By Victor Davis Hanson
Pandemonium can be a revivifying purgative.
Here are the ironies of Donald Trump as president.
1) For the Left (both Political and Media)
The Left was mostly untroubled for eight years about the often unconstitutional abuses of Barack Obama — given that they saw their shared noble aims as justifying almost any means necessary to achieve them.
There was the not uncommon Rice-Gruber-Rhodes-Holder sort of deception (on Benghazi, on the conduct of Bowe Bergdahl, on the Affordable Care Act, the Iran deal, on Fast and Furious, etc.) — a required tactic because so much of the Obama agenda was antithetical to the wishes and preferences of the American electorate and thus had to be disguised and camouflaged to become enacted.
There was the pen-and-phone mockery of established federal law (the suspension of the ACA employer mandate, the Chrysler creditor reversal, the non-enforcement of federal immigration law, the institutionalization of sanctuary-city nullification).
There was the constant mythmaking (from faux red lines, deadlines, and step-over lines to the fatuity of the Cairo Speech and Iran-deal harangues). There were the abuses of presidential power (the surveillance of journalists, the selective release of the bin Laden trove to pet journalists, the likely surveilling, unmasking, and leaking through reversed targeting of political enemies).
No one worried much when Obama promised on a hot mic to Medvedev that he would be more flexible with the Russians after his reelection, as if they were to conform to a desired sort of behavior in service to Obama that would earn them dividends from him later on — the kind of unapologetic partisan “collusion” that would have earned Trump a Comey-induced indictment. No one cared that Obama pulled all peacekeepers out of Iraq and thereby ruined what the surge had saved.
Nor did anyone fret much about the serial scandals at the GSA, the VA, the IRS, and the Secret Service, or his disastrous reset policy with Russia and the implosion of the Middle East or the strange spectacles of Obama’s interview with GloZell or polarizing Oval Office guests, such as the rapper whose album cover portrayed celebrations over a dead white judge.
True, none of these were impeachable or even major offenses. But all of them recalibrated the bar of presidential behavior.
So along came the next Republican president, empowered by Obama’s exemptions to do almost anything he wished, albeit without the thin exculpatory veneer of Ivy League pretension, multicultural indemnity, and studied smoothness.
In biblical “there is a season” fashion, for every sermon about not building your business, making too much money, or profiting at the wrong time, there was a Trump retort to profit as never before.
For every too-frequent gala golf outing of a metrosexual Obama decked out in spiffy attire, there is a plumper Trump swinging away, oblivious to the angry pack of reporters that Obama once so carefully courted.
For every rapper with an ankle bracelet that went off in the White House, there is now a White House photo-op with Ted Nugent.
For every executive-order suspension of federal immigration enforcement, there is an executive-order corrective.
For every lecture on the crusades, sermons on Western genocidal history, apology tour, or Islamic mythmaking, there is an American Greatness pride in everything.
The progressive ironies continued.
If the media were to be believed when they insisted that Obama was a “god,” or that he was the smartest man ever to achieve the presidency, or that the first lady was Jackie Kennedy incarnate, or that Obama was capable of sending electrical shocks down a reporter’s leg or was sure to be a brilliant president on the basis of his pants crease or because he talked in the manner of Washington elites, then surely it could not be believed when Trump was smeared as a veritable dunce, crook, buffoon, and naïf worthy of impeachment or that his wife (fluent in several languages) was an airhead former escort girl.
By their former unhinged adoration and obsequiousness, progressives and the media undermined all future credibility in their unhinged venom and loathing of Donald Trump. Now they live with the reality that by elevating Obama into a deity, they unleashed their own worst nightmare and have reduced themselves to irrelevance.
In the end, no one believes the current venom of a CNN or a New York Times precisely because no one could have believed their prior slavish adulation.
Anderson Cooper has become Keith Olbermann, as Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer meld into Maxine Waters: now malevolent rather than previously sycophantic, but in their extremism still no more credible in 2017 than they were in 2009.
2) For the Orphaned Never Trump Right (as Overrepresented in the Punditocracy as Underrepresented in the Electorate)
Even the most die-hard Never Trump conservative has had to make some adjustments.
