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Blogs > Stone Age Brain > If We Go to War in Korea Trump's Poll Numbers Almost Certainly Would Go Up

Aug 11, 2017 8:28 am


If We Go to War in Korea Trump's Poll Numbers Almost Certainly Would Go Up

tags: war, North Korea, Korean War, Trump





Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

Liberals are convinced Donald Trump will either be driven out of office or at the very least be fired by the voters at the next election three and a half years from now.  But there’s a plausible scenario that ends with his re-election.  Surprisingly, it involves Korea, which everybody, liberals and conservatives alike, seems to regard as a disaster in the making. 

How could a second Korean War help keep Donald Trump in the White House for another four years?

It’s well known that North Korea has assembled a ferocious war machine on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that would unleash unholy hell on the South Korean capital, Seoul, which lies just twenty-five miles away, in the event of an American attack.  North Korea is estimated to have positioned literally thousands of heavy artillery just north of the DMZ.  Experts predict the city’s downtown could be demolished and tens of thousands could be killed and maybe more. Seoul, a modern gleaming city home to 25 million people, could be left in shambles. 

This sounds like a disaster, and in human terms it would be.  But the politics of a disaster like this are more favorable than many people imagine.  While the world would look on aghast at what had happened the American people almost certainly wouldn’t if  –  and this is the big IF in this scenario  –  war is accompanied by the quick collapse of the North Korean regime and the reunification of the peninsula under a friendly government. 

No doubt Trump would have trouble drawing the support of a majority of Democrats, many of whom loath the man.  But George W. Bush was loathed too after his disputed election and yet he won over converts after 9-11, with the approval of 90 percent of the American people.  In a crisis people tend to support their leader no matter how much they previously abhorred him.  That’s human nature.  Trump could count on that basic human impulse.

Trump might not be able to sustain his high ratings.  After George H.W. Bush achieved the highest poll numbers of any president in history save for his son’s post 9-11 record, his popularity slowly fell and in 1992 he lost his bid for a second term.  And Americans throughout history have often turned against the wars their leaders have started.  As social scientist Hazel Erskine showed in an article in 1970 only a single war in our history won the approval of an overwhelming majority of voters (World War 2).  But Americans have been so starved for victory in the last generation and so fed-up with wars that never seem to end that they might well reward Trump with a second term.  Trump promised victory as a candidate.  If he delivered in Korea he’d likely win, unpleasant as that prospect might be to liberals. His core supporters are already cheering his bellicose rhetoric.  (If Trump doesn't deliver he risks alienating them, as I have previously pointed out on HNN.)

Is Trump himself likely to risk war in order to save his political skin?  With any other president it would require cynicism in the extreme to think that this might be the case.  But not with Trump, who’s proven to be the equal of any monster cynics could conjure up. I suspect he may have convinced himself that a war would save him from indictment and/or impeachment.  Maybe it would. Both Robert Mueller and Congress would be reluctant to weaken a president in the middle of a war.  

If you think the American people would be revolted by the scenes of carnage that no doubt would be a staple in daily news reports about the war  –  real carnage, not the rhetorical kind Trump alluded to in his over-the-top and obscene fire-and-brimstone inaugural  –  think again.  We’ve been here before and that’s not what happened. 

After the Korean War had dragged on for several years following the North Korean invasion of the South in June 1950, liberal pundits like Freda Kirchwey, the crusading editor of the Nation, were appalled at the devastation United States forces were wrecking.  Though the enemy was also to blame, she complained, nothing “excuses the terrible shambles created up and down the Korean peninsula by the American-led forces, by American planes raining down napalm and fire bombs, and by heavy land and naval artillery.” 

But to her shock and amazement, the American people didn’t seem to care about what was happening on the ground.  What they wanted was victory, period.  Not even the use of nuclear weapons was considered off-the-table. Going into the war, as I report in Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics, a Pentagon study found that what Americans would be appalled at was not using nuclear weapons if it were determined that by using them we could shorten the war. 

Freda Kirchwey was stunned that Americans seemed inured to the violence and destruction, but remained convinced that once the stories got out public opinion would change.  She was wrong.  The longer the war went on the less the public cared about what was happening to the Korean people.  All Americans wanted was for the war to end on their terms.  When the Pentagon adopted a policy of mass and relentless bombing voters backed it.

What would make Americans cringe?  It wouldn’t be the death of Asians.  It wouldn’t even be, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the death of Americans. As social scientists have discovered the American people have a higher tolerance for casualties than their generals. What the public won’t put up with for long is a war with heavy casualties that goes on and on.  

So yes, Donald Trump could start a war in Korea that would leave tens of thousands dead and the American people could well think this was alright as long as in the end we won and the casualties were mainly suffered by Asians.  I doubt that National Security Advisor (and historian) H.R. McMaster is worried about Trump’s falling poll numbers, but Trump is.  And while he may know nothing about history and almost certainly hasn’t spent time thinking about the public reaction to the Korean War in the 1950s, his gut probably is telling him that war could improve his political prospects. He’d probably be right about that.

This isn’t because the American people are monsters.  It’s because they’re human.  And human beings don’t generally respond with empathy to the misfortunes of people living on the other side of the world.  Though there are ways to trigger feelings of empathy for strangers by using stories and pictures to good effect, there’s little reason to expect these would have the desired impact in the course of a hot war.  Forty plus years after the end of the Vietnam War Americans still don’t see what happened there from the Vietnamese perspective.  What we remember is our loss and our pain.  

There are two other factors that could affect the politics of a second Korean War.  One is what China would do. Were China to intervene on the side of North Korea the war could drag on in a horrific repeat of the first Korean War.  But China might be persuaded to remain neutral if given private assurances that following the peace the United States would agree to withdraw from the peninsula, meeting one of China’s longterm goals.

The other is whether the U.S. employs nuclear weapons.  While Trump seems unafraid to use nuclear weapons and has hinted in the past week that he would indeed resort to their use in Korea  –  that’s the dark warning carried in his “fire and fury” remarks  –  it’s unlikely he could actually order their use without blowback from the military.  That would no doubt lead to public debate  –  the last thing a president wants in the middle of a war.

Will Trump take us to war?  There's no way to answer this question.  Who knows what's going on inside our president's head?  Nor do we know (because it's not knowable) if we go to war whether we'll be in a position to win a clear victory.  But it's possible the answer is yes (though it's just one possible scenario).  And that's worth keeping in mind when calculating the chances that Donald J. Trump could be re-elected president of the United States of America.  I know that's disturbing.  Sorry. 





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