Sometimes in America, the rocket's red glare is all the proof through the night that you really need.
The folks over at the Pentagon understand that well, which is why — even as the flames from 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles that struck a Syrian airstrip were still smoldering on Thursday night — the military brass made sure all of the TV networks were rapidly supplied with video of the Xbox-perfect launches from Navy ships in the Mediterranean Sea. The reddish streaks of combustible fuel gave instant light and clarity to the muddled darkness of an Arabian night, and so they played over and over again on cable TV networks thirsty for pictures to illuminate the drama and importance of President Trump's most high-profile miltary adventure since taking office.
For Brian Williams on MSNBC, it was — to steal a phrase from a '60s rock chestnut — all too beautiful.
“We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two U.S. Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean...” Williams said. “I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’" (The song meant something different to Cohen, but I digress...) "They are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is for them what is a brief flight over to this airfield." Then the MSNBC anchor blurted out what almost felt like an afterthought.
“What did they hit?”
The pictures were beautiful, but the policy was a mess. No one understood exactly why the most politically inexperienced and most truth-challenged president in American history had just pulled a complete flip-flop in the world's most volatile civil war. No one could explain on what legal authority Trump had launched the deadly missiles, whether our allies knew this was coming — or what happens next. There were no pictures showing the seven people said to be killed when those "fearsome armaments" slammed into the al-Shayrat airfield, the part of the video game we rarely see.
None of that mattered. Suddenly, cable TV's well-paid squadron of retired generals appeared out of nowhere to bestow their blessing. (Has any network ever hired a retired peace activist as an analyst?) The pundit class who'd made their bones jabbering about Iraq and Afghanistan from the safety of a soundproof studio -- and who for 76 days had been baffled by this strange new commander-in-chief and his pre-dawn tweets — had found their comfort zone, and the relief was palpable. Everybody knew their marks. Finally, unexpectedly but happily, they were putting on the show that they know how to produce.
Three days later, it's impossible to say how history books will view the U.S. missile strike on Syria — as a strange blip in a six-year civil war that's killed 500,000 people and created millions of refugees, as just another nocturnal emission of cruise missiles from a nation that's fired off more than 1,000 from Iraq to Libya to Somalia since 2001...or, less likely, as the Archduke Ferdinand moment of the 21st Century.
But in the broader context of humanity — and this strange and sometimes, yes, beautiful world that we've created after millions of years of evolution — I believe that what we witnessed on April 6, 2017, marked a dangerous turning point. Vital decisions of war and peace, life and death, have been sucked into our vortex of around-the-clock entertainment.
The most powerful military in the history of mankind is in the hands of a man who lives inside of a bubble, whose information and emotions are driven by the images he sees on a flat screen — and who understands his own awesome ability to himself manipulate what he sees. To the bedazzled pundits, Trump's ability to change the narrative on that high-def screen by incoherently striking at Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad (just a few days after his government said it had no interest in Syrian regime change) instantly made him a leader. In reality, he was simply a cable TV president fighting a cable TV war. And there was no way he could lose.
"I think Donald Trump became president of the United States” enthused CNN Fareed Zakaria as the bombs were bursting in air — just days, as writer Joan Walsh reminds us, after the same Fareed Zakaria had shocked viewers by calling Trump a "bull(bleep) artist" on live TV. But that was then. Bombs are beauty, and beauty is truth, and that is all ye need to know, apparently.
The only shocking thing, really, was that it had taken Trump nearly 11 weeks to realize he could bomb his way to higher approval ratings. After all, it was the power of TV that had saved him in the first place from becoming little more than a Trivial Pursuit: Totally '80s game card. By the dawn of the current millennium, it was clear that the Manhattan real-estate mogul was a terrible CEO — beset by bankruptcies and selling scammy products like Trump Steaks and Trump University. "The Apprentice" saved him; reality TV taught Trump that he was 10-times better at playing the role of a CEO than the hard work of actually running a large company. And it taught him how to tell a story, to spin a plotline that could mesmerize viewers, first on NBC and eventually on the presidential campaign trail.
