Cable TV president launches cable TV war — and the reviews are boffo!


US Syria

170407-N-FQ994-031 MEDITERRANEAN SEA (April 7, 2017) USS Ross (DDG 71) fires a tomahawk land attack missile April 7, 2017.

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 military 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.

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