In this episode of “American Thought Leaders,” Epoch Times senior editor Jan Jekielek sits down with Hoover Institution and National Review Institute fellow, historian Victor Davis Hanson, who recently published the book “The Case for Trump.”
They discuss Hanson’s new book, and how his observations about the Mueller investigation and the related extraordinary efforts by various parties to remove the president from office have matured since the time of the book’s writing. They further explore President Trump’s unorthodox strategy to engage the American electorate.
They also discuss how President Trump’s approach to America can be seen as an attempt to solve a crisis of her spirit, and how both current events and historical precedent position the president for 2020.
Jan Jekielek: It’s actually kind of funny because you sort of personify what this show is all about—as a leading American intellectual.
Victor D. Hanson: I don’t know if I’m leading or not …
Jan Jekielek: Well, it seems to me and certainly others I’ve talked to. So you’re a historian of both American and ancient history, you’re a fellow of the Hoover Institution–where we are now–and NRI. But you’re also a columnist. I saw you’re a tour guide. You’re a farmer–very interesting story behind that. And of course the author of many books which includes “The Case for Trump” which is why we’re here–to talk about that. I really enjoyed the book. As I was saying a little bit earlier, it kind of helped me contextualize a lot of what I’ve been seeing in the landscape.
So let’s start with something that figures significantly into the news right now that actually is prominent in the book which is basically how the Russia collusion narrative has fit into the 2016 campaign and then into the election afterwards. You made some predictions around what the outcome of whether the Mueller report would have one outcome or another–what would actually happen. And I’m very curious if you could kind of give us a rundown, so now that we do know what the outcome is, or at least roughly, how does that change the case for Trump?
Victor D. Hanson: Well, in the book I think I concluded in my chapter Mueller that was written a year ago, the greatest irony in Trump’s presidency when he was falsely accused of colluding with Russia by people who were actually colluding with Russia. And I think that assessment that came out well before that Mueller was validated. I think we’re gonna get the Mueller report today or tomorrow. But if you were to summarize the Mueller investigation, there’s a lot of ways to look at it, but I think the best is that there were people within the United States government–the director of the FBI, James Comey; the director of the CIA, John Brennan; the director of National Intelligence, James Clapper; the deputy director; and an array of others; and then NSC and the DOJ who felt A: that Hillary Clinton was going to win. They had followed the analytics and the polls–90 percent surety. But they felt as an insurance policy that Donald Trump for a variety of reasons–culturally, politically, socially–was unacceptable as president. And the very thought that he could be president was so foreign and disruptive that they felt they had a higher duty, a higher loyalty to stop that. So what did they do? They started to surveil his campaign, and they put informants we know into his campaign. In October of 2016, they went to a Federal Surveillance Court–FISA court–and deluded that court by not telling the true nature of opposition research from Hillary Clinton’s campaign which was unverified. And then they used that to surveil Carter Page who had work for Trump, but they were able to go back in time to a time when he was actively in surveils communications and then reverse target that by tapping all the people that he had talked to.
They, in the case of the National Security Council, they requested names that came up in these surveillances that be unmasked and then they leaked them. How did this translate in real terms? If you and I were reading newspapers in September, October 2016–Mother Jones, Yahoo News–they were printing things that Trump was involved with the Russians, and that permeated the press. We forget that now. Then when Trump did the unthinkable, he won both in anger at that fact but also as a preemptive defense of their behavior. You see, because you’ve got to remember the dialectic would have been “President Clinton, look at all I did for you. I should be rewarded. I went beyond the call of duty.” And now the mentality went “My gosh, I’ve got legal exposure. So we’ve got to press further.” So then it was a methodology of getting more FISA requests and disrupting the transition. And then finally the act that resulted in the Mueller commission, and then to dethrone. And then finally the larger context of this was when he was elected there was an effort to sue three states for the voting machines and nullify the election. There was a sustained effort to give the Steele dossier to the electors and to persuade the electors not to vote according to their constitutional mandates. Then there was almost immediately 60 representatives that voted for impeachment the week he was inaugurated. Then there was an effort to sue on the emoluments clause of the constitution to remove him. Then there was the 25th Amendment psychodrama that went on for … And then finally there was Rod Rosenstein and Andrew McCabe meeting to see if they could pull cabinet members to remove him. This is in addition to the Stormy Daniels psychodrama, the Michael Cohen, the tax returns–so there’s been a sustained effort not to wait until 2020, but to remove the president of the United States under the idea that we are so moral and anointed unelected officials, we have a duty to somebody higher than the American people. And boil that down and it was a coup attempt to destroy the presidency before its tenure had expired.
