The President vs. the pundits
“If Trump is so flawed, if a man so wrong ends up being proved right on so many issues, should we not question how it is that we have formed our opinions in the first place?”
“About Trump, no one is neutral, no one calm,” acknowledges Victor Davis Hanson. Everyone, it seems, has not only a strong opinion about the current US President, but in much of Britain and Europe, an overwhelmingly negative one.
I expected Hanson’s The Case for Trump to be a vigorous counterblast against all that. I imagined that I would be reading a strident, unapologetic defence of the Trump presidency.
But what Hanson has produced is no hagiography. He does not hold back in describing Trump as “vulgar, uncouth, divisive”. Hanson, who has never met Trump and has no ties to the White House, is disarmingly frank and honest about some of his subject’s evident character flaws.
Far from glossing over many of the more excruciating episodes in Trump’s career Hanson is painfully open about them — the crude name-calling, the locker-room coarseness, the displays of petulance, the egotism and erratic decision-making.
Yet in doing all this, what Hanson ends up producing is a far stronger defence of Trump than I ever imagined possible. If Trump is so flawed, this book seems to say, what does it say about the state of everyone else in US politics that he won? If a man so wrong ends up being proved right on so many issues, should we not question how it is that we have formed some of our more orthodox opinions in the first place?
By any objective measure, Trump’s story should be seen as remarkable: a celebrity businessman, with zero previous political experience, managed to defeat 16 rival candidates to become the Republican candidate. Having done so, he went on to beat Hillary Clinton in the race to the White House, in which he defied conventional wisdom (Hanson reminds us how, on the eve of his election, the Princeton Election Consortium suggested that he had a 1 per cent chance of winning).
Hanson offers us an opportunity to try to understand Trump, and explain how and why almost 63 million Americans voted to make him President. In doing so, Hanson’s book is at times less about Trump than about the rotten state of the US political establishment against which he ran.
It’s not Trump that Hanson ultimately invites us to judge, but those that made his elevation to the presidency possible: a generation of America leaders that helped divide their country into opposing factions; an arrogant Democratic Party controlled by rich grandees with a sense of entitlement; an insipid Republic Party that offered voters no real alternative; and, above all, a class of political pundits who opine about the politics of a country with which they have increasingly lost touch.
Trump, according to his critics, is divisive. What Hanson shows us is that it was not Trump who divided American politics into two tribes. He found things that way when he announced his bid for the White House in July 2015. Obama, Hanson reminds us, did a great deal to exacerbate division, driving wedge issues for his own advantage.
In office, Trump has been accused of erratic behaviour. Hanson shows how some of the bust-ups and falling-outs have been a consequence of functionaries within the federal bureaucracy trying to thwart the President in a way that would normally be regarded as outrageous.
Even Trump’s apparent nepotism — relying on his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner — is, suggests Hanson, not so much the consequence of a character flaw as driven by necessity. Having alienated the Washington establishment, Trump simply cannot count on a cadre of loyal flunkies willing to serve. In case you think that far-fetched, remember how transcripts of private phone conversations that the President had with some of America’s closest allies have been deliberately leaked to the press in an effort to undermine him.
If Trump has a purpose in office it is, he never tires of telling us, to “make America great again” — MAGA. But when, I wondered on hearing that slogan, was there ever a better time to be an American than today? Americans live longer, healthier and more prosperous lives now than at any other moment in history. Trump’s MAGA slogan — with its nonsensical, alarmist idea of decline — was, I simply assumed, yet more evidence of his unsuitability.
Yet Hanson recalls how every challenger for the White House advocates putting America back on track. It was, after all, Ronald Reagan, when he launched his bid for the White House, who actually used the phrase “make America great again”.
Trump might be brash, but he is never disrespectful towards the wider American public. It was not he who attacked millions of American’s as “deplorable”. He might be outspoken and off-script, yet he has an uncanny ability to get to the nub of the issue. He understood, unlike all the Washington insiders, in which swing states he needed to win, focusing the right message on the right voters. “His low cunning was usually prescient,” writes Hanson, “her [Clinton’s] sober assessment usually erroneous.”
If the instinctive judgment of this brash Manhattan property developer is so much better than the nuanced deliberations of those within the US political establishment, what does that say about the strength of their judgment? Perhaps we underestimate Trump because too often we are spoon-fed a narrative about him by pundits whose preppy prejudices prevent them from seeing him the way millions of Americans see him. This book is essential reading for those that are anti-Trump, who it often seems are no nearer to understanding why he won than they were two years ago.
Is Trump an aberration? It’s unclear if he could win a second term. The Republicans were supposed to be obliterated in the mid-term elections last year, but held up rather well. The Democrats, meanwhile, seem to be embracing precisely the kind of radical leftist identity politics that might just mobilise much of Middle America against them.
Hanson is a classicist, and his book is full of allusions to ancient Greece and Rome. But to place Trump in his proper historical context I doubt you need to reach back that far. The American republic has produced leaders like Trump before; imagine what Andrew Jackson might have had to say about his opponents if Twitter had existed in those days. Few presidents have been as foul-mouthed and overbearing as Lyndon Johnson. Perhaps it’s not the 45th president that is out of kilter with the great traditions of the US republic but those pundits who seem to presume that those in the White House need to look and sound like the cast of The West Wing.