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Victor Davis Hanson Examines The Triumph And The Tragedy of Donald Trump


In The Case for Trump, Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist and military historian, brings his expert knowledge from years of academia to bear on his analysis of the political and sociological events that led to a Trump election. The Hoover Institute scholar doesn’t ignore Trump’s flaws or gloss over his failures, but he also doesn’t exaggerate them.

Hanson does not paint a black and white portrait of Trump, but uses a Machiavellian shade of gray to demonstrate that, despite his flaws, Trump is the one to get the job done. He likens Trump to Augustus, a renowned builder; to Julius Caesar bravely crossing the Rubicon; to Rip Van Winkle, a man thrown into an unfamiliar culture; to Martin Luther challenging his society’s orthodoxies; to an uncontrollable Frankenstein monster tearing apart the media; to a virus bent on decimating the status quo in the Republican party; and to chemotherapy employed to attack the cancer of bureaucracy. Hanson does not always defend Trump, but he does attempt to explain him.

Most of the book discusses the factors that led to Trump winning the 2016 election. Hanson’s two biggest explanations are that Hillary Clinton was an unappealing alternative and that Trump recognized and spoke to the cultural divide between the middle of America and the coastal elites. Hanson analyzes Trump’s opposition from the liberals and the media to the deep state and the Republican establishment. Finally, Hanson writes about Trump’s first two years in office, his progress and his setbacks.

Hanson’s defense of Trump is missing some key components. He spends too much time discussing the election and does not delve deeply into Trump’s time as president. He often lists what he sees as Trump’s accomplishments but does not respond to obvious objections to Trump’s record.

For example, Hanson spends little time defending Trump’s tariff policies against libertarian objections or Trump’s immigration reforms against liberal objections. For this reason, The Case For Trump seems more like a book meant to convince Never Trumpers or other reluctant Republicans that Trump is the man for the hour rather than an apology meant to convince anyone on the left.

The Election

Hanson has several theories about why Trump won the 2016 election. One of his most compelling arguments is that when standing next to Clinton Trump looked like the more attractive alternative. Hanson points out that although Trump is no paragon of virtue, he also never pretended to be one. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton’s self-righteous sermonizing, considering her various scandals, made her look like a hypocrite. Hanson writes, “Voters in 2016 preferred an authentic bad boy of the private sector to the public’s disingenuous good girl. Apparently, uncouth authenticity trumped insincere conventionality.”

Trump never showed up to a state fair in a flannel shirt and jeans or put on a false drawl. His baggy suit, long tie, and Queens accent made voters feel like they knew what they were getting when they voted for him, Hanson writes.  In contrast, Clinton’s manicured style and on again off again drawl made her seem inauthentic. The candidate’s style in speech and dress made it clear that Clinton was part of the very swamp Trump sought to drain. In A Tale of Two Cities fashion, Hanson contrasts the two candidates like this:

Physically, Trump’s bulk fueled a monstrous energy; Hillary’s girth sapped her strength. The reckless Trump did not drink; the careful Hillary did so. Hillary’s ‘good taste’ carefully tailored suits and tastefully coiffed hair did not seem natural. Trump’s ‘bad-taste’ mile-long tie, orange tan, and combed-over yellow mane appeared paradoxically authentic.

Clinton was a creature of government, he often at war with it. Her misdeeds were far worse than her reputation; his reputation far worse than his misdeeds. He could be authentically gross, she inauthentically prim. And his low cunning was usually prescient, her sober assessments usually erroneous…

Moreover, while Trump bragged about his wealth and success in business, the Clintons tried to hide the fact that they had grown wealthy by leveraging their public offices. The Clintons saw their net worth soar from nearly zero in 2001 to $50 million in 2010 and then to $2 billion by 2016. The Clintons made a quarter-billion dollars in gross income without directly being involved in any business other than consulting and speaking engagements.

Hanson notes Hillary Clinton’s speaking fees saw a sudden drop after losing the election. They went from a high of $250,000 after Clinton left the office of secretary of state to $25,000 after losing the election. He writes, “The subtext for potential investors was always that one day Hillary would follow Bill into the White House, where scandals died and patronage was reborn.”

Various scandals like this made it difficult for the Clinton campaign to effectively call Trump out for his shady business ventures, such as Trump University, without looking hypocritical. Hanson argues that in some ways Clinton’s nomination insulated Trump from his own scandals. For example, it would be difficult for Hillary to bring attention to Trump’s sexual improprieties without reminding the public of her husband’s scandals and her role in attempting to cover them up.

