What Is Trumpism? By Victor Davis Hanson. National Review Online, January 10, 2017.
Trumpism is the latest incarnation of Jacksonianism.
First sketches of a list, starting with tradition, populism, and American greatness.
Donald Trump is hated by liberal Democrats because, among other things, he is likely to reverse the entire Obama project. And, far worse, he probably will seek fundamental ways of obstructing its future resurgence — even perhaps by peeling off traditional Democratic constituencies.
The proverbial mainstream media despise Trump. Culturally, he has become a totem of their fears: coarseness, ostentatiousness, flamboyance, and the equation of big money with taste and success. His new approach to the media may make them irrelevant, and they fear their downfall could be well earned.
The Republican Washington–to–New York establishment is alienated by Trump. It finds his behavior reckless and his ideology unpredictable — especially given his cruel destruction of in-house Republican candidates in the primaries and his past flirtations with liberal ideas and politicians. That he has now brought them more opportunity for conservative political change than any Republican candidate in a century only adds insult to their sense of injury.
Note the common denominator to the all these hostile groups: It is Trump the man, not Trump the avatar of some political movement that they detest. After all, there are no Trump political philosophers. There is no slate of down-ballot Trump ideologues. If Trump were to start a third party, what would be its chief tenets? There is as yet neither a Trump “Contract for America” nor a Trump “First Principles” manifesto.
Nonetheless, from the 2016 campaign and from President-elect Trump’s slated appointments, past interviews, and tweets, we can see a coherent worldview emerging, something different from both orthodox conservativism and liberalism, though certainly Trumpism is far closer to the former than to the latter. Here may be a few outlines of Trumpist thought.
Trumpism promotes traditionalism. Trump showcases “Merry Christmas!” because his parents did. He believes in dressing formally and being addressed as Mr. Trump. And he insists that his children be well-behaved and polite.
You might object that Trump is thrice-married, Petronian in his tastes, and ethically sloppy or worse in his own business dealings. No matter: Trump seeks a return to normalcy all the more. His personal excesses apparently spur his impulses for traditional norms.
Perhaps Trump is like many Baby Boomers as they enter their final decades: They look back at their parents and grandparents, and wonder how they put up with their offspring — and see how far this generation has fallen short of their forebears’ ideals, which in turn sparks a desire for a return to normalcy in the wayward. Deists were believers in the abstract who otherwise shunned a living Christianity yet thought that active religion had social value for others. Similarly, Trump is a non-practicing moralist who believes traditional morality can restore structure and guidance to society.
So Trump is foul-mouthed but wants a return of decorum; he has been conniving but thinks his own recklessness is not necessarily a model for the nation.
Populism vs. Elitism
The billionaire Trump won by going after elites of both parties —attacking the protected classes of the Left as politically correct snobs, and those of the Right as crony capitalists (Trump confessed that it took one to spot one) or as uppity no-fun scolds and professional Washington hacks and political handlers.
By “elites,” Trump certainly did not mean plutocrats like himself or the various grandees he has appointed to his cabinet.
How does he square that circle? For Trump, there are apparently good elites like himself and then the rest, the bad elites. The dividing line is not income, status, or lifestyle per se, but whether one advocates one thing for others and quite another for oneself. Trump is rich and unabashedly likes what riches can bring, and he claims that he wants average Americans to have their own version of a Trump Tower existence.
He is not Al Gore urging Middle Americans to drive less while he flies on his Gulfstream private jets, or Barack Obama who loves exclusive, expensive Sidwell Friends prep school for his own children but opposes charter-school choices for the less fortunate, or a Senator Barbara Boxer who lives in an irrigated desert oasis but seeks to stop contracted water transfers for those who grow food rather than lawn turf.
In the next four years, expect a continual war on intellectuals and academics (who, not surprisingly, are almost absent from the Trump cabinet), the media, the political establishment, and the progressive class in general, whose lavish lifestyle and preachy rhetoric are irreconcilable.
So it is not privilege that Trumpism targets, but rather the hypocrisies of privilege, of those who seek to avoid the natural consequences of their own ideology. He is no friend to the exalted who virtue-signal, at the expense of others, in order to assuage the guilt for the own rarified existence. When Trump put on his red cap and too-long tie — with his orange skin, yellow comb-over, and Queens accent — and bragged about his tremendous wealth, awesome companies, and huge successes, he came across to millions as authentic and unapologetic about his own success. Trump can be outrageous, but his tweets and invective seem less outrageous than Obama’s combo of Ivy League smugness and too-cool-for-school interviews with GloZell, and Obama’s infatuation with rapper Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
Nationalism is another Trump axiom — the deliberate antithesis to the progressive and Socratic idea of being “a citizen of the world.” In Trump’s mind, the U.S. is a paradise thanks to its exceptional values and the hard work of past generations; the mess elsewhere (to the degree Trump worries about it) is due to human failing that is not America’s fault. Trump laments self-inflicted misery abroad but feels that he and his country are not culpable for it, and, other than Good Samarian disaster or famine relief, we cannot do too much about it in the long term.
If Mexico wants good jobs or Europe seeks to re-arm, then they can first make their own necessary adjustments to give them what they need without necessarily involving the U.S., whose first obligation is to make sure that its own citizens are well, secure, and employed. It seems that in Trump’s view, America’s poor and forgotten have claims on this country’s attention that far outweigh those of the illegal immigrant or the globe-trotting internationalist; the lathe worker in Des Moines and the real estate broker in Manhattan, by virtue of being American, deserve more of Washington’s attention than international bureaucrats or foreign royals. The least American is preferable to the greatest foreigner.
