Trump Rules by Crisis, and Now He Wants a War. Can We Stop It Before It Starts?

June 2019

By By George Lakoff and Gil Duran, The Sacramento Bee

One day soon, we could wake up to find our nation mired in a war even more disastrous than the Iraq invasion of 2003. If the United States attacks Iran, it will be for one reason: President Trump desperately wants a war.

He has intensified his threats against Iran. He’s moved warships to the region and raised the specter of deploying up to 120,000 troops. These belligerent actions should alarm all Americans.

The United States has no reason to attack Iran. Our disagreements can be handled diplomatically. President Obama and our European allies forced Iran to sign a deal that required a downscaling of its nuclear program in exchange

for the lifting of harsh economic sanctions.

Trump pulled out of that agreement and has provoked conflict. Most Americans don’t know much about Iran or the tensions between our countries. Russia and Saudi Arabia have done more to harm our national interests. Yet Trump wants to make Iran a central issue in American politics, even though Iran’s leaders have complied with the agreement and don’t want a fight.

Why is Trump pushing confrontation? It’s likely because he views war as key to his re-election in 2020. If he succeeds in starting one, it will be the most dangerous power grab in American history.

Trump’s political success relies on projecting a “strongman” image, but his brand is sagging. His poll numbers stink. The Mueller Report has undermined his legitimacy. Calls for impeachment have snowballed. The American people may soon see his tax returns. Even some Republicans have turned against him.

He needs to change the narrative – fast.

“War is the traditional way authoritarian leaders distract the populace from their low ratings,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian of fascism and authoritarian regimes at New York University. “There’s no better way to get out of an investigation or deflect any attack on his legitimacy. Wars can be spun as moments of national crisis that deserve exceptional measures and need strong leadership.”

American presidents have often seen their popularity spike in the wake of military action. Approval ratings for Presidents George Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all soared to record highs when they attacked other countries.

It’s called the “rally around the flag effect.” War can make people feel more patriotic, providing what Ben-Ghiat called a “unifying event.” War evokes our sense of national identity, establishes an “us vs. them” framework and forces us to choose sides. In war’s climate of fear, the president – as commander in chief and symbol of the nation – often gains public esteem.

We’re not suggesting that previous presidents used the military to inflate their popularity. Yet the current president’s trumped-up war rumblings against Iran are clearly intended to revive his weak image. We know Trump views war with Iran as a popularity booster because he repeatedly accused President Obama of plotting to attack the country “to get elected” and “to save face.”

There’s no guarantee that military action would boost Trump. He’s the most unpopular president in recent history and few Americans trust him.

Regardless of polls, he could use war as an excuse to seize more power. Invoking national security as his justification, he could ramp up the persecution of immigrants, crush his opposition and further degrade the Constitution.

“Citizens are more likely to tolerate – and even support – authoritarian power grabs when they fear for their safety,” wrote Steven Levitzky and Daniel Ziblatt in the New York Times.

Trump has repeatedly promoted the idea that he should serve more than two terms as president. He has accused his critics, like former FBI director James Comey, of treason.

With enhanced wartime powers, Trump could do more than tweet crazy ideas. He could act on them. For over two years, he has continually done shocking things to keep Americans in a state of anxiety. His policies have resulted in the deaths of innocent people. We can’t put anything past him.

“Crises are a time-tested means of subverting democracy,” wrote Levitsky and Ziblatt.

Trump rules by crisis. He created a border crisis, changing U.S. immigration policy to create chaos. He created economic crises, launching trade wars, shutting down the government and tumbling markets. He created a constitutional crisis, bucking Congress’ authority and defying the law. The list goes on.

Now he’s stoking crisis with Iran. Here are three strategies to help prevent him from pursuing war as a political strategy:

▪ Call it out. This war will only happen because Trump wants to start one. Say it. A war against Iran will be a trumped-up war manufactured to burnish the president’s power and popularity. He would put American troops in harm’s way to save his own political bacon. “He needs an out,” said Ben-Ghiat. “War is an easy way to make himself seem indispensable at a moment of crisis.”

▪ Don’t buy the lies. Trump’s war would likely begin with murky accusations against Iran. He would invoke war as the only way to protect the nation. We’ve been through this before. The George W. Bush administration used false intelligence and lies used to justify the Iraq invasion. Trump, who lies in even the smallest of matters, would certainly do the same. Citizens, political leaders and journalists must actively challenge his propaganda and assume every word is untrue. We must never again allow our nation to be pulled into “elective war” based on lies. The press must avoid repeating the grave errors of the Iraq War.

▪ Hit the streets. Protest works. Americans must prepare for a massive show of democratic force. Trump’s war must be viewed as a deadly plot to amass political power. Get ready to march – and keep marching until his strategy becomes untenable.

Hopefully, Trump will soon lose interest in attacking Iran. But he’s a desperate man whose top advisers helped create the Iraq disaster. We must take the threat seriously. We must also remember that, if Trump gets his war, it won’t just be Iran in the crosshairs.

American democracy, already under siege, is the real target.

George Lakoff is professor emeritus of cognitive science and linguistics at UC Berkeley. Gil Duran is California opinion editor of The Sacramento Bee.