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Trump as the “Anti-War” President: on Misinformation in American Political Discourse

Photograph Source: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – Public Domain

It is a great propaganda victory for Donald Trump that he has managed to sell himself as “anti-war.” Broadly speaking, Trump has no anti-war bona fides to draw upon. He’s torn up the Iran agreement, while threatening war in its place. He’s threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea. Trump has presided over consistent increases in spending for the American warfare state. And he’s engaged in more drone strikes than Obama up to this point in both presidencies. Trump has put forward no timetable for the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. He’s continued for more than two years the U.S. military presence in Syria, in the name of defeating ISIS. And he’s now greenlighted ethnic cleansing against the Kurds in Northern Syria by removing U.S. troops from the region and enabling Turkey’s invasion.

Much was made of Trump’s attack on the Bush administration for selling the Iraq war via the WMD deception. But Trump also said he would reinvade Iraq to defeat ISIS and to steal the nation’s oil. Trump announced in December 2018 that he would withdraw U.S. troops from Syria within 30 days, after declaring a premature victory against ISIS. Since then, he has promised “to end the endless [U.S.] wars” in the Middle East, despite walking back his December withdrawal announcement shortly thereafter. As recently as last week, the Trump administration announced it was repositioning 50 troops out of Northern Syria, rather than withdrawing U.S. troops from the country. As Trump’s Defense Department Chief Spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman declared: “we have made no changes to our force presence in Syria.” In short, Trump has been all talk and no action in his “anti-war” politics.

On Sunday, October 13th, the Trump administration announced, yet again, plans to withdraw from Syria. This time we were told that Trump really meant it, promising the lion’s share of U.S. forces will be removed from Syria in the near future. But how did the latest withdrawal promise come into being? A reconstruction of recent events makes it clear that this withdrawal has little to do with principled anti-war politics. Trump has had nearly a year to remove these troops since announcing his intent to withdraw last December. So what changed in the last week? To put it bluntly, Trump was caught in a game of chicken with Turkey, to the president’s surprise and embarrassment. Trump has been goading Erdogan for the last two years, telling him he was free to invade northern Syria, but that an invasion would mean that Turkey has to take over anti-ISIS operations in the region. Erdogan repeatedly demurred to Trump on this responsibility, but finally called Trump on his bluff last week, announcing an invasion. An account from within the Trump administration reflects that the president got “rolled” in his phone call with Erdogan. More specifically, although he disagreed with Erdogan on the invasion, Trump showed no “spine” by failing to make it clear that this incursion and attack on the Kurds would mean the imposition of economic sanctions.

The Trump administration thought it could keep U.S. troops in Syria, until they got caught in a skirmish between Kurdish rebels and Syrian government forces on one side, and Turkish troops on the other. As the Washington Post reported on October 13th, Trump’s announced withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria came as the Turkish invasion “expanded deep into Syrian territory, cutting U.S. supply lines and endangering American forces.” As U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper explained about the withdrawal: “We find ourselves as we have American forces likely caught between two opposing advancing armies and it’s a very untenable situation.” These accounts make it clear, in light of the Trump administration’s opposition to withdrawal just a week earlier, that the removal of U.S. troops from Syria was a decision of necessity, not one of choice. In anger at this turn of events, Trump then announced economic sanctions against Turkey, despite initially refusing to threaten them when he talked with Erdogan. As the New York Times reports, Trump is now “demanding an immediate cease-fire” due to his “concern for the safety of the remaining American troops in Syria.”

Echoing Trump’s own rhetoric on Syria, the U.S. news media have consistently repeated the theme that this president is anti-war. A review using the Nexis Uni news archive finds that, in the six days following Trump’s announced (10/7) repositioning of troops in Syria, but before the announcement of the forced withdrawal of U.S. troops (10/13), the New York Times published 117 articles in total mentioning “Syria” and “Turkey.” Of those, 61 (52 percent) referenced “withdrawal” or efforts to “withdraw” U.S. troops. These articles discussed withdrawal within the context of “withdrawal” of troops from northern Syria, and from the country entirety.