Jan Jekielek: So, basically, it was any means necessary where we’re OK to try to remove the sitting president.
Victor D. Hanson: I think so. I think these unelected bureaucrats, call them what you want–Deep State, members of the administrative state–they were analogous to people in history that worked in the Byzantine court, or the El Escorial in the Spanish Empire, or the people at Versailles. They were a permanent cast of unelected representatives that felt that the liberal progressive project under Obama would be continued for a 16-year interlude. And that somebody who didn’t deserve to be nominated under no circumstances should have been president and when he was elected should fail. That was not happening. So they called upon themselves to remove him. And I’m not trying to be overdramatic. Because remember on September 5 of 2018 we had an anonymous op-ed in The New York Times that was geared, by the way, to come out at the same time as the Bob Woodward book. … is a one-two punch in which a person said, “I am a Republican Deep State bureaucratic appointee within the administration, and I’m trying to stop what I think are wrong decisions by the president. I’m a member of the resistance.” That’s what he said. That was—trim away the imprimatur of the New York Times—it was basically a call for insurrection.
Jan Jekielek: Yeah, that’s definitely how it read. I recall that very, very distinctly. So speaking of the media, I remember being just utterly stunned. Not that I had such great faith in The New York Times by this point, but that they would publish something like this. Did that astound you? It astounded me.
Victor D. Hanson: When those questions arise in my mind, or most people’s minds, they always ask: What would be the inverse? So somebody would say that during the Obama administration, let’s say a high official within the Obama cabinet or executive branch would say, “I really don’t think the president of the United States has a legal right to grant unilateral amnesty.” Or he might say, “Obamacare is … [what] Jonathan Gruber said was sold on a lie. And the president misled the American people, therefore I have a higher duty to resist.” And would The New York Times publish that? I don’t think they would have. And had somebody actually submitted it to them, I imagine they would have sent to the FBI to be investigated. That’s, again, where we are in the United States now. The idea is that progressivism has taken over the Democratic Party, and progressivism itself has transmogrified into socialism. And under that ideology, the law is flexible and malleable, and it’s defined by what our ideas of morality are. The laws can be good or bad depending on whether it serves our egalitarian agendas, which are basically equality of result. And a French revolutionary value system, and to the degree that you want to advance at, then the law makes the necessary adjustments. And that’s what we’ve seen since Trump was elected.
Jan Jekielek: So had the media been doing this sort of thing all along? I mean, essentially you’re saying that the media have kind of become part of this progressive caucus or something like that. The majority of the media, anyhow. Is that you read it?
Victor D. Hanson: The media has always been left of center. But in the old days of Walter Cronkite or John Chancellor, when I was growing up, there was a sort of professional protocol that you weren’t overt. You were implicit but not overt. With the election of Trump, we’ve had people actually state–Jim Rutenberg in The New York Times, Christiane Amanpour at CNN–that Trump poses such a danger to the republic that reporters has a higher duty to become a partisan. And then this term “fake news” is not just a rhetorical smear by Donald Trump. I mean if you look at CNN, just to take one network, they reported that the bust of Martin Luther King was removed. It was not. They reported that James Comey would testify that he told Trump that he was under investigation. He did not do that. They said the Trump Tower meeting–Trump knew in advance. He did not know in advance. They said that Donald Trump was tipped off by [Wikileaks]. They admit they didn’t know that. Anderson Cooper had to apologize for using some really crude language on the air about Trump. Reza Aslan, the religious editor, had to resign for using a smear. Two CNN reporters joked on a hot mike about Trump crashing. Remember, Kathy Griffin held up the decapitated head of the CNN. That’s just one network. And so, again, they become a fusion party of the media and the Progressive Democratic Party, they’re together. And you can see that with the WikiLeaks when the Podesta trove was released to the public you had people like Dana Milbank or Glenn Thrush. These are more key reporters that were writing to John Podesta and says, “I’m really a hack, but I want you to proofread this and you object and I’ll make any changes you want,” as if the media has to have the Clinton campaign approval. I can’t remember of that happening in the United States. So this is all juxtaposed to the idea that Donald Trump hasn’t done anything illegal to reporters. He may have talked about fake news and the media is the enemy the people, but he hasn’t surveilled people like Barack Obama did with the Associated Press reporters or with Fox News James Rosen where they actually broke into their accounts and surveilled their communication. So that’s what’s so bizarre about it.