While it was clear that Trump often lied or exaggerated about his private affairs and businesses, he had not yet broken public trust. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton had not only used and transmitted classified information over a private illegal email server, but had destroyed 30,000 emails, some of which investigators had requested.

Hanson lists all of the different entities and people Hillary blamed for her election loss from James Comey and the Democratic National Committee to red state racists and the Electoral College, but what she could never admit, he argues, is that the Clinton campaign’s biggest liability was Hillary herself. He writes that it is likely that any other major Democrat likely would have won the election.

Coastal Elites Versus Interior Middle class

Entering the second stage of grief after the election, Hillary Clinton turned her ire towards middle America, and the states that voted for Trump. During a trip to Mumbai in March 2018, Clinton said, “If you look at the map of the United States, there’s all that red in the middle where Trump won… I win the coast… So I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward. And his whole campaign, ‘Make America Great Again,’ was looking backwards.” According to Hanson, this same repulsion for almost half of the American population is one of the things that cost Clinton the election.

Trump’s campaign was unique because he didn’t care that the coastal elites hated him and he believed that the interior of the country was still politically important. Hanson observes Trump did not create a divided America, he simply exploited it. Trump saw what many on the left ignored – the interior of the nation was fed up with leftist policies that sound virtuous but are harmful. The middle class was beginning to question the wisdom of globalization, over-regulation, and high taxes.

Moreover, the interior was getting tired of being looked down upon by the left. One of the breaking points was when during a fundraiser Clinton labelled half of Trump’s supporters as deplorables and claimed the other half was naïve, confused, and in need of reeducation.

Never Trump

According to Hanson, Trump’s plan to make America great again went against the status quo of both parties, the media establishment, and the administrative state. Hanson writes that the volatile Trump presidency began without a honeymoon. From Trump’s first day in office, he met hysterical efforts to thwart his agenda and abort his presidency. According to Hanson, “about Trump, no one is neutral, no one is calm.” Everyone recognized that a Trump presidency would demolish the American political establishment’s norms.

Everyone also understood that Trump sought to undo the Obama legacy. Thus, for liberals, stopping Trump became a religious cause. Trump represented an existential threat to their entire worldview and value system. They did not simply want to stop Trump, they wanted to destroy him. This is why assassination depictions of Trump became popular. To cite just one example, a Shakespeare troop in New York stabbed an actor dressed like Trump in each of their nightly productions of “Julius Caesar.”

Hanson argues that academics, politicians, think-tank scholars, and journalists had created an echo chamber driven by an obsessive hatred of Trump. This groupthink is why almost all polls assured the country that Trump would lose the election by a landslide. They knew Trump was taking a sledgehammer to established political orthodoxy, and he not only vowed to undo Obama’s progressive accomplishments, but sacrosanct Republican policies as well.

Because of their echo chamber, liberals could not see that much of the country was not ready to embrace the left’s agenda of open borders, identity politics, higher taxes, more government regulation, free college tuition, government-run health-care, green energy at the expense of fossil fuel production, or a foreign policy modeled after the European Union. Hanson argues that if Obama had stuck to the middle of the road instead of going to the far-left extreme, there never would have been a place for Trump. Hillary too might have had better luck had she stuck to the middle instead of trying to outdo Bernie Sanders for the left-wing base.

According to Hanson, the left believed that because they monopolize Hollywood, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and the deep state, no one, especially not red-state, middle class, gun-loving, carbon-spewing, and racially illiberal obstructionists, could stand up to them. They were wrong.

Deep State

Hanson writes that the only entity that hates Trump more than the left is the deep state. One of Hanson’s criticisms of Trump is that he did not understand the deep state’s power. He neglected to weed out Obama-hired bureaucrats and thus had to deal with continual leaks during his first two years in office.

Many voters see the federal bureaucracy as a cancer and believed Trump could act as chemotherapy. They were right. Hanson explains that Trump fired lifelong public servants, appointed outsiders skeptical of the establishment, left key offices empty, and began a massive campaign to deregulate. This infuriated the deep state, and they have been aggressively fighting back.

