by Victor Davis Hanson
What was, is, and will be the Trump agenda?
Against all odds, what elected Trump in 2016 was a recalibration of American foreign and domestic policy—and the art of politicking itself.
Doctrine and Policy
In foreign affairs, the United States would no longer adhere to every aspect of the 75-year-old postwar order it created—given the world now bore little resemblance to the world of 1945.
Prior bipartisan foreign policy had often ossified to the point of enhancing the power of our enemies, weakening our complacent friends, and terribly damaging our own power. When Trump entered office, ISIS was proving that it was hardly a “JV” organization. North Korea was recklessly testing missiles and bragging of its nuclear-tipped rockets pointed at our West Coast.
Israel and the moderate Arab regimes were ostracized as part of the insane Obama empowerment of theocratic Iran and its quest for a radical crescent encompassing Syria, Lebanon, Hezbollah, and Hamas.
Russian reset was an utter failure. Unhinged, we were hectoring Vladimir Putin on human rights while agreeing to dismantle missile defense in Europe, if he would just please behave for a bit, and give Obama space during his 2012 reelection bid. The Asian pivot was laughable. Our friendly and hostile trading partners praised the Obama Administration in direct proportion to their manipulation of it.
In the 1950s, it was understandable that the United States would spend blood and treasure abroad to resurrect the destroyed economies after World War II and contain Soviet Communism. Its policy of allowing recovering allies to run up huge trade deficits to reenter the world community was seen both as desirable and affordable, as was putting down Communist insurrections the world over to contain the Soviet Union.
Western Europe, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea became powerhouses, often with wide open, one-sided access to U.S. markets. China would never have achieved its 40-year stunning ascendence had America applied to Chinese trade the same mercantilism that China applied to the United States.
By 2016, it was clear that a host of world and international trade and development organizations took for granted U.S. moral and financial support, while assuming wide open entrance for all into the U.S. market.
The result of the globalist project was the destruction of much of the American interior’s manufacturing and assembly industries. Those whose labor could not be so easily xeroxed—Silicon Valley, Wall Street, banking and insurance, big law, the media, entertainment, professional sports, and large research universities—saw their markets expand to 7 billion consumers. Coastal elites got rich. Interior deplorables and clingers were said to have deserved their fate by not going to college or failing to learn how to code.
They were lectured that not even a magic wand could save their jobs, or, in the words of Lawrence Summers, former Harvard president and the architect of President Obama’s team of economic advisers, they deserved their unfortunate fates, which in our meritocracy matched their meager abilities. “One of the challenges in our society is that the truth is a kind of disequalizer,” Summers reportedly once said. “One of the reasons that inequality has probably gone up in our society is that people are being treated closer to the way that they’re supposed to be treated.”.
Into that comfortable matrix of easing into decline, Trump stormed in. He damned globalists as elites who cared more about abstractions abroad than unfairness and the poor at home right under their noses.
To restore U.S. primacy, he greenlighted gas and oil production. When the United States became the largest producer of both, much of the world changed. The Middle East no longer had a political stranglehold over U.S. foreign policy. Russia, and illiberal regimes like Iran, lost hundreds of billions in carbon income. American consumers and industry enjoyed the cheapest energy prices in the Westernized world. And the elite dismissed all that as too damaging to the planet.
Tax reform and deregulation lured back to U.S. shores offshored money and opened up trillions of dollars for investment that had been inert—the owners of which had been understandably worried by the redistributionist rhetoric and policies of the increasingly leftwing second-term Obama Administration and its recalibration of the Democratic Party.
Closing the border with Mexico slowly tapered off the once-endless supplies of cheap imported labor. For the first time in a half-century, the American worker was courted by needy employers who paid record entry-level wages, as unemployment fell to near historic peacetime lows.
Minority youth were no longer begging employers for a chance of a job, but rather were being begged by them to come to work. Ancient fights over unions and minimum wages faded as an increasingly wealthy America saw middle-class income soar for the first time in years as employers paid whatever was necessary to land American workers.
