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The Case for Trump explains why Donald J. Trump won the 2016 election—and why I and 62,984,827 other Americans (46 percent of the popular vote) supported him on Election Day. I also hope readers of the book will learn why Trump’s critics increasingly despise rather than just oppose him. Often their venom reveals as much about themselves and their visions for the country as it does about their opposition to the actual record of governance of the mercurial Trump.
Donald Trump ran as an abject outsider. He is now our first American president without either prior political or military experience. Frustrated voters in 2016 saw that unique absence of a political résumé as a plus, not a drawback, and so elected a candidate deemed to have no chance of becoming president.
The near-septuagenarian billionaire candidate, unlike his rivals in the primaries, did not need any money, and had little requirement in the primaries to raise any from others. Name recognition was no problem. He already was famous—or rather notorious. He took risks, given that he did not care whether the coastal elite hated his guts. These realities unexpectedly proved advantages, given that much of the country instead wanted someone—perhaps almost anyone—to ride in and fix things that compromised political professionals would not dare do. With Trump, anything was now felt by his backers to be doable. His sometimes scary message was that what could not be fixed could be dismantled.
Trump challenged more than the agendas and assumptions of the political establishment. His method of campaigning and governing, indeed his very manner of speech and appearance, was an affront to the Washington political classes and media—and to the norms of political discourse and behavior. His supporters saw the hysterical outrage that Trump instilled instead as a catharsis. His uncouthness, even if it was at times antithetical to their own code of conduct, was greeted by them as a long-needed comeuppance to the doublespeak and hedging that characterized modern politics.
Trump became the old silent majority’s pushback to the new, loud progressive minority’s orthodoxy. His voters quite liked the idea that others loathed him. The hysterics of Trump’s opponents at last disclosed to the public the real toxic venom that they had always harbored for the deplorables and irredeemables. The media and the progressive opposition never quite caught on that trading insults with Donald Trump was unwise, at least if they wished to cling to the pretense that contemporary journalists and politicians were somehow professional and civic minded.
Predictably as president, Trump said and did things that were also long overdue in the twilight of the seventy-three-year-old post-war order. Or as former secretary of state Henry Kissinger remarked in July 2018 of the fiery pot that Trump had stirred overseas, “I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretense.”
Trumpism on the campaign trail and after the election was also a political belief that the interior of the country should not be written off as an aging and irrelevant backwater. It was not its own fault that it had missed out on globalization. Nor had midwestern red and purple states become permanently politically neutered by either new demographics or their own despair at the new centers of cultural and financial power on the coasts. Instead, America’s once industrial heartland was poised for a renaissance if given the chance. Voters who believed that promise could in the heartland’s eleventh hour still win Trump an election.
Perhaps most importantly, Trump was not Hillary Clinton. After the primaries are over, most presidential elections are rarely choices between seasoned political pros and amateur outsiders, or good nominees versus bad ones. They are decisions about tolerable and less tolerable candidates.
Both Clinton and Trump entered the 2016 race amid scandal. But Clinton’s miscreant behavior was viewed as quite different. She had almost always been in the public eye, either as a first lady, a senator, and secretary of state, or a campaigner for and surrogate of her husband and a candidate herself. In other words, Hillary Clinton’s life had been embedded in high-stakes politics. She, like her husband, had leveraged public offices to end up a multimillionaire many times over—well apart from the serial scandals of Whitewater, cattle-future speculations, the demonization of Bill Clinton’s liaisons, the Clinton Foundation’s finances, the Benghazi fiasco, the Uranium One deal, the unauthorized use of a private email server as secretary of state, and the hiring of Christopher Steele to compile a dossier on Donald Trump. Hillary also somehow became quite rich by monetizing the likelihood that she would be eventually the spouse of the president, or later, and far more lucratively, the president herself.
