This Week, On As The White House Turns

At the risk of damning with faint praise, we have to admit that President Donald Trump’s administration is a lot more intriguing than his last reality show. All the characters are more complicated than those B-list celebrities Trump used to fire, the infighting is more vicious, and we prefer the new format of constantly leaked news stories better than carefully edited one-hour-a-week television episodes.
Lately all the subplots seem to be about Steve Bannon, who makes Dennis Rodman and Gary Busey and all those other flamboyantly crazed celebrity apprentices seem bland by comparison. If you haven’t been following the show, Bannon is an ex-Navy officer turned Goldman Sachs investment banker turned publisher of an internet publication he described as a “platform for the alt-right,” and after that he turned into the “chief executive” of Trump’s campaign and then “White House chief strategist.” Until recently he was also a member of the National Security Council, but he’s been rather unceremoniously removed that position and suddenly there’s a great deal of suspense about whether he’ll be around in any capacity for future episodes.
After weeks of leaks about Bannon’s feud with White House chief of staff Reince Priebus the stories are now mostly about his feud with Jared Kushner, whose White House responsibilities include being an envoy to China and bringing peace to the Middle East and getting the Mexicans to pay for a border wall and solving the opioids crisis and reinventing federal government. The very busy 36-year-old Kushner is also the husband of Trump’s beloved daughter Ivanka, another key character in this convoluted plot who has also reportedly feuding with Bannon, and for now he seems to enjoy the advantage that blood proverbially has over water. Trump told the friendly folks at The New York Post that “I like Steve, but you have to remember that he was not involved in the campaign until very late. I had already beaten the all the senators and all the governors, and I didn’t know Steve. I’m my own strategist and it wasn’t like I was going to change my strategy because I was facing crooked Hillary.”
In the past Trump had frequently spoken of his years-long friendship with Bannon, and often cited him as one of those very best people he promised to surround himself, but if you’ve been following the show you know that Trump’s past pronouncements don’t mean much. Despite Trump’s past boasts about his loyalty he’s fired two wives along with all those other B-list celebrities, as well as two campaign managers, both of whom were described by Trump spokespeople as someone Trump barely knew, and a National Security Advisor, and at this point such an old media hand as Bannon can surely read the writing on The New York Post. Should he find himself on the receiving end of Trump’s “you’re fired” catchphrase, though, it would make for a messy divorce even by Trump standards.
Bannon’s complicated role in this even more complicated plot has been the keeper of the “nationalist populist” and “America First” and “anti-establishment” and vaguely “alt-right” flame that Trump ran on, and as the guy who was fending off all those nasty “globalists” and “neocons” and “establishment” types who suddenly were trying to lure Trump away from the one true faith. According to leaks that probably came from Bannon he was credited with that “American carnage” inaugural speech that fired up the faithful and those travel restrictions that sure seemed to keep the campaign promises Trump had made, as well as the immediate efforts to bring the promised Mexican border wall and all that it implied. All of that played well enough wit the hard-core of Trump’s supporters that there was plenty of credit to go around, but it didn’t play nearly so well elsewhere.
The inaugural speech drew mostly negative reviews and a dismal crowd that Trump embarrassingly lied about at great length, the travel restrictions were halted by a couple of federal courts that thought they sure sounded like a Muslim ban and were therefor a violation of the religious establishment clause in the First Amendment, and all the polls show that despite mixed feelings about illegal immigration most Americans now regard a gazillion-dollar wall across the entire Mexican border as an obviously stupid idea. Whatever value those “nationalist populists” brought to the campaign season they’re currently dragging the new season’s ratings down to a 40 percent or so approval rating, so new characters have been brought in. There’s also Chief of Staff Preibus, who used to be the chairman of the Republican National Committee and the guy whose name all the right-wing talk radio hosts used to pit out to describe that hated GOP establishment, so naturally Bannon had several leaked episodes of feuding with them.
