US President Donald Trump rose to hyperbolic heights of hyperreal narration last weekend as he described the Pentagon’s successful takedown of the Islamic State (IS) group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in Syria. The world will undoubtedly be a better place without Al-Baghdadi, but much of the media’s reporting focused on Trump’s telling of the story.
Like an author of pulp fiction, Trump drew on his talent for literary creativity when describing the action he claimed to have witnessed in the Situation Room as it was playing out. “Trump said he watched the entire mission, noting that ‘it was just like a movie.’”
Just as Hillary Clinton had reveled in former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s horrendous end in 2011, Trump not only took pleasure in recounting Baghdadi’s extinction, but he created the scene in “cinematic detail.” Trump said: “He died after running into a dead-end tunnel whimpering and crying and screaming all the way … He died like a dog. He died like a coward.” Most significantly Trump wanted everyone to understand that as commander-in-chief he had outdone his predecessor, Barack Obama: “[Osama] Bin Laden was big, but this was bigger.”
Whereas US media tended to celebrate the outcome of the operation without delving too much into its meaning or Trump’s style of presenting it, The Guardian published an article with the title: “Doubts over Donald Trump‘s dramatic account of Baghdadi raid.” What did Trump actually see? “Footage of the US special forces raid on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Syrian compound reportedly consisted of overhead surveillance footage and no audio, prompting questions over the extent of the dramatic licence taken by Donald Trump in describing the final moments of one of the most wanted terrorists in the world.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The right to invent narrative sequences granted to writers of fiction and exercised routinely by politicians eager to have people believe in their own imaginary heroism
The Washington Post, reviled by the White House in Trump’s war against Jeff Bezos, compounded the confusion and provided the president with an opportunity to take the moral high ground when, in its obituary, it hesitated between three descriptions of the IS leader. Initially, it called Baghdadi “the Islamic State’s terrorist-in-chief,” before changing it to “religious scholar at helm of Islamic State.” Finally — under pressure from Trump — The Post modified the headline to read “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, extremist leader of Islamic State, dies at 48.” It’s all about the words you use and the roles you define. The narrative is far more important than the facts.
As the world on was left waiting to hear a possibly more truthful and less bombastic account of the events from a Pentagon official, The Guardian noted that the US defense secretary, Mark Esper, “declined to endorse aspects of Trump’s cinematic account in an interview with ABC’s This Week programme on Sunday morning.” Yahoo News reports that a “top U.S. official who watched the raid with Trump in the White House Situation Room said he’s not sure where the president got that information.”
To justify his purple prose, Trump moralized that the “vivid terms” of his narrative were required “to deter would-be [IS] fighters.”
Evil characters die ignobly. In one historically ironic note, foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi of The New York Times offered a portrait of the deceased leader telling readers: “In all, I’ve spoken to 17 people who knew him, including his teachers, his childhood friends, his aides and three of the Yazidi girls he raped.”
Since Trump relishes comparing performances, he must certainly be aware that far more than three women have accused him of rape, putting the US president clearly in the lead.
Trump has good company in the practice of the art of dramatic license. In her 2008 primary campaign when she was pitted against Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton recounted how in 1996 she had landed in Bosnia “under sniper fire.” As she told it, “There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.” Video shot that day showed that the greeting ceremony did calmly take place and in totally secure conditions.
Joe Biden notoriously embellished his story of pinning a medal on a soldier in Afghanistan to the point that, though it wasn’t an outright lie, his narrative conflated elements from several different events and deviated wildly from the truth. Reality is never as convincing or instructive as the hyperreality politicians are trained to elaborate. Still, Trump, the TV professional, seems to take it further than most politicians.
And yet this improvised tale of fear and trembling seems rather banal and unimaginative. Full of clichés, it depends on categories that border on insult rather than observation. It sounds like a third-rate Hollywood screenwriter’s attempt to portray a villain in an underfunded action film. As in a cheap western where the audience roots for the good guys and expects the defeat of the bad guys, Trump gloated: “Many of his people were killed. We lost nobody. Think of that. It’s incredible.” Donald, it isn’t incredible. That’s how it was scripted.
But the ultimate banality was Trump’s resorting to the “mission accomplished” meme made famous in George W. Bush’s stage of it on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf back in 2003. Obama revived it with his triumphant but low-keyed announcement of the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Trump has now simply duplicated Obama’s grand gesture with many of the same details: helicopters, bravery in the face of a formidable enemy and the discarding of the body at sea.
The narrative for all three presidents reflects two features of US culture that rely on simplistic thought: the belief in decisive moments of history that mark dramatic endings and the permanent illusion created by celebrity culture. They combine in the meme of a combat in which good definitively conquers evil, or at least proves that good will always be capable of mobilizing the forces to defeat evil. The media — whether it’s the movies or the evening news — entertains those beliefs and exploits them in its own narratives.
Popular entertainment typically creates a hyperreal world of potential moral perfection that stands outside of history. As the US media celebrate the success of the raid and encourage the belief that IS has now been decapitated and cannot survive, other voices sound a note of warning. Writing for Al Jazeera, Ibrahim al-Marashi, an associate professor at California State University, analyzes the prospects following the assassination of the IS leader: “The day after al-Baghdadi’s death, [IS] appears to be slated for a comeback. While Trump is triumphantly celebrating a PR victory at a time when he is facing impeachment woes domestically, his foreign policy decisions in Syria are likely to facilitate [the Islamic State’s] regrouping and re-emergence.”
Marashi explains that Trump’s recent decision to withdraw US troops from the Syrian border and allow Turkey to occupy the terrain, increasing the instability in the Middle East, will make it easier for IS to regroup under new leadership or for a new insurgency to emerge.
Trump has always preferred hyperreality to reality, to the point of becoming a hyperreal creation himself. He has no patience with the complexity of reality. He now finds himself playing the role of impresario of an unoriginal hyperreal event that had already been scripted by Obama in 2011, with the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. Obama’s feat had the merit of finally breaking a suspense that had been building for nearly 10 years. Trump’s remake lacked the lengthy buildup and featured a second-rate lead actor who couldn’t rival with bin Laden’s international stardom. To compensate, Trump scripted his overblown dramatic voice-over composed entirely of cheap Hollywood clichés, spoken in the president’s inimitably (and unintentionally) comic voice.
So, was this a turning point in history? Al Jazeera quotes Andreas Krieg, assistant professor at King’s College London, who called Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi‘s death “mostly of symbolic importance.” In other words, it was hyperreality. But, after all, there’s an election coming up next year in the US. That’s what it’s all really about.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.