Despite assurances that Trump would not get the nomination, he did.
Despite assurances that he could never be elected, he was.
Despite prognostications that Trump was a liberal wolf hiding in conservative fleece, Trump’s appointments, his executive orders, his legislation pending before the Congress, his abrupt withdrawal from the Paris global-warming accords, his fierce support for vouchers, his pro-life advocacy, and his immigration normality were so far orthodoxly conservative.
Despite suspicions that Trump’s appeal to the working class was nursed on racism, fanatic nationalism, xenophobia, and nativism, the appeal instead grew from a shared disgust with blue-stocking Republicans who were perceived in word and deed as little different from coastal Democratic look-alikes. Most Never Trumpers now concede that something had gone terribly wrong with their top-down party, although they resent that it was raucous billionaire Donald Trump who administered the diagnosis.
Where Never Trump conservatives worried that Trump was too uninformed or too reckless (e.g., pulling out of an “obsolete” NATO, rejecting Article 5 of the NATO alliance, starting a trade war with China, or erecting tariffs in 1920s style), Trump was forced to separate his past rhetoric from present reality — confirming in a way his transparent art-of-the-deal negotiating style of asking for twice what he could acceptably settle for, or acting unhinged to unsettle negotiators, enemies, and rivals.
Given these surprises, the Never Trump position has now receded to a simpler proposition: The uncouth character of Donald J. Trump is not worth the conservative agenda that he may well enact, as we all will eventually and inevitably learn. Or how can conservative moralists stomach such a supposedly immoral incarnation of their own views?
Such a paradox hinges on four corollaries, many of them dubious.
One: The ideological trajectory of a probable 16 years of Obama–Hillary Clinton progressive transformation of the country was never as dangerous as turning over executive power to someone as purportedly uncouth and unpredictable as Trump.
Two: Trump’s character defects were like none other in a previous American president (which would include John Kennedy’s pathological and dangerous womanizing, Lyndon Johnson’s in-office profiteering and crudity, Richard Nixon’s disrespect for truth and the law, Bill Clinton’s demonstrable White House sex escapades and lying under oath) and thus would cancel out the entire gamut of renewed energy production, deregulation, tax reform, deterrent foreign policy, Obamacare reform, and the sort of Cabinet appointment that will prune back the deep state.
Three: Ideas matter more than politics and governance. Being 51 (or far more) percent preferable is still either not being preferable at all or at least not enough to warrant pragmatic assent.
Four: Even snarky and “see, how I was right” attacks on Trump from the right keep conservatism honest, rather than implode it in the manner that the Left most assiduously avoids. (Was there ever a “Never Hillary” movement after the Democratic convention to protest her pollution of the Democratic National Committee?)
For now, the fallback position of “I told you so” hinges on Trump’s proving, in a downward spiral, far more recklessly obstreperous in the future than he has been so far, and on his agenda’s either fossilizing or reverting to his own 1980s liberal outlook.
3) Always Trump
There are few ironies for Always Trumpers who supported Trump from well before the primaries.
They wished an iron wrecking ball to be thrown into the deep-state glass, and they certainly got what they wished for.
The uncouthness of Trump is not vulgarity for them. It’s the necessary tough antidote to what they see as the polished crudity of the elite class, who are quite indecent in their sanctimonious lectures on amnesties or globalized free but unfair trade — while having the personal means of navigating around the deleterious consequences of their own advocacy.
Trump’s nihilistic and self-destructive tweets are yet again, for the Always Trumpers, the Semtex that helps blow up the entire spectacle of the feeding frenzy Washington press conference, the embarrassment of the White House Correspondents Dinner, the soft-ball televised interview, and the moral preening of television’s talking heads.
For the Always Trumpers, without the Trump shock, we would never have fully appreciated just how politically crude a Stephen Colbert really was, or just how obscene was a Tom Perez or a Senator Gillibrand, or how rankly partisan was a Chuck Schumer or how incapacitated a Nancy Pelosi. Dr. Sawbones Trump smelled a festering wound, ripped off the scab, and proclaimed that the exposure would aerate and cure the gangrenous mass below — however crudely administered the remedy without analgesics.
