Victor Davis Hanson is surely convinced that the Trump presidency has been, by and large, a good and necessary thing for America. But whether or not a Trump presidency will turn out to be a good thing for one Donald J. Trump is another matter entirely.
The Case for Trump, by Victor Davis Hanson (400 pages, Basic Books, 2019)
Victor Davis Hanson does more than just make his “case for Trump” in this book. In explaining why Donald J. Trump has had a largely successful presidency to date, he also makes a case for the strong likelihood that Mr. Trump will have a less than glorious post-presidency. But Dr. Hanson does even more than that. Published just before the release of the essentials of the Mueller report, Dr. Hanson also inadvertently explains why Donald Trump’s post-presidency is likely to be delayed by four years.
Without being privy to the inner circle of either the Mueller or Trump team, Dr. Hanson somehow managed to divine a truth that the Mueller investigation has finally confirmed, namely the absence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Time will tell if the Mueller report or a subsequent investigation will fully confirm something else that Dr. Hanson believes to be true, namely that candidate Donald Trump was a victim of collusion between the Clinton campaign and Russia.
All signs surely point in this direction. If and when the collusion between and among the Clinton campaign, Russian sources, and the upper reaches of the FBI is finally established in the public mind, the ongoing effort to derail first Mr. Trump’s candidacy and then his presidency will no doubt contribute to giving that presidency a full eight-year run. Here the irony will be particularly bitter for President Trump’s enemies within the Democratic party and the Washington establishment. Seeking to insure a Trump defeat, they failed. Seeking to cripple the Trump presidency, they may well wind up doing worse than failing. They may well find themselves doubling their displeasure by having contributed to President Trump’s re-election come 2020.
In the meantime we have the inimitable Victor Davis Hanson on hand to make a credible case for Mr. Trump quite apart from Democratic shenanigans. A Trump voter, but not a Trump confidante, Dr. Hanson has never met the president. Nor has he ever been offered or sought a post in the Trump Administration. An accomplished historian of ancient history, Dr. Hanson brings that knowledge to bear in these pages. A published scholar of military history, he puts ample knowledge of such, plus recent political history, on display in this book.
To add to his credibility, it seems fair to assume that Dr. Hanson was at best a Trump skeptic when the latter declared his candidacy in June of 2015. While never a Never-Trumper, Dr. Hanson seems to have remained a Trump skeptic for much of the primary season of 2016. (To add credibility to—or subtract it from—this review, the same might be said of yours truly.)
For that matter, more than occasional doses of skepticism have been scattered throughout these pages, as evidenced by Dr. Hanson’s careful choices of cautionary verbs (“may be” and “might”) and qualifying adverbs (“probably” and “possibly”) to make his points (if not his case). He also uses not necessarily complimentary adjectives to capture our “mercurial” president. Clearly, Victor Davis Hanson is something very much other than a Trump cheerleader, which only adds further to his credibility, not to mention solid reasons that pro-Trumpers, anti-Trumpers, and never-Trumpers should all take the time to read his book.
That said, Dr. Hanson may be a judicious and mild-mannered historian, but he has little patience for the remaining never-Trumpers among us. What’s also apparent is that Dr. Hanson, now something other than a thoroughgoing Trump skeptic, will be casting a much more enthusiastic vote for President Trump in 2020 than he did in 2016.
Dr. Hanson is surely convinced that the Trump presidency has been, by and large, a good and necessary thing for America. Whether or not a Trump presidency will turn out to be a good thing for one Donald J. Trump is another matter entirely.
Part of the reason for this dimension of Hansonian skepticism is the refusal of Mr. Trump’s legions of enemies to make their peace with the fact that he is the president. That refusal predated the Mueller investigation, and it will not abate despite the Mueller exoneration.
No doubt another part of the reason has something to do with the Trump persona, which can be, to say the least, off-putting. Even some Trump supporters can sometimes find it off-putting. Even a Trump case-maker by the name of Victor Davis Hanson can be off-putted—or at least occasionally put off.
But Dr. Hanson has come to understand that the Trump persona and Trump policies are all part of a piece. More than that, Dr. Hanson strongly suggests that the persona may even be a necessary part of what Dr. Hanson surely deems to be a necessary and critically important policy agenda.
