The media’s in a fact-checking frenzy over this but I think they’re missing the point.
Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017
He’s referring to stories about Pershing’s campaign in the Philippines against Muslim rebels at the start of the 20th century. Many a right-wing blog post and email chain since 9/11 has featured tales of Pershing using pigs or pig’s blood to terrify the Islamic enemy into submission, sending them into the afterlife with the promise of damnation after they’d been tainted by an unclean animal. The most famous story, told by Trump himself on the campaign trail last year, involves Pershing supposedly having 50 bullets dipped in pig’s blood in preparation for executing Muslim fighters. He had 49 shot, then freed the 50th so that he could go warn the rest of his comrades what the U.S. had in store for them if they continued fighting. Allegedly they quaked in horror, were pacified, and the Philippines had no “Muslim problem” for decades. It’s a parable about the foolishness of political correctness, especially in war. If you want to beat a vicious enemy, you fight as dirty as you need to. If that means turning their religious beliefs against them, go for it.
Tthere’s no evidence that that specific incident happened. There are reports of intimidation tactics involving pigs being used in that conflict, though. Pershing himself wrote that another American commander had had a dead pig buried with Muslim rebels. (“It was not pleasant to have to take such measures, but the prospect of going to hell instead of heaven sometimes deterred the would-be assassins.”) Another commander told Pershing in a letter, “I understand it has long been a custom to bury (insurgents) with pigs when they kill Americans.” Sean Davis notes a report of Pershing having prisoners sprinkled with pig’s blood and bringing a pig’s head to a negotiation with a Muslim leader. The “50 bullets” story may be apocryphal but using pigs as a religious weapon probably isn’t. Maybe Trump got wind of that since last year and made his tweet about Pershing today less specific for that reason. Or maybe he still thinks the “50 bullets” story is true but just ran out of characters in his tweet.
Again, though, all of this is beside the point. The point is that he’s all talk. No one seriously believes he’d try to implement a policy like this, of using pigs in Afghanistan to intimidate the Taliban. It wouldn’t work, for one thing. Jihadis would get propaganda mileage out of it; the tactic might end up boosting their numbers rather than pacifying them. But even if it did work, Trump wouldn’t give the order. Mattis, McMaster, Kelly, Dunford and other officers wouldn’t implement it if he did, and they’d almost certainly be able to talk him out of doing it if he ever semi-seriously proposed it. Remember, talking tough about waterboarding was one of Trump’s signatures during the primaries as a way of showing voters that he wouldn’t be soft on the enemy the way the other politically correct Republican candidates were. Then he got elected and talked to Mattis, and presto change-o — he wasn’t for waterboarding anymore. He isn’t for deploying pig’s blood either. This is just blowhard-ery he puts out for his fans to signal “toughness” with no intention of acting on it. True to his past, it’s a show. Imagine spending 15 years after 9/11 talking about taking off the gloves with jihadis, getting elected president of the United States, and your main initiative to actually take off those gloves is tweeting.
Julius Krein is, or was, a hardcore Trump fan who founded the website Journal of American Greatness last year to advocate for Trumpian nationalism and then founded the magazine American Affairs to put some meat on the bone policy-wise. Today he has an op-ed in the Times declaring that he’s done:
Yet after more than 200 days in office, Mr. Trump’s behavior grows only more reprehensible. Meanwhile, his administration has no significant legislative accomplishments — and no apparent plan to deliver any. Wilbur Ross’s Commerce Department has advanced some sensible and appropriately incremental changes to trade policy, but no long-term agenda has been articulated. Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue’s recently proposed legislation offers a sound basis for reforming immigration policy, but seems to have no prospects and has received comparatively little attention. The administration inexplicably downgraded infrastructure and corporate tax reform — issues with potentially broad-based support — to pursue a warmed-over version of Paul Ryan’s Obamacare repeal, which ended, predictably, in a humiliating failure.
Nothing disastrous has occurred on the foreign policy front — yet — but the never-ending chaos within the administration hardly inspires confidence. Many senior-level appointees are still not in place, including the assistant secretaries of state, for example. And too many of those who are in office appear to be petty, clueless, and rather repulsive ideologues, like Steve Bannon, who seem to spend most of their time accusing one another of being “swamp creatures.” It’s pathetic. No wonder an increasing number of officials are simply ignoring the president, an alarming but understandable development.
The Trumpian bargain on the right last year was that the policy payoffs would more than make up for his personal peccadilloes. He’s going to fart out nonsense on Twitter but he’s also going to get you ObamaCare repeal, tax reform, a jobs stimulus in the form of a giant new infrastructure bill, and all sorts of other goodies. You’ll take the bitter with the sweet. He delivered on Gorsuch but that’s basically been it — it’s all bitter Twitter nonsense and West Wing chaos. The Pershing tweet is almost an unintentional parody of his own ineffectiveness. He’s touting a terrible policy as a model for what should be done in the war on terror knowing he doesn’t have a whisper of a chance of actually making it happen. His chief duty as president at this point is trolling.