HH: I’m close to Hillsdale College. This is the last radio hour of the week. That means it’s time for the Hillsdale Dialogue, which I usually have with Dr. Larry Arnn or one of his colleagues in Hillsdale. Commencement is tomorrow, and so they are busy, so they asked one of their regular professors who is on the campus often, our friend and classicist, Victor Davis Hanson, to join me this morning. Dr. Hanson, good to talk to you, Victor, good to have you back.
VDH: Good to be here, Hugh.
HH: We have got a lot of ground to cover. Normally on the Hillsdale Dialogues, we talk about old things and important ideas. This week, I want to talk to you about President Trump and the world as we find it after Iran started a war and got hammered by Israel by Thursday, after the hostages were released, after the Iran agreement torn up. My first question to you is what is left of Barack Obama’s legacy?
VDH: Well, there’s a negative legacy, and that is strategic naiveté and predictability, and the wages that that earned. I mean, when Trump entered office, there were missiles capable in theory of hitting here in the West Coast. Iran had been, used that cash infusion to sponsor terrorism and anti-American activity. And I mean, that was the legacy. Foreign policy reset was failed, Libya was failed. He unnecessarily got the troops, those peacekeepers out of Iraq, ISIS, etc. So that was the legacy, and it was a negative legacy. And there’s no positive legacy that I can see.
HH: Obamacare’s mandate has been repealed, taxes have been systematically cut and reformed, and a number of the regulations that dominated and defined, for example, the Clean Power Plan, have been repudiated or are in the process of being repudiated or enjoined. And the courts are just full and overflowing of originalists.
HH: Would you have imagined this possible two years ago, Victor?
VDH: I knew that something could be better, but I didn’t think it would be better this dramatically and this quickly. Remember that people like Larry Summers said the idea of 3% GDP was a fairy tale. Paul Krugman said that we would be in a permanent recession when Trump came in. So that was the status quo wisdom. And I think it’s a lot, I think part of why it was so quick, it was psychological. So there were people in eight years that didn’t talk to each other. They kept quiet. And they just endured. You know, you didn’t build that, now’s not the time to profit. At some point, you’ve made enough money. Higher taxes…and they said you know what? This is not the time to invest or take risk. And then when Obama went out and Trump came in, it was almost a catharsis, and people just psychologically, I guess they call that the animal spirits were released. But here in California, it’s overregulated and overtaxed. Nonetheless, in my little town that’s mostly Hispanic, it’s just amazing to see the difference. There’s signs everywhere, tilers wanted, truckers wanted, welders wanted, traffic’s up on the roads. There’s construction everywhere, and I think we’re really missing something, because I haven’t seen anything in my life like this since the 80s. It’s pretty amazing.
HH: I missed a lot in the last election, Victor. I’ve been reading Salena Zito and Brad Todd’s amazing book, The Great Revolt. Have you had a chance to read that, yet?
VDH: I’ve read the excerpts, the column, but I haven’t read it, yet.
HH: Okay, she and Brad went out on the road, or Salena and Brad went out on the road. They actually talked to people, and they’ve identified seven different, they also did a poll of about 2,200 Trump voters, seven different distinct groups that mobilized for Trump that had not mobilized before, including among them the most interestingly named the King Cyrus Christians, meaning Evangelicals especially, but also Mass-attending Catholics who don’t really attribute to the President orthodox religious beliefs, but do believe he will put defenders of religious liberty on the court, and that motivated them to the ballot box in large numbers. And my goodness, he has delivered.
VDH: Yeah, he has, and that’s one of the ironies of the paradoxes of Trump that a person who’s own life was not led according to establishment Christian principles turned out to be much more favorable than any president in my lifetime. And it’s sort of, I wrote that once, but he’s sort of like this tragic hero. And heroes, don’t laugh at that, because tragic heroes were not necessarily nice guys all the time. But if I think in the Western of Shane or The Magnificent Seven, or the Wild Bunch, there’s a certain type of person that has skill sets outside the establishment when the establishment gets paralyzed, a sort of sod-buster community invite these people in, and then they’re appalled at the methodology they do to get results. And then they sort of leave because they’re, I’m not saying they’re pre-civilizational, but they don’t look at the world the same way the Council on Foreign Relations or the Kennedy School of Government does. And we can see that with Trump the way with Rocket Man, etc., etc., with the Iranians and China. And yet, they get results, because the establishment’s become ossified and calcified. And that’s, I think, what we’re watching. And people don’t really enjoy that they had to have recourse to bring in a guy like Trump, but they were at their wit’s end. I mean, they could not achieve 3% GDP. They were overregulated in the economy, unemployment was not bad, but it wasn’t going to get better. It was probably going to get worse. And then foreign policy, we just play by the marquis of Queensbury rules in a jungle outside the shores of the United States. And wow, Trump came in, and he had kind of a pall where he got those skill sets and how he got them. But for now, at this moment, this time and this place, he’s had a lot of utility, and I think people are starting to appreciate that.
