In the two weeks since Donald Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, it’s both true enough and obviously, howlingly inaccurate to say that things have returned to “normal.” That just cannot possibly be the right word for the government’s ongoing state of clammy resting breakdown—and yet, as the situation seems to have stepped back from the briefly imminent prospect of an actual hot war, Trump has seemed more and more like himself. A day after the drone strike, when House pedant Dan Crenshaw insisted that Trump had a strategy and was following it, Trump wasted little time in contradicting the Texas congressman. On Twitter, naturally, he framed the conflict he’d created as A Hitting Contest that he could not be seen to lose. Trump continued to perform a series of panicky pivots from one unconvincing justification to another; various advisers and factotums gamely mirrored his erratic choreography, in the vein of Katy Perry’s Left Shark Super Bowl dancing companion—a beat late and reliably a bit off.
A week out from the assassination, Trump whinged and flubbed his way through an interview with Laura Ingraham on Fox News, in which he insisted that Saudi Arabia had “already deposited one billion dollars in the bank” in exchange for a deployment of U.S. soldiers. He claimed for good measure that the only remaining American troops in Syria “are taking the oil,” and said that he did not think that viewers needed to know about the imminent threats that occasioned the assassination—“Wouldn’t that help your case?” Ingraham added hopefully—beyond the suggestion that Soleimani was planning to attack four American embassies in the region sometime soon. As with much of what Trump said during his first week as A War President, that assertion had not been made before or since.
Because everything about Trump operates from the opening position that he has never been wrong, changed his mind, or contradicted himself; and because he is always wrong and never really knows what he’s saying and is constantly trying to wrench past stridencies into line with his befuddled present, this created a lot of work for everyone. There was a brief effort to spin the assassination of Soleimani as an act of diplomacy through kinetic operations—“an attempt to empower the country’s moderate voices,” as “several administration officials” told The Wall Street Journal. The ungainly human megaphone that exists to amplify and protect the president seemed happiest and most comfortable when claiming that Democrats loved Soleimani and in fact cried when he died because they wanted to hug and kiss him—both because that type of retro smear is a more natural movement for the megaphone operators and because it didn’t require any frantic trips to the memory hole. None of it was very convincing.
Trump really only regained his footing when he decided that the war he had nearly started was now over and won. Various discordant facts about what happened before, during, and after the assassination continued to emerge over time. The Journal reported that Trump pulled the trigger at least in part to appease senators whose loyalty he would need in his impeachment trial; 11 American soldiers were being treated for what Defense One termed “traumatic brain injuries” after the Iranian counterstrike that supposedly left U.S. troops unscathed; in place of the talk about imminent threat(s), Trump now told supporters that Soleimani had been “saying bad things about our country” and so the U.S. president used his maximal geopolitical power to decide “How much of this shit do we have to listen to?”
Last Friday, when Trump welcomed the National Champion LSU football team to the White House, his face was the same gleaming maroon as a Luden’s cough drop, and he once again grandly played the part of Winner Among Winners. “We took out those terrorists like, like, like your football team would’ve taken out those terrorists, right?” Trump extemporized, and the players and coaches behind him shifted their weight and served high-intensity Jim Halpert faces out into the rustling room.
This was where things were always going: A decapitation strike that dramatically destabilized a region not previously renowned for stability had become a comedic bit on par with the ones Trump serves up at the rallies, where he pledges to “bring the toilets back” and delivers off-the-cuff wildfire-prevention tips to crowds of hooting devotees. Not back to normal, then, not by a damn sight—but Trump’s first war, after two weeks in the media tumbler, emerged as a story as simple and static as every other one about whatever else Trump says, does, touches, or tries. None of it is anywhere near over, but Trump himself seems perfectly happy and not a little eager to be done with it. These determined actions, which inherently come from and go nowhere, and which as often as not seem inspired by Trump’s abiding fear of being called a wuss by Lou Dobbs on Fox Business Channel, get filed under the campaign slogan Promises Made, Promises Kept.
The strangest and most enduring misapprehension about Donald Trump is that he has beliefs. He doesn’t, or at least none beyond the lifelong conviction that Donald Trump really should be on television more often. Trump has his signature anxieties and appetites, numerous fears and a few oafish ambitions, and a wide spectrum of ancient and unexamined biases and bigotries, but he can claim nothing that rises anywhere near to being an actual belief. The attempt to retroactively graft something like a belief system onto the howling bottomless suckhole of Trump’s idiocy and need, from both sides of the political spectrum, is a joke that stopped being funny long before Mark Levin sat in front of a fake fireplace on Fox News and did his grandiloquent best to describe the Trump Doctrine. (“I say it’s much like the Reagan Doctrine,” Levin said, “but it has its own features to it.”) The constellation of partisan media outlets that exists to assure Trump and his acolytes that the urges of a forgetful and frequently confused cable news junkie are in fact the coherent doctrine of a warrior king is surely significant—it is where Trump gets not only his ideas but crucial reassurance that he’s not just doing great but doing exactly what he set out to do—but it will also, very much by design, never tell us anything we don’t already know.
