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Following the Mooch Storm, the clique of relatively obscure but hardcore militarists whom our Kayfabe Hitler appointed to the power positions last January appear to have consolidated their control over The Trump Show as a whole. They will move to set off a big new war as soon as they can line one up, most likely in the coming fall season.
This will be what I call a “production” war, the kind that aims to enlist the active support of the American public, the kind that the media does not hide behind the Spectacle but that becomes the Spectacle. You won’t have to watch Democracy Now! to learn that it is happening. The news networks will run intro sequences, they will design animated logos for it. In other words, it will be like the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and not like the current U.S.-Saudi attack on Yemen, or any of the many other theaters targeted by the interventions and bombings and proxy operations of the last decade. (Can you name at least six? If not, congratulations: You’re still an American.)
As with past international aggressions launched by United States governments, there is a high likelihood that a murderous gambit of this kind will gain support for the regime holding power in Washington. At least in the short and middle term, criticism from both the corporate media and the majority of Democratic Party politicians will be muted.
Or will it? For once, this is not a certainty. My advice to the people who have been in the streets since last fall is to keep your pussy hats on and get ready to make some antiwar signs. Scratch that, get ready to chain yourselves to the gates of federal offices. Get your urban camping gear together for the kind of demonstrations that don’t have official ending times. Occupy the War.
Trita Parsi’s analysis makes a strong case that the attempted aggression will be fixing sights on the nation of Iran by the October deadline for military site inspections, just two months from now. Based on the regime’s first-year obsessions, North Korea and Venezuela are also among the possible targets; perhaps two or more fronts will be opened simultaneously.
The Worst President Is Always Yet to Come
Tomorrow’s news may make me seem like a fool for having written the above, given the many always-moving parts of The Trump Show – what, has he fired Kelly already? – but these are my impressions. Why should you listen to me? My views derive in part from long observation of U.S. administrations and U.S. imperial action. In this case, I find special relevance in the recent administration of the prior “worst president of all time,” George W. Bush. However, after reading the confession that follows, you may be inclined to pigeonhole me into some category of undesirable; I don’t care, and I do wish to be honest with you:
From its beginning I viewed the Bush-W regime self-evidently as a criminal enterprise, given the past collaborations of its principals in illegal war and covert operations and money laundering schemes dating back to the 1980s, 1970s and earlier. I could insert a long detour here about how this group coalesced around the elder Bush during the CIA’s crisis years in the mid-1970s and fancied themselves as the government from that point forward, whether in or out of office. Even before the stealing of the 2000 election I understood that this tight and connected mob of professional spooks, based on their track records, were intending to launch the biggest possible war, most likely an invasion of long-suffering Iraq. (I happened to miss the many signs also indicating Afghanistan.) In early 2001, I started telling people that all that was missing was an enabling event, a kind of Reichstag fire that would allow the requisite national mobilization. At the time, when I was living in Berlin, this got me some knowing laughs.
Then came the televised horrors of September 11th, the image of absolute evil embodied in the person of Osama Bin Laden, and the month-long anthrax terror aimed at the Congress and the U.S. corporate media (now forgotten, but enormous at the time). The front-man of the regime, a fount of malapropism until then acknowledged by all smart people as a loser and a dummy, suddenly had a 90% approval rating. Everything and everyone was plastered in American flags. The executive declared a state of emergency, one that has been renewed every year since. The likes of Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer (I don’t know if you remember them, they were the Democratic senators from New York) collaborated assiduously in gaining rapid and overwhelming passage for the USA PATRIOT Act; the Homeland Security Act; gargantuan increases in budgets for security, immigration control and of course the military; and many other legislative atrocities, leading up to the October 2002 authorization for the use of military force in Iraq.
Of course almost none of these long-standing right-wing agenda items had any relevance to defending residents of the United States from the potential of harm by foreign or domestic terrorists. And yet it was considered impolitic to keep thinking what I had been thinking before all this happened, that the Bush-W regime had started as no more than a war crime in the making, waiting for its pretext. Was I simply premature? This year Timothy Snyder has probably not been the only highly respected academic historian to go on the record stating much the same expectation, of a Reichstag fire, this time for Trump.
Perpetual Evisceration? No Harm
Returning again to the present moment, the just-concluded episode (“Enter The Mooch: Exit The Mooch!”) focused all of The Trump Show’s comedic virtues into a fabulous set piece. Personally I thought the part with the Trump avatar ignoring the birth of his child and his wife’s resulting divorce filing by Twitter was over the top, but someone’s bound to get an Emmy. Was the appointment of Skaramouche, Skaramouche and his shark-smile a step too far? Did it give the opening for the more conventional men of the war party (who can also go nuclear if needed, no worries) to emerge from the wings and cast themselves as “The Adults in the Room,” for John Kelly to pull off a palace coup? Or was it more of a planned distraction, an entertaining way to evict holdovers from the Old Republican establishment?
