April 11, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
Trump’s Right Hand
THAT WHICH IS BOTH ephemeral and ignoble is unworthy of serious concern—and the vast majority of what we commonly call “news” is precisely of such a character. For that reason, I hesitate before dedicating a third article to a single event which is surely both ephemeral and ignoble: namely, the Syrian strike of last Thursday. And yet, I cannot help but be intrigued by this event, and, more to the point, the reactions to it. I would like therefore to offer some final thoughts on what has happened. As the name of this article suggests, I address this principally to the politically right, and more specifically yet to those on the right who have, laudably but perhaps hastily, broken with Trump over the issue of this single decision.
Those who have read my previous two articles will know that I am not yet prepared to make any claims about Trump’s real motives in this strike. I am not here to argue that Trump is a Machiavellian mastermind three steps ahead of the rest of us. I think there is doubt about the caliber of Trump, and has been, for me at least, since the first days of his candidacy—a doubt, I might add, which his supporters have, more often than not, given him the benefit of. This present situation cannot do other than bring forth the real mettle of our president, one way or another. It would be worthy to have a little intellectual curiosity going into the coming days, rather than this angry flash of doctrinaire moralism which I have perceived where I least expected to find it. Indeed, I think it is high time the new American right learned to regulate itself a little more philosophically, in both its hope and its despair; I think it time it started coming of age.
Since the beginning of Trump’s candidacy, his staunchest supporters on the right—and particularly those in the budding alt-right—have attempted to paint the man as an artificer of events, rather than the capricious slave of whims and half-baked ideas which the press often tried to portray him as being. It is strange to me then that these same supporters are suddenly fallen into a reproachful mood, on account of a single, and itself most ambiguous, act. It suggests to me that there has always been doubt on the part of the right, that perhaps Trump really was the child he was accused of being. I say—it is time to discover what Trump is. Rather than taking up moral indignation over the Syrian strike, it would be wise to wait and see what comes of it; we can only judge these events on the basis of the motives that have guided them, and we can only know those motives on the basis of what Trump does next. We shall not have to wait long; I do suspect we will have some clear signal of how matters stand, even with Tillerson’s imminent visit to Russia.
Many arguments have been made that Trump’s action in Syria cannot be defended from a strategic point of view—that it represents simply and unambiguously the abandonment of his promises and his caving to extant political powers. I would like to address these arguments. I am willing to agree that the better part of what I am about to propose would require a developed strategic mentality. But if Trump really never possessed such strategic capacity, then the right has been fooled by him since the beginning, and it must confront that error, and understand how and why it could have made such an error. If, on the other hand, the right was correct to view Trump as an intelligent manipulator of events—then it would be premature and even irresponsible to abandon Trump at a moment when, precisely through that presumed intelligence, he might have succeeded in a truly grand manipulation.
First argument: Trump gains nothing diplomatically by appearing to be utterly unhinged—which is the most that will issue from his strike. He certainly does not appear strong—just look at how the world leaders he was supposed to have intimidated are responding!
My response: Did not Trump win an entire election precisely by appearing to be “unhinged”? One should never underestimate the political advantages of appearing inconsistent, perhaps even a bit erratic. It keeps one’s enemies constantly off their balance. And—so long as Trump really is not simply a frivolous and utterly inconsistent egomaniac—this is the very tactic he surely has employed since the beginning, to such great effect.
As for the response from China and Russia—words, words! The message to them has been clear enough. Did anyone expect their leaders to publicly demonstrate weakness, and congratulate America on demonstrating once again her indisputable prowess?
Second argument: Trump has done great and probably irreversible damage to his own political base, which were folly in the best of times, and worse yet in his flailing first months as president. He has also wounded his promising relationship with Russia, which was to be of central importance in the new administration.
My response: If Trump really is politically savvy, he is little concerned with what happens here and now. He is thinking ahead, and not just a week, ahead, two weeks, a month—but a year or several years. On such a timeline, he can afford to offend his base, if in doing so he grants himself the power to subsequently flatter it. If in this act he has gained himself political currency, and he spends that currency on all the projects most beloved of his base, it is probable if not certain that the majority of those who are now so vehemently denouncing him, will soon return to the fold.