Trump stopped most optional military interventions that did not pencil out in a cost-benefit advantage for the United States—or for regional stability. Instead, don’t-tread-on-me realism bombed ISIS out of existence and took out the terrorist Iranian mastermind Qasem Soleimani, or threatened Kim Jong-un with massive retaliation if he dared launch a missile toward the United States.
At no time did Trump think he should remove Bashar al-Assad and try to create a Western democracy in Syria, or invade and overthrow the Iranian regime—as opposed to slowly strangle them with sanctions, new alliances, and military deterrence. There was no desire to return to spend money or lives in Libya or Iraq to establish or reboot democratic institutions.
There were two final pillars of the new Trump foreign policy. One was to talk honestly to allies about investing in their own defense as promised. Most not only counted on U.S. protection but often loudly seemed to resent their ensuing dependence by opportunistically ankle-biting the United States for its global policeman role.
Western Europe and Asia, and especially Germany and Japan, were told that if Russia and China really were existential threats, then such front-line states had to commensurately invest in their own defense first—at least if they to expected 19-year-olds from rural Michigan or northern Florida to fly over to their defense.
Unpredictability was seen as safer deterrence in a dangerous world than predictable and ossified policy.
So, against all advice, Trump called China to account for its commercial cheating and insidious infiltration into Western banking, corporate, media, entertainment, and academic institutions. He cut off aid to Palestinians who refused to recognize Israel, moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, reminded the Assad regime that it would never recover the Golan Heights to launch another war on Israel, encouraged the moderate Arab world to ally with Israel to protect against revolutionary Shiite Iran, and reminded Canada and Mexico that one reason why they had small militaries, and growing economies, was their proximity to the United States—and thus such magnanimity should be reciprocated with symmetry rather than seen as naïveté that explained its continuance.
Class Not Race
The second pillar of Trumpism was a shift in Republican orthodoxy to reemphasize class differences and in radically different ways.
No longer was there talk of privatizing Social Security, institutionalizing free (but not fair) trade, or following international commercial accords against the interest of an increasingly hollowed out American middle class. Deregulation and cuts in corporate taxes galvanized the economy and indeed profits “trickled down” to the hoi polloi. But such necessary free-market reforms were not the be-all and end-all of Republican orthodoxy, which was now readjusted to be more in the interest of the factory worker, not just the Wall Street investor.
Closing the border cut off the easy supply of cheap labor for corporations. Only that way would wages of entry-level and largely minority workers rise. More radially, Trumpism did not see the middle classes as spent, addicted, eroding and doomed, much less as deplorables, clingers, irredeemables, dregs, and chumps as the coastal elites increasingly liked to smear them. And Trump certainly did not see poor whites, without much influence, as privileged, and thus in need of making atonement for supposed sins of the past or the present.
One reason why Trump is libeled as a racist is that he saw through the white elite con of blaming those without advantage for bias and prejudice, in order to win psychological exemption for the elite’s own near-monopoly on blue-chip university admissions, corporate, media and academic old-boy access and cultural influence.
Aside from fundamental changes in foreign and democratic policy, and renewed emphasis on class instead of race, Trumpism changed the political dialectic.
Of course, Trump could be crude, even at times bullying and profane. But much of his braggadocio and vulgarity were designed as chemotherapy to kill the cancer of the administrative state and the lock-hold on permanent government by the revolving-door, bipartisan coastal elite.
The reasons why Trump just days after his inauguration faced a failed impeachment, or calls for his removal by the 25th Amendment, or even talk of a military coup, or the Steele dossier hoax that led to a $40 million, 22-month effort by progressives to destroy his presidency, his person and his family, were manifold. But one cause surely was that Trump was orphaned from the hard-Left Democratic Party and the Republican establishment and seemed either to welcome the ostracism or not be fully cognizant of the cost that it entailed.