Major editorials in the Washington Post and New York Times illuminate the discussion of how the media cover Syria. The Washington Post, in its October 7th editorial, referred to Trump’s promise to withdraw from Syria as a strategic “blunder,” with the President “ignoring the advice of the Pentagon and disregarding allies and Congress,” who worried that greenlighting a Turkish invasion by removing troops from northern Syria would enable the resurgence of ISIS. In their editorial from the same day, the New York Times lamented that Trump “acted impulsively” in acquiescing to Turkey’s invasion: “he blindsided officials at the Pentagon and the State Department and kept Congress and the allies in the dark.” But the Times also situated Trump’s repositioning of troops within the context of Trump’s promise of “the withdrawal of all 2,000 American ground troops from Syria.”

Outside of it being contradicted by events on the ground in Syria, another problem with the Trump “anti-war” narrative is how disassociated it is from Trumpism as a mass phenomenon. Trump’s supporters are primarily militarist in their politics, as a review of recent national surveys reveals. Pew Research Center polls from October 2017, and March and May 2018, for example, asked Trump supporters about their opinions of U.S. foreign policy with Iran, Iraq, and Syria. A statistical analysis of these polls thoroughly discredits the notion that Trump’s mass support base is tied to anti-war politics. [1]

Americans who agreed in 2018 that the U.S. made “the right decision” by going to war with Iraq, and who thought the U.S. was victorious in the Iraq war, were significantly more likely to support Trump, not oppose him. Furthermore, those who opposed the 2015 Iran agreement (in 2018), which effectively defused tensions between the U.S., its allies, and Iran over nuclear proliferation, were significantly more likely to support Trump.

Militarist views of the Syria war were also significantly more likely to support Trump. Those who agreed (in 2017) with the U.S. military campaign against ISIS, who agreed that the military campaign against ISIS in Syria was “going well,” and who felt that this military campaign had “decreased chances of a terrorist attack in the U.S.,” were all significantly more likely to support Trump. While most Republicans (58 percent) in 2019 supported Trump’s withdrawal plan, this support does not speak to longstanding opposition to the war in Syria, since Trump supporters were more likely to support the war up until the moment that Trump announced “victory” and his intention to “withdraw” U.S. troops.

Importantly, Pew’s polling reveals that Trump supporters were more likely to feel the U.S. was unappreciated in its role as a global leader. Those agreeing (in 2018) that the U.S. does “too much” to “solve world problems” were significantly more likely to support Trump. This finding speaks to the fact that Trump supporters, although fitting the militant hawkish profile in their foreign policy beliefs, also embrace the image of the reluctant American warrior who selflessly solves the world’s problems, at his own expense as a nation, and to the benefit of the rest of the world. Such hubris should not be mistaken for principled anti-imperialism, especially when Trump supporters are significantly predisposed to supporting U.S. militarism against Iraq, Iran, and Syria.

American political discourse is plagued by propagandistic rhetoric depicting the Trump administration as differing from previous presidencies by embracing anti-war politics. But this sort of misinformation can only take hold in a political-media environment that is systematically distorted. The Trump administration is brazenly contemptuous of the very idea of truth. It has embraced an “anything goes” mentality with its political spin, via its commitment to “alternative facts” and independent of any empirically-verifiable political reality. This cynical manipulation makes informed political discourse difficult to impossible. The “Trump as anti-war” psychosis is a great example of the victory of propaganda in this “post-truth” era.

Notes

[1] Using statistical “regression” analysis, I measured whether various foreign policy attitudes were associated with approval of President Trump, after “controlling” for various factors, including respondents’ party affiliation, self-declared ideology, education level, gender, income level, race, and age.

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Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He earned his PhD from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and is the author of 9 books, including most recently: Political Power in America (SUNY Press, 2019) and Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com

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