Trump’s sins (e.g., multiple bankruptcies, failed product lines, endless lawsuits, creepy sexual scandals, loud public spats, crude language, and gratuitous cruelty), in contrast, were seen as those of a self-declared multibillionaire wheeler-dealer in private enterprise. His past tawdriness was regrettable and at times he had found himself in legal trouble. But Trump had not yet abused the people’s trust by acting unethically while in office—even if the default reason was that he had never yet held elected or appointed positions. Voters in 2016 preferred an authentic bad boy of the private sector to the public’s disingenuous good girl. Apparently, uncouth authenticity trumped insincere conventionality.
Donald Trump’s agenda also arose as the antithesis to the new Democratic Party of Barack Obama. After 2008, Democrats were increasingly candid in voicing socialist bromides. And they were many, including open borders, identity politics, higher taxes, more government regulation, free college tuition, single-payer government-run health care, taxpayer-subsidized green energy, rollbacks of fossil-fuel production, and a European Union–like foreign policy. Progressives talked up these leftist visions mostly among themselves without much idea how they sounded to a majority quite unlike themselves. To be called a socialist was now a proud badge of honor, no longer to be written off as a right-wing slur. By 2018, Trump’s Democratic critics were not shy about calling for the abolition of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and were courting openly avowed socialist candidates.
Yet these supposedly populist proposals were proving an anathema to the traditional working classes of rural America, as well as urban blue-collar industrial workers and many of the self-employed. Democrats also advanced them with a cultural disdain for the lower middle classes and rural people in general. Twenty-first-century progressivism had become increasingly pyramidal, perhaps best called “oligarchical socialism,” with the extremely wealthy advocating for redistribution for the poor. Elites not subject to the ramifications of their own policies ruled from on top. The subsidized poor answered them from far below. Both barely disguised a shared disdain for the struggle of most of those in between.
The Republican traditional answer to such Democratic overreach after 2009 had resulted in historic electoral gains in state and local offices, and the recapture of the US Congress. Yet Republicans had not won a presidential vote with a 51 percent plurality since 1988. They had lost the popular vote in five out of the six preceding elections. Something clearly had gone wrong with Republican leadership at the national level. Bob Dole, the late John McCain, Mitt Romney, and other establishmentarians proved hardly effective mastheads.
The Republicans also had their own sort of unpopular dogmas in addition to uninspiring national candidates. Fair trade was seen as less important than free trade. Illegal immigration was largely ignored to ensure inexpensive unskilled labor for businesses. Constant overseas interventions were seen as the necessary wages of global leadership. Huge annual budget deficits were ignored. A powerful and rich United States could supposedly afford both trade deficits and to underwrite ossified military alliances and optional adventures. The culture and concerns of the two coasts mattered more than what was in between, as if both Democrats and Republicans would draw their talent from and serve first those on the Eastern and Western seaboards.
All these themes—who the outlier Trump was and how he behaved, the anger of the red-state interior, the unattractive alternative of Hillary Clinton, the progressive takeover of the Democratic Party, and the inept Republican response to it—frame each chapter of this book.
Yet if candidate Trump should have been elected, does president Trump warrant such confidence? Has he pursued a positive agenda, rather than just being against what the two-party establishment had been for, and has his controversial and often chaotic governance nevertheless proven effective?
At the end of his second year in office, the answer was yes. The Case for Trump argues that at home the economy in Trump’s first six hundred days was better than at any time in the last decade. Massive deregulation, stepped-up energy production, tax cuts, increased border enforcement, and talking up the American brand produced a synergistic economic upswing, as evidenced by gross domestic product (GDP) growth, a roaring stock market, and near record unemployment. Abroad, Trump restored military deterrence, and questioned the previously unquestionable assumptions of the global status quo, both the nostrums of our friends and the ascendance of our enemies. The obdurate Never Trump Republicans of 2016 by mid-2018 had become either largely irrelevant or had begun to support the Trump agenda.
