Victor Davis Hanson discussed the decline of the American academy, threats to Western civilization from within and without, “The Resistance” and its assault on the Trump presidency, and a great deal more with Encounter Books’ Ben Weingarten. Watch their interview here or read the full transcript of their discussion below, slightly modified for clarity.
Ben Weingarten: As a classicist, you’ve lamented both the corruption of the academy within your own discipline and on the modern campus more broadly — in particular on its repudiation of the Western canon, its lack of adherence to principles of free inquiry and the overall triumph of progressivism. Is there any way to take back this institution, in the sense of restoring classical liberal arts education and the conditions it needs to flourish?
Victor Davis Hanson: Well, my criticism in the last 30 years of the institution, obviously a lot of us who voiced those concerns, it fell on deaf ears. So progressive thinkers and institutional administrators within the university got their way. And now we’re sort of at the end of that experiment, and the question we have to ask is what did they give us? Well, they gave us $1 trillion in student debt. They created a very bizarre system in which the federal government — subsidized through student loans, constantly increasing tuition beyond the rate of inflation — the result of which is that we’ve had about a 200 percent growth in administrative costs, and administrators and non-teaching staff within the university. We’ve politicized the education.
So when I started there were … I think I looked in the catalog in 1984. There were things, maybe like the Recreation Department’s “Leisure Studies” course. Maybe one environmental class, “Environmental Studies.” But you take the word “studies” with a hyphen, and now that can represent about 25 percent of the curriculum. And that’s usually a rough, not always a reliable guide, to show that that class is not — it’s not disinterested. Its aim is to be deductive. We start with this premise that men are sexist, or capitalism destroys the environment, or America’s racist. Then you find the examples to fit that preconceived idea.
And the result of it is that we’ve turned out students that are highly partisan and highly mobilized, and even sort of arrogant, but they’re also ignorant … that came at a cost. They did not learn to write well. If you ask them who’s General Sherman, or what’s a Corinthian column, or who was Dante, all of the building blocks that they could refer to later in life to enrich their experience, they have no reference. And then they don’t know how to think inductively. So if you point out the contradictions in free speech the way they shout down some speakers and not others, or the way that they hate capitalism, but they love Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, they’re not able … they haven’t been trained philosophically to account for that, because they’re indoctrinated. And it’s quite sad to see the combination of ignorance and arrogance in young people, but that’s what we’ve turned out. A lot of people who are indebted and they’re arrogant, and they’re ignorant and they’re not up to the task of moving the United States forward as a leading country in the world.
And you can see the reaction to it. We have tech schools now that grow up around these campuses, where they just say to people, “If they’re gonna cut out Western civ and they’re gonna cut out the core and politicize it, then let’s be honest. Just pay us a cheaper tuition and we’ll train you to be a nurse, or we’ll train you to be a computer encoder,” or whatever. And so, we have alternates, for-profit online alternatives, podcasts.
And so, the university failed in its mission. And it will be replaced by open free society. People are trying to find alternatives to it. And they kind of committed suicide. And they’re in decline. And the alumni … the final shoe to fall is whether the alumni of these prestigious universities will still engage in unrestricted gifting. “I want my name on this particular department or this particular plaza, here’s $10 million, I trust you to further my shared view,” and they don’t do it. And so then they read in the paper that a professor said Barbara Bush should die, or was glad that she’s dead, or another professor said Trump should be hanged. Or another professor jumped out and hit a reporter. And they think, what is all this about? It’s not liberal. It’s not tolerant. And so, I think there’s a reckoning going on as we speak.
Ben Weingarten: Lincoln talked about the greatest threat to America coming from within, not without. And perhaps we could point to the academy and the erosion of the academy as being one of the challenges from within. In your view, what is the greatest threat to Western civilization today?
Victor Davis Hanson: It’s not original. It’s what, I guess you’d call them the pessimists, starting with people like Thucydides or Tacitus, and then the extreme pessimists, people like Suetonius or Petronius, have said about the West. And I guess I’d sum it up as: In a free society that’s consensual and capitalist, the combination of enormous material bounty and personal freedom can take away a sense of strife, a sense of challenge, a sense of sacrifice. And that we all, sort of, end up like lotus-eaters, because the economy is so [strong] … especially in the post-industrial society.
So I think right now, we’ve got this situation where we have large numbers of our youth who graduate. They have debt. They go back and live at home. But their material appurtenances are very … cell phones, iPads, internet. Culturally they get anything they want. They don’t have to date. They don’t have to get married. They can hook up and enjoy sex in any manner they want. And we don’t ask anything of that individual, and that individual is basically a slave to his appetites. He gets up in the morning and he says, “I want more electronics. I want more appurtenances. I want more physical pleasure.” And we never say to them, “Well, what was the status of your community? Are we better educated this year than last year? Are we making buildings that are beautiful, functional buildings? Do we have good roads? Are we leaving our children a dam and an aqueduct system better than what we inherited?” We never ask those questions.
