So now we know what it takes for an unhinged, bigoted demagogue to get liberal applause: just bypass the constitution to fire some missiles. It had seemed as though there was consensus among those against Donald Trump. This man was a threat to US democracy and world peace. The echoes of 1930s fascist leaders were frightening. “This republic is in serious danger,” declared conservative writer Andrew Sullivan on the eve of the Trump triumph.
That this megalomaniac “pussy-grabbing” ban-the-Muslims ex-reality TV star would soon control the world’s most lethal military arsenal was chilling. Opposition to him would be uncompromising, a reflection of the Republican intransigence that Barack Obama faced from day one. It took less than three months to shatter these illusions. All it took was a man widely castigated as a proto-fascist to bomb without observing due process.
Let’s examine what is now being said about Trump. A press he denounced as liars and “enemies of the people” are now eating out of his hands, tiny or otherwise. “I think Donald Trump became President of the United States,” cooed CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria in response to the bombing. Trump “reacted viscerally to the images of the death of innocent children in Syria,” declared Mark Sandler in the New York Times. The original headline on that article, since amended? “On Syria Attack, Trump’s Heart Came First.”
And so the man who once bragged to a baying audience that he would tell five-year-old Syrian refugees to their faces that the US would not offer them safety, is now driven by his heart. Touching indeed. The “moral dimensions of leadership” had penetrated Trump’s Oval Office, declared the Washington Post’s David Ignatius.
MSNBC’s Brian Williams described the missile launches as “beautiful” three times in the space of 30 seconds.
In Britain, liberal and conservative columnists alike, Tory, Liberal Democrat and Labour politicians applauded Trump’s bombing raid. He is now showing leadership, apparently. Leadership is shown by a man widely feared to be a) unhinged b) demagogic and c) authoritarian, dropping bombs in defiance of his country’s democratic process. Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, is savaged for querying whether a military escapade led by Trump will succeed where all other Middle Eastern military adventures have failed.
Those who critique Trump’s unilateral assault on Syria are portrayed as heartless in the face of the gassing of little children, just as opponents of war in Iraq and Libya were demonised as indifferent to those murdered and tortured and persecuted by Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. So let’s be clear. The gassing of those children, and the unspeakably sickening deaths that they suffered, are despicable crimes. President Assad is a blood-soaked tyrant who has slaughtered countless numbers of Syrians with his barrel bombs, and he deserves to spend his final days rotting in a jail cell. Vladimir Putin, too, is caked in the blood of Syrian and Chechen children alike. If I genuinely thought Donald Trump was the plausible saviour of Syria’s children, then I would reconsider my position.
The history of western military intervention in the Arab world is of bloody failure. Remember Libya, and how this time things would be different, before the country descended into a violent quagmire overrun by Islamist militia? Those applauding his latest intervention are saying, implicitly or otherwise, that this time will be different. And who will apparently buck the trend of failed, bloody US military interventions in the Arab world? Trump.
There are two plausible outcomes to Trump’s raid. One, it was purely symbolic. This, currently, seems most likely. His administration gave the Russians notice, who alerted Assad’s forces. Syrian military casualties were minimal, and bombing raids from the targeted military base have now resumed. In that case, here was a meaningless slap on the wrists, mostly designed for a domestic American audience at a time when the president has disastrous polling numbers. The other is that this marks the beginning of a further escalation of US involvement in Syria’s intractable civil war. That will mean entrusting Trump to spearhead deepening military involvement in a war which has already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. How palatable are both options?
Good on Trump, some liberal pundits say, but he lacks strategy. In Syria, that is true. He has no strategy there. But let’s not pretend for a second that a man who defeated both the Republican and Democratic party machines is lacking in strategy. He has proved adept at winning power, and now he will amass it – with the help of this applauded military excursion
Trump is now emboldened. The pundits are applauding him, his critics have praised him, his appalling approval ratings will now surely edge up. Further military action – by a man who has repeatedly bragged about disrespecting the norms of war – will surely follow. He bypassed the constitution this time, and will be praised for it, so why shouldn’t he next time? If war comes with North Korea, what will the liberal pundits do? Some will cheerlead him all over again. “Where’s your compassion for the suffering of North Korea?” will be their cry to silence opposition, just as it was in Iraq and Libya. We had the Ronald Reagan Democrats; now the Trump liberals will emerge. Others will say, no, we backed the bombing of Syria, but this new war is different, this is too far.
Too late. They already helped legitimise one extra-constitutional military intervention, and their subsequent opposition will look as pathetic as it will be hypocritical. A man who backs torture and castigated his predecessors for not stealing Iraq and Syria’s oil is literally being rehabilitated by the liberal pundits: as a man of compassion, a man of strength, with the resolve that Obama apparently lacked.
A wartime martial presidency may then be born, cheered on by some liberals who once decried Trump as a possible American Mussolini. Well fine: it was liberal Italy that handed Mussolini the keys, after all. History shows that war presents the ideal opportunity for the authoritarian-minded to amass, consolidate and concentrate power. Dissent can be more easily portrayed as treachery; jingoism sweeps the nation, boosting the popularity of the ruler; critics fall into line; constitutional norms can be disregarded at a time of national crisis.
It is increasingly clear that some liberals opposed Trump not because of his authoritarian rightwing populism, but because they feared he would be “isolationist”. He wasn’t trigger-happy enough. And they were wrong, just as some supposed leftists – who actually believed Trump was the lesser of two evils – were unforgivably wrong, too. Trump has let the US military off the leash.
What happened in Syria cannot be divorced from what is happening in Iraq and Yemen. In Mosul, at least 150 civilians perished in a Trumpist bombing raid – one of the deadliest US raids since the calamitous Iraq invasion. That’s more than perished in Assad’s gas attack in Khan Sheikhun, even if the American weapons that slaughtered them are legal.
Dozens were killed by a US strike against a school in Syria last month, largely unmourned by Trump’s new apologists, as were the 30 civilians killed in Trump’s failed Yemen raid in January, children among them. There are children in Yemen too, you know, and they are being slaughtered by US- and UK-backed Saudi warplanes. Trump’s liberal apologists won’t cry for them, or even acknowledge their existence: they are, apparently, unpeople, rather than kids clutching teddy bears as western-backed bombs rain on their heads.
How naive some of us were. Yes, some of those liberals were cheerleaders of George W Bush as he launched an invasion of Iraq which plunged the country – and the region – into blood and chaos. They learned their lesson, though, right? I mean, Trump almost makes a bloodstained Bush look like a paragon of decency in comparison – surely they won’t legitimise his war machine too and laud him to boot?
One of the main objections to Trump was that he was unstable, impulsive, with authoritarian instincts, and would disregard constitutional norms. This has turned out to be true, while being applauded by his erstwhile detractors for doing so, emboldening him to go further. “I’m no fan of Trump, but …” will be their battle cry. Still, the children of Syria will die, just as they will die in Yemen and Iraq and elsewhere. History will ask: how did this man become president? And how did he maintain power when he did? Look no further than this brittle, weak, pathetic liberal “opposition”. The US deserves better, and so does the world.