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Getting The Trump Presidency All Wrong
Within the span of two days, President Donald Trump reminded the world yet again the extent to which the legacy media has completely failed to grasp the essence of the Trump Administration. We are barely into 2020, and already the prevailing narratives surrounding Donald Trump have been completely shredded. Trump accomplished with just two highly surgical air strikes against pro-Iranian Iraqi militias and their Iranian sponsors, the first one resulting in the death of Qassim Suleimani, leader of Iran's Quds Force, and the second targeting part of the leadership of the pro-Iranian Popular Mobilization Forces militia.
(Note: Subsequent reporting suggests the PMF leadership was not killed in this second strike, with the PMF disputing Pentagon claims in this regard. As of this writing much of the reporting is unconfirmed with many details subject to change)
Donald Trump Is In Command
The popular image of President Trump is that he is wholly out of his depth as President. Democratic Presidential hopeful Joe Biden summed up the presumption of much of both the political establishment and the legacy media with his Twitter response to Suleimani's demise:
Former Obama Administration official Ben Rhodes capped the "incompetence" narrative by attempting a mockery of President Trump:
Yet even as Democrats and the legacy media promote this narrative, their own words serve to contradict it. Even the legacy media is forced to concede the strategic importance of Qassim Suleimani to Iran's hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East:
But I do know something of how important Qassem Soleimani was, because he spent more time in the Arabic-speaking world—propping up Iranian allies from Iraq to Lebanon, and from Syria to Yemen—than he did back home in Iran. From a military and diplomatic perspective, Soleimani was Iran’s David Petraeus and Stan McChrystal and Brett McGurk all rolled into one.
For a supposed "incompetent", Donald Trump succeeded in dealing a significant blow to Iran's terrorism command-and-control infrastructure.
Equally telling is what the legacy media does not acknowledge: the effective coordinated use of intelligence and military assets in a focused way to achieve a particular objective. The leader of the Quds Force did not just "happen" to be at Baghdad Airport; travel--particularly for one such as Suleimani--is a fairly planned activity, and Donald Trump apparently has enough intelligence assets in place to have obtained Suleimani's travel itinerary, and enough confidence in his military planners to know when Suleimani would be vulnerable.
Far from being either incompetent or out of his depth, Donald Trump, in the Suleimani strike, is shown to be a leader in full command of the tools and resources available to a President of the United States.
Donald Trump Has Strategic Depth
Another cherished legacy media chestnut is that Donald Trump is a policy naif with little grasp of the import of his actions.
That narrative is succinctly demolished by no less a figure than General David Petraeus, former head of the US Central Command and CIA Director under President Obama:
Well, I think that this particular episode has been fairly impressively handled. There's been restraint in some of the communications methods from the White House. The Department of Defense put out, I think, a solid statement. It has taken significant actions, again, to shore up our defenses and our offensive capabilities. The question now, I think, is what is the diplomatic initiative that follows this? What will the State Department and the Secretary of State do now to try to get back to the table and reduce or end the battlefield consequences?
General Petraeus also characterized the killing of Suleimani as "huge". Scoring such a major hit on Iran is hardly the work of a naif, no matter how lucky he is. There is even some speculation that the loss of Suleimani might trigger the final collapse of the Islamofascist regime in Teheran.
The regime’s miscalculated the US’s response to its attack on the US embassy and previous missile attacks in Iraq, aimed at derailing Iraq protests which called for the expulsion of Iran and its proxies. Not only was it not successful in diverting Iraq protests, it lost what some called the regime’s irreplaceable “number two” man.
With ongoing protests which have effectively turned Iran into a powder keg, many believe that the death of Khamenie’s key player in its regional terrorism strategy has heralded the downfall of the Iranian theocracy in 2020.
While such speculation is obviously highly premature, the mere fact that it exists as one of the possible outcomes of this event illustrates the layers of strategic significance of the Suleimani strike.
Yet the network effects of the Suleimani strike go much further than Iran.
Suleimani's death has highlighted a uncomfortable reality for the Islamic Republic: Their conventional military forces are hardly impressive, forcing them to rely on unconventional strategies such as terrorism to pursue their hegemonic ambitions--with Suleimani having been the lynchpin of those strategies.
It’s hard to overstate Soleimani’s influence. Because Iran’s conventional forces are weak, Tehran often works through militias, terrorist groups, and other proxies to advance its interests abroad. The IRGC takes the lead for many of these operations. In Iraq, and in other countries where Iran plays both a military and political role — such as Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, as well as with the Palestinians — the IRGC is often the dominant actor in Iran’s foreign policy, or at least an important voice.
