Finally, after months of fear and anguish and deep depression, liberals have been feeling good again. Trump’s approval ratings are historically low, his adviser Steve Bannon is struggling to hold onto power, and the administration’s major legislative achievements are nil. Meanwhile, the press is thriving in “opposition” mode (at least compared with its performance during much of the campaign), Democrats are furiously raising money, and the congressional GOP is in chaos. But the pathetic plaudits Trump received Thursday night for the airstrike he ordered against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria should serve as a reminder of how capable Trump remains of regaining the narrative of his faltering presidency—and why a relatively “normal” Trump administration may be even scarier than the cartoonishly villainous one we’ve seen up until now.
As we saw following Trump’s first address to Congress, the president is so nightmarish that some of us who observe him are desperate to forget who precisely America elected and are forever hoping he can change. This can manifest itself consciously or unconsciously. It began Thursday, before the strike, when Hillary Clinton said she believed the United States should take out Assad’s airfields. That would have been a more plausible suggestion in a different universe than the one we live in—a universe in which a bigoted, Muslim-hating, and incompetent man wasn’t the commander in chief of the United States armed forces. It continued throughout the afternoon and evening as the missile strike launched and Trump received heavy praise on cable news. Fareed Zakaria said on CNN that this airstrike was the moment Trump had “[become] president.” Not only was this nonsense a near-repeat of what Van Jones had said on CNN following Trump’s speech to Congress, but it ignored January’s botched Yemen raid, a military action that Trump ordered. (For what it’s worth, the United States is already engaged in combat in Iraq and Syria with some of the groups fighting Assad.)
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The nonsense continued throughout Thursday night and Friday morning. Matt K. Lewis, the Daily Beast writer and CNN personality, took note of the references to God in Trump’s statement on the airstrikes and salivated over the president’s moral seriousness. Even worse was Mark Landler’s “news analysis” in the New York Times on why Trump, who has shown a strong affinity for dictators and little concern for suffering, greenlit the attack. Failing to mention that the president was in the process of banning refugees from America, Landler painted a laughable picture of a man consumed with grief because of images of children dying. (“On Syria Attack, Trump’s Heart Came First,” the Times tweeted.) Not only does coverage like this badly distort an important issue like Syria, but it serves as a reminder (as if one were needed) of exactly the boost—not to mention the political capital—Trump would gain in the case of a national emergency or terrorist attack. As if a Trump with normal powers wasn’t horrifying enough.
If you are looking for extra reasons why these commentators may be looking to extend a warm hand to Trump, here’s another one: There is something comforting about Trump acting in a manner that much elite opinion has been in favor of for years. Barack Obama was criticized for not launching an attack on Assad after the latter crossed Obama’s “red line,” and many people have made cases—ranging from completely legitimate and thoughtful to entirely bonkers—that America should be more involved in the anti-Assad side of the Syrian conflict. Coupled with the news that the White House nationalists may be on the way out, or at least struggling against the more establishment-friendly wing of the administration, it makes sense that seeing Trump act like a normal politician would feel good. (The Clinton comments, coupled with those of her allies such as Anne-Marie Slaughter, only added to the sense that this was the kind of action most presidents would have undertaken.)
But Trump is not—and will never be—a normal president. He is an uninformed and dangerously unstable one. If he wants to conduct military action without congressional approval, he should be challenged, not lauded. The prospect of someone with Trump’s limited focus and understanding immersing the United States more deeply in another foreign conflict is unnerving—especially when that conflict is taking place in a region that predominantly practices a religion Trump despises. And, as my colleague Jamelle Bouie noted Thursday night, there is something additionally terrifying about a petty and insecure man who seeks nothing more than praise … receiving praise for military action. Trump’s reversals and embarrassments of the past two months are heartening and invigorating, but America is still on the precipice. And the response of too many people over the past 24 hours shows the danger of forgetting that.