Regarding President Donald J. Trump no one is neutral. Most that I have read about him is highly critical. Victor Davis Hanson, in contrast, aims to be fair. Given that 90 percent of media coverage of Trump has been negative, while a small minority of coverage plus a massive social media following is slavishly devoted, a balanced judgement is exceedingly rare. Trump moderates, in fact, tend to be reviled and shunned by both sides. So if you read only one book on the current president, this would be a good choice. The author is an esteemed classicist and military historian. References to Thucydides and Demosthenes come easily; he is unsurprised by the pervasiveness of conflict in human affairs. Hanson takes nearly 400 pages to make The Case for Trump: he explains how and why the president surprised his critics by winning, and why in spite of them and his own pugnacious personality Trump has achieved some remarkable domestic and foreign policy successes.
The book covers the period from July 2015, when Trump announced his candidacy, to the fall of 2018, a little over three years. Hanson examines in succession: the divided America in which Trump found himself and how he managed that division to his benefit by aiming to reverse the polarized legacy of Obama; the anemic alternatives among Republicans and the leftward march of Democrats that provided him with so many opportunities; the meaning of Trump’s MAGA alternative; and the achievements and failures of the Trump presidency to date.
Trump has been greatly aided by the incompetence of his opponents in both parties. Obama’s progressivism eviscerated a centrist Democrat party. Clinton’s only serious rival in the 2016 primaries was Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist. Clinton tried to outflank Sanders on the left by running as an updated female Obama. This was identity politics at its finest. Its only downside was that, by ignoring the common condition of human beings as individuals, identity politics must also ignore the real effects on American electors of ethnic intermarriage, integration, and assimilation (something Hanson has written about frequently as a columnist). Using such recondite jargon as “intersectionality” made matters worse, not better. The losers never understood what has happened in their country. This is why, after the election, Democrats concluded they had not been progressive enough. The problem, unfortunately for them, is that the logic of progressivism makes yesterday’s progressive passé today. Thus do progressives, like Chronos and the French revolutionaries, devour their children. Mrs. Clinton certainly never got that. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke have yet to discover it.
Let’s start with the obvious. Trump’s opponents have loudly voiced their own toxic attitudes regarding his supporters, the “basket of deplorables” as Hillary Clinton called them. Such language indicates not just that those who use it hate and despise Trump, but that they thought those who supported him – nearly half the country in 2016 – were even more disgusting. Because he never apologized, explained, or contextualized – his notorious transactionalism – no one, supporter or opponent, could know whether Trump was a clumsy buffoon and a demagogue, or a subtle multidimensional master strategist. Political philosophy provides some perspective: Machiavelli counselled a new prince to “colour” his actions and become a self-conscious fox. In the example of Trump, this suggests the ambiguity about him is calculated and thus a clear index of what Trump really is, which does not include a buffoon.
There was a curious symmetry to the two candidates in 2016. Both were surrounded by scandals. On the one side were public-sector scandals of Whitewater, impossibly profitable speculation in cattle-futures, the demonization of Bill Clinton’s sexual liaisons, the finances of the Clinton Foundation, Benghazi, Uranium One (headquartered in Toronto), the use of a private email server to exchange classified information while holding office as Secretary of State, the hiring of Christopher Steele to compile a fictional attack dossier on Trump, and especially the suspicion that Clinton had successfully monetized her position as First Lady and would do so again as president. On the other side, Trump had been bankrupt many times, his products were often shoddy, his litigation endless, his sexual scandals creepy, his language coarse and often nasty. This “tawdriness” was regrettable, in Hanson’s view, but at least Trump had not yet abused the public trust while in office. Critics smirked that this was only because he had never held office.
Hanson’s sketch of their differences is brilliant:
Physically, Trump’s bulk fueled a monstrous energy; Hillary’s girth sapped her strength. The reckless Trump did not drink; the careful Hillary freely did so. Hillary’s “good-taste” carefully tailored suits and tastefully coifed 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. Trump could certainly be cruel to individuals, but he was kind to the public. Clinton was kind to her particular friends, but cruel to people.
As the consequences of this complex calculus, in November 2016 American voters, mediated by their Constitution (and most notably by the Electoral College) and the concentration of Trump’s opponents on the two populous coasts, chose an authentic bad boy from the private sector over a disingenuous good girl from the public sector.
Hanson’s central chapter, “The Ancien Régime,” focuses on Trump’s relationship with the administrative apparatus, the bureaucracy, and more broadly, the much-decried “Deep State.” The term encompassed the Democrats, the leadership of his own party, and the mainstream media, which he assimilated into an unprepossessing image: the Swamp. Trump then promised to drain it. Anyone seeking to drain a swamp is undertaking a filthy, filthy business. How could it be otherwise? In less imaginative language, Trump sought regime change, the introduction of new modes and orders that, as Machiavelli also pointed out, is the most difficult thing a new prince can do.
