Victor Davis Hanson joins the City Journal podcast to talk with Aaron Renn about the 2016 election, the divide between rural and urban America, and how a life-long New Yorker came to lead a movement of “deplorables” all the way to the White House.
Read Victor's piece in the Winter 2017 Issue of City Journal, "Trump and the American Divide."
Aaron Renn: Hello, this is Aaron Renn, contributing editor at City Journal. I am delighted to be joined today for the podcast by my fellow contributor to City Journal, Victor Davis Hanson. He is here to discuss his article, "Trump and the American Divide: How a lifelong New Yorker became tribune of the rustics and deplorables." Victor, thanks for joining me.
Victor Davis Hanson: Thank you for having me.
Aaron Renn: A lot of the article is about the urban-rural divide, and you have a lot of credibility on that. I just want to make sure that I got it right that you actually live in a rural area in California yourself.
Victor Davis Hanson: Yeah, I'm speaking to you from a farmhouse my great-great-grandmother built halfway between Fresno and Visalia in the Central Valley on a 40-acre farm.
Aaron Renn: Wow. I live in New York today, but I grew up about four miles outside a town of 29 people in rural Southern Indiana, so this was an article that I really appreciated, getting to hear about the rural side of the equation. You talk about the very different concerns and even starkly different conversations that you would have, sometimes on the very same day, in your rural community and five hours away in Palo Alto. What are some of the differences of the concerns in the ways that people talk in urban and rural areas? How does this divide play out?
Victor Davis Hanson: Well, I'm more interested rather than just the politics, the comportment and the manner in which people speak and think, so I can find liberal people out here, not very many of them, but I can find liberal people in the country and then I can find conservatives, not very many of them, where I work on the Stanford campus. But what is different and doesn't seem to be reconcilable is that people here, they have a lot more muscular life, to the degree that people in the Stanford area are muscular. They're not the people who come to your attention. In other words, the larger culture in Silicon Valley, Stanford University, coastal - insurance, finance, high-tech, education, whereas out here, even when you see people who may live in Fresno, for example, they are working with drip irrigation companies or they're going out in the country to service tractors, or they're attuned to what the weather is because it will affect the local almond or raisin economy, and that will affect them, so it's just a more pragmatic, practical experience. I think it's true. It has been since antiquity that people in the country, not because they are more virtuous necessarily, but because they have no other choice, they have to pay much more attention to the weather, the climate, and they use their muscles a lot more.
Aaron Renn: You talked a lot about the article in the difference between the tangible economy of stuff and the intangible economy of ideas, and that people in rural areas are much more tied to the tangible economy, which itself is more exposed to global competition. I found it intriguing that you seemed to suggest that part of Trump's appeal to voters came from the fact that he built physical things. He built buildings. How big a role did this play and why generally did a New York City billionaire resonate with poor rural whites?
Victor Davis Hanson: Yeah, I think there was two things there. One is that he obviously, in the Manhattan real estate rat race or arena, whatever term we use, he had to deal with community activists, he had to deal with politicians, not all of them honest, unions, environmentalists, and then he had to go out to these sites and physically talk to people of a different class than his own. And out of that, his survival, I think he gained a certain empathy, maybe more for the unions and the people working for them than the banks that were financing him, at least psychologically or emotionally. And the second is that I think populism is also not just reality but it's also symbolic, so when he spoke to people he had that queen's accent that seems sort of authentic to me. I just couldn't imagine Donald Trump doing what Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama do, and that is getting in front of an African-American audience and then adopting a slang, "I came too far," like Hillary did. I just don't think he could do that. It wouldn't come into his mind to do that. And then all of the things that the elite establishment were bothered by, his appearance and his mannerisms, he sort of has a growl or a grimace on his face, his talks, kind of hunched over, loud ties, orange skin, blonde - that in some ways made him more authentic, and the media never caught onto that. The more that they kept ridiculing him for not being culturally correct, the more that he became culturally correct for half the country. So I think he was astute enough, and then the other thing was he understood that these so-called professions that were 19th century, manufacturing, construction, oil and gas, farming, the elite themselves in New York, or Manhattan, or Palo Alto, they depend on them all the time. Every time I've gone to New York I've seen somebody - I've gone to somebody's place and they have a stainless steel appliance, they have granite counter, they have wood floors, they have wonderful food, it's just that they don't know where that came from. Same thing is true in Palo Alto, but Trump had an animal cunning or an instinct that there were people who cut down trees to make the wood, there were people who mine the granite out of the ground, there were farmers who raised the arugula for the urban appetite, and he found these people not only sympathetic, but bypassed both psychologically and, according to him, economically, by globalization. Globalization - we hadn't really heard that there were winners and losers in globalization, and that people who promoted it did not do the type of work that could be easily undercut or replicated at a cheaper price abroad, but people who didn't want it were the ones who in manufacturing, or construction, or farming, or any – automaking, these were the people whose jobs could be outsourced or replicated at a cheaper price. So I think his message was, all these people tell you this is good and that is good, but it never applies to them. And that really resonated for some reason this year.
