Victor Davis Hanson
“Trump is sort of chemotherapy”
The United States are deeply divided. Now, Democrats are on the eve of filing articles of impeachment against President Donald J. Trump. One award winning historian has seen it all before. Classicist, farmer, and New York Times bestselling author, Victor Davis Hanson, tells Die Weltwoche why America needed Trump in 2016. And why, like a tragic hero, Trump is a man alone.
In 2018, Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib — a newly minted member of “The Squad” — spoke for many angry #Resistance fighters when, upon her election to the House of Representatives, she declared, “We’re going to impeach the motherfucker!” And with a newly minted majority in the House, Democrats likely will.
Historian and contemporary observer Victor Davis Hanson has seen it all before in millenia-old Greek and Roman history, and in classic American westerns.
Hanson, or “VDH” as his fans call him, is an intellectual force. The reliably liberal New Yorker magazine notes that, “Many of the books written in support of Donald Trump’s presidency have been authored by Trump family hangers-on or charlatans looking to make a buck…. Victor Davis Hanson is different.” The organ of the urban smart set concedes that VDH has been “respectfully reviewed by the [New York] Times,” as well as in their own, famously fact checked, deeply sourced, glossy pages.
From his California ranch the Stanford University professor and author of the bestseller «The Case for Trump» reflects on the strange, yet familiar, case of Donald J. Trump.
As he explains in a wide ranging interview with Die Weltwoche:
“The outsider comes in. He kills the cattle barons, or the crooked politicians, or the bandidos. But he's so willing to use violence, or willing to talk tough, that, as he eliminates the existential threat, people get uneasy.
“He rides off into the sunset…. I think that's going to happen to Trump.”
Professor Hanson, since the election of Donald J. Trump in 2016 the United States are deeply divided. In the past three years political and social divisions only grew bigger. Now, Democrats are trying hard to remove the president from office. Where is this this all going to end?
The impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump has really alienated the country into two different camps. It's part of a larger effort. We've never successfully removed a president by the process of impeachment and conviction in the Senate. But if that should happen, and I don't think it will happen, you'd be on the verge of a real crisis, not just a Constitutional crisis.
Can you identify the two camps?
There are two different visions of the United States. One — shared from Seattle to La Jolla, and from Boston to Miami — and then, two: everything in between.
The coastal vision is that we are citizens of the world, global citizens. We seek to follow EU customs and practices. We are defined by elites — by our Ivy League, or Stanford, or Berkeley pedigrees, by our zip codes, by our occupations. We're fabulously wealthy or affluent because of high tech, law, insurance, or finance in a globalized market.The people in between are written off as abhorrent, irredeemable complainers that time passed by. Their muscular labor was outsourced, shipped abroad. They didn't catch on and didn’t adapt. As a result, they're bitter, and they've rallied to Donald Trump's call. That's the indictment against them.
The ancient historian, Thucydides, called similar civil discord “stasis.” You remind your readers that it finally tore apart the fifth century B.C. Greek city-states. How can such a bitter civil war in today’s USA be averted?
Well, do you know what avoided it in the 1960s, when radical protest swept over Europe and the United States? There was a terrorist incident nearly every two days some years in the United States — whether the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), or the Weathermen Underground, the Black Panthers, et cetera. We avoided that civil war because the so-called silent majority voted in Richard Nixon, and then they voted in Ronald Reagan, later, or they voted in Jimmy Carter, who was not a radical leftist. They rejected George McGovern [the Democratic Party presidential nominee in the 1972 presidential election] and things cooled down. The Democratic Party knew that leftism was suicidal to their aims
Americans didn’t avoid it in 1860, and the country entered into a civil war.
We didn't avoid it in 1860 because of the issue of slavery. It was an evil that could not be negotiated. It couldn't be reconciled. What I'm getting at is, it's dangerous when these ideological differences, as they sometimes do in Europe, have geographical force multipliers. What I'm worried about is people are self-selecting where they've living. If I go to rural Michigan or northern Ohio, or out in the suburbs of Provo, Utah, it's a different country than at Stanford University where I work, or Palo Alto, or Upper West Side in Manhattan. We've got these two different cultures, and they don't like each other and provoke the other.
There's also a new additional element. We have, for the first time in this country, 45-50 million people who were not born in the United States. In California, where I live, almost one out of three, about 27%, were not born in the United States. And we are failing to assimilate and integrated them as in the past.
How does this demographic shift come into play?
