Trump’s credibility crisis
In the early days of the Trump regime the observation was made by pundits, mostly on the left, that so tarnished was the new president’s reputation by his repeated lying that, in the event of an authentic national crisis, Americans might not believe anything he had to say.
For instance, there was this article in The Atlantic warning that “the president’s cavalier disregard for truth [will] have real-world consequences.” The Washington Post—no friend of liberals—similarly editorialized, “President Trump will need to rebuild his credibility for the next crisis.” Even the conservative Wall Street Journal famously opined (March 21) “The words of President Donald Trump and his White House staff are, in no small way, a matter of national security and credibility, and those things have entered a danger zone.”
Well, the crises are now upon us: North Korea, Syria and Iran, in particular, and Trump is reacting in ways that are predictably belligerent, with bombs, bluster and (fake) threats about “an armada.” So how’s his credibility doing?
For historic perspective, one needs to look to past threats of war to see how important the issue of presidential credibility is in uniting Americans.
In the years leading up to Pearl Harbor, Franklin D. Roosevelt was famously cautious about getting America involved in the European war that already had broken out in September, 1939. He understood that, if and when he made the decision for war, he would have to be utterly believed. Of course, the surprise attack made the issue moot, but America would eventually have become involved anyway, because FDR did a superb job of rallying both Democrats and Republicans against the prevailing isolationist opinion.
President George H.W. Bush faced similar difficulties when he rallied the nation for Desert Storm, a task he performed admirably. Americans believed that earnest, sincere man, and so they trusted him. His son similarly convinced most Americans to support him in his invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, although of course Sept. 11 made his task a lot easier. The point, however, is that presidents need to build up a deep well of credibility, so that when the time comes, they can draw upon it.
On the other hand, President Lyndon Johnson never did quite convince a majority of Americans that the Vietnam War was worthwhile, and the Tonkin Gulf incident, which many believed was manufactured, didn’t help boost his credibility. Thus, Johnson was forced from the White House.
This current president has no credibility at all, outside the lowering percentage of supporters who mindlessly believe anything he says. And yet, the times truly are dangerous; if America must get involved in yet another war, it’s imperative for the country to be united.
But it’s hard to imagine anyone uniting behind a President Trump sending troops to Syria, or North Korea, or Iran, or conducting an Air Force war against them. The reason is not because Democrats aren’t patriotic. It’s because this president lies so spectacularly and guiltlessly that most of us believe he will say and do anything he can, in order to hold onto power and remain in office. Indeed, the latest Gallup Poll found that “Trump has lost significant ground with a public that only two months ago, credited him with having one of the key characteristics of a successful president.” His credibility has “flopped,” says Gallup, a sign that more and more Americans, even those who voted for him, realize that they have a pathological liar and a cynical manipulator in the White House.
It’s satisfying, for me anyhow, to witness this historic turn of events—to watch the Trump presidency unravel, and for Trump himself to suffer embarrassment after embarrassment, scandal after scandal, even as his paid surrogates—especially the hapless Spicer—are increasingly challenged to defend him. Tempting as it is to take unbridled pleasure in Trump’s pains, though, my concerns are really about my country. We’re not at war, yet, but we seem likely to be, sooner rather than later; and it will be ugly. I’m old enough to remember the Vietnam protests, which tore this country apart. Given Trump’s utter lack of credibility, when war comes America is likely to be riven as never before, and it will be the fault of that awful, greedy, mendacious man in the White House.