Savour it with every fibre of your being, because such events come seldom and are usually over in minutes. And don’t stare directly at it: the flash of hope could cauterise the retina. But for the moment at least, the madness of the Trump presidency has been partially eclipsed.
This is not to suggest that Monday’s speech about increasing troop deployment to Afghanistan and US policy in South Asia was dazzlingly impressive in itself. Despite being one of those rare autocue-obedient recitals that tempt the willfully gullible to imagine he is becoming “presidential”, it had its absurdist flourishes. You had to smile at “I studied Afghanistan in great detail, and from every conceivable angle.” An hour earlier, he almost certainly thought Afghanistan was Jennifer Aniston’s younger sister, Afgh.
Among other proofs of his copious studies, he said that America’s longest war has been going on for 17 years (rather than not quite 16), and that the failed state is led by a prime minister (rather than a president). But beyond the default bombast and ignoramus howlers, the speech offered encouragement in what would, until a few months ago, have been the unlikeliest way.
With Afghanistan, Trump has had two opposing voices screaming at him. In one ear, the America First far right, as represented by his own instincts and the lovable likes of Ann Coulter and Steve Bannon, demanded the complete withdrawal of US troops. In the other, the Generals insisted this would leave Afghanistan to the tender mercies of the Taliban and even less gentlemanly Islamist outfits; that more troops, rather than less or none, was the way to go.
In narrowly military terms, the detail he announced on Monday seems irrelevant gesturing. He gave no firm detail at all, in fact, though it is believed that the current US deployment of some 8,000 troops has been boosted to 12,000. Afghanistan was an anarchic hellhole with 100,000 US soldiers on its soil. An extra 4,000 in a country as large and chaotic is purely symbolic. (Even the proposed deployment of an extra 85 British troops might not tip the balance.)
But it is as symbolism that the speech was so reassuring. Here was Trump gesturing grudgingly that he has surrendered to the military. His Generals – chief of staff John Kelly, who hung his head while Trump equivocated between Nazis and anti-Nazis; James “Mad Dog” Mattis, the Secretary of Defence; and HR McMaster, the National Security Advisor – hold him hostage.
For more than a half a century, the prospect of a president falling into the clutches of the military was among the more petrifying available to humanity. In 1961, Dwight Eisenhower warned against it with the special insight and authority of a president who had once been the most powerful soldier on earth. “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” he said. “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
It still exists and will persist. But all things are relative. The power misplaced in Trump and his potential to abuse it by deploying nuclear weapons as a diversionary tactic from his domestic difficulties is a greater threat than any other facing the planet. So long as the Generals are executing this genteel version of a military coup, we can assume that there will be no fighting in the war room, and that Kim Jong-un’s capacity to taunt Trump into summoning the codes will be nullified.
Trump’s speech confirmed that his weakness goes beyond the familiar presidential difficulty of getting contentious legislation through Congress. He is now so enfeebled that the Generals and Admirals are not just emboldened to ignore his orders with contempt (not a blind bit of notice was taken of his ban on transgender people in the military). They are dictating foreign policy even when it directly undermines the support of Trump’s base.
The reaction of his most slavish fans to the Afghanistan speech was instant and predictable. On Bannon’s Breitbart, the white supremacist sweethearts drenched the comment threads with anguished sobs of treachery. Given that isolationism was a central plank of Trump’s campaign, they had good reason. Ann Coulter, the effortlessly poisonous puff adder of nationalist spite, who a few days ago rejoiced at Trump’s insinuation that neo-Nazis and anti-Nazis are as bad as each other, rued his impotence on Twitter.
With his approval ratings in the mid-30s, the adoration of Breitbartians and users of similar sites is the last effective defence Trump has left. The more transparent he is as the dummy perched on the hands of ventriloquist Generals who are effectively continuing the policies of his predecessor, the more of that evaporates. The closer his approval rating slides towards 30 per cent, the more vulnerable to impeachment or removal under the 25th Amendment he becomes.
God knows what Trump was thinking when he stared into the heart of a star during the eclipse. Perhaps he was looking for a medical excuse to avoid giving that humiliating speech a few hours later. But if he was looking to the heavens for a hopeful omen, he will have been disappointed. The sun is going down fast on this abomination of a presidency, and the odds against it rising again diminish all the time.
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