Jan Jekielek: He’s actually quite accessible actually, right?
Victor D. Hanson: Yes, and so he’s had more press conferences. He’ll say anything, anywhere to anyone on any topic, Trump will—spontaneously. But we’re in such a degree of polarization and hatred of Trump that it’s blinded all reason, and so we don’t say, “Russia. What has Trump done with Russia?” Well, he has upped the sanctions. He’s killed Russians in Syria. He’s been tough in the air over Syria. He’s increased oil production by 3 million barrels, that hurts Russian oil. He’s forced NATO to spend more. He’s beefed up defense. He has tried to restore missile defense in Eastern Europe that Obama canceled on a hot mike. So he’s been much more aggressive on Russia. But, yet, we have this albatross around his neck of Russian collusion. And he has no collusion, but that’s because he says things in the art-of-the-deal fashion about Putin. And so we live in times where all reason has been abandoned, and we just have to try to be empirical–look at actually what’s done and not what’s said about what’s done.
Jan Jekielek: Yeah, what we endeavor to do in our reporting, indeed. OK, so the Mueller report is expected to come out any day. What do you expect will happen next, in this realm at least?
Victor D. Hanson:I think when the Mueller report comes out it will show that its primary mandate quote “Russian collusion,” which is not a crime but is a euphemism for a conspiracy with the Russians to ruin a campaign or hijack it or warp it, that won’t be proved. And then, in addition, the charge of obstruction of justice, the firing of James Comey will not be proved for two reasons. Three reasons. One, the president can fire the FBI director because he doesn’t like his hairstyle. Two, he didn’t do anything actively to say, “Stop the investigation.” He didn’t say, “You can’t interview this witness.” He didn’t fire members of the Mueller. And then three, it’s very hard to prove obstruction of a non-crime. If you work for me and I see that you’re shoplifting, and I say to you “I don’t think you should shoplift. It might be bad for our reputation.” That’s not obstructing your behavior or getting involved. It’s just advice. So when Trump kept saying, “I think this is a witch hunt. I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” That turns out to be pretty wise advice because collusion was not found. So it’s kind of down to “How can you obstruct a non-crime?” And so I think those two facts being said, they’re going to go through the redactions and say, “Well, there’s a reference to this person or this tax return,” or this guy said that. And it won’t die. It’ll be muffled, but it will still be sort of, could of, might have, a tangent here, cul de sac there, a dead end here. They will try to revive it. Trump is sort of a niche in any figure, anything that’s not killed him has made him stronger. So he just emerges from all of these assaults on him all the time, and I think the Mueller thing is actually going to help him.
Jan Jekielek: And so there is this, as you mentioned earlier, what looks like the actual collusion. What about this side of things? What do you think is going to happen? … the seeming actual collusion with the Russians that you described earlier.
Victor D. Hanson: Well, it seems pretty clear that at some point Republican Never Trumpers during the primary season wanted to smear Donald Trump because he was ahead. So they hired Glenn Simpson at Fusion G.P.S. and they had a dossier, and then they lost. The Hillary Clinton campaign found out about that, contacted him and said, “Why don’t you beef up your efforts?” They hired Christopher Steele, a British spy, and he hired, to make sure that his results would be seated within the proper government authorities, he hired the wife of the fourth-ranking person Bruce Ohr to work on it. And they were paid through two firewalls. Hillary Clinton gave the money to the Democratic National Convention. They gave the money to G.P.S. G.P.S. gave the money to Christopher Steele. If you’ve read the dossier carefully, I think if you and I say we don’t know much about espionage or dossiers or Russia, I think you and I together in a week could have done a better job. We would have got the format, the scare capitals, [and] these: on this, and alleged, it is said, it has been reported, one wonders–and then we would have done better. So we wouldn’t have said that Michael Cohen’s father-in-law was a major developer in Russia when he has one rental. Or we wouldn’t say that Michael Cohen’s wife is a Russian when she’s never been to Russia, she’s Ukrainian. We wouldn’t have any of these details. We wouldn’t say Michael Cohen was in Prague without investigating whether there was some passport or documentation that he had been.
