The Great Experiment

by Victor Davis Hanson// National Review


We’ve gone from hard left, under Obama, to hard right, under Trump. Judge the ideologies by their results.


Most new administrations do not really completely overturn their predecessors’ policies to enact often-promised ideologically driven change.


The 18-year span of Harry Truman to Dwight Eisenhower to John F. Kennedy was mostly a continuum from center-left to center-right, back to center-left. Kennedy was probably as hawkish and as much of a tax cutter as was Eisenhower.


The seven years of Jerry Ford to Jimmy Carter were a similar transition — or even the twelve years of George H. W. Bush to Bill Clinton. The deck chairs changed, but the ship sailed in mostly the same manner to mostly the same direction.


Even the supposed great divide of 1981 did not mean that Jimmy Carter had been as left-wing as Ronald Reagan was right-wing. Carter’s fight against inflation and renewed defense build-up was continued in part by Reagan. George W. Bush was not as markedly right-wing as Barack Obama was clearly left-wing. In sum, there have rarely been back-to-back complete reversals in presidential agendas.


From Hard Progressive to Hard Conservative Ideology

Whatever Donald J. Trump’s political past and vociferous present, his first year of governance is most certainly as hard conservative as Barack Obama’s eight years were hard progressive. We are watching a rare experiment in political governance play out, as we go, in back-to-back fashion, from one pole to its opposite.


From January 2009 to January 2016 (especially when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress until January 2011), Barack Obama implemented the most progressive agenda since Franklin Roosevelt, to whom his supporters logically compared their new president.


Obama was a genuine man of the Left, determined to move his party with him and “fundamentally transform” the country. His own skepticism about America’s past, its current values, and its future trajectories resonated on the world stage. Third-way Clintonism all but disappeared. The Democratic party was reborn in Obama’s leftist image. Even candidate Hillary Clinton all but renounced her husband’s now caricatured centrism.


Among Obama’s signature foreign policies were “lead from behind” in Libya; quietude during the Iranian anti-theocratic protests; strategic patience with North Korea; the multifaceted and often clandestine efforts to swing the Iran deal; the Russian “reset”; realignment away from Israel, Egypt, and the Gulf monarchies; and rapprochement with Cuba, Venezuela, and the South American Communist and socialist states.


All reflected his own larger visions of European Union and American progressivism as models for transnational world governance. A global council of Davos-like elites would best adjudicate climate-change crises, the excesses of capitalism, dangerous nationalism, the parochial and outdated restrictions on migration and immigration, and the lingering but still pernicious legacies of Western imperialism and colonialism.


“Crises” such as the spreading ISIS caliphate, a nuclear North Korea with intercontinental missiles, an expanding Iranian-Shite-Hezbollah–Middle East crescent, a new greater East Asia prosperity sphere led by China that builds bases in the Spratly Islands, and a failed reset with Russia would more or less work themselves out on their own, given that all these dangers ultimately had their geneses in Western pathologies. Be better Western leaders, Obama intoned, and the Other would react accordingly and thus positively.


Identity politics, progressive policing of ideas on campus, an end to campus free expression that only empowered hate speech, the politicization and expansion of the deep state, along with open borders and new laxities governing citizenship and voting would usher in new, kinder and gentler race, ethnicity, and gender agendas. A single EPA director, one high IRS commissioner, or a federal-appeals-court justice would now exercise far more political power than any congressional committee. The “law” — in the sense of customary non-surveillance of American citizens, disinterested attorneys general, or a nonpartisan bureaucracy — was redefined as whatever would best serve social justice and equality.


On the economic side, more regulations, larger government, more entitlements, higher taxes, zero interest rates, and doubling the national debt were designed to redistribute income and “spread the wealth.” The idea that the stock market could get much higher, that GDP could ever hit 3 percent or above, or that industry and manufacturing would return to the U.S. was caricatured as the ossified pipe dreams of discredited supply-siders.


The fossil-fueled bitter clingers and parochial, irredeemable losers of globalization would fade away into suicidal opiate addiction and deplorable teeth gnashing in a world they no longer understood. Their biases reflected their cluelessness about a robust, globalized high-tech and coastal informational economy, shepherded by a new breed of progressive activist zillionaires like Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, George Soros, Tom Steyer, and Mark Zuckerberg. These new fortunes were cleaner, bigger, and put to better use than those of the old oil, rail, steel, mining, manufacturing, real-estate, farming, gaming, hotel, and construction wealth of the past.


