Donald Trump is a profoundly unpopular president. The first 11 weeks of his administration have been marred by the type of records that a Commander-in-Chief really, really doesn’t want to set: After posting the lowest inaugural approval rating in history, Trump beat his own benchmark, and again after that, and again after that, while pundits are unleashing increasinglyscathing reviews of the White House’s diligent efforts to run the country into the ground. Some of the latest numbers pin Trump’s approval rating at 34 percent, an embarrassing trough to which he managed to sink faster than any other president in history. Talk about an innovator.
However, the man can take heart, because there is one tried-and-true measure for boosting a president’s popularity: Fighting a war, baby. Historical examples of the “rally ’round the flag” phenomenon abound: Jimmy Carter’s approval rating jumped 27 points in the early days of the Iran hostage crisis. President George H.W. Bush soared to 89 percent during the Persian Gulf War, and a decade later, his son edged him by one measly point after the September 11 attacks. (Yes, the the highest approval rating in history belongs to George W. Bush.) There’s even a Dustin Hoffman movie about a beleaguered president who fabricates a war to divert attention from his scandal-ridden administration. Hilariously, it was released just six months before President Clinton, then embroiled in the Lewinsky affair, initiated a four-day bombing campaign of Iraq.
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Donald Trump Could Really Use a War Right About Now
This is not to cynically suggest that Trump launched the attacks on Thursday solely because he craved a Toby Keith-esque, support-the-troops-fueled boost to his sagging polling numbers. But no matter what his true motivations for this particular incident are, the most worrying long-term development that will come out of these attacks is the Pavlovian popularity feedback loop that is calcifying right now in the president’s head.
Trump is obsessed with two things: Being liked, and watching TV. His approval rating is almost certainly going to earn a healthy bump in the days to come. Whatever they think of the wisdom of a specific intervention, the mere fact that the country is intervening is enough—when the country is at war, Americans don’t like to feel like unpatriotic dissidents. Democratic lawmakers, who usually waste no opportunity to drag the administration’s undemocratic stunt du jour, have already voiced their somber support. And as ably demonstrated by the vapid dummies who heaped fawning praise on Trump during Thursday’s cable news graveyard shift, putting some badass missiles in flight is a stone-cold guarantee that at least some commentators will go on the air and loudly proclaim you to be, at last, “presidential.”
These metrics reinforce each other, too. As greater numbers of people declare their support for the president, pundits and politicians alike grow more comfortable offering stronger, more unqualified public stamps of approval. And as that breathless critical acclaim grows louder, more ordinary folks watching the news at night will eventually shrug and conclude, Hey, the president must be doing a pretty good job these days! Through it all, Trump happily sits in the Oval Office, finally basking in the adulation for which he thirsts so fiercely. The thought of an unpopular president who wants nothing more than to be popular piecing together a “TALK TOUGH + FIRE MISSILES = 😃” calculus is a powerfully alarming one.
It’s not yet clear whether the United States’ intervention in Syria will continue, or whether this fusillade was a one-time occurrence designed to deter future chemical attacks. But what the Trump learns from this episode will almost certainly be applied to future foreign policy emergencies, with almost certainly disastrous results. Setting aside the occasional self-inflicted wound, the Trump presidency has been, all things considered, a relatively stable period in global affairs. Sure, his failures to do things like fill critical State Department positions or conduct coherent discussions with foreign leaders were unsettling signs, but no signature crisis has emerged.
Things aren’t going to be this calm forever, though. The president is already a woefully inexperienced politician thrust into an office that no one seriously argues he’s qualified to hold, which means that when—to use a diplomatic term—shit gets real, the brain trust grappling with delicate questions of international diplomacy will be composed of people with precious little experience making literally-life-or-death decisions. In those moments, the grim lesson that President Trump will take away from the Syria attacks and the plaudits that followed is that the safest, easiest response when he feels backed into a corner is to shoot first and ask questions last.