So it was all unverified, and yet because it was salacious things about sexual activity when Steele … Then in the campaign to the Ohrs, brief the FBI on it, they thought “Wow, we can include this in the president’s daily briefing according to John Brennan and James Comey. We will bring in Mother Jones or Yahoo News. They were not the top tier because the top tier wasn’t sure that this thing could be true. And so they seeded it through them. James Baker, general counsel the FBI, they brought people from the Department of Justice, I think, on August 1 of 2016. They briefed it. The director of the CIA briefed Harry Reid in the Senate. So it was Victoria Nuland in the State Department brief people. So the effort was to get this out to as many people as possible so somebody would leak it and it would damage Donald Trump. And, again, the irony was it was compiled by a foreign national who used foreign national sources, and they were paid by the Hillary Clinton campaign. And those facts were not told to the court that facilitated all of this by providing the government an excuse to surveil American citizens. At which point they found no evidence whatsoever. And so when you and I are talking about the dossier right now, no one has ever said this fact in the dossier I can prove and here’s the proof.
Jan Jekielek: Right.
Victor D. Hanson: And, yet, they deluded four judges and they deluded the country. And I think the second half of this story is now the first chapter of the second half. And that is the hunted … or, the hunters are going to be hunted. And the inquisitors are going to be inquired about. And I think we’re going to be shocked at what happened.
Jan Jekielek: It seems like the attorney general is seriously going after this.
Victor D. Hanson: Yeah, I think the appointment of William Barr marked a watershed because Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general, should have never recused himself. Had he not panicked in that period of Russian collusion hysteria in early May then William Barr … there wouldn’t have been a need for him. He would have been the attorney general, there would have been no Mueller investigation. It would have been all over with. Once you turn Mueller loose, we’ve had this 22-month nightmare. Now, we have a new attorney general, and from what we can tell he is a person of his age and prior experience and he’s not seeking a career. He’s not on a career trajectory in the way that James Comey was or Andrew McCabe. So he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care what people say about him, apparently, he doesn’t care about whether people like what he says. When he comes before the Congress and you hear him testify when people object and call him names, it makes no … So you get the impression that he’s asking himself one thing “Was there spying?” He used the word spy. And if there was spying: Were there any laws broken? If there’s any laws broken then they have to be examined, the act. And if there’s indictments, they have to be pursued. Otherwise, we don’t have equality under the law. So, inadvertently, what the Mueller investigation did was they said, “We’re lowering the bar.” There used to be a rule that if you lied to Congress, if you were James Clapper or you were John Brennan and you lied–and we know they lied because they apologized– then you just let them go. But when Mike Flynn was indicted for lying and most of these are process crimes, and Mueller inadvertently said, “Lying to a federal investigator is a serious crime.” If that’s true then William Barr has got to say that the inspector general has said that Andrew McCabe has lied to federal investigators. Somebody lied to a FISA court either by commission or omission by not telling them this was opposition research. The director of the FBI cannot go before Congress on 245 occasions in a single testimony, say “can’t remember, he doesn’t know.” So, inadvertently, in an ironic way, Mueller has opened the whole exposure by saying we’re gonna go onto the trivial. We didn’t find collusion, but we’re gonna find so many ways of getting people around Trump that he’s set a precedent that people who had committed real crimes now will have to be treated equitably.
Jan Jekielek: It’s going to be very interesting to see how all this unfolds.
Victor D. Hanson: It’s going to be very ironic, Sophoclean tragedy or irony because inadvertently we watched 22 months of Mueller. What we were really watching—and we didn’t know at the time, some of us did, but they didn’t know at the time—that they were building a case for their own indictments by their behavior either directly or by going after behavior in people who were largely innocent and then providing a model for people who were clearly guilty to be prosecuted for the same crime.
Jan Jekielek: Be held to the same standard essentially.
Victor D. Hanson: Held to the same standard. And they didn’t understand what they were doing. But that’s what hubris and nemesis are all about.
Jan Jekielek: Right. So speaking of Sophoclean tragedy, you actually described in the book President Trump as potentially a kind of tragic hero figure, and I found that very fascinating. You have a whole chapter about that.