To the Left, this is xenophobic, nativist, and Peronist; in the Trump mind, it is a long-overdue pushback against 21st-centurty globalism. Good borders make good neighbors; illegal immigrants who arrive by breaking the law will certainly keep breaking the law to stay. Americans cannot pick and choose which American laws to follow; why would they allow foreigners to do what they themselves cannot and should not do?
Trump is a pragmatist in another way: his unapologetic deference to 19th-century muscular labor and those who employ and organize it. Though we are well into the 21st-century informational age, Trump apparently believes that the age-old industries — steel, drilling, construction, farming, mining, logging — are still noble and necessary pursuits. Using one’s hands or one’s mind to create something concrete and real is valuable in and of itself, and a much-needed antidote to the Pajama Boy–Ivy League culture of abstraction.
Silicon Valley, the marquee universities, and progressive ideologues might dismiss these producers as polluting dinosaurs, but all of them also rely on forgotten others to fuel their Priuses, bring them their kitchen counters, their hardwood floors, and their evening cabernet and arugula and, 12 hours later, their morning yogurt and granola. The producers acknowledge the equal importance of Apple and Google in a way that is never quite reciprocated by Silicon Valley.
In other words, expect Trumpism to champion fracking, logging, Keystone, “clean” coal, highway construction, the return of contracted irrigation water to its farmers, the retention of federal grazing lands for cattlemen — not just because in Trump’s view these industries are valuable sources of material wealth for the nation but also because they empower the sort of people who are the antidote to what America is becoming.
On matters of foreign policy, Trump is not a realist, isolationist, or neoconservative, although at times he can sound like all that and more. Instead, he is a Jacksonian who wants a huge club at the Department of Defense largely to ensure that he’ll never have to use it. And if he is pushed to swing it, he wants to flatten any who would hurt the U.S.
Many of us are skeptical of such Whac-A-Mole punishments, or the idea that bombing the “sh**” out of an enemy while getting nowhere near him will solve the problem. But we are thinking conventionally and historically. Trump, in contrast, does not believe that foreign enemies and terrorists need be persuaded, through long-term nation-building projects of what is in their own interests. He instead assumes that you beat down (only existential) threats the way you regularly mow your lawn (and you always will have to mow your lawn). If you don’t mow, the lawn grows rank, ugly, and unmanageable. We should no more complain that the grass always grows back than we should whine that Iran lies or promotes terrorism
Trump assumes that the world is Hobbesian. When the Iranians get close to getting their bomb (and they will), or the Chinese keep stealing U.S. drones (and they will), you push back hard, on the assumption that Iranian theocrats and Chinese Communist do such things the same way that a pit bull cannot stop biting. In time, by vigilance and deterrence, you can discourage such chronic chomping, but you are not going to spend blood and treasure in an effort to make a pit bull into a poodle.
In short, whatever is the cheapest and quickest way to make an aggressor stop is preferable to long-term nation-building or multilateral initiatives to address “root causes” and seek permanent solutions. For Trump, enemies are always numerous and to be opposed, friends few and to be appreciated. Foreign policy then is Sophoclean, not Socratic: Hurt enemies, help friends.
Reagan’s bombing of Qaddafi is Trumpian. Rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan is not. Likewise un-Trumpian are Obama’s destroying Libya to destroy Qaddafi, and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood because the otherwise preferable alternative was not quite liberal enough for Western sensibilities.
Trump admires people who make money. He doesn’t buy that those, to take one example, with Ph.D.s and academic titles could have made money if only they had wished—but for lots of reasons (most of them supposedly noble) chose not to. For Trump, credentialed academic expertise in anything is in no way comparable to achievement in the jungle of business.
Instead, in Trump’s dog-eat-dog world, only a few bruisers make it to the top and the real, big money — the ultimate barometer of competence. He sees the “winners” as knights to be enlisted in behalf of the weaker others. He might not quite say that a Greek professor is inherently useless, and he might not worry much about preserving the ancient strands of Western civilization. But he might remind us that such pursuits are esoteric and depend on stronger, more cunning and instinctual sorts, whose success alone can pay for such indulgences. Without Greek professors, the world can still find shelter and fuel; without builders and drillers, there can be no Greek professors. Brain surgery and guided missiles both require lots of money without which decline is inevitable.
Policies are good or bad based on how much they cost and how much value is returned on the sale. Success is profitability; failure is red ink and negative net worth. If Solyndra had worked, and if it had paid back its $500 million taxpayer-funded loan as its expanded plants and work forces, then a pragmatic Trump would have been for it and ignored classical free-market axioms. The solution to the inner city is an economy in overdrive — not government handouts, but so many good jobs that employers are forced to hire at good wages every employee they can find.
So what is Trumpism thus far, based on campaign rhetoric and campaigning?
In sum, it’s an America that emulates (even if hypocritically so) the lost culture of the 1950s; exploits fossil fuels; is run by deal makers who make money ostensibly to achieve a GDP that can fund the niceties of American civilization; opposes unfettered free trade and is united by race and class through shared material success; assesses winning as what’s workable rather than what’s politically correct or doctrinaire; makes “tremendous” cars, air-conditioners, and planes; has the largest and most powerful and least-used military; and is loyal to our allies and considerably scary to our enemies. All that seems to be Trumpism (at least for now).
When Trump has a record as president, one can add to or subtract from the list.