The prospect of a scandal-plagued president launching a military attack on a distant land has pundits reaching for the handiest film cliche, the 1997 political satire Wag the Dog. On Monday, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews raised that possibility on his show Hardball while talking with USA Today’s Susan Page. “How about Wag the Dog, Susan?” Matthews asked. “I was with Barry Levinson last week. He is the director of a film where a president in fiction decided to start a little war to cover up for hanky-panky.”
These and other recent references to Levinson’s film suggest that it is widely misunderstood. Matthews, for one, got a key plot point wrong. In the film, the president doesn’t “start a little war”; he has his brilliant spin doctor concoct a fictional war in Albania, using actors to create a hoax that fools the American people. Wag the Dog isn’t about using war as a distraction, but rather about the political uses of fake news and blurring the line between reality and fiction.
Wag the Dog applies more accurately to today’s White House than Matthews’ misremembered version. Trump has been wagging the dog throughout his presidency, using Twitter and press conferences to spread lies, misdirection, and confusion, distracting the public from his genuine scandals and policy failures.
To be sure, Trump’s strategy is more instinctive than cunning, but no film analogy is perfect. (See my preferred one: “We Are Living in the Coen Brothers’ Darkest Comedy.”) But a recent The Washington Post report shows how Trump’s wagging the dog is driving not just the public to distraction, but also his own government. “In a White House known for chaos, the process of developing the U.S. response to the Syrian government’s alleged latest gas attack was proceeding with uncharacteristic deliberation, including several national security briefings for President Trump,” according to the Post. But then, on Wednesday morning, Trump disrupted that process with a series of bizarre tweets:
Trump’s own staff was taken aback, and had to figure out how to respond. They ultimately decided to ignore him. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker was similarly confused. “I have no idea,” Corker said. “So far, it appears to me to be bluster. Then I saw a tweet come out about us working with Russia right after we’re getting ready to bomb them, so I mean, who knows? Unfortunately, there are a lot of things announced by the administration that never come to pass or evolve.”
Corker’s shrug encapsulates how Washington, and indeed much of the world, responds to Trump. They’ve gotten used to his wagging the dog; they know the tweets are usually just distractions, not policy declarations. But even if the distraction can be disregarded, that still leaves the fundamental question of policy unanswered. In that sense, Trump’s distraction is working, making it difficult even for engaged politicians like Corker, let alone the rest of the public, to understand Trump’s policy positions amid the din of unreality and spectacle.
Meanwhile, real policy decisions are being made, if not always by Trump. Newly installed National Security Advisor John Bolton seems to be purging the White House of ideological foes. In the aforementioned Hardball episode, Susan Page tells Matthews that his Wag the Dog theory is “a very serious charge to make against a president,” to which Matthews replies, “It’s a question to raise when you’ve got John Bolton sitting next to him.” Given Bolton’s hawkishness, we might see a Wag the Dog scenario that resembles not the movie but Matthews’s memory, a story of a president who launches a real war for a political reason—whether it be to “cover up for hanky-panky” or for another Saturday Night Massacre.