In May of 2017, it was announced that MSNBC had beat out its competitors at CNN and Fox News in monthly viewership among the critical 25-54 year old cohort, the age group by which cable shows rate their success. This was an enormous triumph for the network, who hadn’t beat Fox News in monthly ratings amongst said demo since September of 2000.
The reason why is no secret. Donald Trump’s presidency has sent shockwaves across the country and people are more likely to tune in for criticism than for praise, as any Fox executive will tell you. Firebrand hosts like Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes have opportunistically filled the role, perniciously castigating the Trump administration for its alleged incompetence and illiberalism.
Criticism of Trump from MSNBC has been relentless since the day he defeated Hillary Clinton in November. That is with the exception of a few days in early April. As video played in the background of more than 50 tomahawk missiles being launched from a U.S. carrier towards an airstrip in Syria, the typically placid cynicism of the network quickly morphed into adulation.
Chris Matthews threw away his litany of previous monologues about the supposed Trump-Russia connection, exclaiming that the Syrian strike “killed the narrative” that Trump was in cahoots with Vladimir Putin, a defender of the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Host Brian Williams furthered the positive coverage in a truly puzzling statement, at least to those of us who think war is an ugly endeavor that ought to be avoided when possible.
“We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two US Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean,” Williams fetishized. “I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’ And, they are beautiful pictures of fierce armaments making, what is for them, a brief flight over to this airfield.”
David Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist and reliable Trump critic, came on to laud Trump’s actions as restoring the “credibility of American power.”
The lovefest from the left reverberated beyond MSNBC as well. CNN host Fareed Zakaria, whose political biases are well known, uttered the cringeworthy epithet which we will assuredly hear ad nauseam for the next 3 and half years.
“Tonight Donald Trump became President,” Zakaria said in response to the air strikes, echoing his fellow CNN contributor Van Jones who gave the same response to Trump’s State of the Union.
Smoke and Mirrors
Political Scientists have long held a theory about war and public opinion. The model is straightforward: When facing domestic strife, leaders will often choose to make boisterous foreign policy decisions that help fortify support among the domestic population. Polling has long show a phenomenon known as the “Rally ‘round the flag effect” in which leaders get a significant approval ratings bump in times of war as citizens put aside partisanship to patriotically support the home team. The phenomenon explains why George W. Bush’s approval jumped from 50 percent to 90 percent after 9/11 and again from the mid 50’s to above 70 percent when he announced the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Trump’s air strike in Syria followed a turbulent month of March and early April for the administration. The Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal were dumping a barrage of stories about inappropriate conduct between Mr. Trump and then FBI director James Comey, Obamacare repeal had to be postponed in the House due to lack of support, and intelligence agencies were publicly contradicting the President’s erroneous claims of wiretapping by the Obama administration.
Hardline opposition from Democrats was swelling, leaks to the media were coming in so fast it was hard to keep up, and many in the GOP were showing a willingness to disparage the President’s behavior in public. His approval rating had dipped below 40 percent for the first time, just 3 months into his administration.
Then the President pummeled the Shayrat airbase with 59 Tomahawk missiles, and all was right. House and Senate Republicans heaped praise on the Presidency, as did many Democrats. His approval rating jumped by more than 3 points. Suddenly Mr. Trump went from being a bumbling buffoon to looking decisive and presidential.
If things looked bad back in April, few could have foreseen how big of a hole the Trump administration would have dug themselves into just 4 months later. Already on the heels of yet another dramatic healthcare defeat in the Senate and escalating tensions with North Korea, Trump set the political world ablaze as he blamed “both sides” for the violence that erupted at a White Supremacist rally in Charlottesville, ending in the murder of a young woman when a Hitler obsessed Neo-Nazi drove his car through a crowded street of counter protestors.
For the first time in his Presidency, opposition from his own party was forceful, definitive, and widespread. Staunch Conservatives like Orrin Hatch and Marco Rubio called the President out by name and members of his administration, including his daughter and son-in-law, made clear that they were frustrated by the President’s behavior. There was speculation Gary Cohn was on his way out the door, a leak that shook Wall Street investors who rely on establishment businessman like Cohn and Wilbur Ross to steer the economic ship.
Never-Trumpers like Lindsey Graham took it to another level, lamenting that Mr. Trump was “now receiving praise from the most racist and hate-filled individuals and groups” with his both sides defense to Charlottesville. John McCain agreed, tweeting, “There’s no moral equivalency between racists & Americans standing up to defy hate & bigotry. The President of the United States should say so.”
Those tweets were sent out by the Senators on August 16th.
On August 21st, the Trump Administration announced they were authorizing a troop surge in Afghanistan. Between 3,000 and 5,000 more troops will be sent to fight in Afghanistan, Trump announced, with options for further troop increases in the future to remain open. Suddenly, Lindsey Graham and John McCain changed their tone, actively praising the President for his decisive leadership.
In a move that’s almost too ironic to believe but befitting the current state of American politics, On Friday Mr. Graham retweeted a VICE News clip of Senator Tim Scott arguing President Trump’s “moral authority is compromised” after Charlottesville. On Monday, Graham praised Trump’s “smarts and moral courage” in an interview with Brett Baier.
This won’t be the last time
On Friday, GOP leaders were excoriating Trump for courting bigotry and hatred. On Monday they were effusively praising his moral leadership. What a difference a weekend, and a troop surge, makes.
Now, maybe Mr. Graham and Mr. McCain were simply feeling a sense of universal connectivity following the grand specter of the solar eclipse, overwhelmed by the feeling they had been too harsh on the President and should repent. More likely, the President’s team made a calculated decision to court the hawks in his party in a moment in which his poll numbers are the only thing dropping faster than drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan.
If there are two things that we can say with regards to Mr. Trump, they are that he is erratic and opportunistic. His erraticism will lead to more scandals, more policy failures, and more White House disarray over the next 3 and half years. His opportunism will constantly remind him he’s got the foreign policy levers at his fingertips.
He will continue to utilize military pronouncements in an attempt to divert attention from his flailing domestic policy. After all, it’s much easier to order a strike or deployment than it is to reform healthcare or build a wall to keep immigrants out. The latter takes a dedicated commitment to building consensus and hammering out tough policy details, whereas the former can be done unilaterally and on a whim.
With the strike of the Shayrat air base in Syria, the dropping of the so-called ‘Mother of All Bombs’ in Nangarhar Province, and the troop surge in Afghanistan, Trump is betting on militarism to keep his sinking Presidency afloat.
If early reactions from the media and definitely yet-to-be-drained swamp are any indication, it’s a bet that just might pay off. After all, there’s no political or leadership disagreements in Washington that can’t be solved with a few F-22’s and an indeterminate exit strategy.