The Case For Trump
By Victor Davis Hanson
Basic Books; hardcover, 400 pages; $30.00
Victor Davis Hanson, a senior fellow in military history at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a professor emeritus of classics at California State University, Fresno.
In his new book, The Case For Trump, Hanson examines the rise of Donald Trump from businessman to longshot presidential candidate to completing the upset of Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Hanson believes the first two years of President Trump’s presidency is one of the most successful early tenures in history, and makes the case for America needing his agenda now more than ever.
“Donald Trump ran as an abject outsider,” Hanson writes. “He is now our first American president without either prior political or military experience. Frustrated voters in 2016 saw that unique absence of a political resume as a plus, not a drawback, and so elected a candidate deemed to have no chance of becoming president.
“The near-septuagenarian billionaire candidate, unlike his rivals in the primaries, did not need any money, and had little requirement in the primaries to raise any from others. Name recognition was no problem. He already was famous – or rather notorious. He took risks, given that he did not care whether the coastal elite hated his guts. These realities unexpectedly proved advantages, given that much of the country instead wanted someone – perhaps almost anyone – to ride in and fix things that compromised political professionals would not dare do. With Trump, anything was now felt by his backers to be doable. His sometimes scary message was that what could not be fixed could be dismantled.”
Trump’s manner was blunt, often crass and crude, or as he described it, “the new presidential.” This meant that no attack from an adversary was too small or too big to be ignored, and everything was to be responded to in kind. His accent, tastes, and comportment, to many of his elitist critics, were grounds enough to deem him unqualified for the presidency.
Known in his long career in business for having an “art of the deal” manner of negotiation, Trump tried to bring that to the world stage even though it was antithetical to diplomatic and bureaucratic norms. By blustering, threatening, and asking for twice what he was willing eventually to settle for, Trump made progress on NATO contributions, replacing NAFTA, trade issues with China, tax cuts, energy production, and destroying ISIS, nullifying the Iran Deal, and restoring good relations with traditional Asian and Middle East allies.
Unlike most of the books written on Trump, which either place him a hazy glow or make him out to be the devil incarnate, Hanson makes an effort to understand President Trump on his own terms, and to answer a series of questions that draw on wider historical and literary precursors and contexts:
- Why were expert pollsters and pundits so wrong in their predictions of a failed Trump presidential nomination, a loss at the ballot box in November 2016, and early on, a failed presidency?
- Is Trump a classic populist, a dangerous demagogue, or a barking P.T. Barnum, hawking the zeitgeist of the moment?
- Did the political climate pre-2016 create the need for someone like a Trump, or did Trump – and only Trump – make conditions fit his own agendas? In other words, was Trump’s rise due to his message, or to the man himself?
- How exactly did Trump defeat Hillary Clinton? Could he have beaten any other Democrat in 2016?
- Why did Trump’s critics loathe him? Did the odium derive form his checkered personal and business past? His herky-jerky bombast? His absence of a popular curriculum vitae?
The methodology Hanson uses is literary and historical: he answers these enigmas by placing Trump in the populist tradition of American politics, and in the 21st-century challenges of globalization, trade, open borders, and their effects on traditional American society.
Hanson also puts Trump’s behavior in a different context, as he reveals how, in prior eras, the media was tasked to ignore how presidents acted. Presidents assumed that what they said and did in private remained that way, and that what was said in public was put into context by the media.
On how he views people’s treatment of Trump, Hanson writes, “One of the great ironies of our age is that we have somehow managed to become far more sanctimonious than previous generations – and yet far more immoral by traditional standards as well. We can obsess over an unartful presidential comment, but snore through the systematic destruction of the manufacturing basis of an entire state or ignore warlike violence on the streets of Chicago.
“Donald J. Trump’s presidency is too brief to yet be judged absolutely. His personal foibles are too imbedded within current political and media hatred to be obsessed dispassionately. Too many assessments too quickly have been made about Trump, without much historical context and usually with too much passion. Neither is it yet clear that Trump is a bad man or a good president, or vice versa, or neither or both. But if the past is sometimes a guide to the present, Trump in theory certainly could become a more effective president than would have been his likely more circumspect Republican primary rivals, while perhaps demonstrating that he is far more uncouth. the paradox again raises the question, When any one man can change the lives of 330 million, what exactly is presidential morality after all – private and personal sins, or the transgressions that affect millions of lives for the worse?
“The Trump base had no such moral dilemmas over Trump the messenger as did the Never Trumpers. As we have seen, they believed that no other Republican or Democratic candidate could have been trusted to address illegal immigration, deindustrialization, and globalization, and to adopt pro-jobs economic and Jacksonian foreign policies…
“Trump supporters also had little problem with the president of the United States ad nauseum referring to ‘Crooked Hillary.’ Their sense of travesty was not that a president had ‘stooped’ to voice such a blunt truth, but the Beltway indifference to the reality that a national figure had committed likely serial felonies, with exemption, and yet was still considered a judicious Washington fixture…
“Donald Trump inherited from his supposed betters an array of perennial crises when he was sworn in as president in 2017. Certainly, he did not possess the traditional diplomatic skills and temperament to deal in ‘normal’ fashion with any of them. But was not his unfamiliarity with Washington why he was elected?”
Hanson argues that, in some sense, Trump’s abrupt appearance parallels literary portraits of the tragic hero from Sophocles to John Ford’s Westerns: a flawed and deeply dangerous figure who, in transitory fashion, uses particular skills and agendas to solve existential problems, but by doing so in a crude and often violent manner that therein guarantees his ostracism and exclusion from established society.
Trump was a creation of the limitations of both parties who had few suitable answers to challenges of demography, technology, and internationalism. Hanson writes, “Refined and sophisticated diplomats of the last quarter century, who would never utter the taunt ‘Little Rocket Man,’ nonetheless had gone through a series of failed engagements with North Korea. Three administrations had given Pyongyang quite massive aid to behave, and either not to proliferate or at least to denuclearize. And it was all a failure, and a nuclear and deadly one at that.
“How smart was thirty years of stale diplomatic conventional wisdom that appeasing Chinese serial trade cheating would eventually lure a prosperous Beijing into the family of Western and law-abiding democracies? How brilliant was tilting away from Israel and the moderate Gulf monarchies, Egypt, and Jordan to cut a deal with an anti-American and revolutionary theocratic Iran in hopes that such deference might convince an ascendant revolutionary Tehran that the West sympathized with Iran’s frustrations with not being appreciated for its power and history?
“Half the country, the more desperate half, believed that the remedy for a government in which the IRS, the FBI, the DOJ, and the NSA were weaponized by elites with impressive dossiers and blue-chip degrees, often in partisan fashion and without worry about the civil liberties of American citizens, was not more temporizing technicians. They were desperate enough to welcome any pariah who cleaned house and moved on.”
The Case For Trump examines how his appointments and record of governance have improved the economy, found a rare mean between an interventionist foreign policy and isolationism, and taken on a toxic establishment and political culture that long ago needed an accounting.