Hoover Institution fellow and award-winning historian Victor Davis Hanson joins the Manhattan Institute’s Troy Senik to discuss the presidency of Donald Trump and Hanson’s new book, The Case for Trump.
Hanson argues that our 45th president alone has the instinct and energy to upset the balance of American politics. “We could not survive a series of presidencies as volatile as Trump’s,” he writes, “but after decades of drift, America needs the outsider Trump to do what normal politicians would not and could not do.”
Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Coming up on today's show, our old friend Victor Davis Hanson talks with the Manhattan Institute's VP for Policy, Troy Senik, about Victor's new book on the Presidency of Donald Trump to date. "The Case for Trump," it's called. Victor is a longtime City Journal contributing editor and a fellow at the Hoover Institution and he's setting out to explain how and why, in his view Donald J. Trump was elected president and why his agenda so far has been successful. But before I forget, make sure you visit the Manhattan Institute's homepage to learn more about the Civil Society Awards. Four nonprofits will be awarded $25,000 each for their efforts in tackling problems in their communities. Nominations are closing fast, so if you know of a philanthropic or volunteer group in your area that deserves recognition, make sure you visit manhattan.institute or I should say manhattan-institute.org and find the Civil Society Awards icon on the home page. That's it for me. A conversation between Victor Davis Hanson and Troy Senik begins after this.
Troy Senik: Hello and welcome to 10 Blocks, the official podcast of City Journal. I'm Troy Senik, Vice President of Policy and Programs at the Manhattan Institute. Whether you love him or you hate him, you have to admit this much about the election and subsequent presidency of Donald Trump- it's been one long exercise in defying the odds and upending conventional wisdom about American politics. Whether it was overcoming a field of 16 rivals in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, stitching together a win in the electoral college at a time when most pundits had already declared his candidacy a lost cause, or refusing to be bound by conventional notions of what, in matters of both style and substance, is considered presidential. Donald Trump is an American president unlike any we've ever seen. And for our guest today, Victor Davis Hanson, that's not only a good thing, it's an essential one at this moment in the country's history.
Troy Senik: Professor Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, a contributing editor to City Journal, recipient of the prestigious Bradley Prize and the National Humanities Medal, and the author of, by my count, 16 books on topics ranging from military history to agrarian life to immigration, to classical education. His latest volume now available from Basic Books is "The Case for Trump," and I'm also delighted to note that Professor Hanson is the star of his own podcast, "The Classicist" where I also have the privilege of being his interlocutor. You cannot shake me no matter how hard you try Victor, and let's start with that bibliography I mentioned a moment ago. There is a wealth of material in your back catalog, those 15 previous books I mentioned. What one will not find there, however, is another volume focused on contemporary politics the way that this one is. Which is an interesting datum on its own made all the more interesting by the fact that many of the most prominent Trump boosters out there are people who really emerged onto the scene in just the past few years since the start of this administration. There are far fewer people like you who've been public intellectuals of note for a long time who have been willing to so closely identify with the President and one gets the sense that that's because even amongst those who like a lot of what he's doing, there's a concern that he's so volatile that you put yourself perhaps at, at reputational risk if you tie yourself to him too closely. So why were you as someone who's not really known for books like this one, willing to go public with a volume praising Donald Trump?
VD Hanson: My wife asked me that question, but I think the answer is that I thought I could take a Thucydidean look at how he got elected, autopsy or analysis or a dissection. Why he proved his critics wrong in a sense. I think his economic and foreign policy record's pretty good. And why I think he'll probably be reelected and do it in such a way that I can say that I haven't met him, I haven't been to the White House, I don't want anything, I'm happy out in my farm in the middle of nowhere. And I looked at the books that were coming out and they seem to be either encomia of Trump or "rah-rah he's great," or they were just on hinge, splenic attacks on him and there was not an analysis that tries to, if you make a statement and say, Trump is horrible, he said this, my answer as a historian is okay, what is the standard of past presidents and how do you calibrate them according to social media or the Internet in today's terms? I just give you one example. So people say Trump attacked a gold star- I thought that was out of hand when he did that as a candidate, but Harry Truman attacked a critic of his daughter's concert performance and then he said in his note, I'm going to hit you where your groin is going to be sore for a long time. That was a President of the United States with hand on the button. Or as I mentioned, FDR had Ana, his daughter, as a go between with his mistress Lucy Mercer setting up liaisons in the White House while he was deluding the nation that his blood pressure really wasn't 240 over 150 and he would be dead in about nine months.
