MARCH 24, 2019
ON JANUARY 2 of this year, Donald Trump made arguably the most boneheaded gaffe of his blooper-rich presidency. Speaking to White House reporters about his administration’s policy toward Afghanistan, he confidently proposed that the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion was a defensive — and defensible — reaction to Islamic terrorism. “The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia,” Trump said. “They were right to be there.”
Coming amid the drama of a government shutdown, and involving a piece of Cold War history even well-educated Americans might not know, the remark barely cut into the news cycle. But for anyone with a decent grasp of modern history who got wind of this howler, it was like an unfunny version of the the scene in Animal House when John Belushi’s Bluto Blutarsky drunkenly rallies his forlorn Delta House frat brothers by asking, “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”
One person whom I can assume heard the remark and didn’t laugh was Victor Davis Hanson. A classicist and military historian currently embedded in Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and a well-known contributor to National Review, City Journal, and other highbrow conservative publications, Hanson emerged in the last decade as one of the conservative movement’s most tweedy proponents of knowing your history and taking the long view of things. And now, after a career publishing academic works on the classical era and on military history (including the United States’s occupation of Afghanistan), he seeks to explain how the Bluto Blutarsky of presidents is just what the United States needs to reclaim its place in world history.
The question of how Hanson got from Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece in 1983 to The Case for Trump has been the subject of much guesswork and hand-wringing among the National Review set, who represent several strains of thoughtful conservatism I find myself drawn to. My hunch is that it comes down to Hanson’s unusual dual status as a scholar who is also the sixth-generation proprietor of a farm in an area of California’s Central Valley gripped by economic decline and demographic reset. Like many of Hanson’s readers, I first discovered him via his Grapes of Wrath–style magazine chronicling of the disorder surrounding his family 1870s homestead, and of his determination to stay in California despite its growing liberal political monoculture.
While Hanson doesn’t dwell on his personal history in The Case for Trump, it’s easy to see how this struggle would put him on a different path than the NeverTrump tories and neocons of the inner suburbs and global cities. (I am sure that my own occasional flirtation with Trumpism is at least partly rooted in an unrecognizable and impoverished hometown, though in my case in a forgotten blotch of central New Jersey.) This backstory alone makes the book an interesting and important document, though not one without major flaws.
The first is that much of The Case for Trump is less a case for Trump than an indictment of Trump’s adversaries and antagonists, and a recounting of plot lines and dramas likely to be familiar to the reader, at least in rough outline. To be fair, in an era defined by negative partisanship this is probably to be expected. And given a news cycle now measured in hours it is useful to occasionally take a refresher in pre-Trump and Trump-era history. It is also strangely gripping to read the unfinished story of President Trump written as history — entirely in past tense.
Hanson’s argument is confusingly spread across four thematic sections, whereas it only really rests on two pillars: that Trumpism is an essential and overdue tonic for America’s ills, and that Trump is the only doctor capable of administering it. But he is ploddingly effective in building and buttressing both pillars.
What Hanson calls the United States’s ancien régime has itself spent much of the last two years trying to understand what it did to earn four years of Trump, and anyone still looking for new reasons why this “establishment without answers” was humiliated by a neophyte candidate initially laughed off as a prankster will find many here.
More original and compelling is Hanson’s case that Trump’s unique background and character made him an indispensable figure. Trump, he claims, was not just the contender who could best feel and feed on the sense of decline haunting so many voters. He was the only one who paired this declinist message with a reassuring promise that the slump was a temporary one that could be quickly reversed by unleashing the “animal spirits” that had once made America unquestionably great.
Hanson’s argument here is supported by his willingness to acknowledge and dissect many of Trump’s obvious character flaws, his sordid past, “puerile polemics,” and brazen lies, something I doubt one finds in most titles on the MAGA bookshelf.
Unsurprisingly, he works to show that the “vulgar, uncouth, divisive” Trump isn’t as much of a break from history as we are led to believe, with a refresher on Presidents Gone Bad going back to Woodrow Wilson. But what might seem like a cheap round of whataboutism is actually rather convincing, especially when it comes to the changing behavior of the press corps over the decades. When Trump actually is history, will his crudeness and cruelty really overshadow that of, say, Lyndon Johnson, who routinely exposed or relieved himself in front of staffers just to watch them squirm?
At the same time, Hanson tries to have it both ways, arguing that Trump’s open and gleeful vulgarity has been one of his great assets, revealing the hypocrisy and cheap pieties of his opponents, and otherwise connecting with an electorate bathed in a commercial culture that valued authenticity over propriety. So while his 2016 opponents reflexively tried to sound highbrow or homespun depending on the crowd, “Trump sounded lowbrow all the time to all the people.” And though Hanson doesn’t bring up Bluto Blutarsky, he sneaks in an equally apt movie character from the same period: Al Czervik, the crass but empathetic businessman played by Rodney Dangerfield in the 1980 cult comedy Caddyshack, who faces off against Ted Knight’s Judge Elihu Smails, the “smarmy keeper of country club protocols and standards.”
It is an intriguing hop from Achilles and Ajax to 1970s and ’80s scatalogical humor. Not being trained or well read in the classics, I am reluctant to pass judgment on Hanson’s recurring comparison of Trump to the demagogues and tragic heroes of the ancient era. But it is certainly a fascinating lens, and one a classicist like Hanson should more of less feel obliged to use. And as with the narrative recaps of the previous episodes of reprobate chief magistrates, it offers a good reminder that way back being really twisted was seldom an impediment to being a hero:
Tragic heroes are often unstable loners. They are aloof by preference and due to society’s understandable unease with them. Sophocles’s Ajax’s soliloquies about a rigged system and the lack of recognition accorded his undeniable accomplishments is Trumpian to the core. They are akin to the sensational rumors that late at night Trump is holed up alone, brooding, eating fast food, apart from his wife, and watching Fox News shows.