Victor D. Hanson: Look, tragic hero is a term we use from Sophoclean drama. Euripides a little bit, Aeschylus, mostly Sophocles that he has his archetype of someone who has character flaws but is larger than life, and he has skill sets—an Ajax, a Philoctetes—and they bring him into a situation where the existing deep state administrative state has no answers. An Odysseus, an Agamemnon, a Meneleus, and then he solves the problem. But by the very solving of the problem, he gives people the luxury to double guess or to think “Why did we need this guy?” And my point in the book was that these figures come along a lot. Curtis LeMay and the air campaign, very cigar-chomping model for Dr. Strangelove figures. George Patton–uncouth, profane, save the Third Army, got us to the Rhine, but immediately let go in the postwar Bavarian proconsulship because he was not fit for that. Dirty Harry, these kind … I evoke the Western—Shane, Searchers—these are all Westerns that a lot of people don’t watch today, but the motif is always the same. You bring in this gunslinger, and he’s fearless, he has these abilities to beat the enemy, the bad guys. But as he starts to bring civilization back or normality back people start to second guess him, and that’s what’s happening with Trump.
Victor D. Hanson: So many times people will say, “My gosh, 3 percent GDP, record low unemployment, record low minority unemployment, record energy production. My gosh, the Iran deal is gone, that crazy Paris accord is finalized, Keystone, and more. But he tweeted about George Conway, or how he’s treating and tweeting against the ghost of John McCain. Why does he do that? Now that the economy is growing at 3 percent maybe somebody like Mike Pence or somebody can just take over and be nice.” And you can also see the reaction of Trump. He reminds me of Ajax and Sophocles. It’s “Why don’t people give me the credit? They gave Obama a Nobel Prize. I’ve done more than Obama.” He always says, “Well, I’ve done more. I’ve done this, I’ve done this. I get no credit.” But he’s never going to get credit because of who he is. He’s a Manhattan Queens accented developer with a strange hairstyle and skin color, and he doesn’t play the game.
If he goes to the Indiana State Fair or he goes to Tulare, California, or the South–it’s the same Queens accent, the same suit just like you have on or I have on. Hillary doesn’t do that. She’s got a Southern accent here, an inner-city accent here. John Kerry, when he ran, he had flannel at the State Fair.
Trump is authentic. He is who he is. He’s unapologetic. He’s also empathetic–our farmers, our vets. And he goes to West Virginia … Hillary goes to West Virginia and she says, “I’m sorry, you guys have to basically learn solar skills or something. I’m going to put you out of business.” Trump goes and says, “I love big beautiful coal.” So he just plays by a weird set of rules, but I think he’s done a lot of good. But I don’t expect he’ll ever get credit for it. He’ll be happy. I don’t think you’ll be invited to funerals of ex-presidents. I don’t think the next president will call Donald Trump up and ask for advice. I don’t think he’ll call Obama or Clinton or Bush up and ask for advice. That’s not who the tragic figure is like.
Jan Jekielek: You also described that the supporters of President Trump, kind of, at least some of them think of him as a kind of a chemotherapy almost. As I was reading it–tell me if I read this correctly–and I don’t know if this is your perspective or the perspective of the supporters, but I get the sense you’re … You said in the book that you voted, right, for him. His presidency is like this unorthodox, raucous response to … could you say almost an existential threat of cultural demise or something like that?
Victor D. Hanson: I think people thought two things when they nominated and elected Trump. They said the economy is stagnant. No 3 percent annualized GDP in 10 years. No gain in real wages. They’ve written off the middle of the country. They’re losers. They’re not part of the globalized elite on the coast. They need to learn to code, they need to go to the fracking fields, never asymmetrical trade destroyed this area. So they had no answers. They weren’t able to translate tactical success in Baghdad or Libya or Kabul into a strategic advantage. So this guy comes along and says I’m your Republican, but I’m not your Republican.
I’m for low taxes, defense spending, get rid of Obamacare, oil production. But I want to restore the interior of the country by forcing people to treat us like we treat them. Whether it’s Europe or Mexico or Asia. And then he says I’ve got to close the border because it drives down wages, and we’ve lost our sovereignty in this immigration is legal, measured, meritocratic, and in some manageable number. And then he, in addition, says, “I’m not going to campaign like Mitt Romney and John McCain. I’m not going to play by the Marquess of Queensbury Rules.” And the message to people was “If I had been John McCain, Reverend Wright would have been on TV 24/7. If I had been in the debate with Mitt Romney and Candy Crowley and Barack Obama and she had joined the opposition as moderator, I would have stopped the debate and walked out. So whether you like me or not, it’s not going to be that way.” We hadn’t seen that since Lee Atwater tore apart Mike Dukakis in 1988 for George H.W. Bush. I’m not condoning that, but I’m just saying that people were in a mood they felt that the Republican Party had not done much better than the Democratic Party at the national level. They lost five out of the six last popular votes. They had not won 51 percent since 1988, and yet they’ve done very well at the state and local level. So there was this idea we’re nominating these “play by the Marquess of Queensbury Rules,” Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and we want somebody like Reagan who’ll grab that thing and said, “I’m paying for this debate. Tear down that wall,” and they got instead Donald Trump. And he said, “You attack Donald Trump …”—and most of it he’s retaliatory, then he’s going to attack you. If you’re afraid to give …
Jan Jekielek: Pretty much guaranteed, right?
