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Professor Victor Davis Hanson discussed his prescient contribution to Vox Populi: The Perils and Promises of Populism with our own Ben Weingarten. What follows is a full transcript of their discussion, slightly modified for clarity.
You can also listen to their interview in its entirety below. And to instantly receive Encounter Books Podcast interviews like these upon publication, be sure to subscribe.
Ben Weingarten: The term “populism” has been thrown around repeatedly throughout history and it’s often used pejoratively to put down one’s political opponents. How do you define it?
Victor Davis Hanson: Well, I think it’s an appeal to a group that’s not based on credentialing. In other words, politicians are…political leaders try to appeal to the majority of the population without referring to or relying on particular people’s credentials, and I guess we could call that an anti-elite appeal. In other words, an argument is to be adjudicated on whether it seems practical, commonsensical, not whether the person who’s advocating has a particular degree from a particular university or a particular job or a particular resume or a particular vocabulary or a particular manner of speaking, or appearance. It’s just common sense…The message is all that matters and it lives or dies by its own merits.
Ben Weingarten: What is it that makes Donald Trump, as you term him, the ‘unlikeliest populist’?
Victor Davis Hanson: Well, he’s a creature of affluence and comfort. He’s a billionaire. He was born into money. He lives in one of the wealthiest zip codes in the United States. He’s in a blue state, so the idea that he would appeal to working class people in key purple states, such as Wisconsin or Michigan or Pennsylvania or Ohio, in a way that other governors, like Scott Walker or Chris Christie, that cultivate populism would not…is very unlikely. And yet he had a manner of speaking, and an appearance and an interest in particular issues that they found resonated with them in a way that it didn’t with other Republican candidates in the primary, to take one example, who were senators, governors, public intellectuals, et cetera.
Ben Weingarten: What, in your view, did President Trump understand about American voters that the 16 other candidates out there lacked?
Victor Davis Hanson: Well, I think he saw that the status quo or business as usual was enriching a coastal elite — by that, I mean people basically from Boston down to Florida, and from Seattle to San Diego. And these were people who had the skill or the professional know-how or the experience or the inherited capital to take advantage of globalization, and that means transference of jobs across borders, transference of labor and capital and the people in between who depended more on, I guess we’d call it muscular labor that could be easily reproduced elsewhere, were not beneficiaries of that. Now the common wisdom said, “So what? We’re now in a multiracial, multicultural society, and they’re gonna be has-beens anyway.”
But Trump’s instincts told him that we’re not quite there yet, that the majority of these people who were left out from globalization, their wages had stagnated. They were not eligible for affirmative action. They were not taking advantage of privilege. In terms of university admissions, to take one example, they didn’t qualify for either affirmative action or the “Old Boy Network” where somebody calls up and calls a friend that uses capital or influence to get his son or grandson in. And Trump saw that those people actually would determine future elections because the country’s split 50-50, but under the electoral college system, one vote in Michigan, or one vote in Wisconsin, or one vote in Pennsylvania is worth 100 votes in Texas, which won’t go blue, or California that won’t go red, and he saw that.
And so he, I think, tailor-made — whether it was sincere or insincere, it doesn’t matter — he tailor-made a message based on bringing back industry, bringing back capital, enforcing the borders, not making the children of the lower middle classes fight for wars that were dreamed up in Washington, et cetera, et cetera, and that appealed to people in about 10-to-15 states, and he flipped about six-to-eight million voters who otherwise would’ve either not voted or voted Democratic.
With Trump, he was a more effective spokesman for that anger than were other candidates that under traditional definitions, were considered more sober, or judicious, or experienced.
Ben Weingarten: In your view, how much of President Trump’s political success is personality-driven versus indicative of a greater political shift? And what I’m getting at here is, is Trumpism, in your view, going to become a new political philosophy that cuts across party lines, or do you believe that the Trump movement is an outlier in American political history?