The removal of Suleimani from the world stage means Iran's relationships with its many terrorist proxies throughout the Middle East will shift, potentially dramatically. It is difficult to envision how such a shift will result in a strengthening of those relationships or of the efficacy of the terrorist proxies themselves.
Suleimani's death is being met with considerable joy in many parts of the Middle East, and not just Iran.
In northern Syria, where the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps had exerted influence and aided terrorist activities, large crowds gathered and cheered: "Gone, gone, gone Soleimani ... you are next Bashar Irani."
Domestically, President Trump has once again put the Democrats on the back foot, highlighting their fundamental impotence and even policy irrelevance.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) reacted to the successful U.S. airstrike on Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq on Thursday evening by complaining that Congress was not consulted in advance about it.
At a time when the Democrats are working to undermine President Trump at every turn, to be shown as effectively sidelined during a major international incident reduces all their rhetoric to mere partisan sniping. The media hyperventilations over Suleimani has also pushed the Democrats' impeachment narratives completely off the front page--not a circumstance that will aid their efforts to build a public consensus for removing President Trump from office
Donald Trump triggered all of these outcomes with a single airstrike on a single target. Again, this is not the result a mere policy naif would obtain. Even if Donald Trump did not foresee every outcome of Suleimani's death, it beggars belief to suggest, as Senator Chris Murphy did, that the President was unaware of at least some of its strategic potentials.
Donald Trump Is Not Impulsive
President Trump's tweets are, to say the very least, legendary. Certainly no other President--no other political actor on the world stage--has used social media half as effectively as Donald Trump. Yet in the days prior to the Suleimani strike, President Trump's personal Twitter feed (@realDonaldTrump) shows none of the "Fire and Fury" rhetoric he has deployed regarding other adversaries such as North Korea. Since the attack Donald Trump has tweeted about Suleimani only once.
The nature of impulsivity is that it is a constant. People do not, as a rule, go from being wildly impulsive to considerably restrained. People do not go from being verbally incontinent to rhetorically sober in an eyeblink. Whatever characterization might be appropriate for President Trump, "impulsive" is not it.
The legacy media is well aware of this as well, for they have reported on many occasions how Trump has "weaponized" Twitter.
Donald Trump’s attacks on The New York Times over the past two years have been so frequent that one can actually pinpoint distinct subgenres of anti-Times Trump tweets. There’s the “fake news” New York Times, the “enemy of the people“ New York Times, the “dishonest” New York Times, and, of course, the ever-classic “Failing New York Times.” And then there’s also the New York Times that Trump insists he got an apology from in the days after his election victory.
The claim that Donald Trump has "weaponized" the social media platform is, ultimately, a tacit admission that he is utilizing the platform more effectively than legacy media outlets, and is more effective at establishing the image of both political allies and adversaries that he desires, as opposed to the perceptions promoted by the legacy media. Such capacity is the antithesis of impulsivity. Indeed many have commented on Trump's skill at branding.
Trump's tweets about the air strikes in Iraq are merely the latest reminder that President Trump is anything but impulsive. He is, rather, deliberate and thoughtful, even in his tweets, paradoxical as that might seem. On social media, he has, for reasons known only to him, adopted an incendiary and bombastic persona, recalling not so much Ronald Reagan as Theodore Roosevelt, the first President in the modern era with a truly "theatrical" persona.
We must remember here that Donald Trump spent fourteen years helming the popular "reality TV" show "The Apprentice," where he became indelibly associated with the catch phrase, "you're fired." We must remember yet again that Donald Trump brings that theatrical flair to his Presidency, that he is truly a "reality TV" style of President--not in that he is the superficial, one-dimensional caricature one sees on reality TV shows, but that he uses the imagery and methods of reality TV to shape public perceptions and to punctuate his public messages--a fact that is once again rather begrudgingly acknowledged by the legacy media.
Donald Trump Communicates Through Images
Images are the key to appreciating how Donald Trump conducts is Presidency. Understanding that is essential to appreciating a fundamental aspect of his communications style: it is visual, not verbal. Images, not words are Trump's true forte. Whether in his tweets or in his public statements and speeches, Donald Trump relies not on the soaring rhetorical flourishes of Barack Obama or the emphatic eloquence of Ronald Reagan, but on the visual (and often visceral) impact of images, both those that he summons up in his rhetoric and those the legacy media place around him.
