Sorry, Trump Probably Isn't Smart Enough To 'Wag The Dog' But He Sure Could Try!
Did Donald Trump "wag the dog" when he blundered the US into a likely war with Iran? That phrase was trending on Twitter for a while, and it's a reference to the 1997 film Wag the Dog, which starred Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman. It also featured Anne Heche in a major role during the 18 months when studios cast her in things. De Niro's character is a spin doctor who's brought in to salvage the incumbent president's re-election campaign after he's embroiled in a very 1990s sex scandal. De Niro hires Hoffman's Hollywood producer character to distract the public with a fake war. There's even a theme song! The movie is prescient in many ways, especially when it comes the simplistic motivations given to the fictional enemy: "They hate us for our freedom." That was unfortunately the best America could come up with when actually attacked on 9/11.
Distract the public, justify the war machine - Wag the Dog (1997) www.youtube.com
It's important to note here that the Wag the Dog war is a hoax. The president never seriously considers starting a real war involving real human soldiers and real bombs as a way to improve his poll numbers. That's what monsters do and Wag the Dog isn't a monster movie or even a late-season House of Cards episode. (The ending takes an unfortunate turn to darkness, though.) But just as "Play it again, Sam" was never actually said in Casablanca, Wag the Dog is equally misinterpreted as time goes by. It didn't take long. In 1998, Bill Clinton was on trial for non-Hillary-Clinton-induced orgasms. The terrorist group al-Qaeda bombed American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on August 7, killing 224 people and injuring thousands more. Clinton responded with missile strikes on al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan and Sudan. This led a very serious media to wonder if the president was a straight-up sociopath.
ROBERT DALLEK: Coming three days after the president's unsatisfying apology to the nation, and on the same day as Monica Lewinsky's return to the grand jury, the U.S. military strikes Thursday in Afghanistan and Sudan have skeptics asking: Are they truly a response to the Kenya-Tanzania bombings of American embassies, or a manufactured crisis to divert public attention from his personal troubles? Or, as one reporter asked Defense Secretary William Cohen at a news briefing on the attacks, isn't there a "striking resemblance" to "Wag the Dog"? Cohen, forced to address the issue, said, in essence, of course not.
Anyone who wondered if Clinton literally killed people to take the heat off his extramarital blowjobs officially crossed the line between "skeptic" and "asshole." There also was no "striking resemblance" to Wag the Dog because as anyone who actually watched the movie would know, Hoffman's "war" never happened. I personally wish all our "wars" were just confusingly edited Michael Bay blockbusters with no discernible plot.
Wag the Dog continue to, er, dog the Clinton administration. During his impeachment hearings in December 1998, Clinton bombed Iraq. This was intended to keep Saddam Hussein from developing weapons of mass destruction (yeah, those). Republicans thought he was just trying to steal their impeachment thunder with a flashy bombing campaign. They even called it "Monica's War," because women are blamed for everything.
Clinton Orders Iraq Airstrikes - 1998 | Today In History | 16 Dec 18 www.youtube.com
Clinton probably preferred any news cycle that didn't involve his own dick, but it's inconceivable that he'd drop bombs on a nation for his own personal and political interests. I'm frequently accused of cynicism but I've never bought into assuming that every political leader is secretly Richard III or, worse, Frank Underwood.
The West Wing would explore this issue in a 2001 episode. The show's idealized Bill Clinton character, Jed Bartlet, had misled the nation, as well, but about his multiple sclerosis not his affair with a White House intern. When Barlet sends troops to Haiti, his press secretary, C.J. Cregg, screws up big time and says the president is "relieved to be focusing on something that matters." This rare public flub from C.J. makes it seem like Bartlet is glad to divert the American people's attention from his scandalous concealment of a personal medical condition. (Yeah, he was a really idealized version of Bill Clinton.)
Twenty years later, Wag the Dog is still a question when a scandal-plagued president takes military action. The problem with having an amoral sociopath as commander in chief is that it's impossible not to presume that Trump believes killing random people makes him stronger and improves his poll numbers. He pardons war criminals, after all.
It's unfortunate that warfare remains the easiest way for a president to get the public on their side. I'd love it if we could "wag the dog" with better health care or a high-speed railway system. Of course, if Trump promised either, you can be sure they're fake.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."