Victor Davis Hanson: I think it’s about half and half. I think he has much more charismatic appeal than does Bernie Sanders, who’s a 73 year-old socialist, and yet he had some of the issues that Trump had in the populist sense that resonated. So I think about half of Trump’s agenda is transferable. And I think the Republican party will not win at the national level — just remember it’s lost four out of the last six elections, and it hasn’t won 51 percent of the vote, I think, since 1988. 51 percent, that’s pretty…that’s a low bar, and what I’m getting at is if it [the GOP] does not return to the idea of enforcing the border and worrying about U.S. citizens and whether trade is not just free but also fair, it’s not gonna do well. But with Trump, he was a more effective spokesman for that anger than were other candidates that under traditional definitions, were considered more sober, or judicious, or experienced. Marco Rubio was supposed to be more charismatic, young. Jeb Bush was more affable. Ted Cruz was more informed. Carly Fiorina was a better outsider. Ben Carson was a better outsider. Chris Christie and Scott Walker had more experience, but they didn’t have that celebrity cachet that Trump had developed from living in New York and being on television. So I think about half of it is his message, and half of it is the unique messenger.
Ben Weingarten: You described four issues that form the core of Trump’s populism. The first being trade and jobs, illegal immigration, a new nationalist foreign policy, as you term it, and political correctness or political incorrectness, which binds all of these other issues together. How would you assess the execution of this agenda to date? Is Trumpism or Trump’s populism being implemented at the federal level? What’s your report card grade?
Victor Davis Hanson: I think it’s about a B, and by that I mean if I look at those issues again, we got out of the Trans-Pacific trade accord. We’re looking at NAFTA. The economic agenda is getting, I think in the third quarter, we’ll be close to four percent GDP. The tax cut on corporate taxes has got Europe very worried…Japan and China as well, that capital and jobs may be coming back to the United States. That’s what Trump said he would do. Depending on who we read, we’re somewhere between 60 percent and 70 percent down on illegal immigration which he promised, even though he hasn’t built a wall. His foreign policy is Jacksonian, he doesn’t mind “bombing the crap,” as he said, out of ISIS, but…he’s not going to have a big surge in Afghanistan. I don’t think we’re gonna see an engagement like Libya under him as we did under Obama. So I think he is pretty good on that promise as well, that is, he has a Jacksonian foreign policy — recreation of deterrence. The trade is pretty good. Political correctness, that was the easiest of all because it can largely be done through executive orders and symbolic rhetoric. And whether it was the attack on the “take the knee movement” in the NFL, or the hyperbole about bringing back “Merry Christmas,” for example, or trying to get the LGBT rules on the DoD revised, he was pretty unafraid to appeal to what he felt 51 percent of the populace wanted, rather than what the university foundation media crowd wanted.
Ben Weingarten: Political historians oftentimes like to talk about “realigning elections,” which occur once every generation or so, be it in 1932 or 1968. Do you see 2016 as being one of these watershed events in both U.S. political history and in world history? And where does the Trump presidency kind of fit in into the political trends that are transpiring globally?
Worldwide, he represents an emphasis that a person living in a particular nation or state has their first allegiance to that state, and not to some superannuated or supranational organization like the EU, or NAFTA, or NATO, or whatever we'd call the West. That's catching on, I think...
Victor Davis Hanson: Well, to answer the first question, I think it destroyed the conventional wisdom about the trajectory of the country. Obama supposedly taught us that the white population was shrinking, we were going to be a multiracial society, and that we had to appeal to one’s identity rather than one’s common character. And that would win you an election. And Obama did do that through registration of black voters and especially of Latino and Asians that voted about 65 percent for him. Trump comes along and says, “Wait a minute.” To take one example, Latinos are not gonna flip California to the conservative side and are not gonna flip Texas to the liberal side, and that’s about 65 percent. And the effort to appeal to one’s identity will be just as damaging as it will be enhancing because it will turn off key voters in more important states. Nobody quite figured that out, but he came along and said that.
And then his message of economic populism and border control was basically, “I’m going to make identity politics irrelevant. Because if I can get…” as he is bragging now, he got the so-called Latino unemployment rate down to its lowest level, and the African-American unemployment’s down. So he’s trying to argue, “I might not appeal to you in a tribal fashion, but I’m going to make you much better off than those who do that, and we’ll see how that works.” But that was a revolutionary approach.
