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Sophistry in the Service of Evil

A review of 'The Case for Trump' by Victor Davis Hanson
March 7, 2019
Sophistry in the Service of Evil

A day rarely passes without Donald Trump perpetrating a fresh outrage. As I sat down to review Victor Davis Hanson’s new book, The Case for Trump, the hero of his volume had just returned from a summit in Vietnam with Kim Jong-un. The meeting ended abruptly with no agreement but not without Trump absolving the North Korean dictator of any role in—or even knowledge of—the murder of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who had been taken captive in Pyongyang in 2015, tortured, and returned in a coma on his deathbed to his parents. “He tells me,” said Trump of Kim, “that he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word,” adding that in fact Kim “felt badly about it. He felt very badly.”

This, of course, is the same Kim whom Trump called “depraved” in his 2018 State of the Union Address. The same Kim whom, only months later, Trump exalted for sending him “beautiful letters,” so beautiful in fact that “we fell in love.” And also the same Kim who presides over the most thorough-going and brutal totalitarian regime on the face of the earth.

But pay no attention to Trump’s inexplicable pirouettes. Put aside Trump’s demented and patently fake protestation, upon being rebuked by Warmbier’s parents for his “lavish praise” of their son’s murderer, that “I love Otto and think of him often!” Ignore the moral stain oozing from the Trump White House. Disregard the fact—obvious to all but the willfully blind—that Trump is unfit for office. We have Victor Davis Hanson, a respected historian of military strategy, a retired professor of classics, and now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, to tell us that Donald Trump is actually, despite what we see daily with our own eyes, a great American president. 

What exactly is Hanson’s argument?

The Case for Trump consists of four sections. The first three are not really a case for Trump at all but rather an analysis of how the divisions rending America gave rise to Trump. On one side, we have “liberal cosmopolitanism with windows on the sea,” writes Hanson. On the other side, we have “conservative traditionalism turned toward the land.” Over the past decades, the two have been at war. The liberal denizens of the blue states sneer at the socially and politically benighted denizens of the red states. And the denizens of the red states return the favor with seething resentment at the affluent and politically correct snobs on America’s coasts. The soil was thus prepared for Trump’s brand of populism to sprout.

Only at the end of his book does Hanson turn from analysis to evaluation. He finds that despite facing unprecedented opposition from the outset of his presidency, despite the Mueller investigation and a deep state determined to bring him down, and despite a national media establishment that loathes him, Trump has been soldiering forward, keeping one campaign promise after the next, and getting things done. Indeed, if one looks past all the tweeting and the drama, argues Hanson, Trump has been racking up accomplishment after accomplishment, with economic and foreign policy achievements “not seen in a generation.”

At home, writes Hanson, “the economy in Trump’s first six hundred days was better than at any time in the last decade. Massive deregulation, stepped-up energy production, tax cuts, increased border enforcement, and talking up the American brand produced a synergistic economic upswing, as evidenced by gross domestic product (GDP) growth, a roaring stock market, and near record unemployment.”

In foreign policy, one finds similar success: “Trump restored military deterrence” and “far from ruining the post-war order, he has restored much of the power and influence of the United States abroad.”

So much for the plot summary of The Case for Trump. Does the book make sense?

Victor Davis Hanson can be an adroit writer with an eye for detail. His portrait of the attitudes and forces that gave rise to the Trump presidency is worthy of attention, especially from Democrats who aim to recapture the White House in 2020. Though tendentious, repetitive, and scarcely original, Hanson nevertheless manages to paint an all-too-accurate picture of the “open progressive contempt for the American interior,” with a liberal elite raining scorn down on the hicks and rubes of rural America: the “’garbage people,’ with bad teeth” in the words of Politico reporter Marc Caputo, or “the basket of deplorables” in Hillary Clinton’s politically self-destructive formulation. The evidence Hanson marshals to make his argument is compelling. If he had confined himself to an analysis of the social and political divisions that led to Trump’s stunning 2016 victory, his book might have been a contribution to our political discourse.

But, unfortunately, Hanson is writing not as a dispassionate analyst but as an advocate for Trump and Trumpism. While his book is definitely several notches above those produced by the various hagiographers who have previously dominated the pro-Trump book space, that is not necessarily saying much. Mounting a persuasive case for the presidency of Donald Trump turns out to be a problematic enterprise.

Consider Hanson’s treatment of Trump and matters of race. Throughout Trump’s career, blatant racial prejudice has been a continuous thread, beginning with the discriminatory housing policies practiced by the Trump Organization back in the 1970s and extending into his presidency with, among other things, his observation that there were “very fine people” among the white supremacists violently demonstrating at Charlottesville and his almost obsessive references to the supposedly low IQs of various black politicians and athletes. Trump was also the leading proponent of birtherism, the campaign to prove that America’s first black president was disqualified from holding his office. An intellectually honest book would make an effort to account for this record of what must properly be called racism, including the large part it has played in the Trump presidency. Hanson, engaging in a convenient form of intellectual subterfuge, neglects to discuss any of it.