These themes frame the formal plan of this book. The argument covers the three years since Trump announced his presidential bid in July 2015 to mid-2018, as he neared the end of the second year of his presidency.
Part 1, the first three chapters of the book, explore (1) the nature of a divided America that Trump found and leveraged, (2) the signature issues by which he as a candidate successfully massaged that split, and (3) the clever use of his own person to fuel his often-divisive message.
As for those challenging Trump for the Republican nomination, part 2’s three chapters review all the anemic alternatives to Trump that prepared his pathway to election. The steady move leftward of the Democratic Party made victory far easier for Trump. Democrats were no longer much interested in the plight of the white working class.
Early on, Trump also counted on the inability of out-of-touch Republicans to galvanize conservative voters. Republicans had become stereotyped as a party at the national level of persuasive abstractions and logical think-tank theories. Wall Street, the US Chamber of Commerce, and the Republican Party could not convince the lost half of America that doctrinaire agendas would do much for anyone anytime soon.
Just as importantly, Trump argued that both parties were embedded deeply within the shadow government of the “deep state.” For Trump, that vague and controversial term could mean almost whatever he wished. Sometimes it was an amorphous bureaucratic beast that had taken on a life of its own to transcend politics and become parasitic. Its main aim was no longer public service, but to survive and multiply. The insidious power and reach of the IRS, of unelected law-making justices, of the intelligence agencies, of the social welfare bureaucracies, and of the regulatory agencies increasingly controlled, frightened, and sickened Americans.
So Trump blasted this “swamp” that, he claimed, had targeted his candidacy. His them-us rhetoric galvanized voters of both parties in a way not seen in the quarter century since the sloppy populism of third-party candidate Ross Perot.
In part 3, I examine Trump’s three larger themes that framed his political agenda: America was no longer great; he was certainly not Hillary Clinton; and somebody in some sense “unpresidential” was sorely needed in the White House. Trump nonstop warned of American decline and he promised to make the next generation’s lives better than those of their parents’. Trump’s “Make America Great” theme, however, was neither rosy optimism nor gloom-and-doom declinism. Instead, it came off to half the country as “can do-ism”: an innately great people had let the wrong politicians drive their country into a quagmire. But it still could be led out of the morass to reclaim rapidly its former greatness by simply swapping leaders and agendas. The problem was one of the spirit and mind, not a dearth of resources, enemies at the gates, or a failed economic or social system.
Trump also hammered on the particular unsuitability of the insider Hillary Clinton. He turned Clinton into not just another corrupt politician (“crooked Hillary”) or a liberal bogeywoman. She was now also emblemized as a careerist government totem, and thus by extension the icon of what was wrong with conventional American politics.
Both as candidate and president, Trump also was judged by his critics in the media in an ahistorical vacuum, without much appreciation that prior presidents had on occasion adopted his brand of invective without commensurate criticism, given the pre-internet age and a media that was often seen in the past as an extension of the Oval Office. In addition, Trump’s method and message could not be separated, either by critics or supporters. If other politicians had adopted his policies, but delivered them in the manner of Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, then they would have likely failed to get elected, and if elected likely not carried them all out. Yet if different candidates had embraced Bush or Rubio agendas, but talked and tweeted like Trump, they would have certainly flopped even more so.
In part 4, I assess the volatile Trump presidency, which began without a honeymoon. From the morning after his victory, he met hysterical efforts to thwart his agenda and soon to abort his presidency. Unlike prior Republican presidents, Trump saw the hatred of the Left as an existential challenge. As a sometimes former liberal, perhaps Trump was shocked at the animosity he incurred, given that he had always before easily navigated among the cultural and political Left. But now, candidate and president Trump would either defeat the “fake news” press or it would surely crush him. There could be no draw, no truce, no reconciliation. No quarter was asked, none received. Trump never bought into the decorum that a president never stoops to answer cheap criticism. Rather, he insisted that he even must be petty and answer everything and always in kind, or often more crudely than his attackers.