It’s more useful to engage with the idea that Trump, who has spent his life bullying anyone he thought he could get away with bullying, whenever and wherever he thought he could get away with doing it, somehow held lifelong anti-war beliefs that needed to be overcome before he told someone to tell someone to push a button on a console that would assassinate someone by remote control halfway around the world. Most of this resolves to Trump’s insistence that he was opposed to George W. Bush’s war of choice in Iraq, an assertion that Trump made with characteristic vigor and characteristic dishonesty. He claimed in a 2016 GOP debate that “a delegation was sent to my office [by Bush] to see me because I was so vocal about it.”
In reality, Trump wasn’t opposed to that war so much as he was opposed to having to wait for it. In cases of military aggression as everywhere else, Trump is always in favor of action and always stridently opposed to consequences. “You know, whatever happened to the days of the Douglas MacArthur?” Trump asked Fox News’s Neil Cavuto in an interview two months before the war began in 2003. “He would go and attack. He wouldn’t talk. We have to—you know, it’s sort of like, either do it or don’t do it.”
The verbal tics that have overwhelmed Trump’s speech as his ongoing cognitive decline has achieved supersonic velocity are all latent here. But the combination of unprincipled ignorance and pure, TV-addled impatience were, then as now, the most powerful forces in shaping his executive judgment. “He has either got to do something or not do something, perhaps,” Trump finally told Cavuto, “because perhaps [we] shouldn’t be doing it yet and perhaps we should be waiting for the United Nations, you know. He’s under a lot of pressure. He’s—I think he’s doing a very good job. But, of course, if you look at the polls, a lot of people are getting a little tired.”
At the risk of pointing out what you already know, it is not ideal to have, in the most powerful office on earth, a man who would start a war because he is in a peevish mood, anxious about his pending Senate impeachment trial, afraid of looking bad on television, or simply bored. The fundamental risk of Trump, from the beginning, is not just that he is so plainly not up for the job—not just not capable of it, but not interested in becoming capable—but that he cares so much more about even his tiniest whim than he does about any of what most people would agree are the most important things on earth. It was clear to those who took him seriously back when he still seemed like a sad television oaf that a Trump presidency would always be a matter of trying to convince a luxuriously shit-faced lout to hand over the keys before getting behind the wheel of the car. This was clear because his entire public life has been a matter of people either trying and failing to do that or gamely hopping in anyway—either because they thought he might still get them where they wanted to go, despite his impairment, or because they just needed a ride.
Trump’s presidency has been and will continue to be just that harrowing parking lot negotiation for as long as it goes on. But there’s a cruel taunt buried under all the daily anxiety and idiocy. Trump long ago made it clear that the only thing he can or ever will care about is his public image, and yet he has somehow wound up in precisely the same place as the ostensibly More Serious People who preceded him in the office over the past two decades. At some point, the American empire invariably forces unconscionable choices on American presidents, all of which resolve to the question of whether it is worth it to immiserate (or incinerate) hundreds or thousands or millions of people someplace far away to serve purportedly Serious abstractions about security and stability or narrower electoral concerns. At some point, every American president, from the serious men on down to the honking, needy, pathetic, and preposterous Trump, have somehow all always alighted on the very same answer. It’s what Trump told Howard Stern when asked whether he supported a war in Iraq back in 2002: “Yeah, I guess so.”
Trump certainly isn’t the man to examine it, and he surely isn’t up to the work of changing it, but there is something dreadful and darkly ironic in how much the mournful and strenuously justified warmaking of serious presidents, their minds and souls so heavy with dreadful responsibility and principled precedent, resembles the casual and manic button-pushing of this unreflective and unthinking dunce. Bush had his reasons, and Obama had his, and yet they both persisted in losing the same stupid wars in the same stupid ways. There’s nothing honest about Trump, but there may be some lurking truth in the horrifying realization that, this time, an American president clearly dialed up some death abroad because he believed that it might change the channel to something more like what he wanted to watch—something more clearly and more flatteringly about him.