THE CASE FOR TRUMP
By Victor Davis Hanson
I had expected that “The Case for Trump” would be an argument for why Donald Trump has been a good president, but it’s mostly about why Trump won in 2016, and its analysis, based on old polling and news clips, is interminable, marred by some cable-news-style exaggeration (Trump’s election foes are repeatedly characterized as being for “open borders”) and not particularly original. Victor Davis Hanson does, however, explain in passing and in the book’s concluding two chapters why he thinks Trump has been a good president, and this argument has some genuine merit and originality.
In his preface, Hanson quotes approvingly Henry Kissinger’s judgment of Trump: “I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretense.” That is true of Trump, as it was of Kissinger’s boss, Richard Nixon. Trump took office at a time when the early promise of globalization had foundered; when the purpose of the American alliance system was in doubt; when glowing projections of liberal democracy in Russia and China had proved dead wrong; and when America was mired in unwinnable wars.
He spoke to these challenges in his campaign. His language was brutal, crude and sometimes racist or xenophobic, but in contrast to some of his opponents, he acknowledged the loss of more than two million manufacturing jobs to Chinese competition, the propensity of American companies to move abroad in search of lower wages and the continued difficulty of policing the country’s southern border. But the question is: What as president has he done about these things?
Hanson, who is a retired classics professor and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, compares Trump to a tragic hero, who, crippled by “an innate flaw,” suffers a sorry end, but in the meantime does incredible good. Hanson acknowledges Trump’s “tweeting … feuding … unbridled and often vicious speech, even his fast and loose relationship with the truth.” He writes that “Trump likely will end in one of two fashions, both not particularly good: either spectacular but unacknowledged accomplishments followed by ostracism when he is out of office and no longer useful, or, less likely, a single term due to the eventual embarrassment of his beneficiaries, as if his utility is no longer worth the wages of his perceived crudity.”
In line with the first of these alternatives, Hanson believes that what Trump “accomplished in his first 20 months in office was undeniably impressive.” Hanson credits Trump with ramping up the economy and lowering unemployment through tax cuts and deregulation. He praises Trump for forcing China and Europe into trade negotiations, pulling out of the Paris climate change and Iran nuclear agreements, moving the American embassy to Jerusalem (“Trump blew up the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock”) and “squeezing” North Korea through sanctions. “It was hard to see,” Hanson writes, “how U.S. relations with key allies or deterrent stances against enemies were not improved since the years of the Obama administration, at least in the sense that there was no more naïve Russian reset.”
Except for detailing Trump’s success in boosting the economy, Hanson does not argue these points against obvious objections. Pulling out of Paris? Hanson at one point describes global warming as an “apparition,” but he cites no scientific evidence for this or any justification for abandoning international agreements to limit carbon emissions. Improved relations with allies? What about our European allies? Or Canada? As for the Iran deal, he claims that “most experts had known that the Obama-led Iran deal was unworkable and thus unsustainable,” but by my count the most prominent thought otherwise. I am not saying that Trump did nothing that was impressive — he has definitely gone beyond his predecessors in contesting China’s trade practices — but that many of the things Hanson cites as “undeniably impressive” need justification, at least if Hanson intended his book to be read by people who don’t already agree with its bald assertions.
Like other political analysts, Hanson portrays the 2016 election as a contest between “two Americas” — an affluent coastal elite and a hinterland that had been flattened by globalization as “jobs and commerce were outsourced to lower-cost Asia and Latin America.” Trump was the voice of the hinterland. The “insidious decline of the Rust Belt by 2016 was the embryo of Donald Trump’s candidacy.” Of course, Trump also attracted conventional Republicans in Kansas or Arizona who simply saw him as preferable to Hillary Clinton, but the blue-collar voters in states like Wisconsin that had previously gone Democratic were the key to his victory. They liked what he said about trade and immigration and his defiance of political correctness. “Trump’s own uncouthness,” Hanson writes, “was in its own manner contextualized by his supporters as a long overdue pushback to the elite disdain and indeed hatred shown them.”
Most of Hanson’s book was written before the 2018 election and does not seem to have been substantially revised in the light of the Republican defeats. He predicts that the Midwest, where Democrats did pretty well in 2018, “is insidiously becoming another red-state South.” In his epilogue, based on early estimates, Hanson discounts the 2018 results, writing that the Democrats “in strictly statistical terms had done historically not all that much better than most opposition parties in a president’s first term.” But since 1946, the average loss of the presidential party has been 25 not 40 seats, and in most of these instances, the economy was not booming. In 1998, when it was booming, Bill Clinton’s Democrats gained five seats. That suggests that of the two alternatives Hanson offers, the one that he deems the less likely, “a single term due to the eventual embarrassment of his beneficiaries,” may prove to be his tragic hero’s fate.