Trump Needs War
His Iraq War Criticism is a Trojan Horse Indulged by Media
Few seem to grasp that conflict, flamboyantly courted by Donald Trump throughout the media cycle, is also the inevitable culmination of his argument for power.
Trump’s demonization of entire races and religions, his cryptic promises to restore American “greatness” and “strength” which rely upon militaristic notions of virility, and his embrace of authoritarianism — each troubling on its own — taken together, bode war.
Despite the fearsome implication of his politics, Trump’s vocal criticism of the 2003 decision to invade Iraq has been construed by many as an appeal to a war-weary nation — a signal that, as president, he would curb foreign adventurism.
As has been true throughout this demoralizing election season, the media platforms precisely the messages the Trump campaign intends, acting more as unwitting propaganda agents in pursuit of ratings than discerning students of the news.
Despairing of a critically engaged press, we must once again look elsewhere for guidance. Even if history or international comparisons can furnish no definitive answers, they help to formulate questions, and create a sense of curiosity over what has so far raised none. For example, the National Socialists’ numerous public feints toward peace as they prepared to take the reins of power in Weimar Germany serve as a stark — though largely unheeded — reminder.
This has not been for a lack of perceptive observers. In April, Timothy Snyder suggested in the New York Review of Books that Trump would necessarily pursue a belligerent foreign policy “for that surge of approval that he seems to find so pleasurable.” Last week Masha Gessen made a similar and more pointed set of observations in the same publication. “A fascist leader needs mobilization,” she wrote, something the “slow and deliberative process” of legislation does not accommodate. “Wars do,” she added, and predicted that under a Trump presidency, “there will be wars.” In support of her admonition, Gessen drew an analogy to Putin, the autocratic Russian leader who has sought to dissipate opposition to his rule and distract attention from his failures at home by waging war abroad.
A comparison to former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the political figure Trump most resembles, is equally compelling. For years Berlusconi stood as George W. Bush’s stalwart European ally in the war in Iraq, in spite of overwhelming opposition (80%) to the war among Italians. Berlusconi pressed his government’s commitment to all aspects of the war regardless, including tacit approval of CIA rendition conducted on the streets of Milan, because he recognized the service a “war on terror” provided to his political ideology premised on battling a foreign menace. Granted, Berlusconi’s pro-war government eventually collapsed in favor of a leader less pliant to the Bush agenda in 2006. Yet it was a short-lived reprieve. The irrepressible advocate for Italian nativists and neo-fascists returned to power two years later, anything but penitent, praising George W. Bush as a “man of vision” and “principle.” A corruption scandal considered disgraceful even by Berlusconi’s lax standards placed his government in jeopardy once again, prompting the latest in his several ignominious retreats from power. Nevertheless, in spite of it all, the former Prime Minister remains influential. He has repeatedly withstood legitimate (and what for others would be lethal) assaults to his reputation by promising to be singularly effective in imposing simple solutions for a complex world. This appeal, exposed as false by Berlusconi’s own record of governance, has proven formidably resilient. The fact that his politics are untenable does not mean that Berlusconi is himself unelectable.
And so it is interesting that, at one point, the Italian Prime Minister did attempt to distance himself from the Iraq War. Like Donald Trump’s fictive opposition to it, Berlusconi relied on bad memories, not good arguments. In an Italian television interview broadcast in 2005, the Prime Minister insisted that he privately counseled George W. Bush against the war, an assertion vouched for by one of his deputies, the leader of the rechristened neo-fascist party. Nothing about these prominently reported reservations on the invasion prevented Berlusconi’s government from publicly backing the war and supplying the “coalition of the willing” with its third largest military contingent. Nor did it keep him from subsequently lauding Bush as a man of vision and principle. These remarks were merely an expedient concession given by a man trying to win an election, much the same as Trump’s criticism of the Iraq War.
Apparently logic and the precedents of the recent past are too ponderous for the American media to take up. War is the only redoubt the American political system provides for Trump’s divisive politics and promise of potency. But his campaign has thus far evaded the consequences of his war-mongering rhetoric by supplying an artful syllogism to a gullible press: If Trump repeatedly decries the decision to go to war in Iraq, and the war in Iraq exhausted the American public on foreign adventurism, then Trump as president will be wary of war.
Syllogism is among the most common of logical fallacies. Though the concluding premise of this one is false, the Trump campaign has done nothing to dispel it, acknowledging its appeal. Instead they are quite happy to bolster the presumption that Trump is reluctant to go to war with occasional asides, much in the same way as the Nazis assured German voters that a country in disrepair needed investment at home, not wars waged abroad. While Donald Trump endorses a Manichean worldview of good versus evil and escalates conflict, both in his categorical assertions and through his carelessness, the media treats his criticism of the war in Iraq as credible. Meanwhile, if elected president, as his nonsensical schemes falter, there will be only one path available for Trump to keep his political coalition intact. Like Berlusconi before him, he will not hesitate to pursue it.