Experts differ on the appropriate way to acknowledge an Air Force fighter jet flyover. Saying “thank you,” however loudly, doesn’t seem sufficient; the planes are very far away and moving very quickly, after all, and generate an ear-splitting wake of raw noise. While the Air Force Thunderbirds flew over Las Vegas on Saturday in what the secretary of the Air Force called a “salute to the first responders, health providers & the entire Nation #inthistogether,” a simple “you’re welcome” doesn’t quite feel like the right response, either. Thunderbirds commander Lt. Col. John Caldwell said the purpose of the mission was for the broader public, essential employees and inessential employees and newly minted un-employees and everyone else, to notice that the flyover was happening. “We want Las Vegas residents to look up from their homes and enjoy the display of American resolve and pride,” Caldwell said, “while keeping front-line coronavirus responders in their hearts during this unprecedented time in our nation.” The basic message seemed clear at last: When in doubt, cheering will do.
In the absence of any sense of progress or even directed movement, and under the immense pressure of various glaring contradictions and increasingly undeniable institutional collapse, American national life first spiderwebbed and then exploded into little episodic shards. The pebbled remains of it cannot be readily pieced back together; no edge really seems to fit with any other, or is even identifiable as having once comprised any particular part of the now completely broken whole. All of it came from the same shattered thing, but each little moment is entirely its own: a thank-you flyover from a squadron of F-16’s over an empty city; the president reading a long list of CEO’s names in the White House’s rose garden for reasons that are not immediately clear; a man tearfully telling a Fox News reporter that Michigan must be opened for business so he can buy lawn-care products; pallets of hoarded hand sanitizer hauled out of a personal storage facility by agents of the state; impossibly obtuse celebrities singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” into their phones on social media; a couple thousand people dying the same way, of the same virus, every single day.
Every president shapes the broader cultural moment he presides over, but the greatest and bleakest and most singular achievement of Donald Trump’s presidency has been his total absorption into that moment, and vice versa: the nation at large now experiences and engages with things more or less as Trump himself does. Trump didn’t invent this fragmentation, although he’s surely done his part to hasten it. Two decades of steepening precarity and endless war and relentless grinding political failure created the conditions necessary for someone like Trump to get nominated and elected (and quite possibly re-elected). More crucially, though, the past 20 years also helped create Trump’s uniquely cynical, uniquely credulous worldview. Nothing connects, nothing is really related to anything else beyond the sort of anxious and amorphous grievance that Trump’s favorite news shows sell; nothing seems to bind yesterday’s events to today’s, or today’s to tomorrow’s. Trump is certainly not the first purebred dunce to occupy the Oval Office, but it’s hard to imagine any previous president being as obviously overmatched and confounded by the basic day-to-day continuity of it.
Trump’s world resets every morning at the moment when he first turns on the television. He reacts to what he finds there, every day, like a cornered animal; he doesn’t take any kind of lesson from any of it, because he doesn’t take any kind of lesson from any kind of experience. It’s why he is not really anything like a full person, but it is also why he is, and how he has been, president. Every single day, the sprawling and metastatic pandemic that he has willfully and childishly botched and only grudgingly ever addressed reasserts itself, and every day, as his stormy moods move him and as the day’s media coverage directs him, Trump takes a different tack on it. That response may reflect some political calculation, but never for very long. Every day is a new fragment of an endless blundering present, and tomorrow will be both different and the same. He has lived this way all his life.
Trump is a creature and creation of the news cycles that he first came to dominate and then replace entirely. American life is as craven and irresponsible and toddlerishly testy as Trump himself, but he never could have become president—never would have bothered to run in the first place—if that weren’t already the case. An insistent and defiant and proudly unteachable stupidity locks it all into place. It makes sense, then, that Trump has spent so much of his presidency looking for some kind of war; it also makes sense, given who he is, that he hasn’t quite been able to commit to one. Nine days after belatedly declaring a national state of emergency last month, once a real crisis finally found him, Trump faced the press and said, “A number of people have said it, but—and I feel it, actually: I’m a wartime president. This is a war. This is a war. A different kind of war than we’ve ever had.”
It was, like everything Trump says, mostly just something he thought would sound cool and impressive at that moment. It was, like everything Trump says, duly subjected to expert analysis suggesting it was something more reasoned—a strategic bit of political framing, or a classic Trumpian search for an enemy to push back against, or an even more classically Trumpian quest for someone else to blame. The reality is almost certainly closer to what a Democratic pollster told CNN’s Ron Brownstein, which is that it’s something Trump did “because somebody told him that wartime presidents get reelected.”
Anyway, it didn’t last. Trump has returned with some regularity to the idea that he is leading a broad-based fight against The Invisible Enemy, but is too volatile and impatient and childish to finish the thought, let alone take any of the actions that kind of language points to; he is by nature a spat president, not a war one. But as Trump pushes for the grand re-opening of the American economy in early May, with the backing of American industry and its associated lobbyists, it feels increasingly likely that Trump has found his war after all. It’s a war that perfectly fits the fragmented, brutal, grasping, forgetful American moment that made him—and one that, however staggering its human cost, he can try to sell as someone else’s fault.
When Republican politicians start talking about war, even as drowsily and casually as Trump did in late March, Democratic politicians tend to respond by making a great show of getting in line behind them. There is an institutional or constitutional unwillingness on the part of Democrats to oppose military conflict on its merits; the party’s response, which doesn’t quite rise to the level of being a counterargument, is that war is just too important and inspiring an endeavor to be left to Republicans. “The president said this is a war,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on March 30. “I agree with that. This is a war. Then let’s act that way, and let’s act that way now. And let’s show a commonality and a mutuality and a unity that this country has not seen in decades.”
Presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden was also happy to grant Trump the status he sought (“Trump keeps saying that he’s a wartime president. Well, start to act like one.”), but urged him to be responsible with it. This reflex to be the reasonable partner drew the same response from Republicans that it did when Democrats hopped onboard with George W. Bush’s vicious and imbecilic foreign wars. Without missing a beat, they accused the Democrats of being disloyal to the point of being Objectively Pro-Coronavirus. “In a prebuttal to Biden’s criticisms,” Politico reported, “Trump’s campaign Monday accused the Democrat of ‘undermining Americans’ confidence in the federal government’s response to a global pandemic and preying upon Americans’ fears.’”
The grim theatricality of all this—Republicans careening wild-eyed and slavering from one conflict to another, Democrats trailing on behind with their polite concerns—is grimmer still when one pauses to note, as the major players very rarely do, that our sprawling set of millennial “forever wars” are still very much in the process of being lost. It has been years since those wars were big national news, but they go on in large part because the very idea of ending them somehow became conflated with defeat, and is therefore unthinkable. The abstract horror of effectively endless, obviously pointless violence and suffering happening somewhere over the horizon has become, over time, something that both parties chose over the more urgently unpleasant acknowledgment of its criminal futility. Trump has been a wartime president, in the most literal sense, for every moment that he has been president. It just hasn’t really suited him to acknowledge it, until now, apropos of a conflict that entails massive human sacrifice but no accompanying militaristic pomp.
Trump himself was quick to drop the basic war framing not long after floating it—the guy just loves to drop things—but his partisans have been a little more stubborn. It is clear that a public health crisis is different from a war, and it is equally clear that neither Trump nor the hollowed-out administrative state he’s created has what it takes to do the urgent and difficult work necessary to prepare for either challenge. The administration has responded to this metastatic pandemic in the way that it responds to everything—with weird lies and distracting interpersonal feuds between unpleasant and territorial men and a proliferation of cheesy scandals, but not with anything that could really be called a coordinated federal response. The failure of the state has been total, and deeply bizarre to observe—fragmented, chaotic, grudging, insufficient, and multiply overwhelmed in its response to vulnerable people and small businesses, queasily servile to the nation’s most powerful economic forces and richest individuals. Things get worse every day and look likely to do so for some time, but that continuum—let alone the concept of consequences—is something Trump himself just cannot comprehend.
In the way of the Trump moment, there’s the sense of the news mirthlessly catching up to the darkest jokes of 18 months ago, and then one-upping them. A wholesale “re-opening” of the economy, which Trump has been advocating for months, would be not just the logical culmination of this (literally) sickening dynamic; it would also mark the moment when he explicitly embraces the sociopathic denial of consensual reality that is the true calling card of the contemporary wartime president.
The idea of “re-opening” the country, which amounts to declaring victory over The Invisible Enemy at a moment when it is neither under control nor especially well understood, is classically Trump in a way that this or that phony strategic messaging feint from the White House never can be. That’s not just because the course of action is willful and half-assed; more fundamentally, it’s a tacit surrender staged as a triumphant ribbon-cutting. “Trump’s advisers are trying to shield the president from political accountability should his move to reopen the economy prove premature and result in lost lives,” The Washington Post reports, “and so they are trying to mobilize business executives, economists and other prominent figures to buy into the eventual White House plan, so that if it does not work, the blame can be shared broadly.”
Conservative pundits and politicians who have rallied behind Trump have already fallen in line with this view of things. By their lights, the idea that the unnecessary deaths of thousands more Americans—the essential employees and healthcare workers who’ve been drafted into this haphazard conflict and saluted with Air Force flyovers, and others forced to choose between their personal safety and their jobs—are connected with Trump’s petulant, feckless handling of this crisis is something close to heresy. It’s bigger than that. “It is always the American government’s position to say, in the choice between the loss of our way of life as Americans and the loss of life of American lives, we have to always choose the latter,” Indiana Rep. Trey Hollingsworth said earlier this week. “It is policymakers’ decision to put on our big-boy and big-girl pants and say, ‘This is the lesser of these two evils.’” The reactionary radio host and impresario of YouTube disinformation Dennis Prager was more succinct: “No one can die? Then it’s not a war.”
One strange and seemingly contradictory feature of this abstracted moment is that it has also brought greater explicitness, if not exactly clarity, to the conduct of our deranged public life. The fundamental conflicts between capitalism and humanity are no longer the stuff of patiently assembled subtext or elaborate flourishes of social theory. They’re brandished as agitprop fodder in presidential press conferences, and echoed by Fox hosts and congressmen blithely demanding human sacrifices. Likewise, the failures of government look less like expressions of incapacity or incompetence and more like flagrant frontal assaults; the relentless corruption and ambient grift that have defined the Trump moment from the start can no longer plausibly be pawned off even to a national political press corps well practiced in chugging whatever it’s handed as works of administrative trickery or artful conning. They now stand exposed for what they always were: raw smash-and-grab looting and button-mashing repetition. And as a corollary of this new explicitness, the idiotic gratuitousness of war is no longer a cause for protest or complaint; now, it’s a casus belli in its own right, a savage tautology holding that war is a thing that kills people, and the only way to win is to keep doing it. Trump, by that definition, has always been a wartime president—always willing to sacrifice people he doesn’t know to things he only sort of cares about, because the prospect of doing anything else seems too challenging. A good number of leaders and citizens will, out of citizenly deference or sincere death-urge, proclaim this newest, dumbest domestic war of choice to be the best of all possible wars, for the best of all possible causes. When in doubt, cheering will do.