Don’t mock Trump for declaring himself a ‘war president’

He may have the last laugh.

Trump coronavirus meeting Reuters
US President Donald Trump attends a meeting at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) amid coronavirus fears, in Washington on March 19, 2020 [Evan Vucci/Reuters]

It is easy to mock Trump for declaring himself a “wartime president“. 

But he is an idiot savant of politics.  

The day Trump announced that he was running for president marked the beginning of a golden age of comedy. Since then, he has made a fortune for countless US comedians and talk-show hosts. His hair alone is an icon of ridiculousness. But he often seems to have the last laugh. 

Trump launched his presidential campaign by riding down a golden escalator, surrounded by out-of-work TV extras paid to cheer him. That alone should have demolished his candidacy, no matter what he said. But it worked for him.

After the Republicans lost to Barack Obama for a second time in 2012, they concluded that they had to expand their franchise, make their tent significantly bigger, in particular, by cultivating Latino voters. That was one of the reasons that Jeb Bush, with his Mexican-American wife, was originally considered “the Chosen One” at the Republican presidential primaries in 2016. 

In his first campaign speech, which followed that ludicrous ride down the escalator, Trump embarked on a vicious, racist attack on Mexicans. The conventional wisdom called it an act of self destruction. But it also worked for him. 

Being caught in a lie has long been a tar pit for politicians. Once they step in, they cannot step out, and die there, like dinosaurs. Trump somehow sussed that his constituency – Republican primary voters – wanted a liar. Not only was there no penalty for lying, the time had come when lying was rewarded. Donald Trump lied. Obviously. Blatantly. Unabashedly. Far more often than even his nearest competitor in lying, Ted Cruz. 

As a result, he won the Republican primary. And he went on to win the presidency. 

Then he inaugurated his presidency with lies about the size of the crowd. Easily disproved by photographs, news reports and official counts. He did not flinch, back down or apologise. It worked for him.  

So no one should rush to mock Trump’s self-declaration as a wartime president. It may also work for him.

Who could forget George W Bush’s glee when declaring himself a “war president”. No matter that he was a dreadful war president, never getting the guy we were at war with and starting two wars that he could not win, it worked for him.

Trump’s one truly positive quality in the real world has been his aversion to actual war. Yet he is clearly aware of the political benefits of being a “war president”. He tried to make the death of ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as big a media event as the killing of Osama bin Laden, he loved surrounding himself with generals (until he found they would stand up to him), he has constantly claimed that he has “rebuilt our military”. Remember, he modelled his look on Winston Churchill and practised it in the mirror, that is where his serious face with downturned lips comes from.  

Trump is actually very bad at running things. He runs companies into bankruptcy, he does not pay creditors, contractors and even his lawyers. That has continued in the way he has run the government. His opponents are astonished that it has not hurt him. They should not be. His party has been declaring since Ronald Reagan that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help”. Therefore, diminishing and degrading the government are good things. You would not want its help.

But reality has struck. The coronavirus crisis, stock market crash and oncoming major recession should be the final reveal of how bad he is at actually running things and the end of his presidency. 

These events also mark a major pivot in the American consciousness. Yo, hey, we need help! Who can give it? Only the government! Where are you?  

The idiot savant, who helped create the crises – the economic as well as the medical one – needs to pivot. From “government is bad” to “government – my government – will save you!” The one acceptable realm of big government action – especially for Republicans – is war! At last, it offers the moment, to be a war president – politically wonderful – without the weight of an actual shooting war. Mock it, but do not underestimate it.

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