Last week, an increasingly bizarre series of scandals involving Trump’s guilt-suppurating lawyer, a porn star, payoffs, and Prague was followed by an airstrike in Syria; whether this was Trump’s pivot or his patriotic duty I leave to the reader’s judgment.
Some conservatives followed their traditional pattern of cheering any Republican president’s acts of war no matter how questionable their motivation or effectiveness. But the weird thing was that, this time, many dissented — or were querulous or shady on the subject, as if they knew they had to play along but their hearts weren’t in it.
Part of their reticence may come from the specter of Obama. You may recall that back in August 2013, President Obama asked Congress for authorization to bomb Syria for chemical-weapon offenses uncannily similar to Trump’s casus belli. Since it was Obama, the Republican Congress never voted on it. Conservatives denounced the then-president, either for warmongering or for not warmongering the right way, i.e., like a Republican would.
Now it was Trump’s turn to bomb, and a surprising number of conservatives actually opposed their president’s bombing, sometimes on the touching grounds that Trump was breaking a promise to his voters not to monger war. It wasn’t just drama queens Michael Savage (“Sad warmongers hijacking our nation”) and Alex Jones (“bawwww snuk snuk”), either, but lofty types like National Review’s Andrew C. McCarthy, normally among Trump’s best friends at the conservative magazine, who declared the raid “in violation of the Constitution.” Even the reliably right-wing Daily Caller felt sufficient oats to run a list of “The Times Trump Warned Against Getting Involved In Syria” — like they were BuzzFeed or something! — while rabid Trumpkin sites such as Newsmax were forced to report, “Trump’s Staunchest Supporters Raging Over Syria Airstrikes.”
Many of those who did not dissent seemed to wish they could. True, the more jingoistic rightbloggers beat the drums they’d been given by the administration with great enthusiasm (“Nikki Haley to Russia on Future Gas Attacks in Syria: ‘The United States Is Locked and Loaded,’ ” howled Breitbart). But when less down-market conservatives voiced support, it was softcore or sideways, as if they were hoping to be taken for supporters of some abstract principle Trump’s bombing represented rather than the bombing or the man himself.
At RedState, for example, Caleb Howe offered various defenses — “all of these other nations are involved,” “our Generals and Sec. Mattis aren’t bald-faced liars,” etc. — that will sound remarkably familiar to anyone who was around in 2003 just before we went to war with Saddam Hussein. As if he knew that he wasn’t going to convince anyone, Howe focused instead on the eternal conservative plan B (and occasional plan A), attacking the press: “MSNBC has spent an incredible amount of time talking about a movie,” Howe fumed.
Howe was talking about Wag the Dog — a movie whose very title now suggests war waged merely to distract the public from peccadillos, an assessment that in this case many of us would find understandable and even fair, given that Trump is not considered particularly honest or patriotic even by fellow conservatives such as, oh, Caleb Howe (“He has immediately destroyed his every core principle that isn’t related to immigration…. It’s called softening the target. It’s what salesmen do. And man, did you Trumpers get sold”).
Nonetheless, Howe speculated darkly that Lawrence O’Donnell, Rachel Maddow, and Chris Matthews “seem fully bought in” to the Wag the Dog comparison, and that “there’s reason to suspect network execs are pushing the topic” to hypnotize citizens into mistrusting their commander in chief. Maybe the saps will buy bombing to own the libs, if for no other reason.
Ben Marquis of Conservative Tribune agreed, complaining “Rachel Maddow Makes Wild Accusation About Trump’s Syria Strike” and declaring “much of the civilized world supported the military action,” offering as evidence just a single link — to a story about the thumbs-up Trump received from, get this, Chuck Schumer.
At National Review, Dan McLaughlin drew the short straw. He called Trump’s TV address on the strikes “fairly conventional” — meaning, it would seem, that it contained no childish nicknames or slurs, unlike other presidential communications. McLaughlin admitted, “I do not place any great faith in Trump’s motives for this action,” but reminded readers Bill Clinton was also untrustworthy, and blamed Trump’s “shortage of good options” on “President Obama’s preference for courting Iran over backing the non-ISIS opposition to Assad.” Spirited defense, huh?
“Is [the raid] actually the right thing?” McLaughlin asked. “Time will tell.… But at a minimum, tonight’s announcement illustrates that the enduring imperatives of American foreign policy prevail over the ideological illusions and personal impulses of Obama and Trump.” One imagines National Review editor Rich Lowry patting McLaughlin’s ass as the columnist slinks dejectedly off the mound toward the showers.
A quick tour of right-wing sites shows a similar half-heartedness: As of this writing, the Federalist had but one tough-talking column on the subject, in which Paul Bonicelli wrote about “spanking a rogue regime” (though he cautiously added, “Don’t expect U.S. rhetoric to match exactly what I am putting forth here” — this is Trump we’re talking about, after all). National Review had relatively few references, including Michael Brendan Dougherty’s “Let’s Not Celebrate Trump’s Renewed Interest in Syria.” Even Breitbart wasn’t bannering America’s latest Republican bombing as much as you’d expect, with a podcast summary called “How Does President Trump Sell the Syria Strikes to Deplorables?” in which one guest claimed that despite the raid Trump was “not a neocon, or anything like that. He still has the bones of being much more restrained” — which, if it means anything, means don’t stop believing, hold on to the feeling.
Ironically — or maybe, now that I think of it, not so ironically — Trump’s bombing was treated more like presidential business as usual by the mainstream media than by our usual subjects, with CNN offering war porn graphics and human-interest angles like “Syrian chemical attack survivor to Trump: I want to ‘buy you a beer.’ ” Chuck Todd hauled former CIA director and frequently scorching Trump critic John Brennan onto Meet the Press to tell America “the way [Trump] handled this was exactly right.” Big-boy NeverTrumpers like the New York Times’ Bret Stephens announced, “President Trump has done the right thing and I salute him for it.” And the Washington Post reported with a straight face that “ ‘Horrible’ pictures of suffering moved Trump to action on Syria.”
And in fact it is business as usual: Everyone may know what “wag the dog” means, and quietly entertain that suspicion with regard to the amoral Trump, but when cameras roll it’s time to stand with the president or, at most, gently demur — in the words of NPR, “Debates ensue,” rather than, “Are you fucking kidding me.” The big boys know viewers will welcome this show of viciousness against foreigners as a diversion from the viciousness Americans show one another every day. And, unlike conservative pundits, they know with certainty what their audiences will accept, and they don’t feel the need to explain themselves.