Donald Trump is now more than halfway through the presidential term he earned with his improbable victory in the 2016 election. Though he has piled up one achievement after another over these two years—an economy growing at nearly 4 percent per year, the near-defeat of isis, an overdue buildup of the U.S. military, the appointment of two talented Supreme Court justices and a growing list of district and appellate judges—he has nevertheless been vilified on a daily basis in the press, on television, in Hollywood circles and academia, and even among many conservatives who refuse to take “yes” for an answer.

Democrats across the board, along with many “never Trump” conservatives, still do not accept the legitimacy of Trump’s election, and they have worked incessantly for the past two years to nullify the verdict of the voters for daring to elect him in the first place. Some left-wing critics, including a few Hollywood celebrities, have openly hoped for the assassination of the President or for violence against his supporters and family members, while at the same time attacking him for violating established political norms. Well-known authors have turned out one book after another purporting to show that the President’s administration is in chaos, that he is unfit to hold office, or that he has committed crimes deserving impeachment. Those lonely Trump voters—some sixty-three million of them scattered across the land—have so far waited in vain for a prominent writer to step forward to make the case for the candidate they elected in the hope that he might stem the loss of their jobs, the collapse of their communities, and the overall decline of their country.

Their wait is now over, thanks to Victor Davis Hanson’s The Case for Trump, an insightful, informative, and much-needed account of Donald Trump the upstart candidate and precedent-shattering president.1 Hanson, the author of many books on the history of ancient Greece and Rome and the history of warfare, including a comprehensive history of World War II published last year, writes in defense of President Trump with a degree of depth and sophistication that readers will not find in the carelessly written and unsourced broadsides attacking the President.

Hanson guides the reader through the presidential campaign beginning with Trump’s descent down the escalator at Trump Tower in mid-2015 through the presidential election, and then on through the first two years of Trump’s presidency, carefully explaining how and why he won and why Hillary Clinton lost, defending the President’s many achievements in office, all the while suggesting that Trump’s rough-and-tumble approach and norm-breaking style may have been necessary for a candidate seeking to break up the rigid bipartisan consensus in foreign and domestic policy that has characterized U.S. politics throughout the post–Cold War decades. Though the title suggests that the book is a brief for Trump, it is in fact much more than that, being in various parts a campaign biography, a history of our era, and a commentary on political life enriched by the perspective of a distinguished historian.

Hanson writes perceptively about the evolution of “two Americas” over the past few decades, not the division between rich and poor America that liberals like to portray, but the more profound cultural, economic, and political divide pitting coastal and cosmopolitan America against the more traditional and rural America of the vast continental interior. That split evolved in response to several large-scale and interrelated factors: globalization; the decline in steel and automobile manufacturing in interior cities; massive immigration (there are now fifty million immigrants living in the United States); growing inequality of wealth and incomes; and the general transfer of wealth, power, and opportunity from the interior of the country to bicoastal elites.

Naturally, the split was expressed in political terms as Republicans grew stronger in the interior states and Democrats in the coastal regions. The two Americas organized themselves around different political approaches, the Republican model emphasizing low taxes, lean government, and incentives for business and job creation, and the Democratic model favoring high taxes, generous spending for education and welfare, and politically powerful public-employee unions. Over recent decades, Americans expressed their preferences by “voting with their feet,” with businesses, retirees, and job-seekers migrating to “red states” while younger college-educated voters moved to coastal cities in search of diversity, multicultural lifestyles, and jobs in the entertainment, communication, and technology sectors. That internal migration accelerated the division between so-called “red” and “blue states.”

During the Obama years, most pundits assumed that the momentum in this conflict favored Democrats as immigration, globalization, and changing technology added voters, wealth, and cultural influence to their coalition. This was an entirely plausible view given the failure of two mainstream Republicans—John McCain and Mitt Romney—to prevail over Obama’s bicoastal and multicultural coalition. There was, in addition, a fair amount of cultural condescension in this assessment, as blue state elites looked down upon red state voters as “deplorables” (Hillary Clinton) or “the dregs of society” (Joe Biden) to signal their backward-looking ways and obsolete status in Obama’s “new” America. Those voters were not only bound to lose, but they deserved to lose, as well.

