In the wake of the U.S. launching missiles into Syria, GQ editor-in-chief Jim Nelson considers the political value of a fortuitously timed military campaign in the midst of a flailing Presidency.
I wrote this Letter from the Editor two weeks ago, for the upcoming May issue of GQ, but because of circumstances we’re posting it now, before the issue comes out. At the time of writing, TrumpCare had just failed, there was no talk of military actions anywhere, and in the letter, I did not cite Syria. I was only responding to a playbook I felt Trump was following. I never dreamed that the missiles would start flying so quickly.
Can you imagine how desperately Donald Trump wants a war right now? How badly he is gunning for a full-on fight with
a fresh enemy of the people, real or imagined, that could galvanize his limp (and getting limper) public support, stop people fake-newsing about the catastrophic failure of TrumpCare, remove the asterisk from his Glorious Victory against Hillary, and take the media spotlight off the dark web of Russian collusion that has dogged and—let us pray—will ultimately end his Brief and Terrifying Reign.
He needs something to distract us from all these distractions. And there is one thing that always works.
Is there still time for a war? Because if there is, I believe Trump and Steve Bannon would love to bring it to us.
War, I am sorry to promise you, or wild and reckless military actions, will be the next game plan—that is, if Trump can start a fight faster than Congress can muster the will to repeal and replace him. And we all know how fast and furiously this man can start a fight. Along with his skills at serial bankruptcy and gold-plating entire hotel lobbies, it is, perhaps, his greatest gift.
Besides, surely this is what He has always dreamed of, The Donald as military hero. Correction: I mean, if he actually dreams instead of merely twitches. Can’t you see him sleep-twitching maniacally at night, in a bedroom very separate from Melania’s, his hands groping the darkness in front of him while he grunt-moans like Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein. (❖1)
❖1: Wait. Let’s be fair and consider whether he’s psychologically fit enough to dream. In which case: What does Donald Trump dream of? Himself, of course, 72 feet high and stalking the land, giant boner-shaped missiles shooting ballistically from his crotch. Or the small little pleasures of the executive branch: Bannon laughing like a jackal at his Paul Ryan jokes. Nah, probably just weird, Eyes Wide Shut-y sex parties with Slavic pole-dancing rooms and willfully masked chatte grabbers, scenes of wordless debauchery in which Ivanka suddenly shows up, disturbing and complicating the opportunities.
But it’s getting harder to dream in Trumpland, and all that’s left is to turn the empty Great Again gloats of his campaign into the nightmare they were always meant to be. Looking for wars—only the best wars, of course, really terrific wars—was always part of the Plan. Almost certainly shunted to the front of the line now. Because as every petty tyrant knows, every casual reader of Machiavelli or The Art of the Deal can tell you, escalating conflict is, and has always been, the quickest and surest way to consolidate power. For a man obsessed with poll numbers, threatening war, waging war, also happens to be the fastest way a Loser can redeem himself in the public’s mind.
And so I await, in the coming weeks and months, more bellicose banter and general weirdness with weird-ass North Korea. Hawkish threats to China over the South China Sea. Saber-rattling at anyone with a saber. Maybe our own little Falklands. That would be cute.
What I really worry about, what keeps me up at night, is where war under Donald would take us as a country. Not so much militarily as democratically. Because:
We already know Trump’s dictatorial disposition, his romantic affection for thugs and violent strongmen, his zero-level interest in democratic institutions. And so, yes, I flat-out worry that he will relish, seize, and exploit any martial opportunity to distract the masses, assume more powers, and blunt all opposition—much the way his BFF Vladimir Putin did in 1999. Do you know this story, the Origin Story of Vlad? There is a chilling lesson in it, so let me retell it before it happens in real time.
That year, as GQ originally reported (❖2), Putin, newly installed in office and suffering anemic poll numbers, seized upon a crisis surrounding a series of suspicious apartment bombings in Russia. The resulting military-police action, dubious at best and overkill at every step, soon devolved into an excuse for a war with Chechnya. More to the point, it turned Putin from an unpopular ex-KGB hack into a full-fledged dictator-hero. Having “crushed” what he claimed to be a terrorist cabal, he became beloved as Protector of the Russians, the dashing despot with pet tigers whom we all love and fear.
❖2: The original GQ story, “None Dare Call It Conspiracy,” by reporter Scott Anderson, was deemed too dangerous and held from digital distribution when it ran in 2009, but it is now, finally, online. I highly recommend it.
Soon he was free to do whatever he wanted: dismantle or arrest the opposition, strangle the free media, and (my lawyer is advising me to place the word “allegedly” in here) allegedly allow goons to poison and murder anyone who dared cross him. It’s staggering. When you see how many Putin critics have died mysterious deaths in recent years, it really makes you marvel, and wonder: How does he (allegedly!) find the time?
That is the grim fable we must avoid at every cost. So please don’t be surprised if the next chapter of It Can’t Happen Here happens here.
It still can’t happen here.
*This piece originally appeared in the May 2017 issue with the title “Repeal and Replace.”
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