True, Trump may have defined presidential comportment down with his “sleepy,” “crooked,” “lying,” and “low-energy” epithets and with his crowds cheering to “lock her up.” But then again, what was so moral in the past about mellifluously assuring Americans they would lose neither their doctor nor their health plan—to the amusement of the likes of Jonathan Gruber who knew all along that they would? Or ramming through the Iran Deal by bypassing the treaty duties of the U.S. Senate, while deluding the country with a “know-nothing” media echo chamber? If we learned anything from the Obama years, supposedly “scandal-free” presidents might do anything from weaponizing the IRS and siccing the FBI on opponents to dismantling viable allied missile defense to leverage foreign leaders to aid their reelection campaigns—and then call all that moral, with a chorus of media assent.
When a man takes on the role of the gunslinger arriving in the town to clean up the mess, one must expect that his methods and comportment will offend his supporters as much as they terrified his adversaries, all the more so as he succeeds and thus the beneficiaries see an end on the horizon to their embarrassing need to have called in the unorthodox to do what their own polite conventionality should have done, but choose not (or did not have the courage) to do.
The Fate of Trumpism
We can sense the viability of Trumpism by the current lack of coherent attacks on its principles and achievements. Would a President Mitt Romney demand that the U.S. embassy now leave Jerusalem? Would a President Nikki Haley cease the new containment of China? Would a President Marco Rubio return to the Bush-Obama coaxing of NATO partners to please, pretty please pay up what they had promised?
Or alternatively, would a President Joe Biden warn the Arab countries to cease their “destabilizing” new partnership with Israel?
Would he jawbone them to return the autocratic Palestinians to front and center of the Middle East “peace” plan? Would a President Biden begin dismantling 400 miles of border wall and return to open borders?
At home, Biden most certainly would raise taxes, restore cumbersome regulations, strangle the fossil fuel industry, and return to identity politics pandering. But after the 2017-20 Trump boom, he would do so without any expectation that the economy would grow or the country would heal or the world would suddenly cool down and the seas cease to rise.
Biden knows that under Obama a natural recovery stagnated, a uniter president ignited the country with his team of racial arsonists, and the government wasted billions of dollars in green boondoggles even as a hamstrung private sector did far more than Washington to expand the use of solar energy and electric cars.
And what about the NeverTrumper—always wrong that Trump would not be nominated or not be elected or be destroyed by “Russian collusion”? At the end of Trump, whether in 2020 and 2024, would they resurrect the Weekly Standard or return to the Sunday talk shows? Would the legions of handlers, operatives and advisors return to recalibrate all the party Senate and House races along the lines of a Mitt Romney or John McCain orthodoxy? Would the NeverTrump Phoenix arise to save the Republican Party from the ashes of Trumpism—on the principle that deplorables would always support RINO candidates, but RINOS would bolt the minute a deplorable candidate appeared. Could a Jeff Flake or a Ben Sasse or a John Kasich candidacy shatter the Blue Wall?
Probably not at all. Elite Republicanism would fail because the white working classes would return either to political hibernation in the swing states or rejoin the Democratic Party. Growing minority support would vanish because blacks and Latinos would see platitudinous and pandering Republicans as far more injurious to their futures than was a crudely talking, Queens-accented populist Trump.
Trumpism did not dismantle Republican conservatism. It simply enhanced conservative appeal by closing the border, confronting China, demanding fair trade, avoiding optional military expeditions, emphasizing the concerns of the working class, and redefining presidential behavior as boisterously honoring promises rather than mellifluously reneging on them.
Whatever Trump’s fate, the NeverTrump faction will not succeed in rebuilding a new-old Republican Party under the Bush-McCain-Romney paradigm. Biden and his leftist masters would not be able to lower minority unemployment to Trump levels. Neither would they declare an end to containing China and claim such past confrontation was an unnecessary provocation.
Like it or not, Trump hit on a great truth that no leader can write off his country’s vast industrial interior, destroy his nation’s borders, willingly cede global leadership to a Communist dictatorship, manipulate intelligence agencies to destroy political opponents, prefer to manage decline rather than to seek renewal, and meanwhile, as he did all that, call himself moral and presidential.
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Victor Davis Hanson is an American military historian, columnist, former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He was a professor of classics at California State University, Fresno, and is currently the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
Photo “Trump” by The White House.