And so the world looks at us and they sort of think, “Wow, this generation was given a great inheritance. And I think this may be the one that doesn’t pass on something as well to its children.” And it’s not rare in history that that happened.
Ben Weingarten: In terms of external threats, you’ve written frequently about North Korea and our persistent failure when it comes to North Korea. We are seemingly perpetually duped by them. We come to the negotiating table, make some concessions, maybe they pause their program, maybe they don’t. Ultimately, they proceed and they get all the benefits and we get nothing. Two-part question: First, what in your view, does Kim Jong-un actually want? As you may know, Kim Jong-il in his “Last Will and Testament” wrote kind of a playbook for Kim Jong-un where he said, essentially, “Get to the negotiating table, act as if you’re going to act in good faith and use that as a ploy to reunify Korea under peaceful rule,” i.e. North Korean communist rule. And then the second part is, why is this time different when it comes to the U.S. coming to the negotiating table with them?
Victor Davis Hanson: Whatever failed policy, whether it was the agreed on framework of the Clinton administration, the six party talks of the [George W.] Bush administration or “strategic patience” … they all failed because they usually had sanctions. “Please don’t test another missile. Please don’t let off another nuclear device.” And then people started to ignore that. So then we had the sanctions embargo, boycott, whatever you wanna call it. People were impoverished. We said, “Well, this is so terrible. We don’t wanna starve children in North Korea.” Then they said, “Well, give us so many billion of dollars and we’ll behave.” And then when the president took credit for it we all had those press … remember the press conference with Clinton and Bush and Obama, and that’s discredited now.
So Trump comes in and he says, “I’m not gonna do this anymore.” And he sort of plays bad cop. “I’m crazy. I’m gonna fire and fury, short, fat man.” All that stuff. And then the good cop comes over and said, “You really wanna deal with this guy, and we’ll see if this works.” But essentially what we’re trying to tell the North Koreans is, “We know what you want. You want to absorb the entire Korean Peninsula. You want this Stalinist government, and then you want to build a large nuclear arsenal, feign insanity, act as if you’re in hand and then leverage money and concessions from the West. And you want to do this under the aegis of your Chinese master and who finds this either amusing, psychologically, or very effective, politically, of tying down Western resources.”
So I think what we’re trying to do now is say, “We have a lot of leverage ourselves and it was considered politically incorrect or unimaginable to use them. But here they are.” And I think Trump is saying, number one, we’re gonna look at Chinese trade. If you’re gonna allow this to happen, you’re not gonna expropriate U.S. technology … Number two: And why do we have a million Chinese nationals in the United States? Why are Chinese nationals buying property all over? If you’re a member of the Chinese Communist Party, maybe you can’t come to the United States. Maybe you can’t buy property. Number three: Is it written in stone that Japan will never go nuclear? Or maybe even South Korea or Taiwan? And would you like missiles pointed at you? Should Japan send a missiles over North Korea every once in a while and say, “I’m sorry. It was an accident.” And so we’re trying to do that in a way that presses China to press North Korea.
I think part of the problem is that it’s not a two-party process, it’s a four-party. There’s China and North Korea, and there’s South Korea and us. And behind that process, South Korea has traditional understandable grievances against Japan. It’s got natural affinities with North Korea. And sometimes I think the South Korean government, especially this government, feels that, maybe some grand bargain might be to get rid of nuclear weapons pointed at them from the North. That they would agree to have the United States out, or at least demilitarized, and then the two Koreas, as if they were symmetrical, could come to an accord and gradually reconfigure each other. And I think that’s absolutely insane because once the United States is removed as a guarantor, the North or China or both, are gonna invade and absorb that country.
Ben Weingarten: What does history tell us about America’s national interest in the Middle East and our ability to achieve it in the face of the metastasization of the Shia Crescent, as well as Russia coming in and filling the vacuum left by the prior, call it eight years, of policy?
Victor Davis Hanson: Well, we always had three main aims in the Middle East, and one was to ensure the world’s oil supplies, as 40 percent to 50 percent of oil in general came from the Middle East, and then in particular much of our imported oil came; and two was to protect what we felt was a vulnerable Israel from its mostly hostile neighborhood; and three was to contain violence in the Middle East and not let it spread into Europe.
