About a year ago, a man at a New Hampshire town hall asked whether Donald Trump would be the next George Wallace. Would Trump do something similar to what the late Alabama governor did in 1963, and tell young Syrian refugees fleeing a country torn apart by civil war that they couldn’t go to school in gilded Greenwich, Connecticut? Understand that this is something that this voter wanted: a president who would segregate us from the world. You may already know how Trump responded, as he rarely misses an opportunity for bluster. He said about those Syrian children, “I can look in their faces and say, ‘ You can’t come here.’” That answer earned him applause — the only thing other than golf that Trump pursues with any true passion. He’ll say or do whatever is required to make folks put their hands together.
Thirteen months later, Trump ordered our military to launch a strike on Syria. Supposedly, the strike was a response to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad once again murdering his own citizens in a chemical attack. This particular attack, which involved a rocket laced with a toxic nerve agent believed to be sarin, killed at least 70 people in the northern town of Khan Sheikhun. The images of dead children allegedly inspired Trump to attack a Syrian airfield with 59 Tomahawk missiles.
The strike angered Trump’s loudest white-nationalist backers, who dismissed Assad’s attack as a false-flag hoax. Strangely, Trump was still buoyed by sycophancy from some unexpected sources. Forgetful journalists and Democratic leaders alike commended him, mostly without qualification. Trump launched the strike without congressional approval, which still didn’t prevent yet another CNN personality from saying that the bombing signified that Trump, once again, had finally become president of the United States. An act of war is too often mistaken for something heroic when our head of state commits it.
Some Syrians, including a father who lost his infant twins, have thanked Trump for the strike. However, it's worth keeping in mind that Trump is still the same guy who repeatedly tweeted in 2013 and 2014 that President Obama shouldn’t attack Syria, even though Assad had just killed more than 1,400 people in an even larger chemical attack outside Damascus. There were images of dead Syrian children then, too. Where was this sudden empathy then? Just last Friday, the Trump administration lifted a middle finger to those same Syrians under attack, arguing in court that the president's Muslim travel ban is “ religiously neutral.” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said today that refugees “ are not looking to flee.” They sure as hell aren't looking to stay, though.
Nearly a week later, we still don’t know exactly why Trump did this. Will he now depose Assad? Doing so would be a stark reversal from the State Department’s recently stated willingness to let the genocidal dictator stay in power. Was the murder of these Syrian civilians Assad’s way of testing how permissive the White House will be toward him? Defense officials said as much, but who cares? Trump made things go boom somewhere far away. While the man has frequently been judged as “presidential” for displaying the most elementary skills, such as reading off a sheet of paper or a teleprompter, this time he got rave reviews without even needing to say anything.
Oh, but he did that, too! Shortly after news of the strike broke, Trump spoke to the nation, explicitly mentioning the “beautiful babies [who] were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack.” Coming from Trump, who singled out Syrians in his xenophobic travel bans, that was pretty rich. He hasn't said much about Syria since, but Spicer has kept selling the touching narrative: The president was inspired to order the strike after he’d seen some “ disturbing and tragic” photos of Syrian children injured and killed in Assad’s attack. A New York Times correspondent apparently bought that, writing that Trump’s strike “was an emotional act by a man suddenly aware that the world’s problems were now his — and that turning away, to him, was not an option.”
That’s a generous read, since Trump only seems to care about Syrian children when they’re dead. For all his alleged concern about their “slow and brutal” deaths, he hasn’t indicated that he’ll change any of his discriminatory immigration policies to help the tens of millions who need help inside Syria, or the more than 5 million refugees who have already escaped. In fact, as the Boston Globe reported last week, data from the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center shows that the entry rate of Syrian refugees has slowed dramatically under Trump, from 37 per day in the months leading up to Trump’s inauguration to about 18 per day since. He hasn’t corrected the myriad lies he’s told about the already rigid screening process for refugees being somehow lax or insufficient. For all of the forceful and furious rhetoric that’s spilled out of the White House since last week’s attack, we’ve heard nothing about whether Trump now regrets trying to bar every single Syrian refugee from entering the country, much less his campaign promise to eject those already here.
Many, including myself, have cast Trump’s frequent displays of cruelty as inherently evil. Certainly, most of his policies are the stuff of supervillains — his travel bans on Syrian refugees in particular. But more than anything, Trump seeks personal recognition. Those praising this action may believe that clapping whenever he doesn’t do something obviously wicked — when he does something that a typical president might do — is worthwhile. Some have this urgent desire to will Trump into being a good president, infusing him with sufficient likable qualities and seriousness so that they can avoid grasping the horror of his presidency. But it’s doubtful that acclamation for his Syria strike will help steer him further away from the Dark Side. And giving him a standing ovation for merely demonstrating the slightest appearance of humanity, while recklessly stoking further international conflict? That seems especially dangerous.
We can’t ignore the fact that Trump actually screwed this up. The strike was ineffective — the airfield that the U.S. attacked was operational and launching Syrian fighters the following day, and there’s no evidence that the strike eliminated the chemical weapons that were reportedly being targeted. The whole thing was executed, seemingly, without any forethought or expert thinking. Trump’s action angered his suspected friends in Russia — who are believed to be behind the bombing of a hospital where Syrian chemical victims were being treated. There was no apparent consideration of how ISIS would react. Combine his awful instincts and utter lack of experience in these matters, and the president could very well end up making things worse for those babies whom he supposedly now cares about. It is a serious concern that our commander in chief can do anything, including deploy lethal force, in the hopes of earning applause. But what about the people who keep clapping for him?
Thus far, Trump’s strike isn’t moving his abysmal approval numbers. In fact, most say they don’t want to see him launch any more of these unilateral strikes. But Trump only tends to recall the praise he hears, and may very well do something else soon just to feel like he has the American people behind him. That’s why this isn’t just his dilemma; it’s one we all have to confront. He rose to power on the strength of applause from Americans like the ones in that New Hampshire town hall, who indulged in cowardice and fear as they evoked segregationists of the past. After all, when George Wallace stood in that schoolhouse door, trying to prevent integration of the University of Alabama, it was the voters who put him there.