To be sure, much of that agenda amounts to an overturning of as much of the Obama presidency as Mr. Trump can overturn. But Dr. Hanson’s larger point is that much of the Trump agenda is directed at reversing a course that long predates the Obama years.
What is in President Trump’s sites is the administrative state. First instituted by pre-World War I progressives, it grew significantly during the New Deal before growing exponentially during and since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Richard Nixon was set to devote his second term to taking on this state before he was taken down by Watergate. Ronald Reagan held it at bay, but he did not significantly challenge it, much less seriously damage it. Since then, no president has so much as tried to hold it at bay, preferring instead to add to it with the support of an all-too-deferential Congress.
Enter Donald Trump—and his enemies. Nixon failed, because he handed his enemies the weapons they used to destroy him. President Trump has not committed any comparable Nixonian blunder. But no matter. His enemies will not be going away any time soon.
Dr. Hanson might be excused for thinking that the Trump persona is a blunder all its own. Instead, he seems to conclude that it is a crucial weapon all its own. Of course, it’s impossible to know what would have happened had Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz been the Republican nominee. But Dr. Hanson’s far-from-unreasonable speculation is that only candidate Mr. Trump could have defeated the “eminently defeatable” Hillary Clinton (whose “misdeeds were far worse than her reputation,” while his “reputation was far worse than his misdeeds”). More than that, Dr. Hanson concludes that only President Trump would have taken on the administrative state as he has done.
Of course, there is also the not-so-minor matter of the looming crisis of the entitlement state. President Trump has neither tackled nor challenged this state. And Dr. Hanson does not challenge him for not challenging it.
Still, Dr. Hanson is right to commend President Trump’s actions on a number of fronts, domestic and foreign. After all, the steady growth of deep state progressivism has been “insidious,” a favorite Dr. Hanson adjective, and one that he also deploys to characterize the growing power and isolation of the elite of both major parties. Ironically, it has taken a sometimes “crude,” sometimes “randy,” but always “mercurial” member of that very elite to lead a populist campaign against it.
Dr. Hanson does not shy away from President Trump’s randiness. But unlike the escapades of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton, Mr. Trump managed to confine his dalliances to his pre-presidential years.
Dr. Hanson also reminds us of the ample crudities of President Trump’s enemies, while noting that Mr. Trump’s rhetoric has generally been retaliatory, not preemptory. Even the egregious Trump attack on a “captured” John McCain was a response to the senator’s calling President Trump supporters “crazies.” More than a small sample of the anti-Trump crudity has come from those who favor a shorter short-cut than impeachment to the end of a Trump presidency—namely a quick end to Mr. Trump’s life.
While on the subject of endings, let’s briefly return to Dr. Hanson’s assessment that President Trump’s policies will likely mean better things for the country, but not necessarily for Mr. Trump. The best chapter in the book is titled “Trump, the Tragic Hero?” In it, Dr. Hanson lays bare the “Trump paradox,” which he defines as the unlikely combination of Mr. Trump’s highly unpresidential persona and his very presidential accomplishments, accomplishments that have helped bring about “long overdue changes in foreign and domestic policy.”
Dr. Hanson proceeds to roam through ancient history and modern popular culture in search of unlikely figures who proved to be both heroic and tragic. Why both heroic and tragic? Because both Achilles and Sophocles’ Ajax, not to mention Will Kane (of “High Noon”), knew that the “natural expression of their personas can lead only to their own destruction or ostracism from an advancing civilization that they seek to protect.”
OK, Dr. Hanson may be putting fancy words into the heads of tragic heroes, real and imagined, but the point stands. He then goes on to concede that his chosen heroes did “not necessarily intend to be heroic.” In fact, their actions may well have been self-centered in some way, but in the end each acted for others only to be cast aside when their usefulness was no longer needed.
Dr. Hanson puts it this way: “I doubt that president emeritus Trump will attend many future solemn ceremonial assemblages of ex-presidents.” So, in the end Donald Trump may finally get his comeuppance. If so, given his persona, he more than likely won’t care. And if he does, Victor Davis Hanson will be on hand with a reading list of histories, ancient and modern, that might soothe the soul of someone who probably hasn’t found much time for hitting the books during his pre post-presidential life.
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