Yet, as Hanson reminds the reader, Democrats lost significant ground during the Obama years in Congress and in states and towns across the country as their progressive agenda failed to win favor among a majority of voters outside the coastal cities. A slow-growing economy, hindered by Obama’s tax and regulatory policies, was also a drag on his party’s fortunes. Obama’s victory in 2008 was not a ratification of progressive ideas, as Obama and the liberal media claimed, but more accurately an artifact of the unpopular war in Iraq and the financial meltdown that occurred in the middle of the presidential campaign. For all these reasons, Democrats went into the 2016 election in a much more vulnerable position than they imagined.

Hillary Clinton was the perfect foil for a candidate like Trump, as she exemplified the corrupt establishment that he campaigned against. In addition, her defects tended to cancel out his own. If he was “too old,” then she was, too. If he was corrupt in his business dealings, then she was even more corrupt in her public dealings—for example, using the State Department as a “pay for play” operation on behalf of the Clinton Foundation. Moreover, Trump was, to use his terms, “high energy,” while she was “low energy”—often listless and in hiding during the campaign. Trump appeared gross and unmannered, all too blunt in his assessments of people and events, and boastful about his wealth and business holdings; Clinton appeared prim, albeit inauthentically so. He spent his life in the real estate business; she was a creature of government. If it was said that Trump had extramarital affairs or mistreated women, then he could truthfully say that so had the Clintons.

Trump, no matter what one thought of him, was the genuine article; Clinton had changed her political persona several times after she emerged as a public figure in the 1990s. She appeared first as an angry feminist, then later matured into a sober-minded member of the establishment, voting for the war in Iraq as a senator in 2002 and courting Wall Street bankers during her years in Congress and in her presidential campaigns. In her primary campaign against Obama in 2008, she sought the votes of the white working class in the industrial states, but by 2016 she had changed her stripes again, turning her back on these voters in a campaign to solidify Obama’s multicultural coalition. Clinton thus came off as a phony who would say and do anything to win office, much in contrast to Trump who, with his tweets and off-the-cuff remarks, seemed an equal-opportunity offender. As Hanson suggests, Clinton may have been the only plausible Democratic candidate whom Trump could have defeated in 2016; at the same time, Trump may have been the only plausible Republican candidate who could have beaten her by carrying those working- and middle-class voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio.

For all of these reasons, Trump managed to pick the Electoral College lock that seemed to guarantee Democratic victories far into the future. Trump understood that it would not be enough to rally the Republican base with traditional messages about taxes and spending and promises to appoint conservative judges. Both McCain and Romney had followed this strategy and had come up short, mainly by failing to win majorities in any of the Midwestern industrial states and by failing to fight back against charges that they were racists, sexists, or worse. According to Trump, these two (like Jeb Bush) were “low energy” candidates—“losers” who did not deserve to win.

Trump decided from the outset to forge an appeal to working-class voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin—states that Republican candidates had not carried since the 1980s and which, in a closely divided nation, would decide the outcome of the contest. He did so by promising to bring back jobs, and the dignity accompanying them, by limiting immigration and renegotiating trade agreements that, he said, sold out American workers in favor of low-wage workers abroad. “Build a wall,” he said, as a means of stopping illegal immigration across the southern border. “Re-negotiate nafta,” he also said, to stop the outflow of American jobs to Mexico. His campaign strategy worked, as evidenced by the massive rallies he organized in those states in the weeks prior to the election, and in the electoral returns that gave him pluralities in all three states, and thereby an unexpected victory in the Electoral College.

After Trump defeated Clinton, he immediately faced another and more imposing adversary in the form of the Washington establishment, or the “Deep State,” as some have called it—or the ancien régime, in Hanson’s own terminology. This is the “permanent government” in Washington that persists through administration after administration, Democrat or Republican, bending this way and that with each new president, but mostly defending its own interests and prerogatives. By 2016, after decades of growth, the Washington establishment had achieved mammoth size, with tentacles reaching into the news media, foundations and think tanks, Wall Street, and major national and international corporations. Hanson lays out these connections and political conflicts of interest in a masterly way, showing how many of the officials in Obama’s administration were related by family ties to reporters and executives in the news media, who in turn presented their political point of view as objective “news.”

