Over the years, I’ve been accused of all sorts of political bias. Some days, I’m a closeted communist for suggesting that Donald Trump’s aggressive approach to foreign policy actually reduces America’s diplomatic leverage over its allies. Others, I’m a Trump-humping fascist for pointing out that, despite the media spin, Trump’s emphasis on space defense is good for America. Neither of those positions really lend themselves to the titles they’ve earned me from angry politically-minded hate mail, but then, how often does it do anyone much good to really delve into misspelled Facebook comments written IN ALL CAPS, anyway?
The point is, for many in today’s political environment, the way our government runs has become a game. Winning is now the objective, rather than improving the state of the nation, and as such, more and more Americans now see everyone in one of two ways: you’re either with us, or you’re against us.
This poisonous approach to politics has manifested differently within each political party, with liberals often turning on their own thanks to the ever-changing rules pertaining to being “progressive,” and Republicans increasingly faced with a difficult choice between supporting the president or acknowledging that maybe, just maybe, Trump may not be the incredible leader his campaign convinced so many Americans that he could be.
In the months leading up to the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis, he held the distinction of being among the few leaders within Trump’s administration that had managed to keep his seat in what is beginning to seem like a constant game of resignation-musical chairs, and he managed to be one of the few Trump administration cabinet members that enjoyed support from both sides of the political aisle. In fact, the only prominent Republican Mattis consistently found himself at odds with was the president himself — throughout much of the rest of the party, faith in the SecDef was near unwavering, even after Trump called him “kind of a democrat” in a jab that Mattis chose to take in stride.
Mattis’ support manifested differently from outside the party, with many calling him the “voice of reason” in Trump’s inner circle thanks to previous disagreements between Trump and Mattis. Reports first emerged that the honeymoon phase between Trump and the general he so frequently referred to as “Mad Dog” had ended when it leaked that Mattis had urged Trump to seek Congressional approval before taking military action in Syria. Trump ultimately chose not to listen to his Defense Secretary in that matter according to reports, though the White House has since denied that the disagreement occurred.
Trump’s openly adversarial approach to allies coincided with public admiration for world leaders like Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdogan, Xi Jinping and other global ne’er-do-wells over the first two years of his term — undoubtedly a position he chose intentionally in hopes of forcing NATO allies to meet their economic commitment to the alliance and to reduce Europe’s military dependency on the U.S. These endeavors, it’s important to note, are good for the United States in a number of ways and are actually in keeping with previous efforts mounted by sitting presidents on either side of the aisle — what Trump does differently, however, is act as though his favor is the goal allies should be pursuing, rather than a strong mutual relationship.
Trump’s approach to China, North Korea, and Russia all shifted as a result of friendly conversations he had with the leaders of each government. Meanwhile, his approach to allies shifted in the other direction as they grew frustrated with what has been called an “isolationist” approach to foreign policy. You can love or hate how Trump approaches America’s dealings with the world, but objectively, it’s hard to deny that he tends to take a lighter public stance against historical opponents, even taking Putin’s word over that of his own intelligence agencies on a number of issues.
Mattis, a career military man who has made a point to keep partisan politics out of his rhetoric while serving under Trump, was first touted by Democrats as a dangerous war-hawk thanks to his “Mad Dog” moniker, but it was conservatives that touted his other nickname, the “Warrior Monk,” and the man’s dedication to the study of his craft. Mattis repeatedly referred to his Defense Department as the metaphorical stick carried by the nation’s diplomats that should always be considered the last resort. Conservatives scoffed at how Democrats latched on to a few quotes and used them to mis-characterize Mattis as a war-hawk. I remember this period of time well, because I wrote about it at the time.
So imagine my surprise when I saw those same conservatives dust off that same (failed) Democratic argument and start posting it on social media just as soon the well-respected leader was at odds with Trump. It’s almost like who you are and what you do doesn’t matter in today’s politics. All that matters is whose side you’re on. Immediately following Mattis’ resignation, which pointed directly at Trump’s aggressive approach to allies and apparent friendly terms with national opponents as one of the numerous places the two couldn’t see eye to eye, conservatives started dusting off old Democrat talking points about the “war-hawk” general that wants to keep us in Afghanistan and Syria forever.
That forever term is an important part of this new narrative, as Trump supporters have now painted withdrawals from both Afghanistan and Syria as “now or never” situations — which neither actually need to be. Getting troops out of both nations may well be in America’s best interest, but for some reason, under Trump, we’ve forgotten what has happened over and over again when we allow our politicians to dictate military strategy. Giving a timeline for withdrawal in places like Afghanistan is like the countdown to the New Year for groups like the Taliban: once the clock hits zero, everyone can celebrate. In fact, they’ve already begun claiming victory in the media.
The idea that Mattis wants to continue the “forever war” in Afghanistan or that he wants a full-fledged invasion of Syria are both creations of this new conservative narrative meant to protect Trump from the political fallout of losing the most respected member of his cabinet. For two years, Mattis has enacted the policies of the Trump administration and offered his best advice for the situation at hand, while garnering the respect of leaders on either side of politics for his level-headedness and poise… but now that he doesn’t agree with Trump, it turns out he’s nothing but an old general in search of a war?
Narratives are more powerful than people like to give them credit for. They sway the populace, win elections, and shape the world we live in — and now that narrative machine has turned on one of America’s greatest living generals in favor of protecting a poorly managed presidential administration. Trump’s not the worst president America has ever seen, he’s not always wrong, and he’s not the monster he’s often made out to be in the media… but now that many conservatives are arguing that Trump’s national security expertise (garnered through his extensive experience in business, I guess) somehow “Trumps” that of a man that’s dedicated more than four decades to this nation’s defense… I have to ask…
Are you that sure Trump has all the answers? Or are you just fighting for your team? These are personal questions you’ll need to ask yourself, but remember that as you consider them, folks on both sides of the aisle are already working hard to frame these questions in unfair ways.
Are you pro-Trump or do you want our troops to keep dying in Afghanistan? Whenever you’re asked a question with an implied answer, you should stop and consider the motives behind the question.