So far as Russia goes—two things must be said. First, the alliance between Trump and Putin was compromised far more by the whispers of secret collusion between them, than it will be by this isolated event. So long as hostilities end here, Trump has in fact won himself a degree of liberty to join hands with Putin, without laboring under constant accusations of conspiracy. Second, no alliance between two sovereign states is ever between equals; an alliance is merely a temporary stay to hostilities. Any sensible leader would then prefer to hold the upper hand in any alliance with another leader. Up until now, Putin has surely had the place of prominence; he has appeared to be the cleverer, the stronger, the more inscrutable of the two by far. Trump has just demonstrated before all the world that this is not so clear as it seemed. He has demonstrated that he will not accept everything that Putin commands, that his alliances are not made without caveats, and that the U.S. has the unmatchable military power to do as it sees fit, without waiting on anyone’s by-your-leave.
Third argument: Trump has gained the vocal and evident support of the hated establishment, when he ought to have been the greatest enemy to that establishment.
My response: Did you want to elect an efficacious political figure? or a mere bugbear to affright and irritate the professional politicians of Washington? Is the point of having Trump in office to spit in the face of all that has come before? or to attempt to build something new? And if you are concerned more with building something new than with simply passing four years as a thorn lodged in the liberals’ side, then you must allow that Trump needs all the leeway he can get, and that any act on his part which augments his freedom of action works to his net benefit. I will say it again—with this act, he has liberated himself from countless brambles and snares, which even a week ago were still obstructing him from acting. Russiagate, the necessary but burdensome war with the press, and—need I remind?—the threat of possible impeachment if things should go badly—all of that has vanished over the course of a weekend.
If your idea of politics is to make enemies of everyone who has been corrupted by the system, then I salute your idealism, but I do not foresee that your future will contain much “winning so much you’ll be sick of winning.”
Fourth argument: Is not the endgame in the Middle East to eliminate ISIS? Then why attack the man who is our ally in that struggle? Why eliminate an airbase that was standing between Christians and the ISIS rebels? Why damage the very rapport with Putin the U.S. was finally beginning to develop?
My response: That is cloth which can be easily mended. What damage was done here was superficial, if the hand that dealt it is but steady.
I will say more: if Trump’s attack in Syria was merely a strategic ploy, we will see the relationship between Trump and Putin come out the stronger for it. That muscle which is to grow must first break its fibers; in their reconciliation, Trump and Putin will have the possibility of coming to a much clearer and potentially much stabler understanding. Assad will be reduced to the position of a mere pawn in the relationship of greater powers—as is well.
Fifth argument: Trump has not even succeeded in eliminating the Russian conspiracy theories, which is one of the major gains he supposedly got from this strike! The same people who most stridently claimed he was in Russia’s pockets now point out that he warned Putin hours in advance of the strike, and call this more evidence in favor of the presumed conspiracy.
My response: He would be a fool to care what a handful of journalists are saying about him. If he is clever, he is worried about what the majority of journalists, and with them the American public, are saying about him. That is the perception he has managed to shift: just compare today’s newspapers with those of last week! If you really believe that the larger part of the mainstream press will continue to push this business about Trump’s Russian connections, or the larger part of Americans will continue to buy it, when the rubble is still smoking on the Syrian runways, then I must say—I will believe it when I see it.
Sixth argument: There has already been talk of regime change in Syria since the strike! How can we have any trust or respect for an administration which starts to speak yet again in such a way?
My response: And so there has been talk. Talk is all of a kind in politics: it is action to which we must look if we are to see anything clearly. If Trump gives any indication, in coming days, that he intends to mire the United States in another wasteful and self-defeating humanitarian escapade in Syria, then I am all with you, friends, and I shall go back to thinking what I peacefully suspected not five days past: namely, that Trump is probably a childish charlatan and a spoiled fool, and that voting for him was always better sign of desperation than of hope.
But this strike in Syria has awoken me to some extent, and I am for the first time willing to take your erstwhile view of Trump seriously, even as you seem to be abandoning it. I am willing now to wait a night with our good President, until I am given better evidence of his intentions. I take Trump’s silence as a promising sign. It indicates that he might simply be sowing the usual discord and confusion, from which he might reap the crop of his choice. All the eyes of the world are riveted now on Syria: but there is reason to suspect that Trump himself is looking elsewhere. I am willing to entertain the hypothesis that all of this bears the mark of an intelligence I had not hitherto attributed to Trump. I say once again: do not fall prey to haste! Tomorrow will tell all tales.
Again: I do not know that Trump did any of this intentionally, and I do not know that he will make use of what he has gained. But the better part of the right supported Trump because they believed he was wily enough to play the perceptions of the American public, the weaknesses of the press, and the illness of an entire political system, to propel himself, against all odds, into power. That part of the right is now recoiling as though it had been slapped in the face. This smacks to me as being both precipitous and juvenile. The alt-right to my eyes has a certain promise as a new political movement—but it must come of age if it is going to get anywhere.