Victor D. Hanson: Guaranteed. No matter how minor, how silly it is, he’s going to [inaudible] you. If you think you don’t want to get down into a wrestling match with him, he’s actually been in a wrestling ring. He doesn’t care. And everybody who’s got into an argument with him, usually start … even John McCain started the argument when he said, “Trump is bringing out the crazies.” Trump then attacked him quite unfairly about his military. And then they were off to the races. Elizabeth Warren attacked him, and then he did the Pocahontas. And then she ended up on the …
Jan Jekielek: Definitely the losing end of that one.
Victor D. Hanson: I think Little Marco and low-energy Jeb did. So the message is, he’s a coiled snake. And you don’t step on him because he believes he has to bite back no matter who you are. And when you start looking at all the people that felt they were going to take down Trump—Stormy Daniels, Michael Avenatti, Michael Cohen—they didn’t end up as well as Trump. He has an animal cunning that people don’t appreciate. And there’s a big debate about whether he plays three-dimensional chess as the supporters say or he’s just incoherent, or what he says and what he does. But I think that, so far, it’s pretty clear that he’s a lot more thinking and plotting and deliberate than we give him credit for.
Jan Jekielek: Well, he’s also, speaking of delivering–and you do mention this in his book as well, this is something that keeps striking me–he’s just unusually effective at delivering or at least trying to deliver what he said he’d deliver. Which I don’t think is very common.
Victor D. Hanson: No, it’s not very common. Remember, we’re a country that lived through “If you want your doc, you can have your doc, you can keep your insurance plan.” That’s what Obama told us. “Read my lips, no new taxes.” There’s WMD in Iraq. So the idea was the president can say whatever he wants, we’re supposed to believe him. Doesn’t mean that Trump doesn’t lie or exaggerate, they all do. But what he didn’t lie about was “I’m going to try to close a border, one way or the other. I’m going to try not to get involved overseas and new adventures. I am going to try to get manufacturing back. I’m going to try to get GDP up, I’m going to try to drill more oil and gas. I’m going to try to deregulate. I’m going to try to get judges who are strict …” And he did. And so now he has a record as we go into 2020. And that record … two things are happening. He’s got a record this way and the Democratic Party has gone from being democratic to liberal to progressive to Neo-socialist. So he’s going to be running against not Hillary Clinton, Annie Oakley Hillary sometimes, but reparations, infanticide, Green Deal, talk of a 90 percent income tax rate, a wealth tax, forgive all student debt, abolish ICE, abolish the electoral college, 16-year-olds vote. Do any of those issues have 51 percent support? I don’t think so. Unless they make a correction and get a Joe Biden and say, “I didn’t really mean that at the convention, or when I endorsed that, I refute that” They’re gonna be running and George McGovern or Walter Mondale fashion. They don’t watch it. They being the progressives.
Jan Jekielek: So I want to come back to that, but there’s a few things that you wrote that I want to hit on a little bit because I wasn’t exactly sure what you meant but it’s very fascinating. So you said it in your words, and correct me if I don’t have this right, but you said, “…Trump argued that what is wrong with America was not its morality but its spirit, perhaps loss of its spirit.” Can you expand on this idea a bit?
Victor D. Hanson: Well, translated, Trump said, “You don’t have to be perfect to be good.” And postmodern society that’s affluent and leisure has the margin of error to double-guess and triple-guess and say, “One hundred and sixty years ago, we had slavery,” or “We had Jim Crow 60 years ago,” or “Women didn’t get to vote until 100 years ago.” And, therefore, we’re flawed at the inception.
And Trump’s argument was: All people are sinful. Every country has liabilities. It’s not whether we’re good and they’re bad, it’s whether we’re better than the alternative. That’s all you need to be–better than the alternative because we’re self-critical society. The second argument he made is this very process of constant self-criticism and self-debasement and apology tours and racist, sexist is demoralizing to something called the national spirit.