Aaron Renn: You talk about the language and one of the things you do mention is that rural people have a simple, direct language, and Trump resonated with them. And as I was rereading your article today preparing for this, I thought about a video that has been floating around the internet of a woman who is running for chair of the DNC, and in it she went on about a four or five-minute rampage talking about how white people needed to talk less...
Victor Davis Hanson: I saw that, I did.
Aaron Renn: ...say nothing, and just listen to people of color. She said my job is to listen and be a voice and shut other white people down when they want to interrupt. And as I'm watching this I realize of course she doesn't really mean that, because here she is surrounded by people of color, she is a white person, and she won't shut up. She just keeps running her mouth. And there's a certain theatrical element to the way people in these urban progressive circles communicate. You think of that Williamsburg hipster irony, I'm wearing the trucker cap but I'm doing it ironically. There's almost a performance art to it. How do rural people respond when they hear this type of communication?
Victor Davis Hanson: They just get sick of it. So when they hear - I think her name was Brown - when they see something like that, the degree they even watch it or it comes to their attention, they just think she is a hollow person, she is inauthentic, because the logic of her tirade was that she should get out of the race if she feels so bad about being white and there are other minority candidates that need a chance to be heard, then she should just shut up and get out and let them have it by virtue of their race. But see, Trump was saying that these people are inauthentic, they don't really believe that. It's sort of a virtue signaling. So when they tell you they don't believe in water transfers for farming, they do believe in water transfers from Hetch Hetchy to San Francisco for their own water. And when they say - when Barbara Boxer says I am against any more dams, she's not really against dams for Rancho Mirage where she plays golf. Or when people say well, I'm for wind and solar in California, but that's usually people on the coast who live in moderate climates where they don't have big power bills, and on, and on, and on. So I think what has happened over the years is that the media and the elite have created this contempt, this you know, it's just - I don't know what other word there is for it. When you have Jonathan Gruber laughing about deceiving the supposedly stupid American people or Ben Rhodes saying that he created an echo chamber because the reporters even are stupid, and the Colin Kaepernick, or pajama boy, the poster boy for Obamacare, all of these symbols to people outside of the coast that they are ridiculous. They are just people who are hollow. They don't know how to use their hands, they don't live in the real world, they don't have to meet a payroll, they don't live on a minimum wage. And I think the elite white people that do this, in their experience, they hang around mostly with wealthy minorities. And so they think that if because somebody is black or Hispanic and makes $200,000 a year like they do, therefore that person's oppressed. And so even the minorities of Van Jones or the people who are on MSNBC, they have no connection. Whoopi Goldberg - they have no connection with the working classes of any color. And I think Trump bought into that. And so when he talked to black people before and after the election, he deliberately sought out people who didn't sound like wealthy white people, which is what the liberal elite do often. And one other thing, I think he was telling us at least subliminally that white people are a very diverse group. So when minorities keep saying check your privilege and they go on these rants, and white liberal elites go on these rants, it's just sort of an incestuous little, small group but I don't think a Van Jones or I don't think a Juan Williams or any of these people would go out to Dayton, or they would go to North Dakota, or they would go to Bakersfield, and they’d talk the same way to white people as they do to coastal white people. So they're been inured to a certain type of white person who is guilty, who virtue signals constantly, condescending, and they don't like them but they attack them all the time, whereas I think Trump represents other white people who don't have that privilege, and influence, and money, but are much more authentic and they would not tolerate that type of abuse and I think that minorities would appreciate that they didn't. They'd have a greater respect for them because I think we are starting to see that this elite Left movement, wealthy, white, liberal, coastal elite, it's sort of a psychological process that the more signals they can transmit that they are liberal, the more they live these apartheid existences. So the woman that was on the DNC, Ms. Brown, says she is from White, Idaho. She doesn't sound like anybody I know in Idaho. She sounds like California or an East Coast transplant. And she probably is very wealthy, and she is probably not involved in the cattle, or oil, or coal business. And she hangs around with people like herself. But I don't think she'd talk that way if she went into downtown Boise to a cattleman's group and said this about white people. She wouldn't do it. So a lot of these people are opportunistic and they are almost bullies as well.