And two of those cases are now, I think, irrelevant. In terms of oil, we’re gonna be the largest oil and gas producer in the world next year. Israel is entirely self-sufficient in oil and gas. So I don’t think they’re going … They do provide a lot of oil to China, etcetera. We want the Persian Gulf, but we’re not at the mercy of Saudi oil politics, for example. Two, Israel is much, much stronger vis-a-vis its neighbors than it has been in 30 years. More importantly, the Palestinian issue, because of the Iran threat, is starting to pale. In other words, the Sunni moderates — Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf monarchies — are starting to think they have more in common strategically with Israel than they do with Iran. In fact, they want a hidden de facto covert alliance with Israel to check Iranian power.
The third, I think, is our real interest now, and our only interest, and that is to make sure — whether it’s through unwanted immigration into Europe from Syria, or whether it’s Islamic terrorism — that those unstable regions don’t affect Western security. And how we do that is if you’re a neocon and you believe you can go into those countries and rebuild them in your own image, we tried that and I guess we’re trying it still in Afghanistan; or if you’re a realist, it is to tell those governments that if they do certain things, that we’re going to sort of hit back, but we’re not going to get engaged, less … more rubble, less trouble. Between those two poles there’s variations, but that’s where we are.
Ben Weingarten: One of the things that I find really fascinating about much of your work is that you inhabit the world of the academy, and you’re surrounded by the intellectual elites on a daily basis, and you’re a conservative intellectual yourself. You also write about where you live and what life is like in rural California, and the various maladies that in many ways kind of tie into exactly the problems that President Trump pointed out during his campaign, whether it’s drugs, gangs, garbage in the streets, and you attribute it in some part to widespread illegal immigration. How has that dichotomy in your life impacted your politics?
Victor Davis Hanson: Well, I never thought it was much … I was much different because I live in the same house that my great-great-grandmother lived. And where I grew up, I just thought it was normal. But when you’re in the academic world, that’s abnormal. So when I get up in the morning to go to work at Stanford once a week, I leave what I thought is a normal world. They think it’s abnormal, but I think their world is abnormal.
By that I mean there’s certain protocols everybody follows and that is, that you don’t gratuitously insult somebody, ’cause you’re gonna end up in a fight. Or if you’re farming with your neighbor in a communal ditch and he starts stealing water, he’ll steal more until you tell him, not just tell him to stop, but force him to stop. And three, that you’re not confined by political correctness. If somebody hits you and runs away from the scene of the accident, and he does it, and the person’s from Mexico, and the next person who does is from Mexico, and the third person who does it is from Mexico and the fourth person who does it from Mexico, then you can say inductively, there’s a lot of people here from Mexico that have no registration, no driver’s license, and no car insurance, and they have a habit of getting in wrecks and running and fleeing the scene of an accident. Whereas, when that never happens to you at Stanford, then you feel to express that complaint would be xenophobic, racist, native.
So it’s given me a clarity and it’s given me ways that I have to behave. When I come up to the academy, I’m always amazed at people who will lose their temper or they’ll scream at somebody. And it’s almost like a psychodrama, there’s no consequences to it. And I think a lot of that thinking has permeated our government, permeated our bureaucracy, and you have a lot of guilt, you have a lot of worry, you have a lot of neuroses, and I think they’d be a lot better if they lived in the communities in which they champion, “they” being a lot of progressive elites.
So what I’ve been very angry about are people who in California say, “We don’t need water transfers for agriculture,” ’cause they don’t rely on ’em … “But we do for Hetch Hetchy water for Bay Area drinking,” to the extent they know about it even. Or, “We have to have open borders, but my kids just can’t go to Menlo-Atherton anymore because it’s just too diverse and they don’t have advanced placement Mandarin,” or something. Or, “I think that we need green power and we need solar and wind, but you know what? It’s 70 degrees in the Bay Area and I really don’t … year round 60 to 70, and I don’t have to turn on the air conditioning when it’s 110 like in Bakersfield.” So I think it stops the hypocrisy when you have to live in an area that immediately the ramifications of your own ideology are apparent to you.
Ben Weingarten: Prosecutorial overreach and abuse and political witch hunts have plagued our justice system since time immemorial. That said, the extent of what we’re witnessing today and the visibility now into how the proverbial sausage is being made does seem unparalleled. Put what we are witnessing with both the Russiagate investigation, the tangential probes — including the investigations and criminal referrals into the investigators themselves — put this whole process into historical context.
Victor Davis Hanson: What we’re seeing now is a type of paralegal resistance, and we’ve seen that in Athens. We saw it at the end of the Republic in Rome. We saw it in the Renaissance, Italy, in which a rogue part of the government under the guise of legality then acts illegal and punishes particular individuals. And in Athens, they would come to the court and accuse a person of theft or they’d get into a popular court, or you can execute Socrates by majority vote because he corrupts the youth or introduces a new religion when in fact you don’t believe what … you don’t agree with him politically.