Worldwide, he represents an emphasis that a person living in a particular nation or state has their first allegiance to that state, and not to some superannuated or supranational organization like the EU, or NAFTA, or NATO, or whatever we’d call the West. That’s catching on, I think, what we saw with Brexit, it’s endemic of a pushback against Germany on issues of immigration, issues of monetary policy, and mercantilism. And you can start to see it even in Asia where South Korea, Japan, Taiwan are starting to think in terms of protecting themselves, being stronger, and relying more on traditional allies. And so Trump basically said we’re going to be friends with particular people. And you can see that in his national security strategy that came out two weeks ago. “We’re gonna have allies and we’re gonna treat them as friends, and we’re gonna have opponents and we’re gonna treat them as enemies, and neutrals will have to pick which side they want.” Sort of a Manichean — there was no appeal, as Obama did, that we’re all citizens of the world, and we’re all worried about global change, or LGBT issues, which were in his strategic assessment. So it’s sort of a return to 19th century pride in your nation and national interest. And then you admit that that exists and you deal with it, rather than to deny and suppress it and have an elite-controlled international body that would try to adjudicate across national boundaries.
Ben Weingarten: And one element of the populist message is an aversion to or a fear of tyrannical administrative state, or the “Deep State” as it’s been termed. And if you are a member of the administrative state or the Deep State, you’re a government bureaucrat, and you take president Trump at his word, then his agenda poses an existential threat essentially to your livelihood, your power, all the credentials that you have accumulated over time, and thus, the resistance to the Trump agenda. What in your view are the consequences of the FBI and the Department of Justice’s actions with respect to both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?
Now we're in a situation in which the reason for the special investigator no longer exists because Hillary's not president, and there's no pressure from her and from the Deep State people who wanted her to win to continue this collusion investigation. There's no evidence that Trump should be investigated.
Victor Davis Hanson: Well, you can see in one case, that there was a much stronger reason to indict Hillary Clinton because she clearly broke the law. And yet, the so-called Deep State felt that their performance investigating her would be adjudicated by a Clinton administration. You had people saying, pollsters saying 96 percent chance that she was going to win. People like [former FBI Director] James Comey or Assistant [FBI] Director McCabe, or people in the DOJ like Loretta Lynch, they made the necessary adjustments to make sure that she [Hillary Clinton] was not going to be indicted of anything, even though the evidence was overwhelming and the conflict of interest was overwhelming. But nonetheless, that’s what the Deep State did. They did not want to find themselves on the wrong side of President Hillary Clinton.
In the case of Donald Trump, they were much more muscular because they thought that he was gonna lose and he posed no threat to them. So as early as October , in the case of the so-called Steele, Christopher Steele, Fusion GPS file, which Hillary Clinton paid for, and which was based on Russian collusionary sources, they made sure, the Seep State, that it got in the hands of the FBI, of the Obama Justice Department. And that was leaked, and it was probably used as a basis for a FISA court order, which then surveilled U.S. citizens associated with Donald Trump, again on the premise that he was gonna lose. And that incriminating information would come up to an investigatory agency, the FBI, CIA, NSA, whoever they were, probably the FBI. And then that material would be deliberately leaked and the names would be unmasked, as we knew from the requests of Samantha Power, Susan Rice, James Clapper, John Brennan, and Ben Rhodes, that happened. And then that information leaked out before the election.
What they didn’t figure is that the people who were gonna vote for Trump saw that as confirmation of the Deep State, and had no effect on them, at least in the key states which he flipped. So now we’re in a situation in which the reason for the special investigator no longer exists because Hillary’s not president, and there’s no pressure from her and from the Deep State people who wanted her to win to continue this collusion investigation. There’s no evidence that Trump should be investigated.
