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The Reality Show Presidency Goes to War

Why Trump Was Able to Sucker the World on Syria



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.

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…

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.”

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.

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.

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.

Many of us during the campaign noted how Trump’s reality TV experience affected and even defined that campaign, but far less attention has been paid to how it would affect his presidency. The narcissism, the imperial demeanor, the preening, the necessity of hyping the drama — these are now the hallmarks of his early administration. It makes for good TV and lousy governance. The impulsiveness for which Trump is famous was built into reality TV too, which lurches mindlessly from one scene to another. Indeed, you could accurately describe reality TV as plot without content, which, not at all incidentally, is also a way to describe the Trump presidency.

So, whether it was the right thing to do to strike Assad, it was, by reality show standards, certainly the best thing to do. It got a huge audience. It made Trump look like a man of action. It won him plaudits on cable TV, which likes nothing better than some military action to boost ratings, just as William Randolph Hearst practically started the Spanish-American War to push newspaper circulation. And, not least of all, it did what entertainment is practically designed to do: It provided a distraction from the mess Trump is making of the country.

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.


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.

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