Aaron Renn: You know I thought that was very interesting, and one of the things about the article that struck me was your very first story you told kind of transcended race, because you contrasted the rural voter that you talk to, the rural person you talk to, with the people in Palo Alto, but the person you talk to in your rural community was Mexican. And you wrote a line in here that really struck me that I want to read. You said, "Trump's success represented more than simply a triumph of rural whites over multiracial urbanites. More ominously for liberals, it also suggested that a growing minority of blacks and Hispanics might be sympathetic with a 'country' mind-set that urban progressive elitism rejects." What do you think of that?
Victor Davis Hanson: Well I think that he's on to something. And because the Democratic liberal movement, progressive movement, has lost the white working class, I mean that's what Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, represent, and Ohio, there's no margin of error now for this Democratic electoral matrix. They have to get Obama-levels of turnout. 94% of blacks who come out to vote have to vote in fashion, and when they don't get that, as Hillary didn't get, they lose these key states. And so what that means, I think, is that Trump, and he's got an animal cunning. He understands that he doesn't have to win 51% of Hispanics or blacks, but he can appeal to them as people and say to them your race is incidental, it's not essential to your character. You're not a hyphenated American. I'm going to make you wealthy, just like I am. I don't care what race you are, and if I get 4% or 5% annual GDP - I don't know if he will or not - but you're going to be a lot better off under me than you are under these condescending liberals who give you crumbs. I'm going to give you real jobs. And whether that message resonates to the majority doesn't matter. All it has to do is pick off a larger percentage of minorities than say Romney got. And he already did that almost. So I think that's why - and the same thing with unions. So he's basically telling the Democratic Party you sacrificed the white working class and you are losing the white vote at 55% or 60%, and you said it didn't matter anymore because it was already over with, in fact 71% of the country is still white. And then the rest of the people you assumed are always going to be Hispanic, Asian. One out of every four Hispanics doesn't marry a Hispanic and one out of three Asians doesn't. And so integration and assimilation, intermarriage, as well as economic change, all of that can peel away from your minority base and it doesn't take much. So I think that's what this paranoia, this fear and hysteria about Trump is, that he's very hard to pin down. He's a mixture of Ross Perot, or Ronald Reagan, and Pat Buchanan all in one. And he appeals to Democratic constituencies in a way that they cannot afford to lose because they've adopted this boutique environmentalism, and identity politics, and they've really put themselves into a corner. I guess they thought that Obama had a new matrix of a new, non-white America that would come out in overwhelming numbers and what they learned is that after, he has basically destroyed the Democratic Party at the state and national level and rendered it a local party in big cities and on the coasts that wasn't transferrable. His formula was not transferrable to anybody but Obama. So he did a lot of damage, claimed success, and then rode off in the sunset and they are dealing with the rubble that he left behind.
Aaron Renn: Well, Victor Davis Hanson, thank you very much.
Victor Davis Hanson: Thank you.