Really, the last thing that the world needs right now is one more reason to worry about Syria. But unfortunately, following last week’s developments, we have yet another talking point in this seemingly endless conflict.
As almost every informed citizen knows by now, President Trump recently ordered the bombing of an active Syrian airfield that was under the control of the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, following chemical attacks on Syrian citizens last week. The move was the United States’ first direct attack on any pro-government forces in a bloody war that has lasted over six years and sparked a wave of journalistic animation the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the initial election of President Trump.
Although the actual event was certainly important, the media’s coverage of the attack reveals much about both the fickleness that permeates our society and the state of modern political discourse. The implications of its coverage and the reactions to it tell us even more about where American media and politics stand today.
Reporting on the bombing dominated the 24-hour cable news cycle and journalists on both sides of the aisle had a field day reporting their various takes on the president’s actions. It is unsurprising, then, given the “polarizing” nature of Trump’s presidency, that opinions on the airstrikes were split.
Perhaps the most surprising result of the media’s coverage of the attack was that it managed to pull something off that nearly no other geopolitical event had in past months: It blurred party lines. People who had never had a single good thing to say about President Trump lauded his actions, while some of his most fervent supporters took a less forgiving tone, in some cases even abandoning their support for the president altogether.
Traditionally staunch anti-Trump outlets like Vanity Fair, MSNBC and the New York Times were nearly tripping over each other to praise the president’s actions, and many his former detractors like John McCain and Nancy Pelosi conceded that the decision was a good one.
Even Hillary Clinton, the comic-book villain to Trump and his supporters, was firmly in favor of the airstrikes, stating, “I really believe that we should take out [Assad’s] airfields” only hours before the attack.
Two weeks ago, the thought of Hillary Clinton, the New York Times and John McCain all uniting in support of a Trump decision would have been nearly inconceivable. Morals-based warmongering, however, tends to have that effect. Even more interesting has been seeing those formerly in favor of Trump who have ditched their support for the president based on this single action.
Right-leaning populists largely criticized Trump for the attack, including high-profile condemnations from politicians like as Rand Paul and Marine Le Pen, both of whom hold the common populist sentiment that the U.S. needn’t unnecessarily involve itself in foreign conflicts.
More damningly, many fringe members of these movements have sworn off Trump entirely.
Posts like, “I guess Trump wasn’t ‘Putin’s puppet’ after all, he was just another deep state/Neo-Con puppet. I’m officially OFF the Trump train”; “I am deeply disappointed in Donald Trump. I’m shocked, and I’m angry. And I am ready to condemn Donald Trump”; and “The #AltRight is now totally independent of Trump, and this anti-West, pro-terrorist foreign policy,” are only a small smattering of the unabashed flip-flopping that many former Trump supporters have undergone in past days.
As an isolated incident, these reactions are not all that problematic. It is natural for people’s opinions to change with time and new developments. Unfortunately, it is largely indicative of a much more pervasive and disturbing trend.
The event has served as the perfect encapsulation of the “quick to adopt, quick to abandon” mentality of modern politics. The fickleness of 21st century political discourse has grown for decades but exploded since the advent of social media and the “information age.” Only 30 years ago, there simply wasn’t enough coverage and transparency to allow every decision to be analyzed and deciphered to the extent of today. Now, any decision, no matter how major or minor, is grounds to alienate an entire support base.
In the 21st century, the spread of unlimited information, regardless of its validity, has turned every Facebook commenter and Twitter troll into a wannabe political analyst, capable of stirring up their (usually) small numbers of followers into fits of protest, rage and God knows what else. And although the vast majority of these internet pundits don’t have the slightest clue about modern political realities or the followings needed to really spread their opinions, a critical mass of these people has enabled this new brand of political discourse in which a single small action is enough to upset the balance of millions.
This is an unequivocally unhealthy development for American and world politics. Its end result is the cementing of hard-line stances and mindless devotion to uninformed pundits and improper sources.
Simply put, no politicians can reasonably appeal to every whim of their support bases. Even within political parties, all voters have their own priorities and sensibilities, making it simply impossible for a candidate to fulfill every constituent’s expectations. The simple way out of this (and, worryingly, the more common trend) is for candidates to adopt the exact stances of their party, further cementing the political polarization and agglomeration that has led us to our current Republican-Democrat deadlock.
As voters, it’s absolutely essential that we accept the fact that politicians are inherently imperfect. There will, in all likelihood, never be a candidate who checks all of our boxes, and that’s simply the way that it should be. Rather than swearing off entire candidates and parties for a single action, we need to reconsider the way that we evaluate politicians.
Choosing to intervene in the Middle East is undoubtedly a major decision that deserves scrutiny. However, given the small scale and highly tactical nature of the attacks, it’s silly for people to largely change their opinions of Trump based on this single choice.
This is not to say that we need to hold hands and play political kumbaya. If there is a part of a candidate’s identity that someone is truly diametrically opposed to, then by all means, we should not feel the need to support them. But with that being said, political whimsicality is something our nation can no longer afford, especially in these high-stakes times.
Individual voters need to think for themselves and vote for the greater good, rather than listen to party rhetoric or a post on social media. In this day and age, real, unbiased information is ever more difficult to come by. But that just makes it all the more important that we stick to our convictions and not listen to the endless stream of hot takes, quickly formed opinions and outright idiocy that plagues contemporary politics.
Now, more than ever, our nation could heed the advice.
Contact Harrison Hohman at hhohman ‘at’ stanford.edu.