COMMENTARY

Donald Trump started no new wars — but he is one of history's biggest war presidents

Donald Trump is a war president, one of the most notorious in our history

By Heather Digby Parton

Published January 19, 2021 9:59AM (EST)

 (Getty/Joe Raedle/Chris Hondros)
(Getty/Joe Raedle/Chris Hondros)

One of the more remarkable achievements of Donald Trump's unique form of hucksterism is that he was able to create a myth that he is a branding genius when his only real brand is his name, something he inherited from his father. Trump also took credit for political slogans that were created by other people, although it's highly unlikely he knew where they came from or what they referred to when he cribbed them. The most famous is "Make American Great Again" which was Ronald Reagan's campaign slogan in 1980. There was also "Law and Order," Richard Nixon's 1968 dog whistle and going back even further "America First," which was the isolationist's slogan in the years before Pearl Harbor pulled the US into World War II. He has little to no historical knowledge so he almost certainly didn't see that reference when he used it to explain his foreign policy which really came down to, "we do whatever we want, and you will pay us 'protection' to make sure we don't do it to you. We are untouchable because our massive military is so bloated no one will mess with us no matter what. We're Number 1!"

One appealing aspect of that weird and incoherent policy to many people on both sides of the political spectrum was the idea that America would withdraw from the hot wars we'd been bogged down in since 9/11. Trump claimed that he wanted to do that but was clueless, of course, and proceeded to make decisions willy nilly, antagonizing traditional adversaries, like Iran, as well as insulting our allies, like Germany, raising the stakes dramatically. Mike Pence fatuously declared that this was "peace through strength" but it was anything but. It was dumb luck.

Under Trump, the U.S. has been involved in increasingly deadly conflicts in YemenSomalia and Niger. His belated 11th Hour "drawdowns" Iraq, Afghanistan, and various African countries are being rushed without proper planning or forethought at the end of his term, leaving them more likely to be landmines set to explode on the Biden administration. As the Nation's Andrew McCormick wrote in a scathing indictment of Trump's policy:

To be clear, I'm no proponent of indefinite or ill-defined troop deployments, and in this magazine I've argued on multiple counts against forever war. I believe America should pursue every responsible option to leave Afghanistan and that a thorough review of our footprints in East Africa and elsewhere is long overdue. Drawdown shouldn't look like this, though. To our foreign partners, whom we have trained and fought with; to the people of these countries whom we have asked to trust America, even despite the enormous human tragedies war has wrought; and, speaking from just one veteran's perspective, to all the military men and women who have served and died in these conflicts over the years, America's leaders owe a great deal more than a slipshod, self-interested rush out the door.

We should have been out of many of these places a long time ago but giving Trump any credit for his belated decisions even as he made incoherent or obviously ill-considered decisions to favor his dictator buddies, as he did with Turkey and Syria, is ridiculous. His killing of the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani was one of the most provocative acts by the U.S. in many a moon and it was only by the forbearance of Iranian leaders that it did not escalate into a terrible conflagration.

Still, it is true that he did not start any new wars in foreign countries. Some people on the right are saying this makes him the first president since Dwight Eisenhower not to do so but that's not true. Still, he is the first since Jimmy Carter who can say that. (Frankly, I think that's probably attributable to "the Madman Theory" than anything else, but he does get credit for it. )

Nonetheless, despite his endless, futile begging for the Nobel Peace Prize, let's not pretend that he is some kind of peacenik who has made the world a safer place. This was a man who ran for office the first time promising to torture prisoners while extolling the virtues of capital punishment and summary executions. Since then he has excused Neo-Nazis and defended the Confederacy. He restored the federal death penalty racing to execute as many people as he can before he leaves office. He banned citizens of Muslim countries from coming to the US, put children in cages and pardoned a series of war criminals, sending a pretty strong signal to the world that the US has become a rogue superpower that ignores common decency and international law.

Trump may not have started up a new war overseas but he sure as hell waged one at home, using propaganda techniques, technology and a non-stop barrage of lies and lurid demagoguery. He demonized immigrants and racial minorities, portrayed Democrats as evil and the free press as enemies of the people.

In fact, he did start a "foreign" war, by turning Americans who didn't support him and allies who'd betrayed him into alien invaders.

He built up that theme during his entire term, portraying his political rivals as criminals and encouraging his rally-goers to chant "lock her up!" He claimed that Democratic Party-run states were undeserving of federal assistance during disasters and clearly favored his own voters in Republican-led states, both rhetorically and materially. He relentlessly degraded and demeaned his political opponents always insisting he was just "fighting back."

When the country exploded in protest last summer over the endless police killings of unarmed Black men, Trump responded by trying to call up the military and demanding that authorities "dominate" the protesters. After a vigilante who believed he was called to help the cops protect the streets killed three people in Kenosha Wisconsin, Trump proclaimed that to stop the violence "we must also confront the radical ideology that includes this violence." There was no doubt who he was talking about. In one epic Twitter flurry on August 30th, Trump insulted Joe Biden, retweeted a call to imprison New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, went after CNN and NPR and strongly implied that protesters were forming a coup to take over his government.

Throughout his term, he behaved as if Democrats, immigrants, Black Lives Matter protesters, Blue state residents, etc. had seized the country from Real Americans — Trump voters. Since the election, he inundated the nation with the Big Lie that the election was stolen and on January 6th, his "very fine" followers stormed the US Capitol believing they were seizing it back.

So yes, Donald Trump is a war president, one of the most notorious in our history. The five people killed at the U.S. Capitol are combat casualties and since one of his main reasons for failing to properly respond to the pandemic was the desire to blame Blue State governors for the death toll, we can add a fair number of the 400,000 dead Americans to his body count.

When Richard Nixon resigned and Al Gore conceded, the usual talking heads and gasbags all smugly reassured the nation that everything was just fine because there were no tanks on the corner and no soldiers in the streets proving the system worked.

How's that working out for us this time? 


Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

MORE FROM Heather Digby Parton


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Capitol Riot Commentary Donald Trump Editor's Pick Foreign Policy Moab U.s. Militarism