That question is just important enough to earn an answer in Scaramucci mode: Do I look like I fucking care? Do I? Whatever was intended, the Mooch episode functions as a catharsis. Here was a guy that may as well have been Trump. In four days, he rose, he grabbed the whole world by the balls, and bang, he fell. Another setback! A major defeat! Trump, again, eviscerated! How many times have you heard that bullshit, that Trump has been eviscerated? He can never come back now! How many times do I remember hearing that Bush was eviscerated, or “destroyed,” or finished?
What’s left after the Mooch’s fucktastic scene-robbery is a cabinet of more of the same. More than ever, the bullyphilic, applause-hungry, senescent, irritable and fascistizing sicko-in-chief (and his fabulous, hapless, sweatshop-owning daughter, and her douchebag ornament of a husband) are surrounded by a core of ex-generals who are unusually violent-minded, even for American generals, even for neocons, men without prior civilian appointments of note. Kelly, Mattis, McMaster & Co. are a patched-together down-market version of Cheney-Rumsfeld’s more experienced and better connected war party, but that should not make anyone think of them as less dangerous, or as less “competent.” Among the Bush-W crew the “incompetence” was also rife, and never much of an obstruction to more of the same.
The crunchy part of the apple continues to eat itself: The ministerial team of plunder-and-burn billionaires, each one professionally devoted to the destruction of the governmental institution delivered to his or her clutches. While the Treasury was given to Wall Street as usual, management of the Oil Empire went directly to Exxon. The people of the Bush-Cheney oil junta, who may have believed their own self-service plunder operation was pathbreaking in its criminal audacity, must be kicking themselves for not realizing just how much further they could have gone. Of course, their achievements helped make this possible.
Last Day of the War, First Day of the War
Even more obviously than with the Bush-Cheney crew, the Trump campaign message was always that war is coming. At any rate, this has been obvious to anyone who has not actively labored to miss the frequent repeating of lines like the one from his original TV commercial: “He will cut the head off ISIS and TAKE THEIR OIL.” Several times since, he has stated that the United States should have set up a permanent military occupation of the oil-producing regions of Iraq. The remaining “America First” fabulists also have to work to ignore the repeated statements about how the monstrously overfed U.S. military has never been this weak, needs another trillion-dollar transfusion, how America needs to start winning wars again. The budget proposal should have been the end of any such illusions about Trump.
I am more forgiving of those who miss the social significance of the individual theaters of cruelty and power that have always defined The Trump Show; after all, not everyone is a film critic. When Trump says, “I could shoot a guy on Fifth Avenue and they would still love me,” the statement expresses more than a very bad man’s faith that his personal impunity is so absolute and the fealty of his minions so total that he can basically call his own audience a bunch of bloodthirsty and disposable morons and get double-cheered for it. In the context of a presidential campaign it is also a declaration of intent to shoot, and bomb, and burn, a lot of people far away from Fifth Avenue, and never have to worry about those consequences either.
Many past acts of U.S. state murder have had an actual geostrategic background. In my assessment, it has been about thirty years since any faction of the power elite possessed vision enough to formulate a feasible or credible geostrategy, and I include manifestos like that of the “Project for a New American Century” (2000), which served as the neocon game-plan for the Bush-W regime. They are little more than statements of some naked power principle: We strong! We must be stronger! Break all heads! Claiming this as “realism,” the geostrategists play the country into predictable disasters (which never fail to “surprise” the pundits) and reap global hatred and ridicule for the United States; but it’s not a problem for the actual decision-makers since they are never punished, they are always and richly rewarded. Personal incentive systems are central, especially for operators trained in sociopathic ways, and what is true of neocon butchers at the Pentagon is equally so of the bankers who ran the MBS scams and crashed the global economy in 2007-2009. Why should they care about the magnificent elephant, or the people who must clean up its six tons of dead flesh left to rot? All that matters to the likes of them are the fifty pounds of valuable ivory they have carried from the scene.
Thus, even before the overwrought character from Queens completed his long climb from the middle level of the New York-New Jersey development gangster milieu to cast himself as the Beheader of the Washington Establishment, we had long ago descended to the gutter territory of Bush-era adviser Michael Ledeen and the brutish dictum attributed to him: “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”
Far from small or crappy, Iran is surely the Trumpistas’ dream target, as it would have been Ledeen’s, as it once was Cheney’s. I suspect many would also agree with that among the Democratic as well as Republican senators and representatives who wore out their knees and palms jumping up to give standing ovations to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2015 address to the Congress (featuring his usual harangue for a preventive war on Iran). But the prospect of a definitive break in the Transatlantic alliance (and even of a possible military defeat throughout the Middle East) may make Iran seem a touch infeasible, as the Bush mob was forced to acknowledge in 2007. (But wait, did I just cite feasibility as a concern for this latest group of idiots? Put nothing past them and you will likely turn out right.)