So when you keep doing that to a society, you can’t build the Hoover Dam, you can’t build the [inaudible], you can’t go to the moon, you can’t win World War II because you don’t believe that you’re any better than the alternative. And when societies have done that—Rome in the 5th century or Byzantium in the 15th century—then history says: If you don’t believe you’re better than the alternative. What’s the purpose? You have no reason to continue as an exceptional country. So that’s what his message really was: that yes, we’re flawed, but we’re so much better than the alternative that we have to press on and be even better. Make America Great—Again. And people said, “Well, we were sexist.” He said, “Well, we may be sexist, we may be racist, but we were working on it. But at that time we had a spirit, and we’ve crushed it.” And that was a message that a lot of people thought was superior to: Let’s just talk about how deplorable and irredeemable and crazy and clinging we are. And that was the Democratic message.
Jan Jekielek: Well, is it also, we want to remake society in some sort of new image?
Victor D. Hanson: Yeah, I think when Barack Obama said–I think it was a week before the election of 2008–“We’re this close to fundamentally transforming America.” What he meant was that economically we’d be a redistributive society. You didn’t build that. Now is not the time to profit. At some point, you’ve made enough money. And we would be a collection of tribes. So how we looked superficially would be essential to our character. We would be Asian-American, we’d be black-American, gay American, female American, we wouldn’t be American first. And Trump comes along and says: What society has ever succeeded–Austria, Hungary, Rwanda, Iraq, the Balkans–once you promote your tribal interests over that of the commonwealth? We understand that we’ve been racist in our past, but we’ve always overcome that through greater laws, greater sensitivity, intermarriage, assimilation, integration. But if you say that that’s cultural appropriation and I’m going to keep my tribe, are you going to hire your tribe for a bureaucratic position, are you gonna turn civil service, are you going to let people in university on the basis of their appearance? And it’s a very strange thing … the American way … When he backed the lawsuit about Asians trying to get into Harvard–I shouldn’t say trying to get into Harvard, trying to get into Harvard and being accepted based on their merit in disproportionate numbers. Trump said: Fine. If Harvard is 100 percent Asian, what’s the difference between that and the NBA being 78 percent African-American. Are we going gonna have Asian affirmative action for basketball? That’s a very lucrative sport, it’s a lot more lucrative than most people who go to Harvard.
So the thing about Trump is that whether it’s something crazy like saying sanctuary cities, if they want sanctuary cities, let’s let them have more illegal aliens in other places. It sounds so crazy, so shocking. But there’s a logic to it. And … he always picks the issues where 51 percent of public opinion agrees with this common sense. Colin Kaepernick, I mean think about it, a multimillionaire person who grew up in a middle-class mixed-race family is now claiming that because his career trajectory didn’t fit his conceptions of his own ability that he was going to damn all of America’s races. And we were going to sit there and watch people who were multimillionaires not stand up for the flag of people who died on Okinawa or Iwo Jima or Shiloh for that flag. And they were going to convince 51 percent that wasn’t going to happen. So when he jumped into that he understood where the preponderance of public opinion was.
Jan Jekielek: So are you saying that Trump is basically trying to rediscover the founding principles, the founding spirit of the country?
Victor D. Hanson: He is, but he’s not trying to do it in a way that most presidents would be. They would give a windy oration or sermon on: This was the founding of our country. This is what I’m trying to do. Instead, he is more like a bird of prey and he surveys the horizon and he says to himself: Which issues today will allow me to make a point about American’s founding and principle? The Covington kids, the Jesse Smollet, the Colin Kaepernick, the Cavanaugh hearings. And each one of these, they’re principles of due process, right of cross-examination, the presumption of innocence, appreciation for American values, the superiority of integration over separatism or tribalism. And then he pounces like a bird of prey. And people think the president shouldn’t have intervened, you shouldn’t have said this, but when it’s all said and done, and every one of those cases–public opinion tends to be on his side. And incrementally, insidiously he is empowering people to come forward and saying: You know what, that’s fake news. I don’t care if you call me a racist. Call me a nationalist. I could care less. And pushing back on everything: Infanticide is legalized abortion. The idea you’re going to pay Beyonce or Oprah reparations or Barack Obama is just absurd. Or the idea that you’re going to not let somebody in who qualifies at the Ivy League because of a superficial appearance. Or the idea that we have to be enthralled of professional sports athletes as if they’re Socratic philosophers, when they’re not.
