A couple of weeks ago, despite their party controlling the entire legislative pipeline, the Republicans’ effort to unravel and replace the Affordable Care Act—a movement-defining initiative they’d been promising for over seven years—collapsed after a mere 17 days, without ever coming up for a formal vote in the House of Representatives. This happened in no small part because legislators and other officials had been made to fear that public support for the bill would amount to resigning from public office. They felt that way because they received, altogether, millions of phone calls from regular people, telling them to feel that way.
Among the worst true things anyone can say about the low condition of the American federal government is this: It is easier—far easier, essentially effortless by comparison—for a president to launch several dozen cruise missiles at a target in a sovereign foreign nation than it is for a party in control of both houses of Congress and the White House to make reforms to this nation’s health care system. In truth, both things should be extremely hard, but the former involves essentially no steps at all. Even a senile addled moron like Donald Trump can do it, no matter what (valid and important) objections anyone raises about whether the constitution grants him authority to do so. For all intents and purposes, the president of the United States has unilateral power to make war anywhere in the world for any reason at any time. Donald Trump entered the United States into a war in Syria last night, from his golf club in Florida.
For all that the president has essentially unchecked license to do this, though, the pursuit of a war isn’t entirely exempted from the same pressures that defeated the GOP’s cruel and stupid healthcare bill. As anyone who was old enough to pay attention during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—or the first Persian Gulf war, or Bill Clinton’s wars in central Europe, or even Barack Obama’s myriad targeted assassinations of America’s antagonists abroad—would know very well, what underwrites the president’s practical authority to rain death on foreign soil without so much as a rubber-stamp vote from Congress is the impulse, on the part of both politicians and the media, to line up behind the president who does it, to make a show of unity, to lend him the gravitas of The Great War Chief. They all have their motivations, pretty much all of which are bottomlessly cynical but also sensitive to—and in thirsty pursuit of—popular will.
For the TV media, for example, war is an excuse to dust off their Steely-Eyed War Men, their Kenneth Pollack and “Spider” Marks and so forth; to slap an “AMERICA STRIKES” graphic and sober martial snare rhythm on each return from commercial break; it’s great for ratings. For politicians, lining up behind the war effort is an opportunity to Project Strength; to be seen as taking a hand in wielding the deadliest tool—the U.S. military—the world has ever contained; to play-act and thereby claim for themselves equality to the gravest of international stakes; to get on what we all keep imagining despite going on 50 years of evidence to the contrary will always be the winning side.
Congress especially likes this model of war-making because it goes straight from the Oval Office to cable news, and does not rope legislators into something they’re inclined to fear: actual accountability for the choice to go to war. A war the president makes on his own does not put them on the hook for more than their tweets of arousal; they can “support” it now and denounce it later, for a whole constellation of disingenuous reasons. The cruise missiles had not even reached their targets by the time this process began, last night.
Combine these tendencies with a dismally unpopular and egomaniacal president animated entirely by his Pavlovian impulse to repeat whichever behavior prompts a favorable response from cable news, and you can see where this is alarmingly likely to lead: To an actual boots-on-the-ground war, in the most dangerous part of the world’s most explosively unstable region, with a demented orange mail-order steak pitchman using all America’s unfathomable death-making might to jerk off the dopamine valves in his own nucleus accumbens. You can also, though, see the absolute only chance that this can be halted before more people die.