Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Friday, April 07, 2017

Our Strangelove Moment

The big picture lesson from yesterday's cruise missile strikes on Syria is that you don't elect someone like Donald Trump as your President.

Of course it's a little late to do anything about it now, and in any case it's not a lesson that most of us needed to be taught. The reason I bring it up is that while we never had great options on Syria, those options got a lot worse when Trump became President. Justice Jackson wrote: "our Constitution was designed to avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings," and that is how I think about politics. Ideally you elect a good President. But if you don't, politics goes on, with worse choices. It is to avoid those tragic choices that you don't elect someone like Trump in the first place.

At this point I want to emphasize how temperamentally unsuited to leadership Trump is. The best analysis, as always, was provided by Clickhole. Trump has a childish understanding of the world, is deeply lazy, and cares about almost nothing other than how he is portrayed on cable news at any given moment. This means that it's all too easy to picture a terrifying situation in which Trump gets in over his head and feels he has no option but to escalate a military conflict. And this becomes likelier the more humiliated and mocked that Trump feels, but it also becomes likelier if militarism gets him reliably good coverage. And this is the spear on which we have been impaled, squirming and thrashing about.

Turning back to the cruise missiles, consider our shitty options. Assume for a minute that your views will actually win the day and become the conventional wisdom on cable news (or, to be slightly more realistic, CNN). In the wake of Trump's attacks, what do you say?

You could say that Trump simply can't be trusted to conduct any military action, effectively meaning that the U.S. should dabble with pacifism for the next four years. This is unappealing for several reasons (though it is close to my actual view), perhaps most importantly because it is humiliating to Trump. And humiliating Trump is exactly the sort of thing that is likely to prompt him to lash out and escalate the conflict.

You can praise the proportionality of the response while refusing to glamorize it, and you can focus on the legal issues with Trump's use of force. This is less humiliating for Trump, and thus safer, and it has the advantage of laying out a roadmap for future military situations (which are bound to arise). It has the disadvantage that it lies by omission (since it casts Trump as a normal actor and ignores his dangerous about-face) and it elevates him in public perception. In the short run this has a calming effect, but in the long run it will teach him that militarism is a reliable source of good press.

You can embrace the second strategy above, but also point out what an untrustworthy, incompetent blowhard Trump is. This is more honest, and it somewhat resolves the encouragement problem (while exacerbating the "immediate escalation" problem), but as many have pointed out it can seem incoherent. (I think its incoherence is overstated though.)

Prominent Democrats have mostly gone with option 2, although some are closer to option 1. But needless to say, cable news is going with an entirely different option: effusive praise for any and all military action. (I don't actually watch cable news, so I am basing my assessment on what I see on Twitter, e.g. Fareed Zakaria apparently said that Donald Trump "became President" when he ordered the strikes.) Needless to say this is pretty close to the worst of all possible reactions.

We are now engaged in a national Pavlovian experiment on our President, trying to see if we can induce him to get into a nuclear war with Russia (or maybe China) by denying him praise until he orders military strikes, and then lavishing it on him. This is our Strangelove moment, in the sense that the system is proving itself to be war-mad. (In the movie, the President is actually reasonable and takes decisive action to stop nuclear war in the face of an idiotic system that has sent the nation careening toward it, and he would succeed but for a random fluke. In our case the President is the main source of risk, but the system is now revealing itself to be every bit as insane as the one depicted in the movie.) We are all going to die for CNN's bottom line.


Blogger Alan said...

*Squirms and thrashes*

9:09 PM  

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