There's a sense among the Left that demography is permanently changing, and that people should identify by their sexual orientation, or gender, or their race or religion.When you add these minority interests together — gays and Hispanics, and Asians, and Blacks, and immigrants — and they all agree that they will vote primarily on their superficial appearance or sexual outlook, or whatever their tribal affiliation is, and that they will show fealty to the progressive cause, that's a pretty polarizing notion. Their perceived enemies are traditional Christianity, the founders of the United States, Constitutional government, Capitalism, et cetera—anything stereotyped as white, male, heterosexual, Christian, etc.
The revolt of the so called “silent majority” was clearly visible for the first time with Tea Party movement in 2009. But when did this division of the American society really start?
It is an ancient idea that about half the population champions liberty and individual freedom as the paramount aim, and the other half champions radical and government mandated equality. Here in the United States, we’ve always been able to reconcile that ancient divide because we were a more conservative, traditional society, in some ways, than Europe was, and allowed a free-market economy to make us all wealthy and secure.
The turmoil from the left started in the '60s. Then it died. And then, the Obama administration came into power, and they said they were going to radically transform the country. They rebranded a word called “diversity,” and that was now defined as being “non-white.” Everybody who was “diverse” was going to be in a common ideological collective. They started developing these words like being “woke” or “not woke.” And race, gender, and class started to permeate every discussion — in the university, the bureaucracy, government, the arts, Hollywood. They warred on the symbols, the heritage of the past, despite their obvious comfort and prosperity that the past had given us.
Another force multiplier is globalization and the enormous amount of wealth that poured into the US from it. Yet it was asymmetrical. It flowed into cities like New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, and Washington DC. It did not go necessarily to Flint, Michigan, or Cincinnati, or Cleveland. There were winners and losers out of globalization.
Barack Obama took the Democratic party radically to the Left. And now, even he, in a Jacobin fashion, doesn't seem all that radical to the radicals—especially given his anxiety that as a newly minted multimillionaire his own policies logically target his success.
Then, we have Donald Trump who rejected Jeb Bush centrism and said, "If you don't stop this left-wing, progressive trend, you'll never stop it. I'm going to be a 360 degrees 24/7 critic." Whether it's Colin Kaepernick taking the knee in our football games, a celebrity tweet, or a transgender activist, Donald Trump replies to all of it, and that enrages the Left even more.
In your book, you note that a third of his voters see in Donald Trump something analogous to chemotherapy. What do you mean by that?
There was a perception that the Republican gentlemen elites did not reply in kind to the assault on their character or their politics. Mitt Romney was accused of torturing dogs, hating somebody in high school, and having two Cadillacs.John McCain was attacked for having eleven houses. And they [Romney and McCain] were very polite, in the way that the Marquess of Queensberry Rules (1867) used to spell on how you should box.
People were tired of that. Trump comes along from the Manhattan real estate world, and he says, "I'm not going to play by your rules. If they attack me, I'm going to attack them. If they say bad things about me, I'm going to say worst things about them." Therefore, half the country said, "You know what, he's a bulldog. Cut the leash, and point him in the right direction. These people deserve everything they get."
Out of that matrix, I said, "He's sort of chemotherapy.
Which is deadly. It’s a toxic poison, and it makes the host sick.
But it's aimed at killing the cancer before it kills the patient."
What is the cancer?
The politics and bureaucracy of the proverbial “deep state.” The cancer, in this metaphorical analogy, is the huge government we have, the top-heavy unelected bureaucracy, as well as the enormous influence by small numbers of the population in high-tech, Silicon Valley, our [philanthropic] foundations, and Hollywood. All of these people wanted to take the country down a particular path that did not have 51% support.
A few examples: Less than 1% of the population is so-called “transgender” (a new word that I think is really a synonym for the old term “transvestitism.”) They demanded that restrooms have a third gender. Most people do not want open borders. They do not want felons protected in sanctuary cities. They do not want a wealth tax. They do not want the Green New Deal. But they are overwhelmed with a cultural barrage from the media, entertainment, academia, and foundations.
All of these agendas were either facilitated through court rulings by liberal court justices, or, when they were opposed by referenda, the referenda were thrown out in court. There was a perception that people who are unelected, especially in the bureaucracy, were determining what people should, and should not do.
Donald Trump came along and said, "You didn't vote for any of this, and you don't have to put up with it." He was very tough. And he said, "You don't have to put up with it. And more important: You're the majority, and we're going to win." People thought he was nuts even to say that.