VD Hanson: Imagine all the hysteria about Trump's health if he had tried something. My point is not, you know, you do it too, but where did we suddenly get this idea that the President is Pope and given the people who've been Presidents what we want, I mean, I don't think when George Patton was barreling toward the Rhine or when LeMay was put in charge of the bombing campaign, we asked them, do they swear? Are they nice people? Maybe after. Nobody asked Shane or you know, the Magnificent Seven about their methods until they're finished and then maybe you think, wow, I can't believe I ever hired those people. That's kind of what Trump is looking at, I think.
Troy Senik: The first section of your book is titled "What and Who created Donald Trump." That is a question I think it's fair to say that a big part of the commentary has spent the better part of the last three years trying to answer. How do you think about it?
VD Hanson: I think there's three or four catalysts for Trump. One of course was globalization and it was centered on the premise that anybody who had labor that could be replicated more cheaply abroad lost out. So often farmers or lathe workers or manufacturing workers, anybody who had expertise that could not, high tech people like ourselves and the intellectual capital, business media, then they had a new audience of 7 billion people and they made out like bandits. And that we created this wrong exegesis that it was somehow because we were morally superior people or we were fated to be winners and these guys were opiate heads and we reverse cause and effect. If they were opiate heads or they were losers or they were angry, it's because the industrial sector of the country was hollowed out, not because the industry fled because these were not good workers or good people. That was one and then the second was on the left, they had pounded into our brains that the new demography that took the white so called white population from 90 to 70 was a purist racialist idea that people didn't intermarry, assimilate, which is untrue. Sort of like the 1/16th law and old confederacy that we were, these set rigid racial categories and the white population was doomed and they took it a step further that it should be doomed. That white supremacy, white privilege or not having children just go and that they had no idea how that was playing to people who unfortunately for them, we're not in California or Texas whose electoral votes were predictable but in swing states. And then finally, the Republican party had lost 5 out of the last 6 elections in terms of the popular vote. And it hadn't won 51% of a vote since George H. W. Bush in '88 while he had been very successful at the local level.
VD Hanson: So there was something in the Republican Party message that was not appealing to this new electoral calculus. And I think it was something like, we are so tired of Mitt Romney saying that not rising up in furor at Candy Crowley when she hijacked that second debate or when in a very sanctimonious manner, the late John Mccain said, I will not mention Jeremiah Wright who was a legitimate campaign issue. And so people felt, you know, I don't want to play by the Marquess of Queensberry rules. I'm not a racist. I want some, I want to cut this leash and let Trump loose. And if he, if he takes me down, it was almost a Samson and Delilah. I'll take the temple down with me. But they were angry and they wanted not just the message, but the particular messenger.
Troy Senik: If one goes back to President Trump's inaugural address, the phrase that seems to have most endured from those remarks is when he referred to "American carnage" and we've largely forgotten what that was in reference to. There are four things that he's putting under that heading in the speech, inner city poverty, deindustrialization, failing education system, and what we might call public order crimes, drugs, gangs, et cetera. The President received a lot of criticism both in that moment and subsequently from people saying that he was painting too grim a picture of American life and that this narrative of national decline was overwrought. How do you parry with that argument?