In this view, Trump’s ostensibly counterproductive outbursts and Twitter rants are the unpleasant castor oil that was long ago needed to break up and pass on a constipated, corrupt, and incestuous elite.
4) Trump, Better Far Than the Alternative
Lastly, there are the conservatives and Republicans (well over 90 percent) who voted for Trump on the grounds that, while he may not have been preferable to most of the alternatives in the primary, he most certainly was in the general election. For these pragmatists, there are both pleasant and occasionally worrisome ironies.
On the upside, it seems clear that Trump is not just conservative to his word, but, in the first 100 days, conservative in terms of policy to a degree unlike any other Republican president or presidential nominee since Ronald Reagan. Mitt Romney would not have yanked the U.S. out of the jerry-rigged Paris climate accord.
John McCain would not have appointed a Neal Gorsuch or proposed to radically recalibrate the tax code.
Neither of the two Bushes would have felt politically secure enough to shut down the border to illegal immigration; neither would have pressed to finished the border wall.
None since Reagan would have made the sort of conservative appointments at the cabinet and bureaucratic level as has Trump. If Trump were really a namby-pamby conservative, the sheer hatred of Trump the person by the progressive Left has had the predictable effect of making him against everything his loudest enemies are for.
For the realist Trump supporters, Trump’s tweets or outbursts are often regrettable and occasionally bothersome, but not so much because they demonstrate an unprecedented level of presidential indecency. (Cynical realists with knowledge of history accept what FDR or JFK was capable of, and thus what they said in private conservations, and occasionally out loud.) Trump’s sin, then, is that he more often says out loud what prior presidents kept to their inner circle.
Rather, their worry is more tactical and strategic: Trump, the bull-in-the-china-shop messenger, breaks up too much of the vital message of Trump. In public, they may cringe at Trump’s excesses (though enjoying in private how he forces sanctimonious progressives to melt down), but their worry over Trump’s overkill is mostly from the fear that no mortal 70-year-old male, without a traditionally loyal support staff, but with unhealthy sleep and diet habits, and under the stress of historic vituperation, could see through such an ambitious conservative agenda.
They are worried, then, that the 24/7 and extraneous fights that Trump picks will eventually undo him, and with his demise will go his entire conservative resurgence for a generation. They admire enormously Mike Pence but concede that he would have been neither nominated nor elected. And should Trump fall, Pence would be unable amid the nuclear fallout to press the conservative agenda further.
And yet there is some doubt even here as well. Trump’s tweets can be as prescient as they are reckless. Take the infamous “Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory” and substitute “Obama administration” for Obama, and “surveil” for “wires tapped,” and Trump’s tweet about the former president’s intelligence agencies improperly monitoring him may yet prove in a broad sense correct. In other words, cringe-worthy Trump behavior so often is the lubricant that oils his success against cringe-worthy opponents, turning upside down the Heraclitean axiom that character is destiny, or rather redefining it, because Trump’s targets so often were hubristic and deserved the nemesis sent their way.
The large minority of conservative Trump supporters who did not join him in the primary are thus confused now. Traditional wisdom declares that Trump’s personal behavior is counterproductive and unsustainable, but traditional wisdom has so far been wrong both during the campaign and in the first four months of the Trump’s presidency. It may not be that Trump earns hatred for unnecessary provocation and vitriol, but instead that he or any other Republican would have earned such venom anyway; thus his own searing tactics and narcissistic belief in his own destiny are predicated on the assumption that his unhinged enemies will vaporize first. And he may be right. James Comey has underestimated Donald Trump every bit as much as Marco Rubio or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama did. In the end, the pragmatists apparently believe conservatives will hang together or hang separately.
Never have so many bright people proved so dense. Never have polls and politics proved so unreliable or partisan. Never have unintended consequences so replaced predictable results.
Yes, we are in chaos, but we sense also that the pandemonium is purgative of the worse that prompted it — and it is unpleasant mostly because it has so long been overdue.