You write that Trump isnot that much different from a “coarse” and “tragic hero”. You compare him to Homer's Achilles, to Sophocles' Ajax, even to modern cinema's Wild Bunch and Dirty Harry.
The operative word is “tragic.” The society is in a quandary. Its traditional methodologies of salvation don't seem to work. An outsider comes in — it can be a very unorthodox woman like Antigone, or a stubborn old has-been like Ajax. They deliver the goods. That is, they solve the problem — whether it's a plague, or killing Trojan heroes, or defying a wrong law.
The problem is that they do so by challenging the entire belief system and methods of the very community that they're there to help. After as they start to succeed, the people get uneasy that they ever had to resort on such an odious outside remedy. That fact becomes almost a negative referendum on themselves. We see it in American military history with Curtis LeMay, the architect of the B-29 program [the heavy bomber designed for high-altitude strategic bombing that also excelled in dropping incendiaries on Japan]against Tokyo. We see it with British RAF "Bomber" Harris bombing German cities. We see it with George Patton.These were all uncouth people that the militaries brought in extremis brought in. The military said, "Fix this problem."
They certainly did fix it.
Not only did they fix it, but they editorialized about their successes in a very crass way. And then after the war, we said, "You know what, we're not giving a medal to "Bomber" Harris, and we're glad that Patton got killed in that accident and is not around to bug us. LeMay, we're going to make fun of him in Dr. Strangelove, the movie."
The same thing with Western heroes — whether it's“Shane,”or “High Noon,” or “The Magnificent Seven.” It was a staple of American cinema that the outsider comes in. He kills the cattle barons, or the crooked politicians, or the bandidos. But he's so willing to use violence, or willing to talk tough, that, as he eliminates the existential threat, the people who were saved get uneasy. He understands that he can't remain in a civilized society. So, he rides off into the sunset. We all wish that we were like him, but we don't wish we were him. I think that's going to happen to Trump.
Tragic heroes, like Achilles, are tribal. They are more worried about their band or tribe than about the city-state. Does that mean that Trump, being a tragic hero, cannot be a unifier of the country?
No. He can't be a unifier because he says there's a malady in the country, and I'm a surgeon who has to cut out this tumor. I'm going to do it with a rusty blade if I have to, but I'll cut it out. People want him to cut it out. But they understand that the sheer process will be so gory, and that he'll be so uncouth, that they don't want him around after it's over.
He's going to probably solve the problem with China in a way that everybody thought you couldn't do. He has unemployment down to record peace-time lows; a record stock market. He’s deregulated business; pushed the green button on oil and gas exploration; beefed up the military. Everybody, quietly, (even his left-wing opponents) says, "You know what? We can't run against that achievement. We'll lose. He's got too much of a record of success. So, we've got to attack the person who did it for the methods that he used. Trump said this word, said that word. He has that orange hair. He's got the combover. He's got that ridiculous tie, that Queen’s accent. Let's get rid of him."
How long will it take for the chemotherapy to cure the sick patient. Another year? Another five years?
I think if Trump remains healthy, and if he were to get re-elected, in five years, he could probably succeed. I say that not emotionally, but empirically. He's already replaced a quarter of the federal judiciary, and he's on record to get about near half replaced by next year. If he were to be re-elected, he would entirely change the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary that has, more or less, made law and fueled the progressive movement. That's a lot of where the anger is about him.
Then, second, he is systematically, and we can see this on the impeachment, both alienating and removing career bureaucrats in the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the National Security Council, who he feels have taken America down a nation-building, unnecessarily interventionist pathway. He's making fundamental changes. And, then, most importantly, he's saying to the progressives, "You have so alienated the white working class — and given that the white demographic is still 70% — you cannot afford not to get 90% of the black vote and about 60% of the Hispanic vote. I'm going to go right after those very constituencies."
He's got a lot of these economic programs aimed at minorities, now. He's going into the inner communities, the inner-city. He has black activists who are on his side. He's saying to them, "I want you to have importance. I want employers to beg you for your labor. It's valuable. You don't have to depend on government. We are going to empower you." If he were to get just 20% of the black vote and 45% of the Hispanic vote, he could probably win the election easily. That's why the Left keeps calling him a racist, and a xenophobe, and nativist. They know that they cannot afford to have black and Latino voters prefer him.
Trump campaigned on the slogan “Make America Great Again.” Three years into his presidency, the US infrastructure is still broken in a lot of places. You expressed doubts that contemporary Americans could build another transcontinental railroad in six years. What happened to America's greatness?