Disappointingly, Hanson doesn’t have nearly as much fun comparing Trump to nonfictional classical leaders, with no mention of such obvious analogues as Tiberius, who had quite a few tremendous policy wins but was shunned by polite Roman society for being a paranoid brute who spent much of his reign AWOL at his version of Mar-a-Lago, in Capri. (Though I doubt even Trump’s worst critics can imagine him having his sexual assault victims tossed from a cliff to their deaths.) But again, I’m weak on the classics.
For me, the comparison in the book that rings truest is to the American president who was in office when Trump was born. Many today think of Harry Truman as a homespun weisenheimer who held the rudder after FDR died. But as Hanson reminds us, in his time Truman was known as a profane and petulant accidental president sent up from the corrupt Pendergast machine of Kansas City who on more than one occasion responded to slights with threats of violence. And despite being profoundly unpopular — his 22 percent approval rating before leaving office was roughly half of Trump’s right now — Truman presided over a series of major accomplishments, in no small part because he gave no figs about what elite DC thought.
It’s certainly possible that someday Trump will be seen as the Republican version of Truman, a caustic but colorful outsider who somehow managed to leave Washington with a few successes, both in terms of pocketbook issues (a decade-high rate of GDP growth and historically low unemployment rates) and foreign affairs (successfully renegotiated trade agreements, an apparent routing of ISIS, rising defense spending by members of NATO). NeverTrump conservatives in particular have undervalued Trump’s conservative accomplishments, and their relative orthodoxy: last March the Heritage Foundation found that the Trump administration had already enacted two-thirds of more than 300 “agenda items” they were tracking, far more than the Reagan team had ticked off at the same point in the sainted Gipper’s first term.
Yet the best comparison of all is one Hanson doesn’t even bother exploring, namely to the many scandal-ridden common-touch billionaires who have in recent decades won power in countries around the world. Why even bother with Augustus or The Wild Bunch (Hanson spends a lot of time discussing the tragic heroes of cinema) when you’ve got Silvio Berlusconi?
One reason, I suspect, is that Trump simply doesn’t look as impressive or interesting when compared to Berlusconi, who was transitioning from outrage-provoking media monopolist to outrage-provoking head of government a decade before Trump’s first season of The Apprentice, or even the relatively unknown Andrej Babiš, who could probably buy Trump out five times over with a fortune he made from scratch amid the collapse of communist Czechoslovakia. Sure, Trump has a bigger airplane and a briefcase with nuclear codes. But all else being equal these populist plutocrats — not to mention poorer but even badder hombres like Rodrigo Duterte or Jair Bolsonaro — make Trump look, as they used to say in New York, like a bit of a pisher.
He is also a plainly incurious and willfully ignorant man, especially about history.
In the end, it is Hanson’s clear aversion to reckoning with Trump’s most prosaic character flaw that is most telling. Since history was first written historians have been rationalizing or lionizing the bad behavior or character of powerful men. And even as American conservatives lament an increasingly coarse and nihilistic culture, one can see them excusing Trump’s licentiousness and impiety as a price of partisan advantage, or comparing, like Hanson, Trump’s elemental “toxicity” to chemotherapy, “which after all is used to combat something far worse than itself.” I can also appreciate that Trump’s intuitive “lizard smarts” is undervalued by the professional classes, or that the shock of political upheaval can be constructively tempered with a bit of Al Czervik–style presidential buffoonery. Even Trump’s shambolic, vote-them-off-the-island approach to administration and personnel might have some logic: revolutions are always messy.
But how does a historian excuse wanton ahistoricism? What would Victor Davis Hanson the professor say of a student who loudly claimed that the Germans had bombed Pearl Harbor?
He would, of course, be horrified. Indeed, in some of his other recent writings Hanson has made it clear that the decline in history as an academic discipline in the United States — according to the National Center for Education Statistics it is now the fastest shrinking undergraduate major — is a tragedy. “Today’s students, like their professors, not only do not possess, but feel no need to possess, familiarity with Thucydides, or Dante’s Inferno, or some idea of the Napoleonic Wars, or the work of T. S. Eliot,” he wrote in National Review six days after Trump’s stunning claim about Afghanistan.
The Case for Trump is ultimately unconvincing because, try as he might, Hanson knows that making a case for Donald Trump is inescapably an act of self-negation, the history professor’s version of a pediatric dentist writing a book called The Case for Cocoa Puffs.
With the Democratic Party poised to head deeper down the rabbit hole of socialism and identity politics in the run up to 2020, we can probably expect more conservative intellectuals to join Hanson in making peace with Trump and Trumpism. But it will be an uneasy and, in many cases, agonizing peace, not because of what Trump does or doesn’t do, but because of what he doesn’t know, and has no interest in knowing.
National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. famously said that he would rather be ruled by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than the faculty of Harvard. But the modern conservative movement’s distrust of the academe always had a carve-out for history, for the obvious reason that, to paraphrase National Review’s 1955 mission statement, a conservative’s job is to be the one standing athwart history, yelling “Stop!” And you can’t stand athwart history if you don’t know anything about it, even if, like Trump, you somehow end up with the job of making it.
Erik D’Amato is a New York–based corporate intelligence operative and journalist, and the author of The Little Book of Left-Right Equivalence: 350 Mutual Blind Spots, Dueling Hypocrisies, Double Flip-Flops and Other Uncanny Parallels Between the Two Tribes of Today’s America. He is on Twitter @erikdamato.