When all is said and done, the dog was successfully wagged. We may be closer to waging various wars, and conspiracy theories may be plaguing that dog like an infestation of fleas, but, bottom line, Donald Trump finally got cable news to stop torturing him 24/7 over his ties to Russia. “Putin’s puppet”—that’s yesterday’s trope.
Yes, news from congressional hearings and the words “FISA warrant” and “Nunes” are starting to filter back on to CNN and MSNBC. But after Trump dropped 59 Tomahawk missiles onto a Syrian airfield, flaunted his MOAB, and rattled sabers at North Korea, all those perfectly legitimate investigations suddenly seem less urgent, like so much nitpicking.
Whatever nefarious involvements Trump and his people might have had with the Kremlin in the recent past, the conventional wisdom, for now, is that relations with Russia stink. And that of course is good for Donald Trump.
The RealClearPolitics average of his job-approval numbers shows a small improvement since the Syrian air strike. But here’s Trump’s real payoff: “Fewer Americans now see the president’s approach to Russia as ‘too friendly’ than did in February,” according to a CBS News poll. “If there was anything that Syria did, it was to validate the fact that there is no Russia tie,” said Eric Trump, who, like his dad, muddies the meaning of “fact.”
How did we get here?
With a lot of help from a voracious news media. For the last couple of months, CNN, and MSNBC have been on a binge—all Trump-Russia intrigue all the time. Once the missiles launched, the content of the binge simply changed—to Assad, chemical attacks, and gaming out the repercussions of war.
In the first heady 24 hours or so of the Tomahawk strike, some prominent journalists plunged into rah-rah claptrap. By the end of the next day, it was almost as if the cable-news talking heads had faint memories of once enabling George W. Bush to invade Iraq on the lie that Saddam Hussein had WMD. Or of all those other times a president had thrown cruise missiles at targets—like, for example, Bill Clinton blowing up a factory in Sudan he said was making chemical weapons when it was actually a pharmaceutical plant—just months before being impeached, in 1998.
CNN’s Fareed Zakaria was hit with social-media ridicule for declaring that “Donald Trump became president of the United States” the night of the bombing. Around the same time, Brian Williams stopped exulting over the Pentagon’s “beautiful pictures” of the cruise missiles launching off a destroyer. And, in the face of GIFs showing the Grinch’s tiny heart growing, The New York Times had to rewrite the headline “On Syria attack, Trump’s heart came first.”
It’s hard for the media, mainstream and otherwise: They can be as susceptible to emotional imagery as the TV-addicted president, who claimed he intervened in Syria because he (and, apparently, daughter Ivanka) was so moved by images of “beautiful babies” gassed to death.
But it would be unfair to characterize all cable reporting as jingoistic or gullible. On the morning after the strike, some CNN and MSNBC anchors and non-hawkish guests were questioning, dissenting, mulling. CNN’s Chris Cuomo, for instance, hammered guests about getting congressional approval. But whether these news organizations were supportive of the military strike or not, the point is that they covered it nonstop, breathlessly, often seeming to be just filling time.
Unlike its rivals, Fox News didn’t lose its head, or its thread. It stuck to its long game, taking time out from its own Syria coverage to show the latest terrorist attack in a Western country, this time in Sweden. Fox knows there’s more fear to be mined from the terrorism-is-everywhere narrative than from the confusing politics of Syria, where libs were siding with neocons and alt-righters were tweeting that their man Trump was “just another deep state/Neo-Con puppet.”
Fox might not be able to get its male personnel to obey anti-sexual-harassment rules, but the disciplinarians there do know how to enforce the party line. In one episode, the co-hosts on Sunday’s Fox & Friends asserted (three times) that Trump’s missile attack “blow[s] out of the water” any notion of “President Trump being in cahoots with the Russians.”
This is slippery stuff: When Abby Huntsman goes on about things blown out of the water, the audience is supposed to draw the conclusion that Trump and the Russians were never in cahoots. That may be the case, or not. But some of the Trump loyalists at Fox are trying to apply his current “vindication” retroactively, as if what you do now wipes out what you did back when. (In one clip, you can see Chris Wallace* correcting Huntsman’s faulty logic.)
Meanwhile, Fox, home of birtherism, “Obama phones,” and hysteria over Susan Rice, is trying to taint liberals as “conspiracy theorists.” And it’s getting increasingly difficult to tell healthy skepticism from paranoia. In the process, no one looks good.
Some on the alt right insist (as Putin does) that the chemical weapon attack in Idlib province was a “false flag” to make Assad look bad. On MSNBC, Lawrence O’Donnell posits that Putin might have planned the gas attack in order to give Trump the chance to attack Assad and destroy the Russia-elected-me theory once and for all. Newt Gingrich (who once said that the key to understanding Obama was to “understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior”) is now scolding Dems for donning tinfoil hats. Howard Dean looks like a bully for saying that Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) should resign from Congress for asking for proof that Assad set off the gas attack.
God knows there’ve been conspiratorial crazies for centuries. As the Steve Bannon vs. Jared Kushner battle heats up, anti-Semites like David Duke are tweeting attacks on Kushner that got their start in the Middle Ages.
But we now have a presidency that was literally birthed in a conspiracy theory. Trump can’t do anything without creating confusion and doubt, prompting others to be suspicious in kind. Is Trump like Pig Pen, a cloud of dirt and dust following him everywhere he goes? Or is he the anti-Midas: Everything he touches turns into chaos?
I think Hillary did it.
*Correction: This article originally misidentified Chris Wallace as Mike Wallace.