HH: Yesterday, Senator Grassley was my guest, and I asked him at the beginning of the show what did he make of the return of the hostages this morning at Andrews, and he said it’s ideal for the families, but even more importantly, this is something that a year ago, you’d say President Trump is going to get Kim Jung Un to the table and maybe have denuclearization there and then bring home these prisoners? And we’ve had both Republicans and Democrats before him? I think it’s a tribute to the fact that for the first time in the history of the country, we’ve never had, we’ve always had politicians or generals to be president of the United States. Here, we‘ve got a businessman with a new way of approaching things. And this is a perfect example. And hopefully, some agreement with North Korea on denuclearization, it’s just a shock to everybody, Grassley said. He continued, who would have ever thought that we’re making progress on renegotiation of NAFTA? And we’ve got President Xi already saying he’s going to allow cars in at 2.5% tariff instead of 25% tariff. We’ve got Korea letting more tariff relief in. We’ve got all of Europe committed to spending more money on their national defense through NATO. And just things like that, and the biggest tax decrease in 30 years, 30 years, just phenomenal things happening, and it’s because we have a guy coming to town that doesn’t care how Washington used to work. And he’s going to try and get the things done he can get done. And the only thing that’s really an impediment is the Democrats in Congress. Are you shocked by Chuck Grassley’s assessment?
VDH: Well, it’s empirical, so, and he represents solid Republican values. So yeah, I am, I’m impressed by it, because he looked at the world the way it is rather than a lot of politicians who look at it the way they want it to be. But Trump, when Trump came in, nothing a person, when he gets up in the morning, he doesn’t really care what people say about him. In fact, he expects it to be negative. And so when you say everything about Trump, you really say in his mind nothing about him. So he’s not wedded or embedded to all of these institutions. For good or evil, he’s not, or his reputation. So he’s almost liberated. And when you look at Korea, he did two or three things that no president would have imagined, and that is he rhetorically ratcheted up and became as unpredictable as Kim Jung Un, and that nobody had ever done that. Then, he put the fear of God into China, because he said you know what you’re doing. You’re expropriating technology. You’re dumping. You’re violating copyright patents. And we’re not going to put up with it anymore. And then he suddenly said to China, I don’t have any problem with Japan becoming nuclear, if that’s what it takes, or maybe even Taiwan. So we thought that that would be too provocative in the past, and that put pressure on China to re-view North Korea not as a useful pit bull that you cut the leash every once in a while to bother the United States, but a pit bull that can get you in trouble, and you put him back on the leash. So it was pretty, I think the strategy was pretty good. Predictability is the worst thing you can do in strategic negotiations and posture. It’s a really good chance.
HH: You know, I’ve got hours of interviews with President Trump during the campaign when he said he wasn’t going to telegraph what he was doing. I actually, I made this mistake. Many other people made that mistake. I thought he was just covering up for a lack of knowledge, right? I’m not going to tell you what I’m going to do. But in fact, he’s been so unpredictable, it is of great strategic benefit, Victor Davis Hanson.
VDH: It is, and we have to define knowledge. We thought that in the past, knowledge was a seasoned diplomat or politician knowing the names of individuals capitals of minor Eastern European countries, if I could use the word minor, or knowing the handbook of DOD protocols. He doesn’t know that. But what you lose with that type of mastery of detail, sometimes, is the larger picture. So he came in and said foreign policy is sort of building a skyscraper in New York. You’ve got to deal with environmentalists. You’ve got to deal with unions. You’ve got to deal with crooked politicians, community activists. And I know how to deal with those different disparate groups. And he used that methodology even though he didn’t have at his grasp the detail that we had always assumed was essential to being a successful president. And I guess what he would say is you can learn the details, but you can’t learn the methodology.
