Donald Trump
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Rap-artist A$AP Rocky was never on my radar or my musical playlist until the president called Sweden to seek his release. ASAP.

Musician, entertainer, producer, model—the hard-edged A$AP Rocky was heckled and harried, painted as a victim of Sweden’s criminal justice system. His mom said his detention was “unjust,” targeted because he’s African American.

Circumstances, upbringing, criminal record, character—when we think about a single person’s story, predicament and mother, he becomes humanized. Not so when someone is a one-in-a-million nobody like the globally countless unrecognized victims of injustice or war.

Charged with getting up in someone’s face and violently mixing it up, we learned about A$AP Rocky’s background, music and that he knows Kanye West and his wife, Kim Kardashian. West has friends in high places and is immediately put through the White House switchboard. The result? A real person gets vouchsafed by POTUS.

President Trump took 20 minutes to talk to Sweden’s prime minister and to make the case for A$AP Rocky—his real name is Rakim Mayers and hails from Harlem. Growing up, Mayers was a teenage crack dealer living in homeless shelters. His dad was a drug dealer who died when Mayers was 12, his brother was also killed. Tough upbringing. But he broke out of poverty by rapping his way to fame, stepping onto stages and back-beating his edgy lyrics to a hungry and, sometimes, angry crowd. Trump found an offbeat way to show compassion, exercise power, and attempt to counter charges he is a racist during a week when he attacked the patriotism of four congresswomen of color. He got to know A$AP Rocky and humanize this one individual, who is now in the political spotlight.

This is the power of one person’s narrative, the emotional tug of a real story and the complexity of individual lives. Naturally, Trump—all of us, really—respond to a single cry, give a helping hand to someone we can see who is in need in our community or on the street. Americans now know A$AP Rocky.

Not everyone is so lucky.

We do not know the 10 million faceless Afghans the president just said he could simply annihilate in 10 days at the push of a button or the signing of an order. No names. No backstories. No fame. Just abstractions and an unwashed mass.

If there is power in numbers, it is not a power over our imaginations or ability to comprehend or empathize. The power of numbers is mostly an organizing power. Do disorganized, fragmented massive numbers of Afghans matter when they are far, far away and unseen? Apparently not. Those potentially obliterated millions live or die at the whim of a president, relying on his emotional state or strategic understanding of war and peace. It is one of the most dangerous things Trump has said during a presidency full of outrageous tweets and concerning statements.

We cannot dismiss or diminish something this grave. It is not just Trump being Trump.

The tendency to depersonalize mass murder has existed over millennia in times of war and in the wanton pursuit of national goals and power. Stalin. Mao. Pick your poison. History is rife with insensitive, brutal leaders who turned an entire populace or ethnic or religious group into an abstraction deserving of eradication.

Sometimes faceless numbers can make a dent in presidential decision making. We are told that Trump called off a “cocked and loaded” retaliatory attack on Iran because it would have killed 150 people. Tehran shot down a U.S. drone, and the president canceled an authorized attack 10 minutes before launching the assault. What made these individuals more human than the 10 million he mulled murdering? Did someone show him pictures of the people and their families? Were they Iranian rappers?

It is not a joke when a single man holds inordinate and incomparable power over mass destruction.

We created states and police and militaries and gave them a monopoly over violence to hold civilization together and enforce behavior conducive to living together in peace and harmony; to provide safety and security. We never intended leaders to willy-nilly threaten mass destruction without deep reflection or advised consideration for the consequences. And yet, that is what we have. A leader with raw political instincts, caught up in the ephemera of popularity, playing on the big stage with near absolute power and a tendency to show clemency and compassion only when the objects are imaginable or personally known and useful.

A$AP Rocky’s lyrics may have inspired the president to threaten Afghanistan and move away from an executive tradition of speaking softly and carrying a big stick. In the hit “Praise the Lord (Da Shine)” the rapper sings: “Pockets loaded, rocket loaded, OK let’s rock and roll this.”

Dangerously, what keeps the president from obliterating Afghanistan is known to him alone.

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former NBC Radio Moscow correspondent and the author of Freedom Isn’t Free: The Price of World Order (Anthem Press, 2022).