Regime change is a perennial topic in political philosophy and a perennial possibility in political reality. Not just Machiavelli but two first-rate contemporary political thinkers have provided reflections of such depth as to indicate that dismissing Trump as a “populist” or any other kind of political lightweight is completely untenable. It was one of the things discussed as part of the most interesting scholarly debate of the last century, when Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojève criticized one another’s interpretation of a dialogue by Xenophon, Hiero, or On Tyranny. Kojève’s term for the Deep State, based on an extensive and controversial analysis of Hegel, was the universal and homogeneous state. It referred to the final form of European political order established by Napoleon and enshrined in his famous Code. In Kojève’s Europe (he helped establish what became the EU), it was the rule by competent, meritorious and serious bureaucrats. In Trump’s America, writes Hanson, it is the IRS, law-making judges, the intelligence “community,” including the FBI and DOJ, the boundless alphabet soup of virtually autonomous, rule-making regulatory agencies and social welfare administrations. This contemporary descendant of President Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” was recruited from, and supported by, Wall Street, major New York and Washington law firms, Ivy League faculties, and East Coast think-tanks.
As seen in its own image, the Deep State served the country as custodians of a civil service that transcended party-based administrations. In reality, it delivered what Strauss called the “hideous prospect” of bureaucratic struggle and “political assassination in the particularly sordid form of the palace revolution.” The rule of rules, including secret ones, not duly enacted laws, was a bureaucratic tyranny that was immune, as Hannah Arendt once noted, to the desperate measure of tyrannicide. The tyrant, at least, may be killed, but the bureaucratic state endures.
And “then the disrupter Trump crashed in,” writes Hanson. Looking to what Trump has tried to do and, in some notable instances, actually done, consider first domestic policy: on tax reform and the extensive reduction of the American regulatory burden both critics and supporters agree that by the summer of 2018 his changes have helped bring about an economy performing at a level not seen before in the 21st century. Nowhere is this more evident than in the energy industry – where American success contrasts so dramatically with Canadian failure. His nominations to the courts have been superb and hold the promise of returning the U.S. Supreme Court and the lower courts to their proper and constitutional adjudicative purposes rather than usurping elected legislators’ responsibility to make and amend laws.
On Trumpian foreign policy, which Hanson calls “principled realism” (defined as acting when it is likely that America could effect changes and that such change will be in its national interest), the president’s success has been amazing. On NATO Trump has relentlessly and effectively badgered America’s free-riding allies, including Canada, to up their contributions, where his predecessors merely and ineffectually cajoled; on Russia he has accomplished a genuine “reset,” a big change from the fruitless 2009 photo-op between Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Lavrov; with China Trump has made a serious response to the predatory economic and trade policies of a serial cheater and intellectual property thief; on North Korea and the threat of nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia, he has made promising progress by abandoning a policy of proven and relentless failure; he has also abandoned the endless and useless wars of choice in the greater Middle East; he has restored sanctions on Iran rather than appease the Iranians, which would again increase the risk of nuclear proliferation and state-sponsored terrorism.
In the face of all these successes, it is only the immediate beneficiaries of the Deep State, and certainly not most citizens of the United States, who could render a blanket unfavourable appraisal of his policies. And, of course, they have.
As an aside, Canadians have their own even more insidious version of the Deep State to contend with. The recent testimony of the just-resigned Clerk of the Privy Council exposed to us all the serious and competent face of the universal and homogeneous state in this country. Michael Wernick and Robert Mueller might have been joined at the hip.
The interaction of Trump’s character with the necessities of contemporary politics, according to Hanson, have made him a “tragic hero.” The author is well aware that such a notion “may appall half the country.” And yet, the role may reconcile Trump’s personal excesses and his non-traditional behaviour with an undoubted success in bringing long-overdue changes to American politics.
Hanson’s examples of tragic heroes are drawn from classical Greece (Achilles, Antigone, Ajax), from westerns (Shane, the Magnificent Seven), and from recent military leaders (George Patton, Curtis LeMay). Trump belongs among them because they all knew that the natural expression of their personalities would, regardless of how much they achieved or how useful they proved to be, lead to their ostracism from the country or the tradition or the civilization they were trying to protect. In a world of bad and worse choices there is no solution, no happy ending.
So, do not expect Trump to stop tweeting and feuding. “Such overbearing made Trump, for good or evil, what he is,” Hanson writes. And don’t expect an emeritus President Trump to attend those dignified but tedious assemblies of ex-presidents. In sum, given the direction of the United States over the previous 16 years, “half the country, the proverbial townspeople of the western, wanted some outsider, even with a dubious past, to ride in and do things that most normal politicians not only would not, but could not do – before exiting stage left or riding wounded off into the sunset, to the relief of most and the regret of a few.”
There have been failures. The unbuilt wall along the border with Mexico has been a setback largely because neither the right nor the left in the United States has supported effective border security and immigration control. The left supports illegal immigrants because they turn into non-citizen voters favourable to them; the right because illegals supply cheap labour. Nor has he been able to repeal and replace Obama’s inconsistent and indeed, incoherent, Affordable Care Act. Here the major obstacle seems to be the Democrats in Congress, as expected, but also the Congressional Republican Party, and especially its senior leadership – further evidence that Trump’s “insurrection” is aimed at regime change, not a Republican renaissance. Trump’s greatest failure is that, to date, he has been unable to translate his redeemed election promises into higher approval ratings. “Rarely,” Hanson observes, “had a president proved so successful in policy and yet so disliked in person.”
To the extent, a very large extent, that Trump has succeeded, it is because his message has been simple: what cannot be fixed can be dismantled. In this respect he exemplifies the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson’s remarks to James Madison that served as an epigraph to this piece. Trump is a very American phenomenon. Canadians should count themselves doubly blessed if ever we find our own version of a genuine disrupter.
Barry Cooper is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary. His latest book is Consciousness and Politics (2018).