North Korea would be a move well beyond ordinary insanity, but — stop, stop, did I just write that?! Here again: insanity, so what, right? A hit on the Syrian government seems to have been ruled out, and at this point would lack ambition. A direct confrontation with nuclear-powered Russia, for example over Ukraine, is unlikely in the first round, but a definite danger once the new-war dogs are unleashed elsewhere. (PS, don’t waste my time below with apologias for Trump invoking claims about what Hillary Clinton would have done, could have done in Trump’s place; even if I agree, this counter-factual has no current relevance, and it’s no excuse if you actually voted for Trump.) Venezuela presents itself as a possible dark horse, and aligns with the race-war leanings of the regime’s more ardent ideologists. I can see the Pentagon balking on it, however.
The Long History of Reality Presidents and the Weakness of Trump
But please accept my apologies, I am getting so very far ahead of myself! Perhaps by now it is clear that I don’t think the exact identity of the “crappy little country” matters that much to the psychos in charge, although of course it will have great significance to the tens of thousands or more who are to be sacrificed to assuage their sickness and secure higher profits for the war industry. What really matters comes before the main act and constitutes the enabling act: the quality of the pretext, the ostensible casus belli that will be discovered, confabulated, or arrive one sunny morning from the sky. While these devices (whether serendipitous or constructed) have always worked to set up a carte blanche for American Carnage against brown foreigners in the past, even a sure thing can run into a first failure. Unlike in 2003, or unlike even in 2001, propaganda preparations for a coming war on any of the above have not been conducted in a fashion that sits very deeply with the American people. The present regime (and the presidential campaign that preceded it) has done better and more consistent work in preparing them to sacrifice for a war with Mexico than for one with Iran.
Perhaps more importantly, the present regime is remarkably weak, despite its open authoritarianism and ambitions to redefine reality by pronouncing its own facts, in the way of Orwell’s novel 1984. Submitted: The remarkable thing about the Trump regime is not that it is a Reality TV show (with one of the best-known and most successful Reality TV producers in the starring role). Rather, it is that most American viewers do not actually buy into this administration’s televised reality. That is unprecedented.
With that I must confess another of my no-doubt regrettable views: At the latest since the advent of the Reagan presidency, the de facto first function of the thing we call “the presidency” has been to stage a reality show for the political audience, primarily via the medium of television. Note that I did not say this is the presidency’s sole function, by any means; even given the bureaucratized permanent military state and the overwhelming consensus around neoliberal-capitalist politics, the presidency retains power as a policymaking office. Insofar as many executive policies need to be enacted in public, the personal dramaturgy of the presidency feeds the propaganda arm (a.k.a. the corporate media) with the material needed to manage the public perceptions of each otherwise inscrutable move. Ideally, policies are depicted as stages in an unfolding hero journey: Watch as the man rises to the challenges, matches himself against history. What will be his legacy? That ideal has usually failed, but there was never a shortage of fallback plots borrowed from daytime soap operas, eschatological Western shoot-outs, uplifting bootstrap stories of personal salvation, and of course the ever-more frequent professional wrestling scripts. (For extra credit, match the genre to the president most commonly associated with it.)
As of today, thanks to a long-running trend to no longer suspend disbelief that has only been accelerated by the ascendancy of the Trump, the status of the White House as the entertainment bureau of the federal government has never been as obvious to a majority of the citizenry, whether or not they can muster the energy to notice or care. Not only are the society’s major institutions understood as professionally fake, many even invite one to study and admire the craftsmanship of the fakery (as with advertising/marketing and professional wrestling). In regard to the political theater of the presidency and the two-party system, this observation remains a blind spot for many in the corporate media, although they actually co-produce the show. Producers, like Les Moonves or Jeff Zucker (two of the most important and surely witting factors in the rise of Trump) tend to understand these mechanics much better than the on-air “talent,” who doubtless are selected for their relative ability to sound serious while talking stupid shit.
Politics always involved theater. Modern democratic electoral politics merged with the news and entertainment industry long ago, and for decades they have been developing in tandem. More recently a large part of the audience has been lured into treating the results as media critics, rather than as sovereigns or citizen-participants with an actual stake in the proceedings. As interesting as anything Scaramucci said is that we all treat the identity of the White House press agent as though it is vitally important. As a result of this twisted form of transparency, however, the pretext for a new war may backfire, especially insofar as the war (or the triggering event likely to precede it!) involves numerous casualties of the precious American persuasion.