Perversely, in this regard he makes the legacy media an unwitting communications ally. In the aftermath of the Suleimani strike CNN ran a story about Trump cavorting with friends at Mar-A-Lago when news of the strike broke:
As news broke that the US struck and killed Qasem Soleimani, President Trump was dining at his Mar-a-Lago club, surrounded by old friends and others like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
As meatloaf and ice cream were served, the Pentagon confirmed that the US was behind the strikes, the only statement from the administration throughout the night.
Setting aside CNN's well-known anti-Trump bias, consider the visual that is being developed in that story: a major Iranian military figure and a key player in Middle East terrorism is ordered killed by Donald Trump casually, in a seemingly off the cuff fashion, with the only acknowledgment being a dismissive "yes, we did it" confirmation from the Pentagon. Regardless of CNN's motivations for doing so, they promoted an image of Donald Trump regarding the targeted killing of Suleimani as no big deal. The image is reminsicent of Trump informing President Xi of China about his first cruise missile strike over Syria in retaliation for a Syrian gas attack on civilians over "a beautiful piece of chocolate cake".
Regardless of one's personal opinions about Donald Trump, there is no denying that such images are of a leader of tremendous personal power. They are the sort of images one historically associates with imperial leaders such as Augustus and Louis XIV, and not just with strong Presidents. Whether by accident or design, the legacy media helps solidify in public consciousness an image of a strong, confident, quasi-imperial President Trump--the sort of President the mullahs in Tehran have no choice but to consider carefully and approach cautiously.
President Trump often uses images directly, as when he tweeted out a graphic of the American flag on January 2, a tweet that was retweeted nearly 160,000 times. He included no homilies about the American people, or "God Bless The USA". The US flag image was the entire tweet, and President Trump's followers in a very real sense cheered by retweeting it so many times. Thus Trump solidifies in the public perception his "America First" mentality.
Donald Trump is no Ronald Reagan, rhetorically speaking. In terms of language he is hardly the equal of "The Great Communicator." Yet that is a far cry from saying Donald Trump cannot communicate. He is quite an effective communicator for the modern era, using modern media, and adapting his communications style to make the best use of the modern media (we must remember that Ronald Reagan had only his speeches with which to shape public perceptions, whereas Donald Trump has the added resource of Twitter and social media).
The Legacy Media Has It Wrong
Whether Trump's latest air strikes in the Middle East prove to be strategically decisive in that theater remains to be seen. Their true impact will not be observable for months, if not years. While people can and should highlight the challenges, questions, and issues these actions present, we should not presume to know how events will unfold from here. When it comes to the future, there are no "experts".
Yet one impact from these latest strikes is immediately apparent: once again we are reminded that, when it comes to Donald Trump, there are also no "experts". The legacy media does not understand Donald Trump's style of governance, in part because they have never seen his style of governance before. While all Presidents and all politicians are, to a degree, theatrical, none have been as indelibly framed by the popular media of the day as has Donald Trump. As a result, whatever the legacy media (and even the alternative media) propose about Donald Trump and his Administration is almost certainly going to be wrong. They do not understand him, even though they believe they do.
If the legacy media fails to grasp the essential elements of the Donald Trump Presidency, it follows that many other leaders on the world stage do so as well. Certainly the mullahs in Tehran have failed to comprehend Donald Trump, given the way his air strikes made their previous rhetorical slights about him ring hollow.
This may be President Trump's greatest strategic advantage. Quite simply, few are able to anticipate Donald Trump's next move. Trump being impossible to anticipate, his adversaries are challenged both to develop effective defenses to his maneuvers and to conceive of effective responses. Trump's adversaries, be they political, media, or international, always appear to be on the back foot because so often they are. The inability of people to apprehend Donald Trump's style means they are constantly unable to foresee what he will do next and are unprepared for it.
Such unpredictability makes Donald Trump a frustrating President, but it has also made him an effective and highly consequential President. His unpredictability has allowed Donald Trump to outmaneuver political rivals and to survive, despite having the whole of the legacy media and the political establishment arrayed against him. His unpredictability has allowed him to turn aside the barbs and criticisms of critics in the legacy media, and even turn their snarkiness back on them. His unpredictability means normal rules of politics simply do not apply to him.
Donald Trump's unpredictability has allowed him to rewrite the Presidential political playbook. That is the reality of having a "Reality TV" President.