HH: He said that to me many, many times, and I just didn’t believe him. I’ll be right back with Victor Davis Hanson. We’ll talk about the Mueller investigation, hubris confronting Donald Trump as well as it once confronted Barack Obama. It’s the Hillsdale Dialogue. All things Hillsdale at www.hillsdale.edu. All of these conversations dating back to 2013 at www.hughforhillsdale.com. Stay tuned.
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HH: Dr. Hanson, when we went to break, I was reminded back when you would come on during the Obama years with me, you warned that President Obama would eventually meet up with the nemesis of hubris. Do you, would you explain what you meant? And do you think Donald Trump has the same dangerous phenomenon lurking nearby?
VDH: Yeah, I mean, in Greek tragedy, the idea that someone has initial success, and he doesn’t attribute that to maybe accident or transitory good fortune, but he’s like Oedipus or Ajax or whoever they are, that he assumes it’s because of his own singular genius and then the world sort of strikes back. And the world is called Nemesis because of his overweening pride or arrogance. And everybody has to be worried. You, I, everybody worries about that. And I think Trump, so far, has avoided it, because he’s been under such assault that he’s been on the defensive. If he gets this deal with North Korea and the Iran thing works out, and we get 3 plus or even closer to 4 GDP, then nobody’s quite done that in the last 30 years. So I’m assuming that he’ll have a different view of himself, and one that’s not in the bunker, but maybe one that’s on the offensive. And yeah, he’s going to have to watch out for that, because that leads people to overreach. George Bush, remember when the statue fell of Saddam in 2003. He was polling 75%. And then we had the insurrection, and we didn’t get things, Katrina, and he went from 72%, I think it was the most steep decline since Nixon, almost 50 points in popularity.
HH: How much of the nemesis is named Mueller?
VDH: Well, I don’t think very, that’s not going to do Trump in, because Mueller has had one year, and an enormous amount of resources, and he was mandated to go after collusion. And so far, he’s only indicted a few periphery characters on lying to FBI investigators or obstruction. He’s looking for obstruction of justice of some type of financial impropriety. I think it’s a lot more likely that Mueller is suffering from hubris, because what he’s doing in the process is he’s opening legal exposure by the concept of equality under the law. People are saying wait a minute, Flynn, you got, you indicted Flynn for lying supposedly to FBI investigators. We know Cheryl Mills and Huma Abedin both told the FBI they didn’t know anything about the very server they communicated over. Are you saying you can’t lie to Congress? James Comey probably lied on two occasions. We know Clapper and Brennan both did. And when you go down, we already had seven people in the FBI, you know, Strzok, McCabe, Page, Robecki, Baker, etc., that have either been reassigned, retired or fired. And so there’s a lot out there, and we’re waiting for the Inspector General. But I think the exegesis is really that a lot of people in this country were convinced that Hillary Clinton was going to be president, and for good reason. That’s what the polls told them. So what we now see is criminal behavior, or unethical behavior, Loretta Lynch meeting with Bill Clinton on a tarmac to discuss a case under her purview involving his wife, probably, they thought would be merited, and that they would be rewarded for it in a third Obama-Clinton term. And then the unexpected happened, and they thought that collusion was a way of delegitimizing this outlier Trump. And what’s happened is all it did was it increased the fury of this backlash against this sort of Mueller investigation that’s well, it’s going the Scooter Libby-Patrick Fitzgerald route now. But it has shown uncovered that there were a lot of bad things – deceiving a FISA court, unmasking names, leaking them to the press. These are all felonies. And somebody’s going to have to be held attributable. And I think it’s much more likely that it’s not Donald Trump.
HH: The stress points are growing. I’ll continue the conversation about them with Dr. Victor Davis Hanson. It’s the Hillsdale Dialogue, America.