I think what happened is we got fat and wealthy, and we decided to over-examine, over-regulate, over-litigate almost everything we did. We became medieval. I'm saying that literally. If you go to the streets of San Francisco, you see feces and disease and refuse on the sidewalks. If you go out here, where I am in Central California, where people come from Mexico, illegal immigrants, they're living in trailers as if in the third world. I live in an area that has gone back to the 1940s.
You recently remarked that California looks like America's first, third-world state with medieval diseases, gangs, corruption, crime, crumbling infrastructure, and out-of-touch wealthy elites.
In many places it does. California has the highest number of people, of any state, living below the poverty line. One third of all Americans on public assistance are here. We've had 10 million people in the last 20 years come from south of the border. We're trying to assimilate and integrate them, and give them parity, but it's very difficult given the numbers, the poverty, the illegality. The result is that our budget priorities have changed from getting lakes dammed and aqueducts built, water, energy, timber, mining, and farming, to huge entitlements for social services, and health care for the indigent.
It's what Northern Europe is going through as well, especially in places like France, Germany, and Austria. It's a new experience for us, I think, because we were used to the people who helped win World War II by building, building, building, and creating. Now, we're emulating a lot of the depression era lack of confidence, redistribution, and lack of imagination that characterizes many Northern European countries.
Eighty years ago, the world entered into the biggest catastrophe in modern history. Your forefathers entered the Second World War and defeated the Axis Powers within four years. Today, your troops are fighting in Afghanistan for the 18th year, without any positive result. Has America forgotten how to win wars?
Well, we know how to win them. But we feel to win them would be worse than to lose them. By that, I mean we know the Taliban are mostly killers, and we know that we could use our air power and overwhelming artillery to destroy them and help our allies to pacify the country. But to do so would not be meek. It would probably involve the collateral damage that we inflicted on Hamburg, Tokyo, and Hiroshima in World War Two. We've decided that we just can't do that after Vietnam.
We don't have a plan about how to turn Afghanistan into a European or American city, which we did in Europe after World War Two. When we go out of the West and we enter the non-West, we are not allowed to use the power we have to achieve complete military victory and humiliation of the defeated. We don't know how to forcibly recalibrated people who have non-Western traditions, and tell them that they're going to have transparent private property, market Capitalism, and consensual government, because many of them have no experience with that.
We spend a lot of blood and treasure, and so we just stay there in stasis. The rationale is we're not losing, so therefore we're winning. Until somebody like Donald Trump comes along and says, "It's not worth it in the cost-benefit analysis. I don't want to lose another American in that hellhole. I don't want to lose anybody in a fight between the Kurds and Turkey. It's time to worry about the kids in Southern Ohio and not whether you're going to make Kandahar look like Palo Alto."
President Trump repeatedly said the United States cannot continue to be the sheriff or policeman of the world. What does that gradual US withdrawal mean for geopolitics?
Barack Obama said he was going to be a protector of the post-war order. Yet, he slashed the military to one of its lowest readiness levels since World War Two. Trump comes along and says, "These things (international conflicts) don't pay off and the military has got to be updated. I'm going to put in billions of dollars and get the military back up.” And he's been doing that. His agenda is a paradox: create a great military and keep it great by using it sparingly.
The United States is able now to field twelve or eleven carrier groups, or its F-35s and its F-15s, its F-16s, and its Raptors, and they're all ready to fly, mostly. The Marine Corps is back up a division. Ironically, the US is more militarily ready than it ever has been. It doesn’t have 250,000 troops tied down in Iraq. It’s down to about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan. So, it has a lot of flexibility. What Trump is saying is the United States is going to be no better friend and no worse enemy.
By that, I mean, if Japan needs our help to protect it against China, or Australia needs our help, America is there. If Europe, according to our NATO laws, needs our help, the US is there. Even if a neutral country, like Switzerland, was attacked, I'm sure the United States would help. But it's also going to say that in other areas, where there are not clear objectives and interests, where the cost-benefit analysis is murky, we're not going to get involved, especially in the Middle East.
Recently, French President Macron said that America is not ready, anymore, to help Europeans. He suggested that NATO suffers “brain death.” After having downsized their armed forces tremendously since the end of the Cold War, do you believe that Europeans are ready to invest in the defense of Europe again, as Macron calls them to do?
No, they're not. They're not spiritually, culturally, military, or materially ready. If I tell somebody having a cappuccino in Florence that he has to die to protect Lithuania from Putin, he's simply not going to do it.