Not to mention Jared and Ivanka, who by this point have at least enough combined political clout to deserve a collective tabloid nickname like “Javanka” or something, and have reportedly persuaded Trump to embrace such hairy-legged feminist nonsense as paid maternity leave and apologizing for talking about grabbing women by the wherever and to launch 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Libyan air base that launched a horrific attack against a nearby village wound up killing scores of men and women and children and some “beautiful babies.” There’s talk they also have something to do with Trump pulling back on his out-dated promises to declare China a currency manipulator and starting slapping 45 percent tariffs on their imports, and serving its dictator steak and au-gratin at his still wholly-owned Mar-a-Lago instead of the Big Mac and fries he promised on the campaign trail, and of course all the true-blue “nationalist populists” are by now feeling betrayed, and the right-wing talk radio hosts are still trying to make sense of it, but Bannon should worry about the overall poll number and those recent Trump remarks to the press.
Should Brannon wound up another one of the very best people that Trump has been forced to defenestrate that would be fine with such old-fashioned Republicans as ourselves. That “alt-right” of his strikes us as the same sort of racist trash that conservatives have long been distancing themselves from, that Mexican border and all it implies seems an overreaction to the admittedly serious but declining-even-before-Trump problem of illegal immigration, that talk of China’s currency manipulation was outdated and the part about 24 percent tariffs was always crazy, the “America First” slogan makes no more sense than it did when used to oppose resistance to the Axis, and except for the undeniable yet recently denied crucial role he played in keeping crooked Hillary from becoming president we don’t see how Bannon has ever done the country much good.
Still, there’s no telling how this story might turn out without Bannon. By the time of the feud with Javanka he had reportedly made peace with Priebus and the rest of the GOP establishment, who were allied against the influence of a couple with no political paper trail except for a long history of generously donating to Democratic candidates and espousing such liberal causes as mandated paid maternity leave for all employees. One of Trump’s sons told the British press that his sister had persuaded his father to launch those 59 Tomahawk missiles against that Syrian air base, which pleased the less constitutionally-minded sorts of “neocons,” and that yet might prove wise, but for all the bleeding-heart reasons that Trump himself outlined and were pretty much the same reasons that President Barack Obama cited when seeking congressional approval for such a strike after a similar chemical attack that killed similarly beautiful babies, which the Republicans in congress and of course Bannon and even the then-unregistered reality star Trump himself found wanting at that time.
We’re pleased by the recent reasonableness of Trump’s China policy, skeptical but open-minded about the Syrian strike, delighted by Trump’s complete retreat from that campaign-season nonsense about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization being “obsolete, and still following all the twists and turns in that ongoing Russkie subplot, but we’re mostly worried that there’s no underlying logic to any of it. Past pronouncements are of course of no use, ¬†except that “unpredictable” remains a goal, and what happens seems to depend largely on what the president saw just on television. The Republican establishment hasn’t done much for Trump lately, that “alt-right” has clearly become burdensome, and we have even less faith in the Javanka faction, and of course theres no telling what those damned outright Democrats might do.. The ratings seem to be driving this plot so far, and that never leads to a satisfactory conclusion.