I've said this before, and now is the time to say it again. Donald Trump's presidency is the realization of what a remarkable prophet named Neil Postman predicted more than three decades ago, in a book called "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business." In his masterwork, the late NYU media prof argued that the need to be constantly entertained would become like a drug that would eventually crowd out serious discussion in our politics. He wrote: “Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.”
And yet Trump arguably goes beyond anything that Postman could have imagined. With full access to the world's largest intelligence apparatus, the president prefers to get most of his information from bubble-headed cable shows such as Fox and Friends that the so-called "leader of the free world" watches early in the morning and late into the night. No situation would require more delicate and top-secret information than the bloody conflict in Syria, where U.S. interests have been torn by the butcherous Assad and by the anti-American jihadis who fight against him. Trump's initial policy — fighting the jihadis, with little concern about Assad — flipped, but only after TV images of a gas attack made it real for him.
"Inconceivable that somebody could do that," Trump told two New York Times reporters. "Those kids were so beautiful. To look at those scenes of those beautiful children being carried out." How did the president of the United States learn about the gas attack by Assad's forces in the Syrian city of Idlib? "I was here," he said. "I saw it on television." And suddenly a Celebrity Apprentice president was compelled to act.
He convened his war council, a group that included top advisor Steve Bannon, who'd flitted between making big money on Wall Street and making documentaries blaming the 2008 financial crisis on spoiled hippies, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, the producer of "Suicide Squad." They were all men who understand the power of an image better than they understand the power of Tomahawk missile — which perhaps explains why the picture they released to the public was so similar to Barack Obama's team watching the death of Osama bin Laden.
But the moral clarity of the bin Laden moment wasn't there. The 9/11 mastermind was killed and dumped into the Indian Ocean, while Assad's forces reportedly were back on their feet and using the bombed airbase to strike anti-government rebels this weekend. To accomplish more than a quickly forgotten "message to Assad," will the Trump administration need to strike again? And under what authority?
Unlike the war against bin Laden's al-Qaeda, which was authorized by a 2001 vote of the Congress, there is no similar legal basis for attacking Syrian government troops. In fact, when Obama pursued such authority in 2013, Congress — including the folks still leading it four years later — balked. Do Americans now really wish to concentrate such near-dictatorial powers in the executive branch?
It's a question that too much of the media seems either unwilling or unable to ask. Indeed, the average TV viewer probably has no idea that the United States dropped 26,171 bombs under Obama in 2016 -- much of that in Syria, against rebels who are our enemy but also enemies of the guy we just bombed, Assad (got all that?). And only a handful of pundits and Democratic politicians dared ask that if Trump is so moved by the humanitarian crisis in Syria, why does he still push to ban those babies from the U.S.? All of that would have muddied up the story line.
And yet despite the glaring inconsistencies in policy, from a president who continues to tell massive lies and make outrageous false accusations, Trump probably did solidify his political standing last Thursday. Not by becoming a president, as Zakaria foolishly gushed. But by remembering how he became president — by being the star of his own reality show.
It's beyond alarming. Our ability to create, transmit and share high-tech images, and to use our entertainment values to create an emotionally satisfying storyline, is rapidly outstripping our ability to reason, to question, and to do the hard work that real empathy and human understanding requires. And yet some day, perhaps soon, reality is going to slam into us at 550 mph.
President Trump's new reality show won boffo reviews Thursday from the people whose adulation that he craves the most — the heads that are talking on his TV screen. It was a feeling he won't soon forget, and will only crave even more. The applause from 6th Avenue had barely died down before the president was sending naval ships to the Korean Peninsula, with talk of wild new story lines like nukes in South Korea or even a plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un. Because America's show runner knows audience expectations are going to be sky high for Season 2.