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HH: Dr. Hanson, I want to go back to before the break, we were talking, and last hour, I talked with Salena Zito about The Great Revolt. Michael Barone calls it the old tradition of the countryside versus the city. Salena and her friend, Brad Todd, documented in little towns and valleys throughout Pennsylvania and Ohio, in Wisconsin, and Michigan and Iowa, and Wisconsin where the blue wall shattered. And I’m reminded in no other way, I’m not making an analogy except as to the level of surprise in the capital, of what I think was called the neighbor’s war, or the Italian civil war in the late Roman Republic, when Rome was suddenly confronted by all their Italian allies that they wouldn’t make citizens. And they had a nasty, actual brutal war with their peninsular cohabitants, because they were just out of touch. Now we don’t have violence, thank goodness, but my analogy is to the level of surprises. I recall the Romans were taken unaware that the countryside was in revolt.
VDH: Yeah, that was called the Roman Social Wars, and there were some comparisons. I think what happened is that we thought globalization was 100% positive. And it’s been good in some ways, but people whose skills and jobs and products could be Xeroxed overseas suffered, and people on the coasts who were doing hedge funds and high tech that people abroad could not Xerox, profited as never before with a $6 billion person market. And somehow, we went further and said well, the reason that your lay job, or the reason that your bulldozer construction job, or the reason that your small farming job is gone is because of you. You didn’t learn coding. You didn’t go to North Dakota and learn fracking. It’s your fault, and opiates and all that caused your demise rather than it being effect rather than the cause. So I think that was a problem, and you know, when we have grandees like David Brooks or Bill Kristol saying that we want immigration to replace this kind of useless white working class, and we had clingers, we had deplorables, we had irredeemables, I’m reminded of that techie CEO, I think her name was Burleigh, who said that these are horrible places, and you wouldn’t want to go into red state America. You could see what was going, and Trump looked at the, he scanned the horizon, and he said you know what? You can win and you can overturn the Obama paradigm. You don’t need New Mexico, Nevada. They flipped. You don’t need these blues – Illinois, California, it is so Hispanic. But you can go back and win states that had not gone Republican since George H.W. Bush clobbered Dukakis.
HH: Well, I’ve got to cop to the plea of, I’ve got to cop to the plea of being a grandee of Bill and David. They’re friends, and obviously they’re your friends, too. But we did live in a bubble. And I mean, I was in 30 Rock on the night of the election. I was the only guy there who voted for Trump. But I thought he was going to get crushed. And it’s disintermediating of your reality when something crashes in like that. And I don’t know that media’s actually got its footing back, yet, Victor Davis Hanson. I want to come back to that. But first, go ahead…
VDH: Yeah, I mean, I’m looking out my window in the Central Valley, and I had two brothers who went bankrupt farming, small farming. And I know most of the people I went to high school with were, and these are both second generation Mexican-American and so-called white, have not done well. And so I did well in globalization working at Stanford. And I could see that there was a resentment there in my own family. And when I was at Hillsdale, I’d ride my bike out to the Ohio border, and I could see that people for the first time wanted to get back at the establishment. Maybe it wasn’t articulated, but there was a seething anger, and Donald Trump leveraged that anger. Somebody could say he demagogued it or he manipulated it. But he said the world has been reinvented. I can win Pennsylvania. I can win Michigan. I can win Ohio. I can win Wisconsin, because I can rack up such a vote margin in the countryside that what Madison does or what Philadelphia does or Pittsburgh or Detroit won’t matter. And I know that he only won those states by an aggregate of 89,000, but if you look at it differently, he got a quarter million more votes in some of those states than had Mitt Romney.
HH: Yeah. And in fact, when Salena and Brad go there, they find subcategories like the rough rebounders. These are people to whom life has dealt a tremendous blow. One woman’s husband hit by a van and disabled, another person opioid addicted child. You know, the rough rebounders went for Trump overwhelmingly, because they identified in him someone who fought back from adversity. The King Cyrus Christians who believe he will protect religious liberty.
HH: They were all over the place.
VDH: Well, when you’re at Stanford University and you talk about white privilege, or you’re on TV and you talk about white privilege, and people who have it don’t, you know, they say white privilege is a problem, they have it. And yet, people in the red states are not mute and dumb. They hear it. And they’re thinking I don’t have any privilege, and these people who do have it are making fun of me, like Hillary Clinton, where I’m called a clinger. And I don’t like that. And so they just were below the radar, and they were seething. And they wanted someone to tap that anger. And when Trump came out and he started talking about jobs and globalization and the wall, you could see what he was doing, and people thought he was crazy, because you just didn’t do that. Republican answer to these problems were that all people who came in, to take one example from Mexico, would assimilate, and they have family values, and they would be Republicans. And Trump said no, they’re not assimilating, because there’s too many coming, and they’re not diverse, and they’re going to be beholden to the Democratic Party for their social net. And so he just looked at the world upside down, and we thought this was a new demography. What’s he doing? He’s crazy. But he wasn’t crazy.
