A few long years ago, Donald Trump overcame 16 other Republican candidates — and the unified opposition of the GOP Establishment — to win his party’s nomination. He then overcame the most well-funded presidential candidate in history, and the unified opposition of respectable Beltway elites, to win a lease on the White House.
These events gave a lot of people a strong incentive to view the mogul as a political savant. After all, if Trump were merely who he appeared to be — a pathological narcissist acting on a combination of pure impulse and the banal insight that a lot of GOP primary voters dislike immigrants — what would that say about the competence of those who failed to stop him? Surely, for all his eccentricities and liabilities, the man was a savvier tactician than he let on. The president’s Twitter tantrums may read like the ravings of an emotionally labile Fox News grandpa, but they were actually savvy bids to distract the media from his true malfeasance. And it may look like America’s entire political class was so inept, and its republic so broken, that a senescent sociopath could win the presidency on the strength of partisan polarization, white racism, and the widespread misconception that The Apprentice was a documentary. But Trump was actually a (very unstable) genius playing 12-dimensional Yahtzee.
This theory is much less popular today than it was when Trump took office. For most observers, 33 months of watching the president score own goals has been sufficient to dispel the fiction that he knows exactly what he’s doing. But if any grudging admirers of Trump’s strategic prowess remain, the president’s decision to abet a Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria this week should make them see the inconveniently stupid truth. Naming the single dumbest thing Trump has done as president, in terms of his own political interest, is an intimidating task given the cornucopia of contenders for that title. But his decision to abandon America’s Kurdish allies in Syria this week has to be pretty high up on the list.
To review: Trump entered Sunday enmeshed in a fight over impeachment. To prevent the House’s investigation of his blatantly corrupt dealings with Ukraine from threatening his presidency, the White House aimed to portray the inquiry as a partisan witch hunt. The overriding goal was to maintain low-information swing voters’ aversion to impeachment. To do that, the GOP needed to send a clear message — only far-left Democrats believe Donald Trump has been dangerously misusing the powers of his office or undermining our national security. As long as Republicans maintained a unified front, independents would view the whole inquiry as a partisan food fight and blame the instigators. Meanwhile, the RNC could mine a fundraising bonus from the GOP base’s freshly inflamed siege mentality. With a little message discipline, they could turn this whole episode into a net positive.
Then Trump hopped on the phone with Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And without consulting the Pentagon, the State Department, or leaders of his own party, the president gave his Turkish counterpart permission to wage war on America’s Kurdish allies in northeastern Syria.
There are very few things Trump could do to provoke loud criticism from his allies in Congress or on the Christian right. In abandoning the Kurds to their fate, he chose to do one of them. Before Trump took Erdogan’s call, Lindsey Graham was incessantly broadcasting the (insane) message that congressional Democrats were destroying the Constitution by conducting oversight of the executive branch. Since bombs started falling on Kurdish border towns, Graham has been broadcasting the message that Trump is exercising executive authority in a way that brings shame on America and jeopardizes its national security.
And many of Trump’s other Republican allies have echoed Graham’s sentiments, thereby sending the meta-message that this president is misusing power in a manner so severe even staunch conservatives can’t help but speak out.
The Evangelical right has forgiven Trump for a wide variety of deadly sins, but the movement is deeply invested in the fate of Syria’s Christian minority, which could fare worse under the rule of Turkey’s Islamist government than it currently does under the Kurds’ secular leadership. On Monday, televangelist Pat Robertson sorrowfully informed his faithful that if Trump allowed the Turkish invasion to proceed, he would be “in danger of losing the mandate of heaven.” As of this writing, it is unclear whether God is now an undecided voter. But Trump does appear to be at risk of losing the mandate of Franklin Graham.
Meanwhile, the upside for Trump here is difficult to discern. Sure, a large swath of the American public is sick of forever wars. But the president isn’t actually bringing our troops home from Syria; he’s merely relocating 50 U.S. service members. Trump may believe this symbolic gesture is sufficient to convey the impression that he is fulfilling a campaign promise to draw down America’s military commitments, but if he thinks this half-hearted gesture towards paleoconservatism is more politically beneficial than interviews like this are damaging, he is almost certainly mistaken.
The danger for Trump here is not that his betrayal of the Kurds will persuade a critical mass of GOP senators to vote for his removal from office. Lindsey Graham is still interspersing his prayers for the Kurds with demagogic defenses of Trump’s corruption, and there are still nowhere near enough votes in the upper chamber to evict Trump from the White House. But the impeachment push doesn’t need to succeed to damage the president’s reelection hopes. And against all odds, Trump has managed to manufacture one of the few circumstances in which devout Republicans will loudly endorse the broad premise of Nancy Pelosi’s inquiry: that Trump is using presidential power in ways that shock the conscience of patriotic Americans, no matter their partisan allegiance.
Which seems ill advised given that public opinion was already moving in favor of impeachment before this week’s events got underway.
By itself, all this would be more than adequate proof that our president is a lucky idiot who is bad at politics. But Trump’s new Syria policy has an additional dimension of stupidity. It jeopardizes one of his few (putative) nonpartisan accomplishments as president.
Trump may or may not deserve credit for the decline of ISIS over the past three years, but the fact that he presided over that decline was sufficient for him to declare himself a great slayer of terrorists without mainstream fact-checkers complaining. In clearing the way for a war between Turkey and the Kurds, Trump may well have forfeited that right. Kurdish forces have been guarding 1,200 ISIS prisoners. The burgeoning conflict threatens to divert forces from that prison camp and provide the ISIS fighters with a prime opportunity for a jailbreak.
Remarkably, Trump does not deny this. The president’s official position is that his decision to withdraw 50 U.S. service members from one region of Syria does, in fact, come with a significant risk of reviving ISIS, but this is an acceptable risk because he made sure to relocate two of the 1,200 terrorists in advance — and the rest will probably just descend on Europe anyway.
This is not the messaging strategy of a diabolically brilliant manipulator of mass media. It is a collection of irritable mental gestures from a 73-year-old rich kid with a personality disorder who is in way over his head.