Does anyone still remember the Carrier deal? Back in December, President-elect Donald Trump announced, triumphantly, that he had reached a deal with the air-conditioner manufacturer to keep 1,100 jobs in America rather than moving them to Mexico. And the media spent days celebrating the achievement.
Actually, the number of jobs involved was more like 700, but who’s counting? Around 75,000 U.S. workers are laid off or fired every working day, so a few hundred here or there hardly matter for the overall picture.
Whatever Trump did or didn’t achieve with Carrier, the real question was whether he would take steps to make a lasting difference.
So far, he hasn’t; there isn’t even the vague outline of a real Trumpist jobs policy. And corporations and investors seem to have decided that the Carrier deal was all show, no substance, that for all his protectionist rhetoric Trump is a paper tiger in practice. After pausing briefly, the ongoing move of manufacturing to Mexico has resumed, while the Mexican peso, whose value is a barometer of expected U.S. trade policy, has recovered almost all its post-November losses.
In other words, showy actions that win a news cycle or two are no substitute for actual, coherent policies. Indeed, their main lasting effect can be to squander a government’s credibility. Which brings us to last week’s missile strike on Syria.
The attack instantly transformed news coverage of the Trump administration. Suddenly stories about infighting and dysfunction were replaced with screaming headlines about the president’s toughness and footage of Tomahawk launches.
But outside its effect on the news cycle, how much did the strike actually accomplish? A few hours after the attack, Syrian warplanes were taking off from the same airfield, and airstrikes resumed on the town where use of poison gas provoked Trump into action. No doubt the Assad forces took some real losses, but there’s no reason to believe that a one-time action will have any effect on the course of Syria’s civil war.
In fact, if last week’s action was the end of the story, the eventual effect may well be to strengthen the Assad regime – Look, they stood up to a superpower! – and weaken American credibility. To achieve any lasting result, Trump would have to get involved on a sustained basis in Syria.
Doing what, you ask? Well, that’s the big question – and the lack of good answers to that question is the reason President Barack Obama decided not to start something nobody knew how to finish.
So what have we learned from the Syria attack and its aftermath?
No, we haven’t learned that Trump is an effective leader. Ordering the U.S. military to fire off some missiles is easy. Doing so in a way that actually serves American interests is the hard part, and we’ve seen no indication whatsoever that Trump and his advisers have figured that part out.
Actually, what we know of the decision-making process is anything but reassuring. Just days before the strike, the Trump administration seemed to be signaling lack of interest in Syrian regime change.
What changed? The images of poison-gas victims were horrible, but Syria has been an incredible horror story for years. Is Trump making life-and-death national security decisions based on TV coverage?
One thing is certain: The media reaction to the Syria strike showed that many pundits and news organizations have learned nothing from past failures.
Trump may like to claim that the media are biased against him, but the truth is that they’ve bent over backward in his favor. They want to seem balanced, even when there is no balance; they have been desperate for excuses to ignore the dubious circumstances of his election and his erratic behavior in office, and start treating him as a normal president.
You may recall how, a month and a half ago, pundits eagerly declared that Trump “became the president of the United States today” because he managed to read a speech off a teleprompter without going off script. Then he started tweeting again.
One might have expected that experience to serve as a lesson. But no: The U.S. fired off some missiles, and once again Trump “became president.” Aside from everything else, think about the incentives this creates. The Trump administration now knows that it can always crowd out reporting about its scandals and failures by bombing someone.
So here’s a hint: Real leadership means devising and carrying out sustained policies that make the world a better place. Publicity stunts may generate a few days of favorable media coverage, but they end up making America weaker, not stronger, because they show the world that we have a government that can’t follow through.
And has anyone seen a sign, any sign, that Trump is ready to provide real leadership in that sense? I haven’t.