Why did so many people including many that most of us respect reevaluate Donald Trump's competence and presidential worthiness even after it was clear the man has no Syria policy? The answer is likely clearer than you think.
It is clear that Trump attack on Syria could not possibly be motivated by the vision of suffering children overcome by a chemical attack. After all, there were pictures of drowned toddlers, babies blown up by conventional bombs and much more. Trump's answer to that visual was a Muslim ban that included Syria.
Neal Gabler, a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, wrote a piece titled "Why Trump Was Able to Sucker the World on Syria" that lays it out.
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. ...
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.”
On CNN, Fareed Zakaria, who is regarded in the media as a very serious man, echoed the hare-brained giddiness we heard in the media after Trump’s address to Congress when he was celebrated for being able to string a few sentences together without talking jabberwocky. Said Zakaria of the Syria attack: “I think Donald Trump actually became president of the United States. I think this was actually a big moment.” Even Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times also wrote approvingly of the action. ...
What Trump did with his launch is give us an exciting episode of the Donald Trump presidential reality show.
Gabler pointed out a similarity and difference between President Ronald Reagan, an actor, and Donald Trump, the reality TV star. In effect, Reagan used his acting skill to elevate his presidency beyond its meager accomplishments while Trump diminished it as reality shows ultimately do to the aura surrounding the reality star.
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.
Trump’s form isn’t the movies; it is reality TV. And that makes a huge difference in his behavior as a performer. In the movies, the protagonist serves the narrative, which is what Reagan did as president. In reality TV, the narrative serves the protagonist. Trump was the centerpiece of The Apprentice, the show’s potentate. He snapped his fingers and things happened. He issued his edict, and a contender was fired. He looked decisive. Reagan could invoke lofty movie-like rhetoric to hypnotize his audience. Reality stars have no rhetoric, only bluster. . . and tweets. That is why Reagan could seem to inflate himself, like movie stars, and Trump always seems to diminish himself, like reality stars. Even the Syria attack was smallish, a negligible one-off, soon to be forgotten.
A few days ago I posited Trump's rationale for his Syria missile attack in my piece titled "Once again Americans played by Trump and media eating it up." Gabler's final two paragraph informs on what should cause us our biggest fear in this reality TV show. Why? Because it works.
You don’t usually think of warfare as a distraction; warfare is what you usually get distracted from. But Trump grasped that launching missiles would knock everything else off the front pages at a time when he needed it. And in the short term, he seems to have been right. Talking about Syria means we aren’t talking about the Russian hacking of the election or the failure of health care reform or the Keystone Cops White House staff or the trashing of regulations or the myriad of other disasters in this ongoing reality show that stars the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players.”
It is precisely because this new interventionism has had the desired result that we should all begin to worry. If a few missiles in Syria won him hosannas, what about some action against North Korea for the next reality show episode? And what other improvised adventures could our new action hero president embark upon to keep us preoccupied and him winning praise? War may be the force that gives us meaning. But it is also the force that keeps us entertained and distracted. With an entertainer-in-chief in the White House, someone for whom the presidency is a great vanity, that should scare us. That should scare us a lot.
Read the entire piece. Understanding what Trump is doing, understanding that we have a media that is just as susceptible to the bait and switch, the reality TV will help those of us that don't fall for the game to better counter it.
Also published on Medium.