When we talk about the EU, or NATO, let's be honest. The elephant in the room is Germany. It has 80 million people. It's always been Europe's most powerful economy. It has a largest population, the largest area, and it's been at the center of Europe for 150 years. Germany is why you have an EU and NATO. NATO was to keep America in, Russia out, and Germany down. Germany was right in the middle of European conflict: in 1871, 1914, 1939.
When France and Macron talk about beefing up the EU, they immediately get into a paradox, because there is no EU without Germany. What Macron is basically saying is, "I've got to go to Merkel and the Germans and get them to spend 3% instead of 1.3% of their GDP on military readiness. Then, when they do that, I have to say that this time around you're not going to have political or military authority commensurate with your real power. You're going to invest it in a collective in which we're going to be the Athenian philosophers, and you'll be the Roman soldiers."
So I see the EU insidiously breaking up. I think 70% of NATO’s budgets are paid for by the US. I can see a series of bilateral treaties replacing it. And I'm worried because I'm not writing off NATO and the EU as not having benefit. They've kept the peace, in some ways, by channeling German power into the European matrix. Although, I think the real peace was kept after World War Two by the possession of nuclear weapons, in general. And in Europe, the idea that a weak France and a weak Britain had nuclear weapons, and a very strong Germany does not — nobody wants to talk about that. It's perhaps what keeps the peace.
When I look at young Europeans, I get the impression they define freedom primarily in terms of Gigabytes on their smart phone. What would you call this time and age? An age of indifference? An age of discontent?
No. I see it as a slow-motion collective suicide. I see it in a way that classical historians like Tacitus or Suetonius, or novelists like Petronius, has looked at it. This symptomology of Europe is that it is very affluent, and it's very leisured and complacent. It's wealthier than at any time in its history. It has a lifestyle that it has always dreamed about. The problem, now, are that the typical symptoms that accrue when people are affluent and amnesiac about their past. Leisure is starting to kill Europe. Look at demography. Fertility rates is at 1.6% in the EU. In some places, like in Italy, it's down to 1.4%. Defense spending is at about 1.4% of the GDP.
They had a Pew poll, not too long ago, that reported only 16% of Europeans pray to a deity every day. When you have a secular country that's shrinking and won't defend itself as evidenced by its eroding military budget, you ask yourself, "Why is this?"
The answer is that the affluent youth of the continent feels that, as humanists, their life is so good that they don't want to waste it by having diapers and children and infants screaming, when they could go out to a club, or go on vacation, or go to the beach. And they feel that they're so wise and so sophisticated that everybody in the non-West agrees with them that war is obsolete.They're so tolerant that they assume that their magnanimity will always be interpreted and reciprocated by other hostile powers rather than seen as weakness to be exploited.
Europe is safe because the United States is protecting it, both tactically and strategically, from people like Putin (if he is a danger), and China.
Why do you think hatred against Trump so widespread and deep in Europe?
I think the problem that Europeans have with Trump is that he has a subtext, a message that they're aware of and scared of seeing promulgated. His message to Americans is: The more you help Europe — the more you tried after World War Two to help rebuild it, the more you defend it — the more they will end up hating you. They're like a petulant teenager who hates his parents. If you want to be friends with Europe, back off, let them be, and let them suffer the consequences of their own ideology. And maybe, then, they will reach out to us as equal adults rather than as petulant subordinates. Thucydides noted the same phenomenon after the Persian War with Athens and its subordinate imperial allies.
I think Macron sees that and has visions of exploiting it. He says to himself, "The Americans are going to back off. Now, it's a chance for Napoleon X, or XII, to come back and unite everybody with German money and French elan.”
I hope they can pull it off. But I just don't see it happening.
What public figure, local or global, inspires you most, these days?
I see people in the Czech Republic, like Vaclav Klaus, who fought Communism, and left a generation still operating within the confines of liberal democracy. Here at home in US, we have some wonderful senators — Tom Cotton [Harvard Law School graduate, Army veteran and Republican from Arkansas]. I really admire Devin Nunes, [House Intelligence Committee ranking member and California Republican]. Congressman Nunes been instrumental in calling people to account. When I look at these people, I wonder, “What makes them different?
What makes them unique is they usually have some practical experience — either with farming, or the military — or they have a reverence for their traditions, religion, or history. Most importantly, they're not Utopians. They say to themselves, “We're not going to be perfect. But we can still be good.” When you have people like that in times like these, it's refreshing.
Victor Davis Hansonis a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of the recently released «The Case for Trump»