Victor Davis Hanson on The Case for Trump

The Case for Trump, Victor Davis Hanson. Basic Books, 2019. 372 pp. 

As the title suggests, The Case for Trump, balances a clinical approach to our currently incendiary politics alongside a brief for Donald Trump’s presidency.   Of course, the success or failure of this attempt is a subjective matter though it seems to me that any reader of this book of whatever political stripe would concede that, for its length, it is thorough if not encyclopedic in its presentation of facts and its historical depth.  

All of which is not surprising in that Victor Davis Hanson, occupies a unique position among the commentariat: he is a classical scholar, professor, historian, novelist, political, cultural commentator and farmer in California’s central valley while maintaining a residence in Palo Alto where he is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution on the Stanford campus.   He is also a visiting professor at Hillsdale College in Michigan while spending appreciable time overseas. 

One can see that his distinctly varied experiences are part of why he remains an engaging thinker and which makes all of the 372 pages of this book fly by.   In a word, the book is a deliciously informative and an eminently readable take on the Trump ship of state as it tries to navigate around the depth charges laid by the treacherous deep state armada and a giddy and obtuse paparazzi.

Dr. Hanson’s opening chapter is his longest, wherein he demonstrates that by 2016 the traditional vision of “the two Americas” had ossified into mere “stale sloganeering.”   As he puts it, “Trump did not create these divides.  He merely found existing sectarianism politically useful, and, like President Obama, he far more adroitly leveraged it than had prior Republican nominees. “     

Yes, the educated, progressive, technocracies in the costal blue states had turned their backs on America’s interior and in looking overseas became increasingly smug in their cosmopolitanism while showcasing their empathy for the hapless in destitute places outside America.  Of course, this coastal blue state cult is shared by Illinois and other interior states, depending on issues and candidates, where empathy is also on display for “people of color” and other victims of America’s presumed institutional and incipient phobias. 

Certainly the most recent Republican presidential candidates, Messieurs McCain and Romney, saw this divide but neither had the requisite body armor, aka thick enough skin, to expose themselves to the heavy media artillery that would be wheeled around and directed at them if they risked any association with the Buchanan, pitchfork branch of the party, “the isolationist wing,” “the America Firsters,” the un-glamorous white working class, “the deplorables,” “the smelly Walmart shoppers” and on and on, the invective lexicon of the Left being as endless as it is predictable. 

However, being partially a media creation himself as well as having extensive experience with politicians, Trump went full speed ahead and damned the torpedoes aimed at him.  Thus, he wasn’t afraid to tailor his appeal to this disdained constituency (which he now owns), notwithstanding that Joe Biden is currently channeling Joe the Plumber as he tries to woo this group in the run-up to 2020.     

Hanson drills deeper by noting that Trump knew that “a good job was the wellspring alone from which followed a stable two-parent family, home ownership, and a sense of confidence and pride.” Certainly, “white, lower middle class pathology was often known to the Left in the manner of a stiff, dissected frog reeking of formaldehyde” in studies by intellectuals like Charles Murray.   Though, as Hanson continues, “Before Trump, few politicians saw an opening in defending the forgotten working class of the interior and few politicians knew it firsthand, much less saw it as merited or even useful in the political sense.” 

Were others blinded by their own predilections?  As Hanson reveals, “college-educated whites do not make up 36% of the electorate” as analysts indicated; this constituency made up only 30% and was outnumbered by non-college working class whites.  

 Hanson describes the cult of progressivism as driven by “the white elite signaling their disgust at the ‘white privilege’ of the disintegrating middle class as a means of exempting their own quite genuine white privilege of insider contacts, professional degrees, wealth, inheritance, and influence.”  Trump tapped into this lower middle-class disgust provoked by such haughty virtue signaling by those in the media, Hollywood, corporations, academia and government.

Prior to the 2012 election, Hanson was chauffeured through southern Michigan by a retired autoworker who let loose with a stream-of-consciousness trashing of President Obama.   After which, Hanson remarked, “Well, I guess that you’ll be voting for Romney.”   The man bristled: “Romney?  Geez, Romney came to Michigan wearing his wing tips with starched jeans.”  Likewise, Hillary’s hamming it up as Aunt Jemima with her, “I don’t feel no ways tired. . .” mantra also made her merely one among the many of our political actors.  By contrast Donald Trump was not a character in search of himself; he unselfconsciously played himself in his trademark business suit punctuated by that long red tie resembling the extended tongue that he is always prepared to stick out at his tormentors. 

