I have little doubt that Donald Trump’s declaration that he is a “wartime president” emerged from either his media-addled brain or the sycophancy of a staffer—a romantic bit of self-fashioning that appealed to his fascination with military might and his own image of himself as a tough guy. And I’m just as sure he likes it because it makes him feel special—after all, wartime presidents are a select group, right?
Well, not so much. Unfortunately for Trump, he already was a wartime president. Indeed, one of his many unfilled campaign promises was that he was going to end America’s ongoing wars. To be fair, I’m sure he didn’t feel like a wartime president, even when he got to order a missile strike against Syria or the targeted assassination of Qasem Soleimani. A wartime president in the popular imagination—which, let’s face is, is the only imagination Trump has—is someone who visibly leads the nation through fire, like Lincoln in the Civil War or FDR in WWII, or George W. Bush (up until the point when it became obvious that Iraq was an unwinnable quagmire). And when you think about it, we don’t tend to think of Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon as wartime presidents because, well, America lost in Vietnam. The War of 1812 had an ambiguous ending, so James Madison doesn’t get equal billing with George Washington. Winning is important. But even unequivocal victory doesn’t necessarily make the cut: George H.W. Bush is remembered more for “Read my lips!” and losing the presidency after one term than for winning the first Gulf War. (Precisely why this is the case is something I’ll discuss below).
In actual fact if not popular imagining, “wartime president” is hardly a distinction, as there are precious few presidents (if any) from George Washington onwards who did not preside over one war or another. Some, perhaps, like Reagan and Grenada or Clinton and Kosovo, hardly seem more than skirmishes; but the fact of the matter is that it’s hard to find presidents who didn’t engage in at least a little bit of military adventurism.
That being said, Trump’s claim to be a wartime president has at least a modicum of resonance, if for no other reason than that we do genuinely understand this moment to be one of immediate crisis, and its effects are being felt by everybody. People like myself who hold Trump in contempt scoff at his assumption of the “wartime” mantle, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t somehow apt on a gut level—just that we can’t imagine someone as venal and incompetent as Trump actually, you know, leading.
Precisely why “wartime president” has resonance now is more my concern here, however, than Trump’s dismal performance (I will, no doubt, have much to say about that in future posts). It goes back to what I observed above: that George H.W. Bush doesn’t get that title in spite of the fact that he presided over the only unequivocal U.S. military victory since V-J Day. There are a variety of reasons why this is the case: he never really rose above the “wimp” moniker or Dana Carvey’s impression of him; he was a one-term president who lost to the libertine Bill Clinton; victory was way too easy; he could never emerge from Ronald Reagan’s shadow; and there was the fact that, in many people’s minds, he left the true business of the Gulf War—i.e. ousting Saddam Hussein—unfinished, to be completed by his more rugged and warlike scion.
What I would argue, however, is that, in the words of Jean Baudrillard, “the Gulf War did not take place.” When Baudrillard first composed that notorious sentence, it was—unsurprisingly—controversial. He was pelted with accusations of callousness towards those Coalition soldiers who had been killed or wounded, and by those who assumed it was a conspiracy theory that the Gulf War had been a simulation akin to what would be depicted several years later in the film Wag the Dog. (Baudrillard’s most influential book, after all, is the slim tome entitled Simulations). I’m sure everyone will be shocked to learn that Baudrillard was arguing a somewhat different, albeit related, point: the Gulf War did not take “place,” he said, in the sense that it was not real for its spectators. For all of the media coverage, of which there was countless hours—let’s remember, it was the coverage of the Gulf War that demonstrated the viability of CNN’s business model as a 24/7 news network—none of it had the visceral substance of the reporting on Vietnam. Which was, indeed, by design: received wisdom stated that it was in allowing reporters to show dead and wounded soldiers and images of combat, that the U.S. government lost the war of popular opinion, and therefore the moral authority to wage war in Vietnam as they saw fit. Hence, news of the Gulf War was carefully vetted and funneled through government and military officials, often through press conferences showing off video footage of “smart” weaponry surgically obliterating targets.
Is it any wonder it was dubbed “the video game war”? Baudrillard’s larger point was that the Gulf War lacked affect for people at home, and thus did not take place in any meaningful sense. It was not a felt war, but an imaginary one, in the sense that anyone who was not there or was close to someone who was did not have their lives impacted beyond the barrage of media images.
This dynamic was recapitulated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. The destruction of the World Trade Center was certainly a felt experience, as it upended people’s understanding of reality and possibility. And George W. Bush certainly assumed the mantle of a wartime president with cinematic flair. But it is important to remember that, framed within his celebration of the American spirit and platitudes about fortitude, was the more crucial exhortation to keep shopping. If the economy tanks, the sentiment went, the terrorists win. Keep on as normal—keep consuming, and thus vindicate the capitalist ethos.
On one hand, it was sensible advice: the best way to defeat terrorism, after all, is to refuse to be terrorized. On the other hand, however, it was message of political expediency that reflected an aversion to asking people to sacrifice. Does that sound at all familiar? Trump might want to call himself a wartime president, but doesn’t seem inclined to fight much, and has only very reluctantly allowed for the fact that social distancing and isolation is beneficial. His obvious inclination is to echo Bush’s harangue and tell people to start shopping again, already.
Trump is a wartime president because people are feeling it in their lives, more so than any time since WWII. WWII was a felt war because it impacted people’s lives with rationing, social upheaval, and the draft, which meant that there were few people living stateside who didn’t know someone in combat. Vietnam was a felt war also because of the draft, and because of the nightly news showing scenes of horror, all of which made for cultural divisiveness on a scale not seen since the Civil War.
The U.S. learned those lessons for the first Gulf War, and refined them post-9/11. To my mind, the most eloquent expression of the cognitive dissonance between combat and civilian life is a brief scene in the film The Hurt Locker. Jeremy Renner plays a bomb disposal expert who spends his tour defusing IEDs. When he comes home, he is grocery shopping with his wife, and she asks him to grab some cereal. Standing in the cereal aisle, he has option paralysis: a seemingly infinite stretch of shelves, all of them offering minute variations of sugar-coated processed grains.
It is a far cry from WWII-era rationing.
Just to be clear, I don’t want to denude the pain and trauma of those who serve in combat units in the military, or their friends and families, or those civilians living in war zones caught in the crossfire. Their experience is quite real, quite felt, and utterly not imaginary. But war has always had its front lines and its home fronts. It has been quite some time in the privileged West since the home front has had to make sacrifices. Right now, if we accept the war metaphor—which, in spite of everything I’ve just said, I don’t know that I do—the home front is the front line.
Which, sadly, makes Donald Trump a wartime president.