And when you start thinking of it it’s a very counterrevolutionary period we’re in. And that’s why people finally, on the left, realized: Well, we weren’t winning elections necessarily at the local state level. See the red on the geographical maps. And we didn’t have 51 percent of the people, but we controlled Hollywood, entertainment, professional sports, the media, the university. We had such cultural power that we were able to say: Gay marriage should be permissible. Next year gay marriage has to be acceptable. Next year gay marriage is legal. Next year gay marriage–if you don’t endorse it full-heartedly you’re a homophobe.
So under Obama, we had gone on all of these social issues just at light speed–transgenderism, women in combat–just so quickly that people through the cultural [inaudible] that I just talked about. So Trump comes along and says: No, I’m going to attack all of those instances and question all of their premises whether it’s the White House Correspondents Dinner or the Emmys or the Oscars. I’m going to call them fake news. I’m going to say they got low ratings. I’m gonna say they’re not profitable. Whatever wedge lever he has, but he’s 360 24/7 saying: We’re going to question all of these cultural premises–late-night comedy, everything. And we’ve never seen that before. We always thought that was beneath the presidency. When they said that to Trump he said: Unpresidential. I’m new presidential. Whatever that means.
Jan Jekielek: It just reminds me of … I didn’t fully get Sebastian Gorka, he’s been describing Trump as the kryptonite to political correctness, and I think you just kind of explained what he means exactly.
Victor D. Hanson: It’s an exhausting endeavor. So a man who’s 72 years old, who sleeps a reported five hours a night gets up every morning and looks at the world and says, “Today, they will hate me. They will want to blow me up, shoot me, burn me, decapitate me rhetorically. Or the Mueller investigation will try to indict my son, my daughter, or they will say terrible things about my wife or my daughter or my son-in-law. And I have to go through the whole day and be told I’m a failure, I’m a buffoon, I’m a liar, and I’m gonna be sued. And that’s his day. So in a strange way, people are starting to look at him and say, “Wow. Yes, he’s crude. Yes, he’s uncouth. Yes, he’s a man. But he has an element of resistance, fortitude, endurance that’s beyond my powers, and that hardly wins him a degree of sympathy. Increasingly, so I think.
Jan Jekielek: So you describe him as mercurial, and you say you can’t predict what’s going to happen because of this inherent unpredictability. But given what has happened even since you published the book, or since you finished writing the book, what do you see happening in 2020? You started on this a little earlier.
Victor D. Hanson: As a historian, I try to look at the past and be analytical. So presidents that were re-elected–take to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama–during their first midterm Clinton lost 53 seats; Obama, 62; Trump, 39. Clinton 8 Senate seats; Obama, 6; Trump, plus 2. Polls, all three–43 to 45 percent, a third-year juncture. Clinton destroyed Bob Dole. Obama pretty much destroyed an Electoral College Mitt Romney.
In terms of past presidents–their first midterm performance, their popularity, and what actually happened in their reelection–it’s Trump’s to lose again or to win. But, also, a president whose second term is destroyed or who doesn’t win a second term, it’s usually from an unpopular war. Vietnam or Iraq War, in the case of Bush, it destroyed his second term. Or if he doesn’t get elected it’s an economic downfall that destroyed George H.W. Bush’s attempt or Jimmy Carter. Or it’s a scandal like Watergate. I don’t see the Mueller investigation leading to a scandal. We probably will go into recession, but I don’t see it in the next two years. And I know that he’s not going to get into an optional war of the Iraq, Afghanistan sort. So in the second series of data, he’s done very well compared to other presidents in the midterms and popularity or at least no worse. And he doesn’t have an existential crisis.
So the third element is: Presidents don’t run in popularity contests. It’s not Trump, I like or don’t. It’s either there’s a better or worse candidate. So he’s going to not run against Hillary Clinton. He’s going to run against somebody who’s going to be tagged with a lot of issues. We’re speaking in April of 2019, but we don’t know how these Democratic 20-something candidates are going to deal with issues like reparations or a wealth tax or the Green Deal–they’re all very unpopular. If they manage to get a Joe Biden who doesn’t get tagged with that baggage then it might be close, but if they don’t then they’re going to be running in McGovern or Walter Mondale fashion. And they’re going to be running someone who’s not an unknown but has a record. So I think he would do very well.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.