I end part 4 with a critique of Trump’s governance through his first eighteen months in office, and show how he achieved initial economic and foreign policy results not seen in a generation.
A brief epilogue speculates on the lasting effect, if any, of Trump’s efforts at national renewal in general—and in particular on whether Trumpism has changed the conservative movement or the Republican Party in any lasting way.
I end with a few notes of caution. I wrote the first draft of this book in mid-2018, after about six hundred days of the Trump presidency. Given the failure of the polls in 2016 and a collective loss of confidence in their predictive accuracy, a mostly anti-Trump mainstream media, and Trump’s own volatility, it is impossible to calibrate the ultimate fate of the Trump administration or even the course of events in the next week, much less the next 860 days.
One example of this Trump paradox of polling contrary to popular wisdom is illustrative. In mid-July 2018, Trump was pronounced by experts in Washington to have suffered the worst ten days of his presidency. Furor met his supposedly star-crossed Russian summit. Then there was the subsequent clearly sloppy press conference with Russian president Putin in Helsinki, Finland, that earned stinging criticism from even Republican pundits and politicians. Trump traded barbs with his now indicted former lawyer and likely government witness Michael Cohen. CNN released an example of attorney Cohen’s secretly recorded old conversations with Trump about possible payments to a long-ago paramour. More media predictions about the course of Robert Mueller’s nonending investigation focused on obstruction and conspiracy. Yet in the NBC/WSJ poll, Trump through it all climbed a point to a 45 percent favorability rating—with near-record approval from Republicans. Critics publicly rejoiced that Trump still did not win 50 percent approval, but privately they feared that the paradoxes and ironies that had accompanied his improbable 2016 victory were still poorly understood—and still in play.
Donald Trump’s political career started in mid-2015 when he announced his presidential candidacy. Although Trump was a prior tabloid celebrity, and had voiced often conflicting views in print and on television on a wide range of issues, we learned the details of his politics and leadership mostly from three years of campaigning and governance. Given that paucity of information, for analyses of Trump’s rhetoric, agenda, and record I draw freely on evidence and quotations from both his campaign and brief presidency. That is a legitimate chronological conflation of material for at least two reasons.
So far Trump has proved to be one of the rare presidents who has attempted to do what he said he would. He has also not acted much differently in 2017–18 than he said he would during 2015–16. That continuum is why his critics understandably fear him, and why his hard-core supporters often seem to relish their terror.
Only after the election did Trump’s critics more boldly express their contempt for his supporters. Their disgust was unwise to vent fully when it was still crucial to win swing states. What blue-state America really felt about Trump’s voters in 2016 often fully emerged only in 2017–18, when it was a question not of winning a close election, but of delegitimizing a presidency.
I often speak of the “Trump voter” or the “Trump base.” Yet those supporters were not necessarily synonymous with the “Republican base” or even the “conservative base.” Instead, they were a new mishmash of older, loosely defined interests that often were the mirror images of those of Ross Perot, the Ronald Reagan candidacy, and the Tea Party. They could be Democrats, Independents, or (more often) discontented Republicans. Trump could not win the presidency or maintain his support without them, but he also could not succeed only with them. They were instead the force multipliers that allowed a Republican president to win in key states thought unwinnable. And yet they were usually not necessarily assets transferable to other establishment Republican candidates.
Trump is not just a political phenomenon. His person dominates the news, the popular culture, and the world’s attention. About Trump, no one is neutral, no one calm. All agree that Trump meant to do something big, either undoing the last half century of American progressivism, or sparking a cultural and political renaissance like no other president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or crashing the traditional American political establishment and its norms of behavior altogether. All knew that he was no Bush, no Clinton or Obama. Americans accepted that reality from the first day they met Trump in his new role as a politician and had their impressions confirmed each day of his presidency.