Think of the WMD lie in 2002-2003. Granted, its falsehood was transparent – it was a laugh riot to pretty much the whole world outside an Anglosphere bubble. Ultimately it failed to prevail even as a myth, and this despite the regime’s exploitation of the irrational and powerful emotional boost of 9/11. All that being said, however, the WMD lie was still a complicated, long-running and professionally crafted P.R. campaign, one involving separate teams of dedicated fabricators at the White House, in the Pentagon, at various intel agencies, at the New York Times, in Italian intelligence, at the Washington think-tanks, among Iraqi expatriate networks, and multiple other locations. At the height of the campaign, most Americans believed it. After all, “sixteen intelligence agencies” were in agreement with the fabrication.
Now, of course, the only such consensus of the intelligence “community” (nowadays numbered at 17, I seem to have missed the new birth) is on the claim that “Russia hacked the 2016 election.” That story may be no less implausible, but its very existence means that a lot of national security insiders are hostile to the Trump Show’s existence, and many of them may be loath to faithfully support whatever spur-of-the-moment back-story is served up for the war pretext.
My assertion, in short, is that a new international aggression cannot be justified via the discredited Twitter Thumbs alone; yet the possessor of these appendages seems bold and demented enough to believe himself capable of it. Unlike Cheney and Rumsfeld’s, his crew is not a long-running criminal enterprise of security state insiders with experience and reach and a specific war plan long in mind (however stupid it may have been). Cheney and Rumsfeld’s crew sprang its high-level leaks, but not on the first day. Trump’s crew is more akin to an open cocktail party for villains of opportunity, most of whom jumped in during his rapid if evitable rise, like the Mercers and Bannon, or who were borrowed afterward from the Prince-DeVos family and the Kochtopus; the latter having at first opposed him. The secretaries may be prepared to ritually bow and scrape before His Manhattan Majesty at the opening of the cabinet meeting, but what unites them? An ideology of extremist capitalism, to be sure, but that makes them all into junior John Galts, looking out for number one. Shared egomania, possession of wealth plundered in scams (much like the Trump Organization’s history), and a proven ability, as Mooch might put it, to stab friends and enemies without distinction, in the front and in the back: A ripe set-up, if ever a “New War” psy-op was to flop.
Don’t Hope, Don’t Watch, Fight
But here at last is the thing that puts the lie to my claims of having shown predictive powers in the past: I had the exact same thought about the Bush regime, especially as they served up the WMD lies and embarked on their planned and unprovoked war of aggression against the people of Iraq. This left hundreds of thousands dead, shattered that nation and (further) poisoned its ecology, got the U.S. involved in many years of ethnic cleansing, eventually contributed to the break-up of Syria and rise of the “Islamic State,” and of course caused thousands of U.S. casualties and burned trillions of American dollars, all for nothing. At the time I did not think the principle perpetrators could get away from this and retire in prosperity, and get medals of honor pinned on their chests by the next president – and even get to present themselves today as the new-minted “adults in the room” criticizing the politics of Trump! But that is what happened.
Once they had initiated this vast crime, they were also free of it. That is when the opposition to the war was broken, for precious American military bodies had been committed. The perpetrators eventually were blamed for “mistakes” or “failures” or “not having a plan” (all bullshit) but remained untouchable. The wars they started were adopted, transformed and continued through eight years of Obama. The “war on terror” was dropped as a brand even as new fronts were opened. The Bush mob’s illegal innovations in surveillance and torture and other covert crimes were in some cases “investigated,” only to be forgiven and forgotten. More often, however, the new practices were legalized, officialized, consolidated and expanded upon. Obama did not prosecute the torturers but the whistleblowers; he passed on to Trump an unconstitutional surveillance machinery far more advanced than the one he had taken over from Bush.
True, if ever back in 2003 I’d thought, who could be dumber, who could be more violent-minded, who could be more cruel and more obviously villainous than these people, then Trump has provided a possible answer. Looking on the precedent of the Iraq crime and the impunity with which its perpetrators still roam free, he and his slapdash team may be possessed of the hubris to think they can get away with something even more outrageous, though they lack even the rudimentary plan of 2002-2003, and though elements of the corporate media and national security apparatus desire their ruin.
But that could be right!
Is any level of outrageousness too high, is any level of credibility too low? Has the realization that news is fake, or that our society-level realities are staged, expanded to an acceptance that the simulation may as well replace the reality altogether, and nothing need be done about it? Is it possible for a New War psyop ever to fail in entrancing enough of the American people and the American institutions of politics and media so that once triggered the war continues and the perpetrators get away with it yet again? Are there any circumstances under which we finally can “stop the war before it starts”? Obviously I think we are about to try out that scenario, yet again, and while there are grounds to reject both pessimism and optimism about the outcome, there is nothing in the prospect that should make us happy.
Nicholas Levis is in the Ph.D. program in history at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.