Blowhard on the Brink

As shocking as it is to write this sentence, it must be said: Donald Trump did something right.

He finally noticed the abyss once he was right on top of it, calling off a retaliatory strike on Iran after belatedly learning, he said, that 150 people could die.

“I didn’t like it,” Trump told Chuck Todd. “I didn’t think it was proportionate.”

And thank God — and Allah — that he stumbled out just as he stumbled in.

It’s breathtaking that Washington’s conservative foreign policy mandarins would drag us back into Mideast quicksand when we haven’t even had a reckoning about the lies, greed, self-interest and naïveté that led U.S. officials to make so many tragic mistakes in the region.

We sweep in with oblivious swagger, with most Americans not knowing the difference between Shiites and Sunnis, assuming we’re going to swiftly kick butt in an asymmetrical cakewalk. And then we end up stalemated and playing into our enemies’ hands, with hundreds of thousands dead and $5.9 trillion bill for the post-9/11 wars — not to mention that Trumpworld has ended up deeper in the murderous House of Saud’s embrace.

The president blundered into the crisis by canceling the Iranian nuclear deal, tweet-taunting about the “end of Iran” and hiring the hirsute Iran warmonger John Bolton. And our president is such a mercurial blowhard, he could screw it all up again before this column even hits The Times home page.

I’ve been at this treacherous juncture before with presidents. Once the gears in Washington get going, once the military-industrial complex is “cocked & loaded,” once the hawks around you begin Iago-whispering that if you don’t go forward, you’ll be unmanned, it’s awfully hard to reverse course.

Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld steamrollered W. into the forever war in Iraq by playing on his fears of being a wimp if he pulled back once the Pentagon had moved troops, carriers, covert agents and B-2 bombers into the Persian Gulf. The Saudis told W. that Saddam was not sitting on a cache of W.M.D.s, and was simply blustering like any Arab despot would, but W. dreaded being labeled a wimp, as his father had been in his first presidential campaign.

By Friday morning, Republicans were already painting Trump as a scaredy-cat and Iran as a feral cornered cat.

Representative Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois and Iraq war veteran, told MSNBC that the idea we could now negotiate with Iran “has the potential of inviting a look of weakness.”

Cheney came back to haunt us in the form of his dagger-tongued daughter Liz, the Wyoming House member, who said Trump’s inaction “could in fact be a very serious mistake.” She lobbed the nastiest insult she could think of, comparing Trump to Barack Obama.

Even “Fox & Friends,” which can always be counted on to fluff Trump’s ego, raised doubts. Brian Kilmeade warned: “North Korea’s watching. All our enemies are watching.”

But maybe something new could work with the impossible child-man in the White House: positive reinforcement.

That was very smart, Mr. President, not to tangle with the Persians, who have been engaged in geopolitics since 550 B.C., until you have a better sense of exactly what is going on here. Listen to your isolationist instincts and your base, not to batty Bolton. You don’t want to get mired in a war that could spill over to Saudi Arabia and Israel, sparking conflagrations from Afghanistan to Lebanon and beyond.

Just remember: The Iranians are great negotiators with a bad hand and you are a terrible negotiator with a good hand.

Trump told Todd that he thought the Iranians shot down a $130 million drone to get his attention because they wanted to talk. (Like when a little kid flicks a paper airplane at your head, but more expensive.) A rare case of Trump’s bloated ego working to our advantage.

It is not hard to imagine Bolton and Mike Pompeo conjuring a Tonkin specter, with a drone or U.S. plane buzzing Iranian airspace to provoke Iran to respond, so we can start a war. It’s also not hard to imagine the two uber-hawks doing this without Trump understanding what’s going on. And it’s certainly easy to think that Trump might not be leveling with us about how this went down.

At least, unlike W. — another underinformed president — Trump is not a captive of the neocons. He has outside advisers, after all: Fox News anchors.

It’s hard to believe that the man standing between us and another world war is Tucker Carlsonlate of “Dancing With the Stars.”

But we must count on Carlson, who, The Daily Beast reported, has been calling Trump directly to counteract Sean Hannity, who has been cheerleading on air for a strike, threatening Iran: “You’re going to get the living crap bombed out of you.”