Hanson claims there has been a slow-motion coup within the deep state to undermine Trump’s presidency. The September 5, 2018 New York Times editorial by an anonymous staffer made it clear how troublesome an uncooperative bureaucracy can be. The anonymous writer admitted that he and his fellow “civil servants” had actively undermined the president by overriding his orders, keeping information from him, and acting independently of his directives. The op-ed writer admitted that he and his coworkers saw themselves as the “grownups in the room” tasked with protecting the nation from an unstable president. However, Hanson astutely points out that the op-ed writer never cites a presidential act that can be considered dangerous, illegal, or unethical.

Along with liberals and the deep state, the media has worked tirelessly to destroy Trump’s presidency. Hanson writes, “[E]ven in his debut as a national political candidate, Trump displayed an uncanny ability to troll and create hysteria among his media and political critics. In their anti-Trump rage many in the media revealed their own character flaws, instability, insecurities, and ignorance…”

Most in the media have yet to admit honestly why they got the 2016 election so wrong. The New York Times embarrassingly put a Trump victory the day before the election at a likelihood of 1-15 percent. According to Hanson, professional pollsters and pundits were so off in their election predictions because they “warped their own institutional protocols, their training, and their professional ethos to construct what they wished to be true so that it might become true.”

After the election the media also faced its own frailty and lack of influence. ABC’s “World News Tonight,” CBS’s “Evening News,” and NBC’s “Nightly News” coverage were all 91 percent negative about Trump and yet he still won.

Things did not change after the election. During Trump’s first 100 days in office, his coverage by most of the major news establishments was 80 percent negative. According to Hanson, some journalists seemed to decide that Trump’s election called for a reset of journalistic ethics. For example, “Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times and Christine Amanpour of CNN claimed they could no longer and should no longer stay mere neutral reporters given their low opinion of Trump.” Hanson argues advocacy, not unbiased reporting, has taken over the American news media.

The Russia investigation was a combined effort from the left, the deep state, and the national media to delegitimize Trump’s presidency. Hanson’s book came out prior to the Robert Mueller report, but he saw the writing on the wall. The media barely covered the fact that the FBI hired an informant, Stefan Halper, to spy on the Trump campaign, or that the FBI and Department of Justice used opposition research as their evidence for a secret surveillance warrant on Carter Page.

Trump appealed to the American interior based on class worries about jobs and industrialization. Unlike his 16 rivals, Trump did not fall into the trap of stale messaging or accepting Republican orthodoxies that he knew weren’t good for the middle class. He questioned everything from NAFTA to NATO. “The great strength of Trump was that he operated outside the Republican Party’s intellectual and political apparat,” wrote Hanson. In the end, Trump won 90 percent of the Republican vote, demonstrating that Never Trumpers had little impact.

Trump’s Political Record

Hanson argues that Trump’s first 600 days in office were very successful in terms of policy accomplishments. What Trump ran on in 2016, he immediately started to implement as president in 2017, which rallied his base and astonished his critics. According to the Heritage Foundation, by March 2018 Trump had already implemented two-thirds of his 334 agenda items.

Hanson lists massive deregulation, energy production, tax cuts, increased border enforcement, an economic upswing, restored military deterrence abroad, the confirmation of two conservative Supreme Court Justices, and a more solid global status as some of Trump’s successes.

Hanson writes that even Never Trumpers eventually had to admit that Trump’s agenda was a conservative one. For example, by the end of his first year Trump passed 67 major deregulatory acts. By mid-2018, that number grew to more than 800. Moreover, Trump empowered his cabinet secretaries at the Department of Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency to aggressively cut red tape.

Trump’s economic policies appealed to the middle class and infuriated the elites. He admitted that he cared more about the plight of the average working-class American than he did about taking care of other countries, whether it be in the form of NATO funding or supporting foreign industry. Trump unapologetically put America first.

As he stated in his inaugural address, “The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then re-distributed across the entire world.” Hanson explains Trump believed that de-regulation, tax cuts, energy production, investment credits, trade fairness, and reduction in illegal immigration would solve these problems.

Hanson gives evidence that Trump’s plan worked. By the summer of 2018, black and Latino unemployment were at record lows and wages were up by 3 percent. By May 2018, overall unemployment had dipped even lower to 3.9 percent, a record for the 21st century.

