Victor Davis Hanson // Defining Ideas
Hillary Clinton seems to be experiencing a strange, slow motion meltdown following her 2016 loss to Donald Trump. Recently, she sent out a Twitter video message, recorded on her cellphone camera, with advice to feminists: “And let me just say, this is directed to the activist bitches supporting bitches. So let’s go.” At about the same time, she appeared at the Grammy Awards, via a video, reading a snippet about Trump’s fast-food eating habits from Michael Wolff’s widely discredited book, Fire and Fury.
Before Clinton ran against Trump, she was considered a cautious Democratic politician, albeit with a dubious ethical record. Yet after she tangled with Trump, she seems to be suffering mysterious after-effects. Call it radiation sickness from Trump’s toxic gamma rays. Translated, that means orthodox politicians often lose when they try dueling with the unorthodox Trump on his terms—and then, making matters worse, they end up doubling down with more emotional heat.
Early on during the Republican primary, a conventional wisdom developed in the media and within political circles that it was suicidal to engage in ad hominem exchanges with Trump. The mainstream media meant that assessment as no compliment to Trump. Journalists sneered that the showboating Trump had fourteen years of experience in repartee and ad hoc invective on his reality television hit show The Apprentice. They also conceded that Trump had long ago learned that, in the dog-eat-dog world of New York real estate, and in the nasty gossip of Manhattan’s celebrity scene, going on the preemptive offensive is a deterrence strategy, crude or not. In such a landscape, gentlemanly forbearance was not interpreted as magnanimity to be appreciated but as weakness to be exploited.
Furthermore, in 2016, part of Trump’s message was that an overrated coastal elite played by stuffy rules of comportment to hide both their incompetence and hypocrisies. For Trump, the best way of radiating the establishment was saying anything to anyone at any time anywhere—especially by inventing schoolyard nicknames that savagely captured an opponent’s perceived weaknesses and flaws—and begged for a reply in kind.
The media’s analyses of Trump’s style were true enough. But the pundits forgot a few other key reasons why the radioactive Trump melted his opponents. In every one of Trump’s jousts, he was coiled and reactive—a fact known to his base who defended Trump’s fallout on the basis of ‘they started it, he finished it.”
Second, Trump’s personal invective was part of a larger assault on institutions and their representatives who were increasingly perceived both as hostile to half the U.S. population and hypocritically self-interested. Because there was merit in his coarse criticism, Trump’s opponents found themselves reactively defending the scarcely defensible. Being outraged at Trump often led them mistakenly to be outraged at his policies.
Republican establishment favorite Jeb Bush traded one-on-one jabs with Trump and was politically demolished as “low-energy Jeb,” unable to stand the thermonuclear heat of the Trump bombs. Bush went out as if he were a whiney losing aspirant on Celebrity Apprentice without understanding why his agenda never resonated with the conservative and increasingly populist base. A suave Marco Rubio descended to joust with Trump on relative hand size. He ended up cruelly tagged as “little Marco.” The boisterous rhetorician Ted Cruz duked it out Trump-style after Trump slandered his family. He ended up the sneering sobriquet “lying Ted Cruz.” So it went in all of Trump’s duels, from his clashes with Megan Kelly to those with “crooked Hillary.” Even his disheveled insider Steven Bannon finally earned the sobriquet “sloppy Steve” when he appeared to turn on his former boss. The careers of none of these people improved after unaccustomedly going nuclear with Trump
Conventional wisdom warns Trump that his retaliatory attacks are not presidential; that they are no longer needed now that he’s in the Oval Office; that they are counterproductive; and that they turn off Independent voters, especially Independent women whom Trump will need in 2018 and perhaps 2020.
Before Trump, politicians observed Marquis of Queensberry rules of comportment while they ran up $20 trillion in national debt, left the border unsecured with 11-15 million illegal aliens residing with impunity in the United States, failed to achieve significant economic growth in over a decade, saw middle-class incomes ossify, and could not translate interventions abroad into strategic victories, while allowing North Korea to develop nuclear ballistic missiles.
