In his seminal 1922 book, Public Opinion, journalistic pioneer Walter Lippmann coined the phrase “manufacturing consent,” describing how the Woodrow Wilson administration, for whom he served as part adviser, part raconteur, “was trying, and while the war continued it very largely succeeded… in creating something that might almost be called one public opinion all over America.” Lippmann cited the work of George Creel, a fellow journalist who became chairman of Wilson’s Committee on Public Information, and whose successful use of propaganda included pro-war speeches placed in periodicals, classrooms, newspaper ads and cartoons, placards in store windows and more. “Think of the dogged work,” Lippmann wrote, “the complicated ingenuity, the money and the personnel that were required. Nothing like that exists in time of peace, and as a corollary there are whole sections, there are vast groups, ghettoes, enclaves and classes that hear only vaguely about much that is going on.”
Sixty-six years later in their 1988 book borrowing Lippman’s famous phrase, Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky lamented the ways in which even without government coercion, the media too often shapes public opinion in ways that coincide with the interests of those with political and economic power, mainly by self-censoring and relying on sources with incentives to maintain the status quo. The book was written at the close of the Reagan administration, fourteen years after Lippmann’s death and 27 years after President Dwight Eisenhower warned of the rise of a military-industrial complex bent on perpetual war, in his farewell address to the nation in 1961.
By the time Chomsky and Herman’s book was published, Americans had added to the experience of World War I the righteous intervention in World War II (coupled with the villainous internment of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans), the conflict in Korea (1950-53), the war in Vietnam (1961-73), a failed military invention to free U.S. hostages in Iran (1980), the disastrous loss of 241 marines in a truck bomb attack in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983 followed days later by the invasion of Grenada, and a raid on Tripoli, Libya (1986). By the following year, 27,000 American troops were invading Panama, a year before Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush launched the first Persian Gulf War. Subsequent presidents would initiate military action in Somalia (1992), Haiti (1994), Bosnia (1995), Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003). President Obama sent U.S. troops to participate in the NATO coalition that helped overthrow Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 (an intervention he would later say spawned his worst mistake: underestimating the viciousness of the aftermath) though he was denied authorization after going to Congress for lawful clearance to strike Syria two years later, after the dictator Bashar al-Assad used sarin gas to put down a rebellion against his regime at the bitter end of the Arab Spring. And of course, Obama dispatched Navy Seals to kill al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.
Over time, manufacturing consent through wartime intervention has become more challenging for U.S. presidents. Lyndon Johnson lost control of the narrative of Vietnam when Walter Cronkite and other journalists exposed the truth that overrode the government’s storyline. Carter was undone by the narrative of failure in Iran. Reagan faced deep skepticism over the swift U.S. exit from Lebanon after the Beirut massacre and the near simultaneous entry into Granada, plus the near presidency-ending Iran-Contra scandal. And Clinton was accused in heavily freighted media reports, of “wagging the dog” by dropping bombs on targets in Sudan linked to Bin Laden, as the Monica Lewinsky scandal spiraled.
There’s no reason to believe that Donald Trump knows any of this. He is famously averse to reading and there’s no evidence he has spent any time as president studying history. But he does understand the media, being a creature of it himself. And he surely intuits the degree to which military action can yet have the effect of uniting the country behind a president, including by focusing the media on the components and execution of the mission, rather than on questioning its propriety. That was especially true after 9/11, when the Bush administration’s march to war in Iraq after a swift sidetrack from Afghanistan went virtually unchallenged by an enthralled American press.
Ironically, Trump rallied his base during the 2016 election in large part around the notion that the powers that be weren’t skeptical enough about the intelligence that presaged the U.S. invasion in Iraq. It’s one of his chief talking points against the intelligence community he seems to so deeply revile for its insistence on questioning the nature of his relationship with Putin’s Russia. And Trump was a vocal opponent of a strike against Syria in 2013, with the tweets to prove it.
Clearly, Trump has the ability to quickly discard these ironies. He also has the performer’s muscle memory to recall how he was praised by members of the press and by a bi-partisan chorus in Congress, including Republicans who, like him, had opposed the very same intervention by Obama, after authorizing a bombing raid against Syria for a chemical weapons attack that killed children in August 2017. This despite Trump’s boasting about the blithe manner in which the authorization took place, at Mar-a-Lago with Chinese dictator Xi Jinping, over chocolate cake. Months before, Trump addressed a joint session of Congress after having shunted responsibility for the death of a Navy SEAL in a disastrous Yemen raid onto the military brass, and was lauded as having “become president” in the moment of his address merely for pointing out the dead SEAL’s widow in the congressional gallery.
The lesson that Trump surely has taken from his 448 days (and counting) in office, including from the wistful hopes draped at various stages onto the barred shoulders of his chief of staff John Kelly, his defense secretary James Mattis and his recently sacked national security adviser H.R. McMaster, is that the path to public praise tends to run through “his” generals.
Trump’s military strike on Syria came on an especially fraught day for his administration. On Friday, we learned from NBC News that deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Robert Mueller investigation, is bracing himself to be fired; from CNN that FBI agents seized recordings between Trump's longtime fixer Michael Cohen and the lawyer who represented two of the women who have claimed to have had sexual relationships with the real estate mogul-turned-president: porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal; and from McClatchy that Mueller is in possession of evidence confirming a crucial piece of the Christopher Steele dossier—that Michael Cohen did indeed travel to Prague in the summer of 2016, despite insisting to the media and to congressional investigators that he wasn't there.
Trump has never been under more pressure, with multiple investigations of himself and his cronies under way. He remains deeply unpopular. And the FBI director he fired, James Comey, has reportedly already moved 200,000 copies of his best-selling book that eviscerates Trump’s character, likening him to a mob boss.
We cannot know if Trump sought to shield himself against the metastasizing cancer engulfing his White House by shifting the country’s theater of imagination to Syria, absent some telling statement from the president himself. But the question hangs in the atmosphere. It will surely lurk in the margins of discourse among our friends and our enemies around the world, shrouding the exercise in Syria in deep cynicism, even in the face of Assad’s extravagant evil.
After all, Trump is the same American president who slammed the door on Syrian and other refugees. Just weeks before Friday’s bombing, he was reportedly demanding a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria before being talked out of it by his national security team. The narrative of Trump’s rise to political power was about putting “America first” and curtailing non-European immigration and multilateral trade, not the military adventurism he has adopted as president, including bringing war fetishist Bolton, a man with no personal military experience, into his cabinet. There has been no authorization to use military force issued by Congress since the AUMF after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. And there is that spiraling investigation that threatens Trump’s very tenure in the White House.
Mattis called Friday’s strike a “one time shot.” And Trump woke up Saturday morning, fired up his Twitter machine, and belted out “mission accomplished,” W. Bush style. So maybe this goes no further. But if it does, and it becomes apparent that the president of the United States is using military action to remake his presidency, we should all hope for sober but firm skepticism from the public, the media and our elected representatives (though who are we kidding when it comes to the current Congress), to keep the war dog’s tail from wagging.