VD Hanson: Well, I live in an area that I just saw a shoot-out between the Norteños and Sureños gang and when someone finds a dead body in their orchard, it changes their attitude. So there's whole swaths of southwestern America that have been radically changed by illegal immigration. To take one example, I teach at Hillsdale for a month during my vacation and anybody who rides a bicycle for 30 or 40 miles through southern Michigan and northern Ohio can see that um, example of carnage, industrial carnage. And what I think got people angry were not just these carnages, if I could use that awkward term, but the attitude of people toward them and so what I mean by that is, well, we at Stanford don't know anything about it. We in Chicago might not know anything down there about it. We in Boston might not know anything in western Pennsylvania. We in Washington don't really know what's going on in Appalachia, but these we are going to virtue signal and we're going to condemn these people as bigots and, and blinkered and MAGA hat people. And it was kind of a psychological mechanism where they squared their own the circle of their own privilege by saying that guy in Bakersfield, these, these are deplorables, they're clingers, irredeemables and I think John Mccain called them crazy and they're not like me, a progressive white liberal or a white, conservative Bushite. And people, they had no idea that that message and I quoted in the book maybe 15 or 20 without editorialization, I just quoted them and these were mostly Republicans, what they said about the working white class. Swap them out with illegal aliens, they're failing, why do we want people like that in the country, the Duck dynasty sort of rubric. And I don't think they had any idea what those people thought of the establishment elites. And they were shocked when after all the venom that they had expressed toward this rubric that this rubric might just be tired of them. And when I would go places where I live, I could see very that they, people that were wanting and these were even Hispanic working class people were sick of it. And so I wasn't surprised that he was, that he won. I thought he would probably win
Troy Senik: Even amongst many people who are Trump supporters, there's often a discomfort with the, the rhetoric. It's impossible to mix and conservative circles and not here ad nauseum, some version of, "I agree with some of the things he's doing, but I can't stomach the language. I can't stomach the coarseness." You dedicate an entire chapter to this in your book. How should we think about the valence of Trump's rhetorical style?
VD Hanson: Well, as I mentioned earlier, I tried to deal with this analytically and it bothers me as well. I didn't like when he went after John Mccain's military service. I don't like it when he went after Carly Fiorina's looks. And so, but I tried to suggest that you're not voting, in the history of leadership, you're not voting for a person's entire ethical calculus and that ethics is a complex idea. So was it more ethical or more moral, I wish we could have people in their personal comportment and in the effect of their policies that are moral. But we don't get that chance in this life, not always. So when, when Donald Trump crafts an economic policy or he discourages the illegal immigration, when I drive two miles from my house, they're building a United Health Care building, which nobody's been building anything in my hometown and all of a sudden I talked to Hispanic workers and they tell me they're being pulled off the job by other employers who are bidding for their services. And if you see them describe what they're talking about, they think they're in the driver's seat and they say things that are blasphemous. There's no illegal aliens now trying to get off books cash. That's an ethical act. When he gets African American unemployment down below historical levels, that's an ethical act. When he tells somebody, you know, you're not going to die in Afghanistan if we don't know what the strategic objective, that's an ethical act and in my hierarchy of ethical acts, that's a little bit higher than a sober and judicious person who doesn't do anything about those problems. So that's what sort of bothered me with the, I think I called them the Marquess of Queensberry rules Republicans and they wanted to loose nobly rather than to win ugly. And they haven't wanted to win ugly, whether we like it or not, since Lee Atwater ran a slash and burn Boston Harbor Willy Horton campaign for George H.W. Bush and then in tragic hero fashion, you know, as soon as he won that, he was ill after that. But they sort of said, I can't believe that we brought in Lee Atwater because he's so crass. He was sort of a Trumpian figure, but he did the job and then people thought, wow. I think Curtis Lemay, said after the war's over, "if we lose, they're going to try me as a war criminal, if they don't try me as a war criminal, they're going to," and sure enough, they made Doctor Strangelove to caricature. And he ended up very badly, but boy in 1945 if he didn't have Curtis Lemay, a million people were going to get killed trying to fight that war.
