Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series on the Trump presidency, featuring an interview with Victor Davis Hanson, author of the new book, The Case for Trump.
Ever since President Trump arrived on the political stage with shock and awe almost four years ago, reactions have been wildly divergent. Everyone seems to either love or hate the 45th president, but both support and opposition to Trump has been largely personal, emotional, or political. What has been mostly missing is a comprehensive assessment of the intellectual foundation for the policies and vision of the Trump presidency.
But one man has bravely gone where few others dare to tread.
Victor Davis Hanson, classicist, military historian, columnist, and author of more than two dozen books, has been renowned for his brilliant writing as a public intellectual. And in his new book, The Case for Trump, he has endeavored to pull together the various strands of Trump and his administration into a cogent and dispassionate examination of the subject. The fact that his book has risen to number two on the New York Times Bestseller list, and that he has been repeatedly attacked by leftists and Never Trumpers since its publication, signals that his arguments are hitting home, and he spoke with LN about it.
Tim Donner: With a man as mercurial and instinctual as President Trump, how hard was it to pull all the pieces together and assemble a coherent volume on his political philosophy, especially considering the wild ride that’s been the first two plus years of his presidency?
Victor Davis Hanson: It’s very difficult. I’ve tried to start out with the idea I wasn’t going to make Trump a saint or sinner. I just want to analyze, to the degree I could, his route to victory, which was very improbable, then the actual achievements once he was in office. But, as you state, there were a lot of problems. One is that everything seems to change each week, so what you try to do is analyze in the long term, what is his long-term plan … If everything is as it’s going now, what would be likely to happen in the future? Or try to be dispassionate so you don’t get in this 24-hour rollercoaster that this tweet today was great and a tweet yesterday was stupid, but see a pattern there so that the book will have some resonance in two, three, or four years.
Then you’ve gotta be very careful because what people say about Trump is not necessarily accurate. I mentioned in the book, I mean, CNN told us he took out Martin Luther King’s bust right away from the Oval Office. We were told that he’d met in Trump Tower with Russian operatives, that he’s suborn to perjury from Michael Cohen. You have got to be very careful when you read accounts like that.
Then finally, as a historian, I’ve never written on a contemporary political figure, much less a President, but I understood, given Trump’s controversies and the people who are so invested in aborting this presidency, that there would be a lot of passion. But I didn’t quite think I’d be called a Nazi in service to a Hitler-like figure or people would say that you were sloppy or inaccurate then when you see what they say, they don’t quote what you actually wrote or it would refute those charges, or they call you for magazine articles and try to ambush you and say, “We love the book. Hey, by the way, I’m recording this.” Then what they print has nothing to do with the transcript.
So there’s a level of vituperation and anger at Trump that it’s almost as if the noble end justifies any means possible to accomplish it. So that was kind of new for me to have this everyday – wake up and some guy’s calling you a Nazi or some person says you’re a hack or you want a job in the White House or something like that. Attack the messenger rather than the message.
Tim: Well, one enduring question about Donald Trump and his presidency is whether there’s a method to his madness. Now, having covered this and done all the investigative journalism that you did to come up with his book, The Case For Trump, do you find that he’s more a guy who strictly goes on instinct and he’s just kind of freelancing it out there or is he more calculated than people think? Does he have a grand plan?
Victor Davis Hanson: I think he does, but he’s not playing four-dimensional chess, as some of the supporters allege, nor is he a complete amateur just ad hocking it all the way through. I think he has a general vision that China was not destined for world hegemony, that even though they have three times the population of ours, one American produces three times the good and services as one Chinese citizen. And that’s pretty impressive on our part. So there was a confidence that he could deal in a different way with Chinese mercantilism. It wasn’t fated. He really had an instinct that you cannot have a solvent country with an open border and 15 or so million people living here illegally and coming in at that rate. He had an idea that just don’t write off half the country between the two coasts and say, “Well, they’re all on opioids, or all de-industrialized, or in a globalized world they’re not competitive.” You can’t do that and have a country.
Then I think he also had an idea that Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, that we have not been translating tactical victories into long-term strategic advantage, at least in a cost benefit analysis, and that we need to be much more careful and build up our defenses but be more retaliatory than preemptive. That was sort of a message that not only was new, but it was also imprinted on the traditional conservative message of low taxes, deregulation, strong defense, good judges, strict constructionist judges. But it was also geared, in addition, to the key swing states.
He understood in a way that no one else apparently did, Hillary Clinton especially, that the election was going to be decided in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, and was going to be decided by a few thousand votes, that these democratic constituencies could either be flipped or more voters could come into the voting process that had stayed home for McCain and Romney. That took a degree of not just cunning and instinct, but imagination that I think he never got credit for.
In part two of this series, Victor Davis Hanson discusses whether Trump would have beaten a Democrat other than Hillary Clinton, and how the Republican establishment and Never Trumpers have adjusted to life in the Swamp in the Donald Trump era.