In the case of the special prosecutor … he sounded something like Javert in Les Misérables, an obsessed prosecutor. We appoint a Lawrence Walsh during Iran [-Contra] or a Ken Starr during the Clinton mess, or especially the most egregious Patrick Fitzgerald on the Scooter Libby, and the country goes into hysteria and they accuse the incumbent administration of being biased. “Let’s get a utopian platonic guardian.” And almost immediately we say, “Who will police the police?” Because the guardian then has to … he has the criminal. It’s Scooter Libby. It’s Donald Trump. But he has to find the crime in this Beria-Stalinist sense. And that’s where we are now. And if he doesn’t come up with a scalp, we consider him a failure. So once he can’t find his original mandated quest, in this case collusion, then in the case of Scooter Libby, it was exposing a supposed covert agent, then he has to find obstruction or lying — all of the things that people do a lot in their own lives, unfortunately. And that’s where we are now. Mr. Mueller is trying … He has his criminal, he thinks, he’s just trying to find the appropriate crime for him. And that’s antithetical to the whole constitutional idea of America.
Ben Weingarten: And you pose the question in a recent article, and I’ll quote: “Are we reaching a point in the so-far-failed resistance where little is left except abject violence in the manner of the Roman or French Revolution?” Where is this headed?
Victor Davis Hanson: Well, I don’t know. I’d like to ask Kamala Harris, our Senator. And she said that [in response to the question] “What would you do if you were in an elevator with Donald Trump?” She said, “Does he have to come out alive?” So once you go down that route where you question the election, you say the voting machines were rigged, and then you say the electors of the Electoral College don’t have to find another mandate. Failure. Then we’re going to impeach him. Failure. Then we’re going to have the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution evoked. Failure. Then you’re gonna evoke the 25th Amendment and say he’s unhinged, and should be … Failure. And then we’re gonna pick liberal judges to oversee an effort to nullify, or we’re gonna have the State of California nullify. Failure.
And then that’s concurrent with a media that’s 90 percent — by the liberal standards of the Shorenstein Center — biased.
And then you have this weird assassination chic where a Johnny Depp, or Kathy Griffin, or an obscure professor who gets in the news, or Snoop Dogg …“Should we shoot Trump? Should we incinerate Trump? Should we blow Trump up? Should we stab him to death (a Shakespearean troupe in Central Park), or just behead him?” And what that does is it creates a climate, especially when you say almost daily that he’s Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin. Well, what do you do if somebody believes he’s Stalin? You do what they advocate. Nobody likes Stalin or Hitler, so you get rid of Stalin.
And so that’s the climate of de-legitimizing Trump that we’re seeing, and it’s all a frustration that the unimaginable, the unthinkable, happened in 2016. Donald Trump, against every measure of expectation, poll, survey, won the election. And a lot of people were engaged in activity to ensure that he didn’t. Had he lost the election, they would be rewarded right now. So James Comey, or Andrew McCabe or Loretta Lynch would be going into Hillary’s office, and say, “I met on the tarmac with your husband, I helped you.” Or, “I dropped that email investigation. I need this …” Instead, the unimaginable happened. And what they thought were career-enhancing, stretching the law [acts], turned out to be criminality. And I think they’re gonna have to account for it.
Ben Weingarten: Given that assault on the president, legally and extralegally and beyond, as well as all of the challenges we face in the world, if you were advising the president and he would listen to one policy that you could propose, what would you advocate as the single most important agenda item?
Victor Davis Hanson: Yeah, I would say to him, “You’re in a circle.” Or I would take a Western metaphor … “Circle the wagons. And you have attackers from Mueller, you have foreign threats, you have the media, and you have the Democratic Party, you have the progressive movement, you have Hollywood, you have foundations, you can’t multiply those opponents yourself.” Tweeting has been very effective, creating a deterrence for him, but you’re gonna have to say, “When you tweet something that doesn’t create deterrence for you, or it’s gratuitous, or it’s mean-spirited, you’re adding to the people outside the wagons. Or when you have a revolving door, or when you insult your own attorney general, or you’re not careful in some of your selections, you’re giving ammunition to these people.” I think that, while being bombastic and outrageous and unpredictable has been very effective in foreign policy, and even domestically, at some point, to sustain that with that many enemies — not all of them have been earned enemies — they were really offensive enemies. They just decided to attack Trump, not reply to Trump.
So I think he’s gotta be very much more disciplined because he doesn’t have all that much time. These administrations are short. He’s 71 years old. He may not be the paragon of health. And to get up every morning and look on that horizon and see all these enemies, it doesn’t make sense to create more problems for yourself.