Victor Davis Hanson
“Democrats want to recalibrate America”
War historian Victor Davis Hanson appraises Donald J. Trump’s improbable and tumultuous presidency. In Hanson’s telling, Trump’s enemies, the self-styled “resistance,” thwarted the disruptor in chief from the beginning, at every turn, using every means, overt and covert. The classicist, farmer, and New York Times bestselling author warns that democracy, itself, is at stake on Election Day.
Four years ago, then-candidate Donald Trump promised an end to neo-con adventurism in the Middle East and to shift greater global responsibility to America’s NATO allies. Supporters and critics alike agree that, as president, Trump has followed through. Arguably, his “America first” strategy has brought greater stability even as it confounds the Beltway commentariat.
At home, however, America has never seemed more dived. Historian Victor Davis Hanson places the blame on Trump's domestic enemies: “They tried to strangle his infancy in the cradle”.
If Trump campaigns for the forgotten man, Hanson tells his story. Trump is their hero, Hanson their scribe. And unlike many of his academic peers, the classicist and military historian eschews the ivory tower, instead living close to the land and the people whose lives he chronicles.
When he’s not on tour selling his latest tome, the 67-year-old California native can be found on his grandmother's farm in Selma, California. No mere gentleman farmer, he rises before dawn to cultivate his vines. He drives his pickup truck to school where he teaches immigrants and working-class students Greek and Latin. Back home on his farm, at the end of his day, Hanson locks himself in his study to write bestselling volumes on war and peace.
Should former Vice President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party sweep the elections next Tuesday, Hanson believes dire consequences await. He warns that Democrats “want to recalibrate America so that someone like Donald Trump can never be elected again.”
Weltwoche: President Donald Trump is arguably the most prominent public figure of our time. He has penetrated our everyday life in a way that sometimes makes it difficult to see the bigger picture. Professor Hanson, what do you see as the key characteristics of Trump and his presidency?
Hanson: His signature theme was American Nationalism and a reemphasis on the great interior of America, in general, and the working classes of all races, in particular. If you understand that principle, then the other periphery issues that he advanced and policies which he embraced make sense and very quickly.
Weltwoche: Let us briefly review Trump's most important election promises: securing the southern border and building a wall. Has he delivered?
Hanson: He did that. Almost 400 miles have been completed. Illegal immigration is almost stopped on the southern border.
Weltwoche: "China, China, China!" was Trump's battle cry, four years ago. How did he handle the confrontation with China?
Hanson: He did it in a way that nobody in the United States or Europe, many of whose elites were deeply compromised by Beijing, thought was either possible or desirable. He said there's no reason why China is fated to be a world hegemon. The verdict is out on that, but he has changed the public dialogue, and I don't think there's anybody who says now, "Don't beat up on China. Don't be too tough on China." It's just the opposite. We turned over that rock and what was underneath is shocking to people.
Weltwoche: Four years ago, Trump announced: “We will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with.” How did that play out?
Hanson: This topic is very important to United States. It was odd to hear from a conservative Republican that he was not going to engage in optional military engagements in Libya, in Iraq, in Afghanistan anymore unless they penciled in a cost-benefit relationship in the interests of the United States and in the interest of the region. I think he's been pretty careful about that. He got rid of ISIS by bombing, though we didn't really have seizable ground. We had no illusions that we were going to build democracy there.
Weltwoche: Changing general trade policies was another promise. Has he delivered?
Hanson: He was to change general trade policies so that areas in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa, North Carolina, the interior of the country could return to an industrial state which was considered to be impossible. He made the argument that the American labor force is excellent, the energy costs are cheaper than in Europe or Asia, the transportation costs will be less. He had some success in doing that. Reindustrialization was another one.
Weltwoche: “Made in the U.S.A.” was Trump's trademark from the start. Former President Barack Obama had said you’d “need a magic wand” to bring manufacturing back. Did Trump have a magic wand?
Hanson: I will preface that answer by saying there was a pre-COVID administration for three years, and there's a post-COVID administration, because, as you know, as it happened in Europe, the virus, the lockdown, the recession, and the riots that followed the death of George Floyd, the arson and looting — that's changed the complexity. We were headed for a landslide Trump victory. I think, now, most people feel it's a 50/50 proposition. People on the Left feel that they're going to win. I don't think that they're going to win, but they feel that way.