Globalization before 2016 was seen only as a positive gift. It certainly was often salutary for most in the world—but not always for many Americans. Received wisdom held that outsourcing and offshoring were good for the American economy. Meanwhile, companies fled the United States. More regulations and bigger government seemed fated. Free trade de facto was considered fair. Trade deficits like budget deficits were nothing much to worry about—even as middle-class wages stagnated, the red-state interior was deindustrialized, and the victims were written off as losers, deplorables, irredeemables, and clingers who foolishly had not prepared themselves for the coastal “knowledge based” economy of the “information age.”
In response, half the country—the more important electoral-college half—felt that the way politicians had treated their middle-class, post-industrial malaise was insincere and merely palliative. Then Trump came along and offered searing radiation treatments designed to kill the metastases shortly before it poisoned the rescued host—by loudly promoting seemingly archaic ideas like bringing back capital and jobs from abroad, deregulating the economy, lowering taxes, and making the United States more fossil-fuel independent.
Something similar happened abroad. Most of the world’s signature establishment institutions beneath the veneer of their polite nomenclature and mannered protocols were ethically, or at least administratively, compromised. The United Nations often proved itself to be an anti-American, anti-Western, anti-Semitic, and anti-democratic organization, masquerading in tony Manhattan as the voice of global morality, subsidized by the American hosts it routinely attacked. The European Union was evolving into an anti-democratic statist project warped by German mercantilism and German cultural and political dominance on matters of finance, immigration, and foreign policy that brooked no dissent. Postwar NATO members had mostly ignored their commitment to spend 2 percent of their respective GDP on defense to share the burdens of defending Europe more equitably. Europeans had come to assume that protecting Europe was more important to Americans than it was to Europeans. The point is not that these heralded institutions are unnecessary or incapable of reform. Rather, to change they often need the sort of toxic criticism that Trump levels because they have consistently ignored more polite and diplomatic badgering from world leaders.
The media stereotype of Trump is that he is a crude adolescent narcissist. He is eager for even superficial pats on the head, while morose and brooding at even the slightest criticism. The more pessimistic appraisals paint Trump as an utter nihilist—a wild elephant thrashing mindlessly about, destroying custom and tradition in his midst.
But Trump is also more than a needy egoist or anarchist. Like it or not, he sees himself on a “make America great” crusade that entails radically redefining American tax policy, the regulatory federal octopus, immigration enforcement, trade protocols, the fairness of the international order, the transparency of media coverage—and the very language and manners in which past pathologies were downplayed. His tweets, his televised rallies, and his blunt press-conference repartee share that common theme: What the establishment calls normal and salutary is abnormal and toxic, and the only way to treat the cancer is with radiation—at least until the medicine kicks in, the patient improves, and voters see tangible improvements in their daily lives.
Most of the elite write Trump’s message off entirely because they perceive him as toxic. But the more interesting moral and intellectual question is why more polite politicians did not do much, or never much worried, about the hollowed-out interior of post-industrial America, the effect of illegal immigration on entry-level job wages, or the deleteriousness of the growing federal regulatory bureaucracy on struggling small businesses and individual freedom.
Why didn’t a more gentlemanly candidate such as Mitt Romney speak about “our” miners, “our” vets, and “our” farmers, or a more mellifluous president Barack Obama of bringing back American jobs to the post-industrial wasteland, or a more cerebral candidate Hillary Clinton of helping West Virginian coal miners recalibrate their industry? Romney was certainly polite and mannered when he reminded wealthy donors at a private gathering that 47 percent of the country would never vote for him because almost half of Americans believed they were “entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.” Presidential candidate Obama was once poised and steady as he explained to liberal elites in San Francisco that he lost the Pennsylvania primary because of mostly backward xenophobic clingers who were gun- and bible-crazed. Hillary thought she was calm and professional as she wrote off a quarter of the nation as “deplorables” and “irredeemables.”
Morality can be defined in a variety of ways. For half the country, rude empathy in 2016 proved preferable to polite dissimulation. Of course, it would always be preferable if empathetic messages were delivered by empathetic messengers. But often they are not. And so voters then made the necessary adjustments—and often allowances.
A final thought. Trump’s radioactive invective left enemies on the campaign trail, and during his first-year efforts to enact his agenda, in a permanent meltdown. To the degree he pivots occasionally and lets his solid policies speak for themselves, his still seared and exasperated enemies nonetheless remain permanently red-hot—even as Trump seems to be cooling down and reasonable. Patients usually do not keep damning the side-effects of past therapy once their health improves, but rather slowly begin to acknowledge its utility.