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He wagged the dog

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There is no doubt that Trump took out Soulemani for one reason only: to deflect attention from his mounting Impeachment scandals. War is the ultimate shiny object: with stunning rapidity, the topics of Impeachment, of witnesses in a Senate trial, of Trump’s obstruction of Congress, disappeared overnight from discussions in the national news, both on T.V. and in print. These were replaced, instead, by reporting on the assassination, and on its ramifications and implications.

Is this not precisely what Trump wanted?

“Wag the Dog” was the title of a 1997 movie whose satiric plot centers around “a spin doctor and a Hollywood producer who fabricate a war in Albania to distract voters from a presidential sex scandal.” In the movie, it worked, as it appears to be working now, at least in the short term. Trump, faced with a truly awful situation of epic proportions—Impeachment, low poll numbers, record numbers of Americans believing he should be removed from office, his moral reputation so tattered that even evangelicals admit he’s “not perfect”—needed to do something to shift the narrative. Killing Soulemani was always an ace in the hole he could pull (although no doubt there are others). That he didn’t do so until now suggests he didn’t feel the need to. That he finally has is evidence that, feeling cornered and threatened as never before, he finally decided to play that ace. And now, he has.

Trump is rightfully coming under intense criticism for wagging the dog, but the irony is that he, himself, accused Obama of doing so! That was back in 2011. As Obama was gearing up for re-election, Trump tweeted: “In order to get elected, @BarackObama will start a war with Iran.” That tweet got 21,000 “likes” (including, as a scan of them shows, many from Russians). At around the same time, Trump said during an MSNBC interview, “Our president will start a war with Iran, because he has absolutely no ability to negotiate. He’s weak and ineffective, so the only way he figures he’s going to get re-elected…is to start a war with Iran.”  

Well, calling Trump a hypocrite is of course like saying the Sun is bright: everybody knows it; it’s so obvious that it’s trite. Or, I should reframe that: it’s like saying Trump is a pathological liar. Everybody knows that, too.

Still, the fact remains that Trump has placed America (and its allies) in harm’s way as never before, by his callously blatant tail-wagging. It’s one thing to hurt Americans economically by imposing tariffs on foreign countries. It’s quite another to endanger our very lives—from American soldiers serving in remote outposts in Afghanistan or Iraq to ordinary citizens in Washington or New York being hit by cyber-attacks or dirty bombs.

Did you see the video the other day of Trump down in Miami at a rally with evangelicals? As these people laid their hands on his body, a smirking Trump told them “God is on our side.” Did that make you sick? It made me sick. I felt like the first thing those evangelicals should have done afterwards was wash their hands. But this is part of his wagging-the-dog strategy. He assumes that most Americans, including independents and even some Democrats, will rally around the flag (“partisan politics stops at the water’s edge”), and he assumes, also, that he will pick up just enough Latino votes in crucial states like Florida to win re-election in November.

Those assumptions might be true, if this were a different time. But it’s not a different time. It’s 2020, and a majority of Americans have become convinced that Trump is a con man who will lie, cheat and kill, in order to gain personal advantage. That’s why it’s so important to let the American people know what he’s up to: He is wagging the dog.

Democrats, so far at least, have been reluctant to come out and say so. The most they can offer is “Well, Trump didn’t consult Congress,” or “Trump violated the law,” or “Trump hasn’t offered a shred of evidence that Soulemani was plotting a big attack.” All these things are true, but they’re mealy-mouthed, because they don’t get to the root of the matter: wagging the dog. Americans instinctively understand what that is: it’s what a little brat does when he’s caught red-handed doing something wrong. He cries—he throws a tantrum—he kicks and punches—anything to distract attention from the deed he actually performed. Sometimes, it works. More often, if the parents are smart, it doesn’t.

The American people are smart. They’ll figure this out. But please, Democrats, stop beating around the bush! Come out and say it: “Trump did this to distract your attention away from Impeachment and from your knowledge of his unsavory character.” Mayor Pete—Elizabeth—Bernie—Joe—Amy—say it! Don’t be afraid of Republicans accusing you of stirring up hatred. Speak the truth! You’ll just be giving voice to what everyone already knows.

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