The recent killing of Iran's Gen. Qasem Soleimani seems to have been the product of two factors: opportunity -- the US had him targeted -- and timing. That second factor relates to the impeachment trial about to begin in the Senate and the President's habit of diverting our attention to big problems that he can solve in dramatic fashion.
A lifelong pitchman, Donald Trump is astoundingly adept at capturing attention by playing with emotion to sell himself as the answer to the problem at hand.
When he sold neckties, one of his many merchandising gambits before he became president, it was a relatively innocent endeavor. Now that he has the US government, including the military, at his disposal, his routine practice of shilling for his personal benefit comes with grave implications. Inciting the world to fear a new war cannot compare with making an eager office worker to worry about his neckwear.
If the Trump method feels familiar, it's because much of our modern economy is based on the same "invent-a-problem-to-solve" equation, a tried-and-true technique from the early days of hucksterism, exploded now by the internet and other mass media -- and a President who knows just how to use them.
Trump knows that to succeed with this technique, you need to strike a primal emotion like fear or rage and then inflame it. A good early example: the company that first made Listerine in the early 20th century hit upon the idea of advertising to get people to think about bad breath and imagine it could ruin their lives. (To drive the point home, they used the aphorism, "Always a bridesmaid never a bride.") The worst thing about this problem was that you might not know you have it, because others won't tell you. Better use Listerine, for peace of mind.
A marketing genius who, by the way, likes to make people uncomfortable by handing out Tic Tacs and sometimes warning them about their bad breath, Trump loves to play with our emotions.
During his campaign for president, he tried to terrify Americans by distorting issues such as immigration and refugee resettlement. Immigrants are not more violent than American-born citizens, they are less violent, according to researchers at the libertarian Cato Institute, but you'd never know it listening to Trump.
He has long talked as if the country was endangered by immigrants, and cultivated fear to energize his base. Refugees came in for the same treatment, and now that he's president both groups have been subjected to punishing new policies.
Trump's more recent and obvious scare campaigns included his attacks on four freshmen members of Congress some have called "The Squad." Liberal and critical of the President, these four women wielded little power in the House, but he still devoted such energy to making them into demons that a rally crowd last July broke out in chants about deporting them.
It's a safe bet that few in the audience could name the women correctly, but thanks to Trump's pitchman methods, the women became so scary to some of his supporters that they shouted for their expulsion.
The other problems Trump has created include a great many of little import. Football players who kneel during the national anthem to protest police violence directed at people of color -- terrifying! Dishwashers that don't do the job -- filthy! Toilets with inadequate water pressure -- humiliating! Energy efficient lightbulbs -- unnatural!
The President didn't succeed with all of these issues. He got mileage out of the football players, but no one really cared about dishwashers. However, he did demonstrate his devotion to market-testing his invention (in this case a ludicrous complaint), showing us that he'll never stop trying.
In his most serious efforts, the President has shown a remarkable willingness to use the power of his pulpit to whip up new fears that are too realistic to be laughable. These capture world attention.
In his interactions with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, for example, Trump, early on, taunted him with provocative remarks and played up North Korea's weapons testing. At one point, residents of Hawaii readily believed a false alert about a missile attack because they were so on edge. In the end, Trump gave Kim what no other president would -- equal status in summit meetings -- but there's little evidence this paid any dividend to the United States.
More recently the President tried a variation on the scare technique by ordering the killing of Soleimani first, and then explaining to Americans why he deserved to be killed. Unlike, say, Osama bin Laden, Soleimani was not known to everyday Americans. Because of this, the Trump administration had to go into overdrive to create after-the-fact fear.
Plenty of real facts were marshaled to fill-in the picture of Soleimani as a very bad guy and as the press began to refer to his past, this part of the administration's back-filling effort worked. However, something in this episode -- perhaps the President's own credibility problems or his apparent confusion on its finer details -- made it hard for Trump to fully close the deal with Americans.
Soleimani wasn't just a terrorist, he was also a foreign official. Common sense -- and experienced national security officials -- suggests that killing him could make US officials targets themselves. Indeed, evidence of Americans' ambivalence arose as pollsters found that the strike on Soleimani made them feel unsafe.
And despite Trump's protestations that "Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon," a USA Today poll also found that Americans, 6 to 1, feel Iran is now more likely to develop nuclear weapons. Now that's something real to fear.
The flaws in Trump's marketing of the Soleimani killing have continued to emerge with the passing of time. The administration says among the triggering factors was the killing of an American by Iranian-backed forces. This may be true, but it's also possible that Trump was waiting for the best political moment.
Public skepticism about the impact of the strike suggests that at least some Americans suspect the President is up to his manipulative tricks again.
If the Soleimani case, or for that matter the history of marketing tells us anything, it's that eventually the public comes to understand manipulative techniques and incorporates this knowledge into their response. Most people don't believe the killing made us safer because, I suspect, they are worn out by Trump's claims.
This skepticism is the best defense a citizen can raise against the marketer-in-chief. He will keep trying to sell us new crises, especially if the impeachment proceedings look bad for him. That much is guaranteed. Whether so many of us will buy is far less certain.