Hanson also celebrates Trump’s foreign policy accomplishments. Hanson argues that Obama’s utopian, self-righteous, and naive foreign policy that forgot ancient rules of deterrence, balance of power, and mutual defense alliances resulted in Russian aggression against Crimea and eastern Ukraine, cyber intrusions, an ascendant China, the rise of ISIS, and a spreading Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah Middle East axis. Hanson praises Trump for pulling out of the Paris climate accord, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and renouncing the Iran Deal.

Hanson does not delve into arguments in favor of these policies. He simply states that they are good and moves on. With his expertise and background, there is no doubt that Hanson could explain why he believes the Iran Deal was a bad one, but for whatever reason he does not do so in this book.

He does write that in contrast to Obama, Trump did not blame American citizens for the problems of the world, but instead blamed economic cheaters like China and Mexico as well as American leaders who signed on to imprudent deals. Hanson explains that Trump’s foreign policy agenda addressed North Korea’s growing nuclear capabilities, China’s infringement on the intellectual property rights of American companies, Iran’s support for terrorism and the genocidal Assad regime, imbalanced NATO funding, various trade surpluses, strong support for Israel, and Mexico’s habit of allowing countless citizens to cross the border into the United States illegally.

Trump is often maligned in the media for his immigration policies and rhetoric. However, it is often forgotten, Hanson points out, that most Democrats including Obama gave frequent speeches against illegal immigration. According to Hanson, Trump is only echoing traditional Democratic talking points when he argues that undocumented workers overtax social services and allow employers to circumvent the law in order to pay a cheaper wage. The Trump base was not only concerned about jobs, but the rule of law. They did not like selective enforcement of federal laws.

One of the biggest criticisms of Trump is that he does not like immigration because he is a racist. Hanson does not address this issue. Moreover, Hanson does not address some of Trump’s more controversial immigration policies such as family separation at the border and the so-called Muslim ban. These oversights leave a large hole in Hanson’s case for Trump.

Critique of Trump

Trump did have setbacks during his first two years in office. Trump could not get the Affordable Care Act repealed, nor could he get funding for his wall, from Mexico or otherwise. The Trump administration has also seen unprecedented turnover and leaking.

Hanson explains that Trump’s carelessness and inexperience caused him to assume there was loyalty when there was none. Hanson argues that Obama administration holdovers leaked to discredit Trump and to establish their careers in a post-Trump Washington.

Another setback occurred when Republicans lost the House in the midterm elections. Hanson argues that Trump fared better than did both Bill Clinton and Obama during their midterms. Further, Republicans gained seats in the Senate, which meant that Trump could more easily get judges confirmed, pass treaties, and stay safe from a full impeachment.

Hanson argues that Trump’s successes are not always appreciated because on the cusp of a great victory Trump often erodes his own achievements with a raging Twitter outburst or a needless jab at one of his own appointees. Hanson does not gloss over Trump’s defects. Hanson honestly describes Trump’s feud with the late senator John McCain, his unsavory comments about women, and even gives a list of Trump’s demeaning invectives like Little Marco, Low Energy Jeb, and Crooked Hillary.

However, Hanson also argues that a more gentlemanly vice president Mike Pence or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who have never tweeted a bad word about anyone, would also never have won the presidency in 2016.

A Tragic Hero

Hanson paints Trump as a tragic hero, one who is not intrinsically noble and is at times unlikeable. Tragic heroes don’t often end up well and are generally unstable and aloof loners because they make society uncomfortable, he writes. Even at the height of their success, tragic heroes don’t fit in with their times, he explains. They are pre-civilizational, more loyal to their tribe than to the whole community. Tragic heroes are incapable of changing their character and personality even if they try.

Hanson predicts that Trump will go the way of most tragic heroes – ostracized, with his accomplishments unacknowledged. This means Trump will likely be remembered more for his tweets, boisterous rallies, ceaseless invectives, and continual feuds, and his tendency to exaggerate, rather than for any of his policy successes. Perhaps Hanson wrote this book so Trump might avoid this fate.

Although Hanson does not offer his personal opinions of Trump, he says the current president is at least a partial salve to the nation’s problems. Hanson writes that Trump’s goal to make America great again hinges on remembering what made America great in the first place and on recognizing the historic threats to American greatness.

He then explains that historically the only way declining nations have reversed their decline has been to limit the size of state bureaucracies, avoid costly optional wars, preserve the rule of law, inculcate national pride in ancestral customs, and ensure equality under the law for all citizens. If Hanson’s prescription for a declining nation is accurate, then his case for Trump is made.