Big green and liberal money was now a good progressive thing. Sermons such as “you didn’t build that,” “now is not the time [for companies] to profit,” and “at a certain point you’ve made enough money” seemed aimed more at the grasping upper-middle class than at the cultured and plutocratic progressive elite.


Over eight years, Obama had institutionalized, to the degree any president can, his left-wing agendas. By January 2017, American culture and the economy at home and foreign policy abroad reflected Obama’s values: pathways to abortion on demand, radical gun control, tribalism, and democratic socialism. What Obama started in 2009 would be completed and institutionalized by 2024 with the completion of Hillary Clinton’s second term. Whether one liked such a scenario hinged on whether one liked what America was from 1776 to 2009 — or whether one preferred what America could really become after 2009.


Then came the unforeseen nomination, election, and governance of Donald J. Trump.


Unlike George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, Trump was determined to ram through a conservative agenda not seen since the Reagan revolution of 1981–89 — and to govern as conservatively as Obama had progressively.


Certainly, Trump was an unlikely conservative revolutionary, given his billionaire Manhattan lifestyle, what he once had said and campaigned on, and his mercurial temperament and comportment.


Nonetheless, his first eleven months (tax reform and reduction, conservative judges and cabinet heads, stepped-up energy production, deregulation, a new realist and deterrent foreign policy, immigration recalibration) will either grow the economy in ways that the prior administration could not, make American stronger and the world safer in a way the prior administration could not, and redirect American culture and values back in a more traditional direction — or it will not.


The Proof of the Pudding Is—or Is Not—in the Eating

In other words, free-market economics, deterrent foreign policies, and conservative cultural reform that are championed in the abstract in think tanks, on radio and television by conservative pundits, and in magazines and journals by conservative intellectuals are currently being put to work concretely in the real world, a rare occurrence. Or they’re being implemented as least as much as possible with a president and a Congress of the same party behind them and within a set tenure.


If the economy grows, if the world is calmer and the U.S. stronger, if average Americans acquire more income and more jobs, and if the culture encourages greater stability and virtue, then the conservative experiment will have worked. If all that does not happen, we cannot blame it on the bad Trump messenger, the incompetent Republican Senate, the biased or the squabbling conservative House.


Those on the conservative side believe that the Obama regnum showed that progressive economics, foreign policy, and cultural protocols led to a weaker, more unfair, poorer, and less cohesive America. But such beliefs are easy to hold when you’re out of power and more prone to find faults than solutions. To paraphrase Aristotle, it is easy to be virtuous when asleep.


The true test of conservative solutions is to see how things are after four years of a strongly conservative president, with at least two years of a Republican Congress.


To those who think that Trump’s personality makes him an unrepresentative avatar of conservatism, his supporters would say, “Persuade us that better conservative messengers could have been elected in 2016 America — and that they would have governed to the right of Trump in his first year.” Like it or not, Trump turned out to be a hard-core conservative, and yet one whose rhetoric, comportment, and feistiness appealed to people who had never before voted for hard-core conservative agendas.


The nation did not suddenly become liberal in 2008 or conservative in 2016. Rather, in both years it rejected blasé centrism — first trying out a left-wing deviation from establishmentarianism, then in frustration turning to a right-wing antidote to both the failed medicine and the original diseased status quo.


Antidote One, of unapologetic progressivism under Obama, did not lead to an economically robust and growing America, one safer abroad in a more secure world, and more cohesive, united, and stable at home — at least if that truly was the leftist agenda rather than the more hushed opposite goal of more equal but poorer Americans, America as just another nation among many, and a cultural revolution aimed at accentuating rather than assimilating race, class, and gender identities.


We shall see if the subsequent Antidote Two, of unregretful conservatism under Trump, will provide what conservatism has always promised: greater prosperity, security, and unity.


We have been given a great gift in seeing two ideologically opposed solutions back to back, and both may end up adjudicating rhetoric through deeds.


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