So now we’re sort of in a catch-22. [Robert] Mueller has to continue, but he’s gonna have to do one of two things. He’s either going to have to start indicting the Podesta Group, or he’s gonna have to look at Fusion GPS, or he’s gonna have to look at improper FISA orders. He’s gonna have to go back and look at why people who had conflicts of interest did not indict Hillary Clinton. Or he’s going to have to go back through his 17 lawyers and start reassigning — which we’re already seeing happening in the case of both the DOJ and the FBI — reassigning lawyers that have clear conflict of interest.
And only in Washington would an investigator like Mueller think that you could have members on your team that were, the vast majority of which had donated to the Clinton campaign or they had exchanged texts while conducting a fair…mocking the target of their own investigation; or in the case of the DOJ, one of their top officials that was investigating perhaps Hillary Clinton’s wife, was a recipient of Clinton-sourced cash; or you’d have a lawyer on the Mueller team that had represented Ben Rhodes, the Clinton Foundation; or, you could have a DOJ, like the Ohr couple, in which one spouse was actually working on the Fusion [file].
And only a person so blinkered and a part of that Deep State apparat in the Washington-New York corridor would not see anything wrong with that, and would rely on the media, the coastal media that say, “How dare you impugn the honor of Robert Mueller?” when everybody else in-between the coasts says, “What kind of idiot is that? We can’t do that…We wouldn’t do that at work when we have an investigation or somebody gets fired at work, or somebody’s up for a job. You can’t have that level of overt bias. You play by different rules.” And yet they still can’t appreciate how bad it looks.
Ben Weingarten: Yeah. And I should note that you’ve written a fantastic piece for National Review that goes through the links of all the folks comprising Mueller’s special counsel, all of whom have ties to, in many respects the Clinton campaign, Clinton interest and a clear bias against the very person they’re investigating. I guess the final question is, where are the actions of all of the folks who oppose the president leading? Is it impeachment at any cost? Is it we have to figure out what we can throw at the wall that sticks, to tarnish the president in the court of public opinion, and then we can raise high crimes and misdemeanors when there may be none? Where does this all lead?
The purpose is to keep up this drum beat, to make him so beyond the pale, so unpopular, that the independent fence sitter-voter just doesn't feel comfortable going against the grain and supporting him
Victor Davis Hanson: Well, they have about three fallback positions. The media hysteria, the Hollywood hysteria, the university hysteria, the Democratic Party hysteria, the Never Trump hysteria is aimed at winning the House, and then they hope through an impeachment process, it’s referred to the Senate and either they have won the Senate or they will have enough fence-sitters that either will abstain and they can convict him. I don’t think that’s likely, so the fallback position is, no matter what happens in the midterm election, they can continue this everyday. So today, we look and say that Melania Trump wants to pull out and destroy a 200-year tree that Andrew Jackson planted. Not a true story of course, the tree is almost decrepit and falling down, but that’s the type of stuff we’re gonna read every single day. And we’re gonna try to keep — and “we’re” meaning the Anti-Trump movement — his [President Trump’s] approval rate below 40 percent. If we do that, then people on the Republican side won’t feel confident about supporting ObamaCare repeal, or they won’t feel secure about building the wall because they don’t wanna run on the ticket where the leader of that ticket is 40 percent. That’s the idea, and they can emasculate his agenda and then finally, they can render him like Harry Truman in 1952, went out of office with 22 percent, or George Bush who went out with 31 percent, whose last year or two were pretty much irrelevant, and that would be the last two years of his administrate–…first term or maybe setting the stage for defeating him.
But again, the purpose is to keep up this drum beat, to make him so beyond the pale, so unpopular, that the independent fence sitter-voter just doesn’t feel comfortable going against the grain and supporting him. And people in his own party, even if they vote for him, they won’t want to defend him in a muscular fashion. They’ll think, “You know what, people at work or people at my think tank or people at my magazine…I just don’t want to get out ahead of this because Trump will tweet this, or they’ll say this about him and then I’m tagged with him, so I’ll just be quiet.”
And I think we saw that in the 2016 election, where his actual support was much, much higher than what’s polled. I think even today, his approval rating, if we could close the doors and have a person push a button, “Trump” or “No Trump,” it would be probably be closer to something like 48 percent than 42 or 41.