Carlson is pointing out something that Trump needs to hear: “The very people — in some cases, literally the same people who lured us into the Iraq quagmire 16 years ago — are demanding a new war, this one with Iran.” He compared the warped intelligence Bush officials used to justify the 2003 Iraq invasion with the “misplaced certainty” exhibited by Pompeo over iffy evidence that Iran attacked a pair of oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.

Carlson also cogently noted that Bolton is goading Trump because, for him, a war with Iran would “be like Christmas, Thanksgiving, his birthday wrapped into one.”

Donald “I always attack back … except 100x more” Trump has always been a faux tough guy. In this case, the faux caused a pause — and that was a good thing.

Making Sense of the New American Right

Keeping track of the Jacksonians, Reformicons, Paleos, and Post-liberals.

I like to start my classes on conservative intellectual history by distinguishing between three groups. There is the Republican party, with its millions of adherents and spectrum of opinion from very conservative, somewhat conservative, moderate, and yes, liberal. There is the conservative movement, the constellation of single-issue nonprofits that sprung up in the 1970s

  • gun rights,
  • pro-life,
  • taxpayer,
  • right to work

— and continue to influence elected officials. Finally, there is the conservative intellectual movement: writers, scholars, and wonks whose journalistic and political work deals mainly with ideas and, if we’re lucky, their translation into public policy.

Fox News Welcomes Pete Buttigieg. Trump and ‘Fox & Friends’ Aren’t Pleased.

The night began with a campaign-style biographical video and ended with a standing ovation. The candidate called President Trump’s behavior “grotesque” and lamented the “media noise machine on the right wing.” He attacked Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham by name.

Viewers of Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s town hall event on Sunday could be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled onto an hour of prime-time MSNBC.

Nope. This was Fox News.

The network that liberals love to hate wants to be a required pit stop for Democrats running in the 2020 presidential primary. And despite a snub last week from Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who denounced the channel as a “hate-for-profit racket,” Fox News is finding some success.

Mr. Buttigieg’s hourlong appearance spawned headlines, solid ratings, and kudos from liberals pleased to see the South Bend, Ind., mayor calling out Fox News pundits on their own network.

.. The reaction was chillier among some of the network’s core conservative viewers — including one miffed resident of the White House. “Hard to believe that @FoxNews is wasting airtime on Mayor Pete,” President Trump wrote on Twitter before the town hall event began. “Fox is moving more and more to the losing (wrong) side in covering the Dems.”

At a rally in Pennsylvania on Monday night, the president kept up his criticism. “What’s going on with Fox, by the way? What’s going on there?” Mr. Trump asked the crowd, which responded with boos. “They’re putting more Democrats on than Republicans. Something strange is going on at Fox, folks.”

.. “It’s clear their audience is split on whether it was a good idea to offer Buttigieg airtime,” said Eric Bolling, a former Fox News star who now hosts “America This Week” for the Sinclair Broadcast Group.

Fox News has stayed uncharacteristically quiet about the reception to its Democratic town hall events. The network refrained from hitting back at Ms. Warren’s attack last week, and it declined to comment on Monday about Mr. Trump’s taunts.

On Sunday, Mr. Wallace, who was moderating Mr. Buttigieg’s town hall event, was again in the spotlight. Mr. Trump, in his pre-emptive tweet, compared the anchor unfavorably with his father, the former “60 Minutes” host Mike Wallace, and knocked him for praising Mr. Buttigieg’s “substance” and “fascinating biography.”

“Gee,” Mr. Trump wrote, “he never speaks well of me.”

That prompted a rare rebuke from Brit Hume, the Fox News senior political analyst. “Say this for Buttigieg,” Mr. Hume tweeted at the president. “He’s willing to be questioned by Chris Wallace, something you’ve barely done since you’ve been president.”

Mr. Hume added, “Oh, and covering candidates of both parties is part of the job of a news channel.”

“If you want to counterprogram Fox, you have to do it to their face,” said Lis Smith, who runs Mr. Buttigieg’s communications strategy. “We can’t just retreat to our self-reinforcing echo chambers.”

“If you want to talk to every voter, you have to meet them where they are,” Ms. Smith added.