Troy Senik: One can already see a merging of a very specific line of criticism of this book from people who like Victor Davis Hanson and are perhaps a bit more skeptical about Donald Trump and it runs roughly as follows. Victor Davis Hanson, who has a PhD from Stanford, who started the classics department at Fresno State, who has the national humanities medal. He is sufficiently lettered that he can put a historical philosophical, ideological scaffolding around Donald Trump, but he's trying to read order into chaos. Donald Trump operates on a combination of animal instinct and spleen and to imagine it's in the surface of some higher cause is simply to overread him. What's your reaction to that critique?
VD Hanson: Well, I mean what you said about me is probably true, but if you had met me at the age of 31, 29, 27 I was farming 200 acres and losing a lot of money and I had a couple of brothers and I had an alcoholic father and we were all trying to survive. And then for the next 20 years I would go up and teach Greek and Latin and be with intellectuals and then drive home at 70 miles an hour and get on HCM, I mean a FMC spray rig and spray diazinon all night. So I don't think I'm in exalted company as I might seem, so, I had a lot of empathy for people. I never really fit. In other words, I live in a community where the per capita income is $16,000 and I teach where it's $130,000 and it's, it's a schizophrenic experience. I've tried, I wrote this. The second thing is I wrote two books on agriculture "Fields without Dreams" and "Letters from an American farmer." And I wrote a book on academia "Who killed Homer" and they were kind of suicidal books in the sense that after I wrote, "Who killed Homer," it was an indictment of conferences and this elite classists who didn't want to teach undergraduate, especially minority undergraduates, classics. I was pretty much persona non grata in classics. I still am. And then when farming, I wrote a really diatribe. I don't think it was a diatribe, but that's what it was called, about corporate farming. It was at the time when corporate farming was taking over California. So still today, if I see a corporate farmer, they are pretty critical. If I see an academic classist, he doesn't want to. So I've never really been part of the establishment and I kind of made it a goal that if I was invited to a media group to the Trump White House, I didn't go. I've never met him. I didn't want a job. If people called me from the White House, i didn't really talk. So I could say that I wanted to have an analytical distance from it. I had a lot of weak titles for the book, "A case for Trump," maybe it was the strongest, but "Then came Trump" or "An Analysis of Trump" and my editor at Basic Book Lara Heimert, I think is probably, you could call her classical, democratic liberal, made the argument, you're making a analytical case for something, you're not enthusiastically or angry or hyperbolic about him, so I'm just going to have "A Case for Trump" with no subtitle and it gets to the essence. And I was, I resisted that because I thought, well, this is a special pleading for Trump, which it isn't, it's an analysis. But I have a great, since the book was finished, I have more of a respect than I did during the book because something about being able to get up every morning, five or six hours sleep at 72 not necessarily at the paragon of physical fitness or proper diet, and then have people for the next 16 hours attack your successful economic program or your foreign policy or people on your side reversed their positions because you're associated with them now or attack your wife. You know, I won't mention names, but I mentioned I think in the book a prominent never Trumper said, we know Melania hasn't been seen, it's probably because Trump beat his wife and that's a federal offense so he doesn't want her out or it'd be-that kind of stuff all day long. I know that I couldn't do it and I admire people that can. He doesn't give up. He's a of nature. He just keeps at it and I don't know how this is going to end. I am suspicious that it's going to end in a, as I say in the book, in really happy story book ending, but I give a lot of credit to people who do that.
Troy Senik: You mentioned Afghanistan earlier. A lot of our listeners will know you as a long time observer of foreign affairs and a lot of the sorts of pundits who generally share your precepts on such issues have been wary, is probably the most charitable way to put it about the Trump administration. And you sort of saw that compounded with the resignation of Secretary Madison a few months ago. As somebody who is broadly in line with the first principles of a lot of the people making, making that case, um, but has written this book, how much of attention do you perceive there?