Weltwoche: How would you explain Trump’s “Wirtschaftswunder” during his first three years?
Hanson: There was a lot of pent-up energy and dynamism that had not been unleashed. People with capital and ideas either feared under the Obama administration that their success would be inordinately taxed or they would be publicly criticized. Whatever particular fears they had, they did not fully engage in the American economy.
When Trump said we're going to build our energy pipeline, we're going to allow fracking on federal land, we're going to increase oil production, we're going to be independent of the Middle East oil cartel, we're going to have enormous income coming in from energy rather than going out, he triggered a dynamic. He redid the tax code. He lowered taxes for the middle class, lowered the capital gains, and gave tax breaks for those people who would bring capital back and stop offshoring and outsourcing. He closed the border so that we didn't have a million and a half inexpensive laborers coming across. All of that had a synergistic effect so that, by January of 2020, we had record low minority unemployment, 5.4% for Hispanics and Blacks, and record low US non-wartime unemployment at 3.3%. That was a magic wand. People like Paul Krugman, for example, echoed Obama's pessimism and said, “This is a fantasy. It will never happen. The jobs won't ever come back.” But they did. I think they will if Trump is reelected.
Weltwoche: How would you sum up his foreign policy?
Hanson: His foreign policy, in general, is a Jacksonian "Don't tread on America" foreign policy.
Weltwoche: You refer to Andrew Jackson, the 7th U.S. president. Countries that cooperated with America, he handed an olive branch. To those who did not cooperate, he addressed the clear warning: "Do tread on me."
Hanson: It is not isolationism. The United States is no better friend to its friends and is no worse enemy to its enemies. That's what changed. Everybody, even his opponents who are angry about it, can see that he did what he said he was going to do. His supporters are ecstatic about it, and his opponents will say, "My God, I didn't think the guy would really try to do all that, but he did." They admit that he did.
Weltwoche: The Middle East looks very different today than in Obama's era. But you said, recently, that you give Obama credit for that. Why?
Hanson: I meant that, obviously, in a ironic sense. Obama had a flawed, quite harebrained scheme to promote the Shia-Persian bloc in the Middle East to the extent that by getting into the Iran deal, lifting the sanctions, and delivering cash to them, often nocturnally, Obama empowered Iran and its surrogates, such as the Assad government in Syria, Hamas on the West Bank, but especially Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria. That caused a lot of fright in the Middle East, both among the Israelis, which we ostracized under Obama, and the Gulf conservative countries, Egypt, Jordan.
Weltwoche: Old enemies suddenly moved closer together.
Hanson: The result of that policy was that it gave Trump an opening to say, "The enemy of your enemy is your friend." Israel now is looked upon by the Arab world as almost completely unlikely to move preemptively, with nuclear weapons, against an Arab country; as almost completely unlikely to preempt and start a conventional war; but has an economy and expertise that may eventually solve the Palestine problem just by sheer gross domestic product. The Arab countries were not really convinced that the Palestinians were key to the peace agreement. The Arab countries were willing to just ignore the Palestinian question and not go to war on the back of the Palestinians that were now allied de facto with their arch enemies, the Iranians. That [Trump took advantage of this dynamic] was a pretty good idea.
Weltwoche: Trump has brokered three new peace agreements. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and now Sudan are normalizing their relations with Israel.
Hanson: The proof of the pudding is always in the eating. You don't hear Joe Biden on the Left say, maybe some in Europe, but not many say, “This has been a disaster. We have to make sure that the United Arab Emirates, to take one example, does not recognize Israel.” Not many say, “Let’s make sure that the American embassy moves back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem where it is now." I don't hear anybody say, "Let's reach out to Iran again, and let's lift all the sanctions, and let's make sure that it's a powerful theocracy again." You don't hear that coming from anybody. The people who said that it would never work are very quiet, now.
Weltwoche: Trump pushed back on China. He has brokered peace treaties in the Middle East. He brought US troops back home from Afghanistan. ISIS is destroyed. The conflict with North Korea is not resolved, but has been defused. Would you say the world today is a more peaceful place?
