United States

Bombs away! Wag that dog!

On Donald Trump's Wag the Dog moment.

US President Donald Trump speaks about the suspected chemical attack in Syria during a press conference in the Rose Garden at the White House on April 5 [Reuters/Yuri Gripas]

Donald Trump orders missiles to be launched at Syria.

Is it a Wag the Dog moment?

The essence of the novel was that war is a solution to domestic political problems.

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The essence of the film based on the book is that even the illusion of war is a solution to domestic political problems.

It doesn't do anything for the actual difficulties: a bad economy, sex scandals, revelations of corruption, ineptitude or screw-ups. It changes the politics by changing the subject, by arousing patriotism and fear, by allowing the leader to demand that everyone unite behind the war effort, which is his - or her - war effort, and thus behind him or her.

Just as such wars are not meant to fix those actual problems, they are not fought to accomplish any particular military goal. They are fought - and must be fought - for how they will appear on TV for the home audience.

Credit has to go to Maggie Thatcher for showing the way.

Actually, re-showing the way. In America, war as a tool for domestic political issues fell out of favour after Vietnam. Far out of favour. War was a quagmire, it was a waste. War without victory made voters very unsatisfied.

It is important to remember that Thatcher was hugely unpopular. Her career appeared to be over. Then she had her war in the Falklands and the country rallied behind her. The British public was totally thrilled that at last they had found someone they could beat on their own. Ms Thatcher was re-elected and became the longest-serving British prime minister in modern history.

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Obviously and clearly it has succeeded in changing the subject matter of the political dialogue. The bombs were TV's lead item and the newspapers' front-page story.

It changed the tone, too.  Fareed Zakaria who had called Trump a "bullsh*t artist" over and over again just a week earlier, now gushed that "Donald Trump became President of the United States." USA Today printed "Trump hits high mark ..." and tweeted "It was a successful week for the president. Will his #winning ways continue." The New York Times wrote, "an emotional President Trump took the greatest risk of his young presidency ... it was an emotional act by a man suddenly aware that the world's problems were now his - and that turning away, to him, was not an option." Matt Lewis, of The Daily Beast, wrote "... very different Donald Trump. More serious - and clearly moved emotionally. Frequently invoked the Almighty." An op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal declared that "President Trump faced his first serious foreign policy test this week ... to the surprise and perhaps frustration of his critics, he passed with flying colours."

Wow! Even bow-wow!

Is it a real transformation, or a Wag the Dog moment?

The Syrian civil wars, atrocities and horrors remain. Attacking Assad, however wonderful, is still helping the ISIL. The simmering domestic scandals are still burbling away, waiting to erupt. The Republican majority, even with control of everything, will be as unable to govern next week as they were unable last week.

So, yes. It's a Wag the Dog event. Great theatre whose goal has nothing to do with changing the world, only with having the audience applaud.

The novel laid out very clear rules for propaganda. 

 

          The enemy commits torture, atrocity, and murder because he is a sadist who enjoys killing.

We use surgical or strategic violence only because we are forced to by the enemy.

As a popular passion-producer, experience indicates that there is nothing quite like the atrocity story.

In general, you should seem to prove what people already want to believe, and to justify what they already want to do.

Trump is very clearly following these rules. I presume instinctively, not because he read the book, given that Trump does not read books. The world of Wag the Dog is reality TV flipped inside out. In commercial reality TV, the producers manipulate the people being "real". In the barking mad world of Wag, reality is directed to manipulate what's on the screens. Trump has lived on one side or the other of those manipulations his whole life. Playing by its rules is as natural for him as embarrassment over being caught in a lie would be unnatural. 

It has had a great response. He is good at doing it. Will it bring him success?

No.

Wag the Dog, the novel, was about George HW Bush and Gulf War One. That war was impeccably produced. He had a Hitler guy for the villain. Bush was victorious. He pre-sold the foreign rights - this is true, he got various other countries to put up the money for it before a single shot was fired. And then ... and then he failed to win re-election.

Why? The timing was off. The war ended in February 1991, a full 21 months before the next election. All the problems which had not been solved by the great television drama of the war - however slickly produced - were still there. They now become the focus of the media. And of the people.

This attack on Syria is way too soon. Trump has a full three years and nine months - barring impeachment or death by obesity - for all the issues that already exist to have full scale eruptions and for him to make entirely new missteps.

So yes. It's a Wag the Dog moment. It's great theatre. The audience loves it. By the time it comes to vote they'll have forgotten it and be thinking of what he's done for them lately. Which, based on the rest of his reality show to date, will include a lot of things that make people angry.   

Larry Beinhart is a novelist, best known for Wag the Dog. He's also been a journalist, political consultant, a commercial producer and director.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy. 

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