I've been watching TV and listening to the news on the radio about the controversy surrounding President Trump's comments about condolence calls and letters. It's a demoralizing scandal, one with a long history, stirred up this time by a president who, apparently unable to control his tongue or his Twitter finger, seems to lurch from one self-inflicted embarrassing predicament or disagreement to the next, sometimes in the course of a single day or even a single public appearance or Twitter barrage. But is that what's really going on?
Our president is never embarrassed and he is never wrong. Caught in a falsehood, he simply denies having said what he said or one of his paid spokespersons denies his having meant what he said or claims that an incoherent presidential tweet was actually purposeful and understandable by "a small number of people." Sometimes, his aides say that they have "no idea what the president meant." After criticizing and feuding bitterly with a member of his own party for months, he declares that the relationship is warm and friendly, "closer than ever before." It's a dizzying spectacle to behold.
The pattern is excruciatingly well established, but, George Orwell's observation about "political language" notwithstanding, President Trump is clearly playing in a league of his own. How to understand his unique communications strategy, which seems to baffle so many talking heads? Is our president a textbook example of a narcissist who, unable to empathize and lacking any capacity to sincerely or frankly admit error, sees himself as the center of the universe? Does he crave being the center of the nation's and the world's attention? Is he at the same time a calculating politician who believes that any publicity is good publicity and one who feeds off of the controversies he causes while shrewdly manipulating the prejudices of his base, some of which are his own prejudices? Has he found a way to turn Orwell's logic on its head by mocking the political establishment and its political language with a communications program that purposefully flaunts seemingly incomprehensible "pure wind" while profiting from the attention he commands and the confusion, fear, and rage he incites?
To what extent are the major media corporations that promoted him during his campaign now profitably colluding with him in support of his agenda? It seems a fair question. After all, a media culture that is daily consumed by what is essentially celebrity gossip about a worryingly peevish president who tweets about a bleeding face-lift and the like is filling time and space that might otherwise be devoted to issues that actually matter, such as children starving, bleeding, and dying under siege and bomb and missile attacks supported by the U.S. government in, for instance, Gaza and Yemen.
The deaths of military personnel are always political, and for political reasons all administrations in Washington strive to control what some media professionals call "the optics" of those deaths. The George H. W. Bush administration decreed in 1989 that military flights bringing the bodies of military personnel back to the USA would arrive at Dover AFB at night and without the presence of news crews and photographers. The ban lasted 20 years, and even after it was lifted, live coverage was prohibited. Some would have you believe that Americans just don't want to know about the wars fought in their name and with their tax dollars, but it's politicians who don't want the negative publicity and awkward questions that attend caskets returning from Washington's foreign wars. When then-President Obama visited Dover after midnight to observe the return of the remains of 18 US soldiers and drug enforcement agents to U.S. soil, that too was a political act.
Are President Trump's confusing antics merely the latest iteration of the garrison state mentality characteristic of post-9/11 America and the perpetual war against terrorism? In 2005, I wrote about the Pentagon's obituary program, which offered the families of service members and contract employees killed abroad the services of Pentagon obituary writers, and I paid a price for having done so. If you haven't already, you begin to understand that you live in a garrison state when Washington political operatives reach out and hand you an intentionally botched surgery at one of the nation's three most prestigious teaching hospitals. You also realize that a garrison state government is not above terrorizing its own citizens on the basis of partisan politics or ideology.
When a garrison state's war machine has the active support of ruthless political operatives in both major political parties, anything can happen. Anything, that is, except peace.