— Bud Norman


A Quick Response to a Quick Response

Just as we were sitting down to write about the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I, the news came across the internet that President Donald Trump had ordered a launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base. The wisdom of America fighting in World War I is still a matter of heated debate a century later, so of course it’s far too soon to say how that missile strike will play out.
The potential consequences of such military actions are as numerous as the trillions of possible moves in a chess game, and finding the most promising line among them requires far more serious contemplation, but the decision was apparently made with some haste. On Tuesday the brutal regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical weapons attack on a village caught up in the country’s seven-year-old civil war and killed scores of innocent men, women, and children, and the Trump administration immediately condemned the atrocity and blamed in the past inaction of the administration of President Barack Obama. On Wednesday Trump told the press that he was personally affected by the footage of the gassed children, and that “It is now my responsibility.” On Thursday afternoon, the 59 or so missiles were launched against the same air base where the chemical attack originated. There are time pressures in both chess and geopolitics that sometimes force players to act quickly and intuitively, but at this point there’s no apparent reason those missiles had to be launched on Thursday.
That horrific Syrian civil war has been dragging on for more than seven years, after all, and Tuesday’s atrocity was by no means the first time that Assad has used chemical weapons. The Syrian air base and all those Tomahawk missiles would have still been there on Monday morning after a weekend of careful thought, which the situation seems to require. Trump was quite right that Obama’s failure to enforce the “red line” he had carelessly drawn over a previous chemical attack on innocents had emboldened Assad to do it again, even if Trump was “tweeting” advice not to do anything at the time, but that’s as much an argument for not drawing red lines as it for enforcing them. Trump is also quite right to regard the chemical attack as a humanitarian outrage and clear violation of international law, but so were the previous chemical attacks that Trump didn’t want to respond to and a Republican Congress eventually declined to authorize the use of military force to punish. There’s also an argument to made, and naturally some people are making it, that Trump’s announcement that the United States no longer sought regime change in Syria also emboldened Assad to undertake his latest atrocity.
This time around the situation is even more complicated. The Syrian regime is hanging on because of support from Iran, who Obama was eager to reach a friendly deal with and Trump has promised to strike a far harsher deal with, as well as the dictatorship in Russia, which both Obama and Trump have seemed all too eager to get along with for probably very different reasons. One of the Syrian regime’s most formidable enemies is the equally abhorrent and potentially more troublesome Islamic State, which Obama infamously dismissed as the “jay-vee team” of terrorism and Trump has promised to destroy, so there’s a tricky problem of trying to harm one without helping the other. Much of Syria is now controlled by Kurdish forces, who about the closest thing to good guys that you’ll find in the Middle East, and have been of much help in America’s complicated dealings with Iraq, but the Kurds are a problem for Turkey, which is also a problem but nonetheless a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and an occasional ally, and Trump once infamously confused them with Iran’s Quds Forces. At this point any rebels remotely resembling modern and democratic types have been pretty much wiped out, thanks to years of inaction, but a few hundred American servicemen are currently in Syria and probably on heightened security at the moment.
There’s certainly a case to be made that Tuesday’s chemical attack was so horrific it demanded an immediate muscular response, and some people are naturally making that case, but events will surely muddy the argument. The initial reports say that the Russians were given a heads-up on the attack and that care was taken not to bomb the Russian parts of that air base, so some care has been taken not to widen the conflict, but given the extremely complicated state of Russo-American relations at the moment it’s hard to say how that will pan out. By now most Americans don’t care much what that awful government in Iran thinks of all this, but for the past 38 years they haven’t seemed to care what Americans think. Americans have never cared much what the rest of the world thinks, either, but that usually winds up making some difference.
Meanwhile, back in the States, there will be political consequences that no one can possibly predict. Trump ran on promises to beef up America’s military might and criticisms of Obama’s weak-kneed foreign policy, but he also explicitly promised an “America First” foreign policy that would avoid the interventionism of the war-mongering neocon establishment that had fallen out of favor with many Republican primary voters and the Rust Belt Democrats who didn’t like Hillary Clinton. He stressed his eagerness to get along with Russia, accused President George W. Bush of lying the country into a Middle East war, lied blatantly about his past support for intervention in Iraq and his more full-throated support for the ill-fated Libyan war, and promised to spend all that war money on re-building America. The comments section at all the Trump-friendly news sources are full of griping by Trump supporters who don’t much care about anyone in Syria and feel betrayed by the missile strike, and we expect that all those Trump-friendly talk radio show hosts wish he’d at least given them a weekend to come up with a justification. It’s hard to see any Democrats siding with Trump on the issue, although they’ll have to add the usual tsk-tsking about Assad gassing those innocents, and unless this missile strike yields unexpectedly quick positive results we don’t see the usual rally-round-the-president sentiment happening.
Fifty or so Tomahawk missiles will hinder Assad’s military capabilities for a while, and might just force him to use conventional bombs rather than chemical weapons in his ongoing war, but unless the missiles keep coming for a while that probably won’t last long. Perhaps Chinese President Xi Jiping will be a bit more wary of Trump during the negotiations at the Mar-a-Lago resort today, but we don’t expect he’s worried that Trump will be lobbing any missiles at his country in the near future, and the nutcase running his client state in North Korea might feel all the more threatened. The strike might also prove to a masterstroke of geo-political 3-D chess playing, as Trump’s more smitten supporters always claim, even when talking about such obvious failures as the recent demise of his health care reform bill, but we’d be mighty impressed if he calculated all those possible combinations in such a short time.
Even after a hundred years people are still sorting out that whole World War I thing. Although we’re no fans of President Woodrow Wilson, and hate the way he used the war to suppress free speech and expand the administrative state and threw away a victory for utopian dreams of a global government, we were planning to write to that he didn’t have much choice but to enter the horrible fray. The alternative was a Europe and world dominated by German militarism and Ottoman theocracy, and the Germans were sinking American ships and waging a war of sabotage and trying to lure Mexico in a revanchist war on our border, and our alliances with Great Britain and France and the emerging democracies were on the line, and our involvement did hasten the end of what was then history’s bloodiest conflict. It’s also true that the war didn’t all wars, as Wilson had promised, and the resulting peace carved the Middle East into all the currently warring states, and Ireland was emboldened to start a bloody war with England that would last for decades, and sub-Saharan Africa wound up with decades of wars, and a not-fully-conquered Germany and an emboldened Japan and a Italy suddenly on the other side would start a far bloodier conflict just two decades later.
These things always take time to sort out, so we’ll reserve a final judgment on Trump’s missile strike. We do hope, though, that some time will be taken before the next military action.

— Bud Norman