Hanson: Yes, I think it is. I don't think China is going to be as emboldened as it was in the South China Sea, for example, because Australia, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea now have a greater sense that the United States will come to their aid in extremes than under Obama. Trump being Trump, he even floats ideas that if China wants to alienate them, these countries are welcome to pursue nuclear weapons, if they want. He's thinking out of the box. I think China is confused by this, and it has a sense of restraint.
Weltwoche: With the disastrous consequences of the pandemic, which originated in China, the attitude in the West towards Beijing has toughened up. Will this lead to a more confrontational policy of the like Trump has introduced?
Hanson: We're not going to give them the technology that we used to, and we're not going to overlook the Uighurs and Hong Kong. I don't think that people in Europe are going to say to the United States that the Belt Road Initiative is wonderful, that there's no problem in the Piraeus [the Port of Athens, taken over by the Chinese], or Naples or European ports inviting the Chinese. Not after the virus, and not after the duplicity of the Chinese.
[Back when the pandemic started in January] you had direct flights to European capitals from Wuhan, and to LA, San Francisco, and New York. But you could not travel outside of Wuhan within China. In other words, the Chinese government was basically saying to the world, "This thing is dangerous. We don't want anybody from Wuhan going anywhere outside of China. But they can surely fly and spread it to those Westerners." I think people understood that was a veritable act of war.
Weltwoche: The world may be more peaceful under Trump, but when we look at America, we see riots in the cities. Americans seem to have lost the capacity to engage in politics as fellow citizens rather than rival gangs. How much has Trump deepened the pre-existing divide in American society?
Hanson: Obama redefined the racial issue which was resolving, and he came up with this word “diversity.” Very brilliant idea. Jesse Jackson had tried it, but it failed. Obama said it's not 11% African-American with grievances against the majority culture. There is not a white majority culture. Anybody who is so-called “non-white” — that means if you came from India yesterday, or if you crossed the border from Mexico two days ago, or you flew in from Vietnam a month ago — you're now part of a collective that we call “non-white,” and you have legitimate grievances, upon arrival, against the United States for its sin.
When Trump came in, the idea was that if you could call him a racist, and he had no history of racism, that would galvanize this. Trump said, "I'm not going to seek false unity. I'm not going to play the role of John McCain and Mitt Romney and be a noble loser. These are issues that have to be confronted. Whether it's illegal immigration, or building a wall, or this false charge that America was racist from its beginning. We can't have unity until these people [Leftist ideologues] understand that they cannot hijack the country. That's where we are. He doesn't see it as disruptive. He sees that it started earlier on, accelerated under Obama, and he's going to stop it.
Weltwoche: Trump is a fighter, and through his economic and foreign policy has achieved a lot. At the same time, though, he does not seem to heal the country, as a president should. Why can’t he unite the country?
Hanson: Let me give you some examples that might serve as an answer to your question. On the day he was inaugurated, before anybody knew what he was going to do, there was a huge protest where celebrities like Madonna said she dreams of blowing up the White House and the Trump family. Within eleven days, a very prominent former Obama official in the Pentagon, Rosa Brooks wrote an article in a very prestigious journal [Foreign Policy] saying we have to get rid of Trump. We have three ways of getting rid of him: one is impeachment; one is declaring him insane; the third is a military coup.
Within a month, 61 members of the House of Representatives filed impeachment charges. While this was going on, the FBI under then-director James Comey was actively investigating the national security advisor of the United States, Michael Flynn, his first two weeks in office. According to their own memos, they said that Flynn did nothing wrong. They basically admitted to trying to remove Flynn using the ossified Logan Act [which prohibits private citizens from conducting official foreign policy.] Then we know that they were altering documents to the [secret foreign intelligence] FISA court. So, there was a coup.
Weltwoche: A coup?
Hanson: I could use that word precisely, to remove him before anybody knew what he was going to do. His first initial calls to a foreign leader, Australian Prime Minister, the Mexican President, were leaked. Confidential calls were leaked to the New York Times by people in his own administration. Within six months, Robert Mueller was investigating him for something [alleged collusion of Trump and Russia during the 2016 election campaign] that he found, 22 months later, had no merit at all. It wasn't as if everybody said we're going to have a honeymoon period and see if he can unite us.