Though liberals and leftists have claimed that the establishment is generally conservative, especially law enforcement and intelligence agencies such as the fbi, the cia, and the Department of Justice, Hanson shows that they moved leftward in recent decades to reflect the overall political character of Washington and the liberal outlook of the news and communications interests they deal with. Diversity, multiculturalism, internationalism, free trade, and globalism—these were the new watchwords of the establishment. By the time Trump arrived in Washington as president-elect, the ancien régime had evolved into a powerful political interest in its own right, with its own rules and operating styles, and with views sharply antagonistic to a large segment of the American voting population. The establishment had sold the country out, Trump said, and part of his campaign to “Make America Great Again” involved “draining the swamp” in Washington and making it more responsive to the interests of American workers. In Trump’s view, both Republicans and Democrats had collaborated to create “the swamp”: it was a bipartisan concoction. Trump could attack it as an outsider who was never implicated in its corrupt practices.

Trump should have anticipated that “the swamp” would fight back, as it most certainly did during the campaign and, more furiously, after he won the election. Hanson takes the reader through this unprecedented crusade by the cia, the fbi, and Obama’s national security team to infiltrate and spy on Trump’s campaign, and later to use a Russian-sourced document paid for by the Clinton campaign to claim that Trump had stolen the election by colluding with the Russian government. There was never any proof offered to support this claim, but it was repeated often enough by Clinton and the liberal media, along with sympathetic voices in the fbi and the Justice Department, to provoke the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the allegations—but really with the goal of finding any piece of information that might drive Trump from office and invalidate the results of the election. As Hanson writes, “Never in the history of the American presidency has there been such an immediate and sustained effort by the opposition to remove an elected president before completing his first term.” Yet Trump, very much in character, has fought back, attacking the special prosecutor and his enablers, while challenging them to provide real evidence for the allegations of “collusion.” So far no such evidence has appeared, and probably it never will.

Trump, as Hanson readily acknowledges, is an unusual messenger for the campaign he ran and continues to run—a New York real estate magnate campaigning on behalf of the forgotten American worker. Trump also has obvious imperfections in style and character that some maintain undercut his effectiveness or even, as some insist, disqualify him from the presidency. Hanson takes these complaints on directly, citing instances from history, film, and literature in which flawed characters—tragic heroes—perform vital services for their communities, though their methods of doing so make them controversial and often unpopular afterwards. He cites generals like, for example, George Patton, who was useful in war but out of place in peacetime; Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper in High Noon, who leaves his frontier town after dispatching the criminal gang that threatened it; Detective Harry Callahan, played by Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, who uses unorthodox methods to capture a killer, and with that job done throws away his police badge. Might Trump turn out to be a tragic hero in that sense—an unorthodox figure who may accomplish important goals for America, but will never be appreciated for having done so? Hanson raises that possibility as a way of framing Trump’s candidacy and presidency and placing it in historical perspective.

After two years in office, Trump’s vocal critics are having a difficult time denying his many achievements, including a bustling economy, foreign policy successes, judicial appointments, regulatory reforms, energy independence, and a strong effort to curb illegal immigration, to name the most obvious ones. Will he succeed in rekindling the fortunes of the American worker, taming the establishment, and re-balancing U.S. national interests against international pressures? It is still too soon to tell. But, as Victor Davis Hanson demonstrates in this fascinating analysis of the past three years, no matter how things turn out this year and next, President Trump has made a good start in addressing issues in America that have for too long been ignored by both political parties.

1The Case for Trump, by Victor Davis Hanson; Basic Books, 400 pages, $30.

A Message from the Editors

As a reader of our efforts, you have stood with us on the front lines in the battle for culture. Learn how your support contributes to our continued defense of truth.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 7, on page 15
Copyright © 2021 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now