As Professor Hanson writes, “Globalization had flattened the hinterland, had long ago appropriated or Xeroxed America’s interior wealth, manufacturing, and industrialization.”  Indeed, economists for the last 40 years have insisted that America must adjust to a flat earth leveled by “free trade” while correspondingly big picture historians have, some gleefully, predicted the leveling of America to a position as merely one among many in “the family of nations.”

   But some things change and some things don’t.   Farmer and historian Hanson knows that all too well.  Similarly as Trump shows in The Art of the Deal, he is not overly impressed by “intellectuals” with their unmoored, free floating notions, the consequences of which they invariably exempt themselves from.  In fact, people require jobs in order to be people, just as countries, especially America as the world’s backbone, need manufacturing and agriculture as well as high tech and great universities and, perhaps, even think tanks, in order to be a country.

Early on Hanson quotes Henry Kissinger’s remark: “I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who emerges from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretense.”   Whether for good or ill, Trump has challenged the world’s status quo in which the United States is seen as the banker, policeman, scapegoat, Mother Teresa, Uncle Sam, a place where wealthy third world kleptocrats send their children to be educated and their poor to be provided for, and the place most everyone aspires to get into one way or another.  

Of course, a transformational individual like Trump will necessarily draw a diversity of detractors.  The last part of the book explores that great chain of beings, those scampering mice-like Lilliputians in the media and the deep state trying to tie Trump down.  Ben Rhodes, for example, a big shot in the Obama administration, is the brother of the president of CBS News and was married to a foreign policy advisor to Barbara Boxer, Ann Norris, who was also a high muck-a-muck in the State Dept.  Dr. Hanson reveals legions of like links.

What’s juicy about Mr. Rhodes is that he is not shy about revealing his contempt for his media mouthpieces.  As he puts it, “The average reporter that we talk to is twenty-seven years old.  That’s a sea change.  They literally know nothing. [Thus] We created an echo chamber.”  So too MIT’s Jonathan Gruber openly bragged that he had “hoodwinked dumb Americans” in getting Obamacare passed.  No surprise then that the negative reporting by the major networks on Trump reached 91% over one three month period. 

Such institutionalized megaphones can drown out the many remarkable milestones that Trump has achieved and that Hanson charts, milestones like: unprecedented 3% yearly economic growth with quarterly growth climbing as high as 4.1%; major stock indexes as of the end of April at record highs; highest ever recorded Hispanic and black employment; lowest percentage of the population ever on food stamps; business investment up by 40% in the first quarter of 2018; overall 18 month economic growth faster than any comparable period during President Obama’s tenure.

Other Trump initiatives, as popular as they may be but at this point not fully realized include: NATO members promise to ante up 100 billion dollars more (e.g. Germany runs up billions of dollars in Trade Surpluses with the US, yet has not anted up her 2% for NATO.); drawing blood from China over its thievery and shameless trade policies; North Korea’s cessation of the firing of long range missiles in violation of the airspace of U.S. allies while the Trump administration pressures her to abandon its nuclear arms program.

Other actions by the president remain popular, detested or at least controversial such as: the attempt to rescind Obamacare; disentangling America from the Iran Deal; closing the southern border with a wall; appointing two conservative Supreme Court Justices and many other like-minded judges; opposition to abortion; opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling; slashing capital gains, corporate and personal income taxes for a wide swath of people; deregulation which led to increased oil, gas and coal production; recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; suspending the nuclear arms agreement with Russia while intensifying sanctions against her; suspending migration from five Muslim majority countries and North Korea and Venezuela; withdrawing America from the Paris climate change agreement.

In his penultimate chapter, “Trump, The Tragic Hero?,” Hanson suggests that “Trump’s cunning and mercurialness are talents suited to dealing with many of the outlaws of the global frontier such as the Iranian theocracy and Kim Jong-un.”  Ironically, though, that timely talent may undo him in the long run in the way that Generals George Patton and Curtis Lemay were indispensable to WWII victory yet became dispensable and even caricatures after the war.  As Hanson notes while casting Trump for a similar role: the tragic hero willingly faces a societal threat, knowing that this same society may ostracize him after he has destroyed the threat by whatever means.  As Hanson soberly concludes: “That is the element of tragedy: no solution, no out in a world of bad and worse choices.”