“Triumphant War Hero” Gets Re-elected?

A bit splattered by the blood of thousands of its “collateral” victims, the old, tattered “Re-election Playbook” is being actively consulted once again.  Back in 1787, Thomas Jefferson had adamantly insisted that the new U.S. Constitution stipulate only one presidential term, but his prescient warning was ignored.  (Fortunately his other requirement, that a Bill of Rights be appended, was approved.)  Like so many well-read 18th century politicians (including the young Napoleon), Jefferson looked to the history of the Roman Republic for cautionary precedents.  He knew well that political opportunists like Julius Caesar had won their early mass popularity through their exploits as military conquerors.  In the early stages of his political career, victorious general Caesar would march into Rome, leading a “Triumph” — an endless procession of chained war-captives and cartloads of plunder – before the admiring crowds of plebeians.  His renown was such that, when he was off on his Gallic campaign, he convinced the Senate to pass a special edict allowing him to run for election as Consul in absentia (successful).  His older rival Crassus, financier and slumlord (“the richest man in Rome”), even re-invented himself as a conquering general for political advantage (but he was fortunately, as Plutarch relates, led to his own destruction in Parthia–now Iraq).

Turning to U.S. political history, one could draw up quite a list of military generals who, celebrated by the public as heroes, sought greater political power by running for president (often successfully).  And, of course, such cynical manipulation of the electorate continues up to the recent present.  One major, if not the major, objective for waging war against non-threatening Iraq was to secure this, almost invariable, political advantage as the election year 2004 loomed ahead.  As far as the timing of the attack was concerned (March 19, 2003), the self-impressed Rumsfeld had assumed that “victory” would be attained in a matter of weeks. And such “victory,” in the aftermath of the vicious “Shock-and-Awe” bombing campaign, was indeed soon proclaimed, thus enabling Rove and his ilk to plan a gala, Roman-style “Triumph,” with the military-attired and swaggering Bush landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln, to a national frenzy of celebration and under a presumptuously boasting “Mission Accomplished” banner (May 1).  Allowing for such a hugely popular, “patriotic” kick-off for an 18-month re-election campaign, the timing of May 1 seemed advantageous. (That Iraq had never been a threat, and that the alleged WMDs were never found, barely moderated this wellspring of popular acclaim for the “war hero” — at least for some months.)

In any event, we may now jump exactly eight years hence — to on or about May 1, 2011.  Now it was Obama’s turn to play military hero — in his own kick-off for re-election!  So far, despite his escalation of the war in Afghanistan, as well as his well-publicized “kill list” (drones), he hadn’t yet demonstrated the kind of ruthlessly unprincipled crushing of a “foreign” people which the majority of potential voters seem to relish.  But he had a perfect, quicker, and far less expensive alternative: “take out” Osama bin Laden!  Although the majority of Americans passively or willingly understood little or nothing about the geopolitical distinctions between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, they had been certain that “Saddam Hussein” — this moniker repeated over and over by Bush! — was the personification of all-that-is-evil.  But by 2011 Saddam was dead — having been hanged after a kangaroo-court conviction — and Americans could once again redirect their hate toward an alternative Satan (“Goldstein” of Orwell’s 1984 being unavailable).  Obama’s political handlers, like Bush’s, agreed that an 18-month halo of heroic triumph would help considerably in the long march toward re-election–and they were right.  Of course, Obama, in announcing “the killing of Osama bin Laden” to an awestruck citizenry (May 1, 2011), lied about the actual circumstances, as Seymour Hersh and others have noted.  (E.g., the non-existent “fire-fight” which was claimed in order to re-sell the assassination team as heroic commandos.)  And, of course, with the universally impressed and fawning media adding to the “Triumph,” Obama virtually coasted, with only a few bumps, to re-election in November 2012.

As aforementioned, this “Re-election Playbook,” however old and frayed, has nonetheless proven its ongoing usefulness to the recent crop of lying, opportunistic and murderous presidents.  For Trump — as for virtually all insatiably ambitious presidents — political advantage will always trump any practical strategic (or even economic) considerations.  Thus, deceptively cooking up the usual “justifications” for imminent war, this time with Iran, a nation which, as attested by the EU and other agencies had abided by the signed agreement only to see the U.S. under Trump unilaterally withdraw.  Trump’s hand-picked “national security” advisers are offering him huge political dividends: immense re-election financing from the likes of billionaire casino-mogul Sheldon Adelson (AIPAC), as well as the usual Big Oil industry funders (such as the Kochs, conspicuously represented in policy by their protege Pompeo).

If May 1, 2019 has come and gone, Trump may still have ample time — with the enthusiastic support of his flag-waving base (and the reliably acquiescent media) — to ride the crest of a trumped-up Iranian war, into re-election in November of next year.  But if that scenario doesn’t quite materialize, there is always the tried-and-true fallback: the venerable “October Surprise”!

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.