HH: He was scary, and he still is, to many people. Let me ask you while…
VDH: He is scary, yeah.
HH: You’re a classicist. What were the social wars about? I really, I can’t remember much about them. What was the Roman rebellion about? In the late Roman Republic, it was the towns outside of Rome. But on the peninsula that fought those, what was that over?
VDH: Well, in the first and second centuries BC, Rome had been incredibly successful. They had taken over Carthage and Greece, and they were expanding into the former Helenistic world, and there was money and there was power coming into, about two or three million people around Rome. But they were using their allies, who had been mostly loyal during the invasion of Italy by Hannibal, but they weren’t giving them full citizenship. And so that meant they didn’t have equality under the law. They were okay to fight, but they didn’t get commiserate citizenship responsibilities and rights. And so people, the question was how were you going to redefine Rome? Was it going to be Rome, sort of like a city-state with a bunch of city-states around it? Or was it going to be a unified Roman Republic? And that was what the war was about. And after Sulla and Marius came back, and there was a terrible bloodshed, 200,000 people died, it gave them about 50 years of peace until that global expansion had gone all the way to the Euphrates. And at that point, the republic became an empire. And the existing institution and leadership had to change. And that was the second round and third round with Pompey and Caesar, then Augustus and Octavian and Marc Antony. But the first revolutionary movement was what do you do with all of this wealth that’s pouring in, and it’s only benefiting particular people, and the people who are really earning it don’t have full rights? And they said you know what? If I’m going to be a loyal soldier to Rome, I want to be a Roman citizen.
HH: Now think on this for a second. Marius and Sulla, great generals, and obviously Donald Trump is not, although he said he would get the best generals. He’s got Mattis and Dunford and some great generals, and he’s got Pompeo at State and Bolton and Gina Haspel and Dan Coats and the Vice President. He’s got the greatest national security team going. But I’m thinking about Marius was an interesting guy, because he started to give, he started to pay off the legionnaires who were not Roman citizens with land. He got them their due, right? That’s what he did.
VDH: Yeah, he did. And he did it not just in Italy, but he did it in conquered lands in North Africa and Greece. So he was saying to people if you fight for 16 years, you’re going to have your ten acres of land. And then you’re going to be a citizen. And he was trying to stop the violence in the sense that you can’t have people who were making this new project not participate and benefit from it. And I think when you mention there’s a parallel, I think people in the hinterlands said you know what? People on the coasts, they like granite counters. They like stainless steel appliances. They like wood floors. They like their nice Lincoln Navigators. So it’s not quite true that we’re not an industrial manufacturing society. They keep thinking they live, you know, in the air of somebody really does have to produce the arugula. But somehow, we got off track, and we thought people with those skills are losers when they make things that we actually like.
HH: But we don’t resort to violence here.
VDH: No, we don’t.
HH: What my analogy is to the level of surprise between the countryside and the city, this disconnect so profound that Rome, Washington, D.C and Manhattan, had no idea it was there.
VDH: No, they didn’t, but I think what I give credit for Trump, and I was critical sometimes of him a lot, is that he was the first politician that used this weird vocabulary. Remember first person plural possessive our? All of a sudden, a Republican, no less, was going around the country saying our miners, our farmers, our workers, our vets. Nobody had ever done that before. And then he did these weird adjectives. I’m going to build a beautiful wall. I love coal. Hillary came in and said I’m going to put out, the miners are going to have to get another job, I’m going to put them out of work. Trump came in a week later and said I love beautiful coal. How can coal be beautiful? That’s what he…
HH: Hold that thought. I’m going to be right back with Victor Davis Hanson. We’re on to the main point, and we will be back to it right after this.
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HH: Who is this man Trump? I mean, what do you think about him now? We’re talking about classical analogies. Plutarch used to line up people. I don’t want to go back to ancient times, but who is he?