VD Hanson: Well, I stated publicly I was critical of getting out abruptly from Iraq of Obama and I was also, I thought that Trump was mistaken to yank all but 250 or 300, whatever it is. But I also was critical of going into Libya. I'm on record of that. I was critical of Obama, the red lines in Syria. And here's why. I was a supporter after 9/11 of going into Iraq to punish Saddam Hussein and stabilize the country. But I noticed something that a lot of the people who were not just for that position, but had been strong proponents during the Clinton administration, the Project for the New American, they wanted a preemptive war before 9/11, which I thought was crazy, but I noticed that some of the most zealous people, they had this attitude that my three week brilliant victory was ruined by these other peoples' three year terrible. So I went over and was embedded twice in Iraq and I saw all these working class kids and then I juxtapose all the architects that were, that were trying to somehow rationalize their support and weren't supporting them. And I remember Matthew Ridgway's aphorism, there's only one thing worse than being in a bad war and that's losing it. So my attitude was whether you like it or not your empathies are with these guys in Iraq, you supported it. You've got to be with them. You got to go over there. You've got to see what it's like. You've got to keep supporting them no matter what. You can offer helpful criticism, but don't, don't ever renege on that because you and people like you got them over there. But I saw all these people that I had such respect for. There was a vanity fair, I don't know if you remember that whole issue of pro-Iraq war people that had flipped and they were blaming, blaming everybody for the policies that they had so adamantly proposed. So I had it, the Obama administration, I said, I don't think we should intervene anymore, but I do think I'm not an isolationist. I'm basically a proponent of the post war order and Trump is having, I think until the advent of Bolton, I liked HR McMaster, he did a good job as well. But until the advent of Pompeo, especially, nobody had been able to square the circle of wanting to not fight optional wars and engagements overseas versus a global goal of the United States to deter bad people and bad nations. And those are somewhat incompatible because you do need bases and forward deployments. And Trump is learning that now he's for a big defense budget and he's trying to, I think Pompeo was trying to say, it's "don't tread on me," Jacksonian, we will hit you with what you won't believe, if you attack us. We have to make that clear. The Straits of Hormuz, you haze an American carrier like you did in the Obama administration, we're going to go after your air base, but we're not going to insert troops in Lebanon and try to build a democracy in Beirut. So I think that's what they're trying to do now. But there is an intrinsic contradiction in the way that Trump campaigned on his foreign policy that are being ironed out, I think.
Troy Senik: I'll have you close by completing a sentence for me. Donald Trump will ultimately be judged a successful president if...
VD Hanson: He will be judged as a successful president, if he can maintain, in his case, he has no fallback position, if he has a successful economy and he avoids a major war and his, there's not, a Clinton like scandal that he won't survive. By Clinton-like scandal. I mean if there is a sexual escapade while he's president in the Oval Office or if he's, something like Iran Contra with Reagan that will sink him. But otherwise I think he has a good chance. The more interesting maybe other question is, will he be recognized as a successful President? And I think that you won't see him at funerals of post-Presidents that attend. I don't think he'll get credit. And I mentioned that in the book that he's kind of like John Wayne in The Searchers when he opens that door and walks out, only he could have found Natalie Wood and brought her back. But he was so gruff and crude in the process that they wanted him gone just as much as they wanted him joining them in the first place. So Trump is, Kissinger said that every once in a while person comes along that's a disruptor and there's some good to that and I think he was being magnanimous. I see it, at the Hoover institution and a lot of places that the once taboo statement that China's a "serial cheater." "It's, it's trying to form a greater east Asia Co prosperity sphere along the lines of Japanese," now that's doctrinaire and that's because of Trump's loud anti-Chinese bombast. So more sober and judicious people at the Council on Foreign Felations or Bookings are now writing things that only Trump would have dared say two years ago.
Troy Senik: Don't forget to pick up a copy of Victor Davis Hanson's new book, "The case for Trump." We'll link to it on the podcast page, but you can find it on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @VDHanson and follow City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal. Lastly, if you like what you hear on the show, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. Thanks for listening and thanks Victor for joining us.
VD Hanson: Thank you for having me.
Brian Anderson: Thanks for joining us for the weekly 10 Blocks podcast featuring Urban Policy and Cultural commentary with City Journal Editors, contributors, and special guests.