Finally, I note that I have never met Donald Trump. Nor have I visited the Trump White House. I have never been offered, sought, or accepted any appointment from the Trump administration. Nor have I been in communications with members of the Trump campaign and have not sought out anyone in the administration. Living on a farm in central California can preclude inside knowledge of Washington politics, but, on the upside, it also allows some distance and thereby I hope objectivity.
I wish to thank Jennifer Hanson, Bruce Thornton, David Berkey, Megan Ring, and my literary agents Glen Hartley and Lynn Chu for offering valuable improvements to the manuscript, along with Lara Heimart, my editor at Basic Books, for both her constructive criticism and encouragement. For the past fifteen years I have enjoyed the support of and residence at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University and the encouragement of its former and present directors, John Raisian and Thomas Gilligan. I owe a special debt of gratitude for the continued direct help of Hoover overseers Martin Anderson; Lew Davies; Robert, Rebekah, and Jennifer Mercer; Roger Mertz; Jeremiah Milbank; and Victor Trione, as well as the confidence and support of Roger and Susan Hertog. Roger for over a decade has been a treasured friend who has offered me invaluable insight on a variety of issues.
Trump is a polarizing figure whose very name prompts controversy that soon turns to acrimony. My aim again in The Case for Trump is to explain why he ran for president, why he surprised his critics in winning the 2016 Republican primaries and general election, and why, despite media frenzy and the nonstop Twitter bombast, Trump’s appointments and his record of governance have improved the economy, found a rare mean between an interventionist foreign policy and isolationism, and taken on a toxic establishment and political culture that long ago needed an accounting.
Victor Davis Hanson
MEET DONALD J. TRUMP
Ordinary men usually manage public affairs better than their more gifted fellows.
—Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (spoken by Cleon, son of Cleaenetus)
On June 16, 2015, voters met sixty-nine-year-old flamboyant billionaire, and now Republican presidential candidate, Donald J. Trump at his own eponymous Manhattan high-rise.
The outsider offered no apologies for promising to be the first successful presidential candidate to have no political experience. Trump came down on his escalator, ready for the beginning of a nonending war with the press and civil strife within his party. He postured like Caesar easily crossing the forbidden Rubicon and forcing an end to the old politics as usual.
Trump arrived with few if any campaign handlers. He soon bragged that he preferred an unorthodox small staff to ensure immunity from political contamination altogether. He boasted that he would pay for his own campaign. “I’m using my own money. I’m not using the lobbyists. I’m not using donors. I don’t care. I’m really rich.”
But if the legendarily parsimonious billionaire planned to use mostly his own funds, then he was likely to run the most outspent presidential campaign in history. Sure enough, by Election Day, Hillary Clinton would raise almost half a billion dollars more than Donald Trump’s roughly $600 million and still lose the Electoral College vote. Trump seemed oddly naïve about the reality that in presidential politics the rub is not so much about having lots of your own money, but rather the ability to get lots more of other people’s money.
What followed was the strangest presidential candidate’s announcement speech in memory. Trump’s stream-of-consciousness talk went on and off—and back on—script. Reporters were stunned but also mesmerized by his lowbrow, sometimes crude tone and its content.
Politicos immediately dubbed Trump’s rants political suicide. They were aghast not so much about what he said, but that he said it at all. Some pros boasted that his first campaign speech would likely be his last.
Unlike most all politicians, Trump did not hide that he was egotistical (“I beat China all the time. All the time!”) and bombastic (“I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created”). He did not care that he fibbed (“Even our nuclear arsenal doesn’t work”). Much less did he worry that he was politically incorrect (“We get Bergdahl. We get a traitor. We get a no-good traitor.”). No politician had spoken like that since Ross Perot or Pat Buchanan. And neither of them had come close to winning the presidency.
