One of the primal images of desire in Americans politics turns 100 this year. The New York illustrator James Montgomery Flagg originally drew his classic image of a stern-faced, finger-extending Uncle Sam for an issue of Leslie’s Weekly in 1916. At that stage of the Great War, American entry was far from certain, and so the caption was a simple question: “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?” Less than a year later, though, with war declared, Uncle Sam’s open-ended query had transformed into a specific demand: “I Want You For US Army.” Redone as a poster with a helpful blank space for directions to the nearest recruiting station, Flagg’s image went through millions of printings between 1917 and 1918. It has been part of the lexicon of American patriotism—and military recruiting drives—ever since.
Last night, on the centennial of America’s entry into World War I, President Donald Trump authorized the launch of fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles against a Syrian government military base. There has been no call for mass mobilization, no avuncular injunction to report to your local recruiting station. Donald Trump can launch $94 million of cruise missiles from the comfort of Mar-a-Lago; he does not Need You to do anything. But that won’t stop us.
In the past few months we have witnessed the emergence of what we might call a hystericization of American politics. The structure of hysteria, as classical psychoanalysis has it, involves a consuming orientation toward a powerful Other, a state of erratic toggling between paranoia and attraction, fears of persecution, and demands for love. America has had its political hysterias and various histrionic politicians in the past, but as a symptom of our current collective pathologies and miserable cultural institutions, Trump is of another order entirely. It’s perhaps fitting that the 21st-century version of the fin-de-siècle Viennese hysteric—the marginalized woman succumbing to her mythical “wandering womb” by going into spasms on a chaise longue—is a sexually abusive reality TV star happy to spend precious minutes of televised debate time bragging about the size of his dick.
Yet the real hysteria hasn’t been Trump’s—it’s been the American media’s. “What Does Trump Really Want?” has become the great question of our time—the center of an entire cottage industry. Everything Trump says and tweets, no matter how trivial or unthinking (and very little of it is anything but), is instantly transformed into an utterance of major import: fodder for endless, breathless speculation and feverish interpretation. To whom was he sending a message with that tweet? While we’re playing checkers, he’s playing 4-dimensional chess—what’s his next play? What Does Trump’s Refusal to Shake Angela Merkel’s Hand Reveal About His Foreign Policy? Are his desires really the desires of some Other (Putin, Bannon, and in recent days, Kushner)? One question underwrites and energizes all the takes and the commentary: what does Trump want from you? What does he want to call your attention to? What does he want to distract you from? The sheer intellectual and affective labor given over to tracking Trump’s behavior, to say nothing of the amateur Trump Kremlinology, has been exhausting.
But now, at last, Trump has undertaken something familiar and understandable—even comforting—to 21st-century Americans: war. The particulars of this attack will be subjected to various hermeneutics of suspicion (why were the Russians were informed beforehand?). Its broader geopolitical significance will provoke debate (what happens next?). And the coverage will fixate overwhelmingly on Trump himself.1 But even if in every substantive way the question of what Trump wants remains just as opaque the day after the strikes as it did the day before, the simple fact that the strikes occurred is decisive. He acted, and now, at last, we have clarity about what we’re supposed to do. And what we’re supposed to do is adopt a series of postures and justifications about what we feel we need to do, all of which presuppose as an unquestioned necessity the fact of war itself.
Fortunately, we have a lot of practice at this—it’s what we do best. In America the question has long since ceased to be whether or not we should go to war. Instead, we argue over how we go about maintaining and expanding an already endless landscape of wars. For many politicians, this means falling into fine-grained debates over the value of various targets, air strikes versus “boots on the ground,” the question of an “exit strategy,” and so forth. Democrats like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi may express the requisite desire for congressional debate on the conduct of escalation going forward. But they cede any advantage and show their weak hand when they immediately cosign the strikes as “the right thing to do” and a “proportional response.” Republicans like Marco Rubio, for their part, can trot out familiar fearmongering about supposed threats to American soil, echoing Condoleeza Rice circa 2003, while John McCain can appeal to the legitimizing mandate of the 2001 AUMF. Dissenting figures like Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders may point to the disastrous legacy of past US interventions in the Middle East and challenge the constitutionality of the strikes, but their voices will simply offer light counterpoint to the backdrop of a broader symphony of jingoism, cowardice, resignation, and greed.
Media figures, for their part, have already begun to fall in line, too. Last month’s bipartisan yearning to anoint Trump’s horrific congressional address as a sign of the President’s finally becoming “presidential” may have been temporarily frustrated by embarrassing news involving Jeff Sessions twenty-four hours later. But now pundits Left and Right can seize this nonpareil opportunity to proclaim Trump suddenly mature, demonstrate their own capacity to see the supposed bigger picture, or just marvel at the beauty of the American war machine. The belief that the office of commander in chief must necessarily activate reservoirs of responsibility and strength in the people who occupy it is a tenet of the American political mythos; what better time to finally see Trump as “pivoting” than when he starts his first war?
As for the rest of us, we know the script, the fights on social media, the debates with family and friends. We’ll get into debates about whether the atrocities of the Assad regime should be “allowed” to stand, endure polemics about whether America should be the world’s policeman, and so forth. We’ll get defensive about which historical wars we would’ve supported, and argue over which hypothetical ones we might oppose. All these things will feel familiar; perhaps, for some, they may even come as a relief.
It might seem ludicrous that only hours after many of us called Trump a Russian spy, a new Hitler, a feckless idiot, a psychopath, a sun-downing, pill-popping monster, we fell in line and rallied behind him and our troops because, after all, he is our President and Presidents lead and the troops must be supported. But we’ve done it all before—in 2001, again in 2003, and in too many other instances to count. War has become a given in American political life, and in the process it has become depoliticized. And thus the bitter irony: for all the many warnings to not “normalize” Trump lest we court disaster, it is his turn to war that will seal his normalization and mark our return to “normalcy,” even if it means ruin. Uncle Sam and Donald Trump do not demand that we wage wars for them; instead, for the sake of a return to normal, we need them to wage war for us.
This last became evident within hours of the attack, most notably in an embarrassing piece of New York Times “news analysis,” originally titled “On Syria Attack, Trump’s Heart Came First.” ↩