VDH: Well, if you, if you’re on the left, and you think he’s a demagogue, then he’s Cleon or Catiline. But the problem with that is that from what we know in the Salus and Thucydides, they were very skilled people. I mean, they were radical revolutionaries that tried to mobilize mass populations. He could be an Alcibiades that whose personal life was just absolutely raucous, but brought skills that shocked people, because they were not only unorthodox, but they were successful. So there’s a lot of different aspects of Trump throughout. My, you know, this might seem strange to you, but he reminds me a lot of Harry Truman. Harry Truman used personal…
HH: No, it doesn’t seem strange at all. That’s exactly on point.
VDH: He called MacArthur and SOB. He went after a film critic and said he was going to beat him up that made fun of his daughter’s performance. Everybody said he was an accidental president, he had no business there. And what did he do? I mean, he started the CIA, he integrated the military, he saved South Korea. He…
HH: He dropped the bomb.
VDH: He dropped the bomb.
HH: He didn’t even lose a minute’s sleep.
VDH: No, and he broke with Moscow to the horror of the FDR lobby, and he started, he invented the whole architecture of containment. So he was sort of like him.
HH: And he trusted George Marshall.
VDH: He did.
HH: He trusted George Marshall.
VDH: He did, and he had the same time, Dean Acheson and George Marshall were playing to him the role that Pompeo and Bolton and Mattis do with Trump. But he had, he was vulgar, he played poker at night. He had his cronies around the table. And people thought you know what? He says hell, give ‘em hell, Harry, the buck stops here, and he was not invested to the aristocratic establishment that had been so successful with FDR.
HH: So Victor, I want to get this question in. Do you see in the media a deep disease of disconnection?
VDH: Yeah, I do. I do. I think, when I think of why 91% of the coverage is negative, and it’s not empirical, I say well, why is this happening? And then the next exegesis, the next step has to be that we are drawing people out of the journalism schools of a particular mindset, and we’re putting them in a particular landscape, mostly the Washington-New York corridor. And they’re not going out to rural Michigan, or they don’t know what’s going on in Northern Arizona. Or they don’t know anything about Bakersfield. And so they have the same taste, and they have the same values, and they have the same manner of expression. And they get, my favorite example is that Pajama Boy ad that the media thought was just great for affordable health care, where you had this perpetually adolescent kid drinking chocolate in pajamas supposedly during the day, and he was saying I want to get my Obamacare. Did they have any idea how that was received in places like where you are today? And they had these ideas about America that only apply to a very limited area, I mean, maybe population-wise the blue states on the coast are 50%. But geographically, there’s a whole second half of America that they not only don’t know anything about, but they have contempt for. And Trump understood that. And I don’t think other, that was the finest field of Republican nominees we’d ever had. Compared to 2012, they were superb – governors, senators, accomplishment. Ben Carson was, and Carly Fiorina were no amateurs, as we’d seen in 2012. But he destroyed them. He destroyed them very quickly. And it was because he saw something about an unforgotten Tea Party, Reagan Democrat, call them what you want, but nobody else had saw. And they thought that they were irrelevant, their time was over with. And he made a very crude statement, Hugh, but remember when he said I could shoot somebody on 5th Avenue, and these people would stay with me?
VDH: He, I wish he hadn’t have said it, but there was some truth to it.
HH: Last question, Victor Davis Hanson. Does the media figure it out? Or does it have to get crashed again? And will it get crashed in November?
VDH: Yeah, I think they’re following the same plot script that they did in 2016. So you can see that the generic difference between the parties is starting to narrow. They’re not accounting for what a person will do in November once their, this 3% GDP is sort of institutionalized and unemployment is below 4%. Trump is getting a lot better each couple of months as a chief executive. You made a really good point about the people around him. And I mean, he can say and do anything any time to anyone, so we don’t know what’s going to happen. But I would imagine they’re going to pick up two or three Senate seats.
HH: Have you met with him, Victor? Have you been to the White House?
VDH: No, I haven’t. I haven’t. I’ve been invited to the White House, but I’ve tried not to get involved, because I thought it was good to, I get a lot of criticism, of course, from people because I’ve tried to give him a fair shake. And I’ve lost a lot of friends over it, so I don’t want to go to the White House.
HH: Interesting. More on this the next time you’re back. Victor Davis Hanson, great conversation today, very much appreciated. We’ll post it at www.hillsdale.edu, www.hughforhillsdale.com.
End of interview.