The Shorenstein Center for Public Discourse in Media at Harvard University, a very left-wing organization, found that in the first six months of the Trump administration, 93% of the coverage by CNN, NBC, and about 80% of everybody else was negative. They'd never seen anything like that before. What I'm getting at is, you can make the argument that had everybody given him the traditional 90 days or six-months honeymoon, he had divided them. But, instead, they tried to strangle his infancy in the cradle. Trump said, "You know what? They want to destroy me, and they want to destroy my family. They're using the levers of government, the FBI, the CIA, the DOJ, the media, and I'm not going to let them do it." It's been a war ever since.
Weltwoche: Many think that if Trump is gone, maybe the violence is gone, too. First, do you think this is possible? Second, what is at stake in these upcoming elections?
Hanson: Both are very good questions, and I ask myself both of them daily. [pause] There's two moods right now in the United States. One, we're talking about the swing voter who hasn't decided. They're not Republican or Democrat. They're not conservative. They just want things to be okay. Half of them are in a metaphorical fetal position with their hands over their ears, and they're saying, "I don't know who started this. I can't take the looting, the arson. I can't take the hatred. Make it all go away. If Trump just disappears, it will all go away." Then there's the other half that says, “You know what? You guys on the Left have been completely out of control, and if you're going to have a showdown, let's have a showdown.”
Weltwoche: Will the violence disappear if Biden wins?
Hanson: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have never condemned the arson and looting. Two billion dollars in damage. 35 people dead. 800 injured policemen. We've seen what? We've seen blanket amnesties where local district attorneys did not charge these people with crime, and we've had Kamala Harris say these protests will go on forever if they need. Joe Biden has never once said, "Stop it."
What I'm getting at is, there's a suspicion that, yes, you're right. If Joe Biden is elected, it will stop, but not because he's a uniter, but because he's made a false bargain with the Left that in exchange for being the empty vessel that'll carry their agenda, the Green New Deal reparations, wealth tax, high income tax, et cetera, in exchange for their Socialist agenda, they'll stop the violence. They've really curbed it mysteriously in the last two weeks as we get close to the election.
Weltwoche: What is at stake in the elections in a few days?
Hanson: What's different about this election is that we have these constitutional rules that we've lived with for 233 years and the traditions that flow from them for a long time. We usually don't mail in our ballots unless they're absentee due to sickness or inability. For 233 years, we agreed the constitutional principle of the Electoral College was sound. There are a lot of arguments for it. For 150 years, we’ve had nine justices on the Supreme Court. For 170 years, we've had a filibuster rule in the US Senate. For sixty years, we've had fifty states. What's happening now is that Joe Biden, because he won't talk about it, has aligned himself with changing the rules.
Weltwoche: Do you suspect he might change the rules of American democracy?
Hanson: If he were to win the White House, if Democrats win the Senate by one or two seats and keep the House, if they get rid of the filibuster, then I think Biden will pack the Supreme Court. He will get rid of the Electoral College, and they can do that without an amendment by side stepping into the voter strategy. He will probably seek to add Puerto Rico and Washington, DC as states so he can add four more Democratic senators. He would probably weaken the Second Amendment to the point the Founders would never recognize.
What's different about this election, in short, is they [Democrats] don’t just want to change the result, they want to change the methodology by which you get a result. Democrats want to recalibrate America so voters can never elect a Donald Trump again. That's what Third World countries do. Not the United States.
Die Weltwoche: Regardless of the election outcome, which of Trump's achievements will remain?
Hanson: I don't think anybody in the United States or Europe will go back to full engagement and tolerance for Chinese commercial cheating on the world trade scene. That's not going to happen. That's an enduring legacy. In the Middle East, I do not think that anybody will try to reverse the reconciliation between the Arab nations and Israel and their common front against Iran. I don't think that's going to be reversible. Third, I don't think anybody's going to make the argument that creative destruction is a wonderful thing, that trade deficits don't matter, and we have to write off the Midwest, it's had it with the industrial relic. I don't think anybody's going to make those arguments again.
One last one, I don't think anybody's going to think that legal and illegal immigration are indistinguishable and an open border is a wonderful thing. I don't think they're going to make that argument.