inexperience is preposterous. Before becoming president, Truman was a county judge for 12 years, and as a U.S. senator for a decade, he was a subcommittee chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs and later chaired the famous “Truman Committee” to investigate wartime waste, fraud, and abuse in military acquisition. (Not to mention Truman’s experience as vice president.)
By contrast, Trump’s qualifications for president were the following: real estate fraud merchant, carnival barker for crooked schemes like Trump University, and reality TV clown. He was also a draft-avoider who managed to insult Vietnam veterans by bragging that avoiding syphilis was his own “personal Vietnam.” To draw parallels between the two men, even unfavorable ones to Trump, by suggesting they had equivalent starting points, and that both needed proper immersion in the tub of Washington insider culture to become fit presidents, is an insidious normalization of Trump.
Why do the pundits do it? One suspects the whole gonzo performance art of Trump’s first two months in office was deeply distressing to members of the Beltway establishment. Accordingly, his resort to the cruise missile strike, a lot of sound and fury signifying very little, was like manna from heaven for them: they could kid themselves that they had more agency than they really had, and that through some mysterious process their view of the world had begun to rub off on Trump.
In reality, the president, although a profoundly ignorant man – Truman, unlike Trump, voraciously consumed works of history – he has just enough street smarts to know what might pull his polling numbers out of the toilet. After a disastrous couple of weeks consisting of the health care disaster, controversy over his conflicts of interest, and the Devin Nunes farce, it was time to change the subject. Trump was surely bright enough to know that cruise missile pyrotechnics would distract the Washington wise men as a ball of yarn diverts a litter of kittens.
Behold the new narrative: the “realities” of Washington have housebroken the erstwhile crude isolationist, and Trump now grasps that true leadership means a willingness to use force on the international stage. It didn’t hurt that one could humanize Trump by emphasizing how distraught he allegedly was at the suffering of children exposed to a chemical weapons attack, although his perpetual displays of malignant narcissism suggest he was more distraught by his polling numbers, and lunged at the opportunity to improve them.
And how did the American media respond to the news last week that ISIS forces used chemical weapons to attack an Iraqi army unit that contained U.S. and Australian advisers? So far, crickets in terms of news placement. Although CBS News reported the incident on its website, the story did not make its television news broadcast. ISIS’s use of the chemical agent was the second within a week, as reported by AP. One has yet to see any earnest op-eds demanding that “we” (meaning the U.S. military) must do something. The Trump White House, after taking its victory lap over the Shayrat bombing, has been quiet about the matter. Fox News bestirred itself from its preoccupation with the Bill O’Reilly cataclysm just long enough to notice the administration’s downplaying of the incident.
What was happening? If ISIS had used chemical weapons, it would disrupt the straightforward morality play that the Washington establishment was presenting. The fact that both sides in a civil war might be using chemical agents would suggest that forcible U.S. intervention against one side would help a morally equivalent opponent, and that intervention against both would be strategically incoherent. Best not to play up the ISIS poison gas incidents; it might step on the clean narrative. Needless to say, it would also complicate the rehabilitation of the president for whom the press had found a strange new respect.
And so, in the era of Donald Trump, the dog barks, and the caravan moves on.