I listened to determine whether Trump had any persuasive arguments. He did. Lots of them, even if not all were relevant campaign issues. I did not know whether Trump companies did well in China. But I certainly had read of worrisome problems about the readiness of the American nuclear arsenal. Former national security advisor Susan Rice had misled the country about the desertion of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in claiming he had served “with honor and distinction.” In truth, he was a traitor of sorts who left his fellow soldiers on the front lines in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, and walked out to be captured by the Taliban, endangering others who would look for him.
Unlike Barack Obama’s similar “I,” “I,” “I” repetitiveness, Trump’s first-person monotony could be strangely addictive. He was capable of saying anything to anyone at any time and anywhere. Shock followed because Trump supposedly should never have said what is not to be said—or at least not to be said in the way that he said it. Yet he had a unique ability to convey a truth that was rarely spoken, even as he exaggerated details.
How could you categorize Trump? He sounded neither orthodox Republican, nor consistent with his own often liberal past. Trump did not just damn unfair trade. He slandered China. But he still did so with a strange sort of admiration for its ability so easily to swindle America. In Trump’s world, commercial cheating and China were synonymous: “When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China in a trade deal? They kill us.” That assertion seemed self-evident.
Economic gurus scoffed at the specter of tariffs. Yet turn to the Wall Street Journal and there were also daily stories of flagrant Chinese trade violations and confiscations of American technology. These sensational news accounts were often accompanied by editorials assuring readers that the ensuing nearly $350 billion annual trade deficits were no big deal. But if so, why did a cagey China seek to increase them so much? And if China violated environmental, labor, financial, copyright, patent, and commercial regulations to accrue such huge surpluses, what remedies were there for redress, given past presidential rhetoric, both harsh and appeasing, had utterly failed?
Most politicians routinely called for “comprehensive immigration reform,” but without ever defining what they meant. Or rather, representatives knew all too well what they meant when they substituted the euphemism “comprehensive” for the politically unpalatable updated bracero (“arm”) program of guest workers ushered in from Mexico and Central America. The soothing noun “reform” was a way of avoiding the unspeakable “amnesty.”
Not Trump. He left no doubt what he intended: “When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity.” In fact, at home in California’s vast Central Valley I knew a lot of Mexican nationals who had laughed at American stupidity. They had explained to me how they crossed the border far more easily than I did when reentering the United States through customs—and with far less worry that there would be any consequences in lying about one’s legal status.
Trump then thundered his clarifications: “I would build a great wall. And nobody builds walls better than me, believe me. And I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great wall on our southern border and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall.”
- "I come across books now and then, and I heartily recommend those I really like. But I'm just flat-out telling you to get this one. If you believe in Donald Trump, if you believe in the whole 'Make America Great Again' agenda, if you want to read some of the most intelligent defense of Trump, the most intelligent defense and explanation of Trump's agenda...the book is tremendous.... If you love Trump and if you're looking for ways to help other people who don't understand Trump to understand, this book is gonna be ideal."—Rush Limbaugh
- "As a great historian, Victor Davis Hanson makes the case for President Trump with unique insights and historic understanding and clarity. A must-read for everyone who supports the President or wants to understand this moment in history."—Newt Gingrich
- "A brilliant and bracing analysis from one of the great thinkers and writers of our time, and a farmer to boot - Victor Davis Hanson. Hanson understood the circumstances that gave rise to Donald Trump early on, how the president has made long overdue changes, and why his enemies seek to destroy him."—Mark R. Levin
- "Hanson is shrewd and insightful on Trump's appeal... one of the smartest conservative defenses of Trump yet published."—Publishers Weekly
- "A well-researched explanation of how Mr. Trump beat all odds to win the presidency, and also an account of his first two years in office."—Washington Times
- "Hanson sets out calmly, cogently, urgently a corrective to the anti-Trump hysteria."—The Times (UK)
- "A necessary and important addition to the already existing body of literature on why and how President Trump defeated first his Republican rivals and later Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton... a timely and revealing book."—Washington Book Review
- On Sale
- Mar 17, 2020
- Page Count
- 480 pages
- Basic Books