The single episode involving Trump and race that Hanson explores in any depth is the 2016 Judge Curiel affair. During the presidential campaign, Trump baldly stated that a sitting federal judge born in the United States to immigrant parents could not be impartial in a fraud case against him. “We are building a wall. He’s a Mexican,” were Trump’s precise words. Paul Ryan called Trump’s remarks “a textbook definition of a racist comment.” Hanson, without mentioning Ryan’s judgment, begs to differ. He acknowledges that Trump was “likely wrong” in holding the view that Judge Curiel harbored some innate bias. But Trump, he continues, was merely “clumsy in his phraseology” and, moreover, his identification of the American-born judge as Mexican was actually “correct,” explaining that there is never a “commensurate outcry about identifying Swedish Americans as ‘Swedes’ or using ‘the Irish’ for Irish Americans.”

From beginning to end, Hanson’s treatment of this episode is an exercise in sophistry. Was Trump wrong or was he just “likely” wrong—Hanson’s equivocating interpolation—about Judge Curiel’s innate bias as a “Mexican”? Racism is America’s original sin, a sin that we as a nation have struggled long and hard to expiate. Yet with a drumbeat of racially charged remarks emanating from the White House, Trump has been setting the nation back to a darker time. Hanson’s casuistry about the Swedes and the Irish, and the gaping hole that is his treatment of Trump’s odious life-long record in matters of race, are worse than sophistry; they are sophistry in the service of a genuine evil.

Hanson has also drunk deeply from the gourd of conspiratorial thinking. He goes on for pages about the nefarious “deep state,” which he claims has “the unlimited resources of government at its call,” and whose “operating premises have embraced multiculturalism, feminism, and identity politics.” It is this deep state, he argues, that has been engaged in an all-out effort to kneecap Trump and remove him from the White House, with the Mueller investigation at the center of the conspiracy. 

Elaborating and amplifying a stock Trump talking point, Hanson maintains that it was not Trump’s but Hillary Clinton’s campaign that was tacitly colluding with Russia to manipulate the 2016 election. Trump, he insists, was actually “a victim of Russian collusion at the very time he was being accused of it.”

This theory rests on the idea that the Steele dossier, the document compiled by the former British spy Christopher Steele to explore Trump and the Trump’s campaign’s various links to Russia, was actually Kremlin disinformation designed to help Clinton capture the White House. But this defies logic, not to mention common sense. As it happened, the sensational material in the dossier only came to public attention via Buzzfeed in January 2017, on the eve of Trump’s swearing in. If Clinton and high officials in the FBI were in cahoots to sabotage Trump, why did they not leak the dossier, already in their possession, to the media before the election when it could have done the Trump campaign serious damage? Unsurprisingly, this is a question that Hanson opts not to entertain.

Trump’s hagiographers tend to skip over or minimize Trump’s most repellant or disabling traits. To his credit, Hanson takes a different tack. At various points in his book, he enumerates a panoply of what he calls Trump’s “sins.” Among them he includes “multiple bankruptcies,” “endless lawsuits,” “creepy sexual scandals,” “loud public spats,” “crude language,” and “gratuitous cruelty.” He writes that Trump is often “uncouth,” “vulgar” and “divisive,” and that his closet contains “an ethical necropolis of skeletons.”

Hanson is probably correct that voters—or at least some quotient of voters—“preferred an authentic bad boy of the private sector to the public’s disingenuous good girl,” i.e. Hillary Clinton. But Hanson himself also seems to revel in Trump’s unsavory and unhinged side, or if not revel in it at least find virtue in some of the vice. Likening Trump, extravagantly, at one juncture to Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, and at another juncture to Martin Luther nailing 95 theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, he sees Trump as a “tragic hero,” whose flaws, much like those of Sophocles’ Ajax, will deny him the recognition he deserves for his “undeniable accomplishments.” 

Thus, Trump’s critics, deeming him unpresidential, fail to recognize that his superior negotiating style rests on “his use of exaggeration or spinning fantasies as a bargaining chip.” In the same vein, Trump’s embrace of “verbal intimidation” is a successful way “to confuse his adversary.”

Applying these insights to foreign policy, Hanson concludes that when Trump publicly called Kim Jong-un “short and fat,” he was simply continuing “a winning campaign method” with great dexterity, turning the tables with powerful effect on America’s foe. Trump’s target, Hanson suggests, was left reeling: “Kim Jong Un expected to slur Western leaders; he never expected any of them to smear him in kind.”

But Hanson never pauses to examine the substantive results of such a tot lot approach. Following his summit with Kim in Singapore, Trump proclaimed flatly that “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.” Hanson, no fool, knows full well that Trump’s victory lap was nothing but an empty boast. He also knows that in Singapore (as in Hanoi, well after his book went to press) that Trump, like his predecessors, did not find a way to contain the North Korean nuclear menace. In evaluating Trump’s North Korea diplomacy, an honest inquiry into the achievements of the Trump presidency would state such central truths plainly. Hanson, taking refuge once again in the safe space of omission, says nothing at all.

Many more such evasions and prevarications can be readily found in Hanson’s pages. One that particularly stands out concerns Trump’s cruel policy on our southern border of separating the children of asylum seekers from their parents, forcibly wrenching some from their mothers’ arms. Hanson seems to attribute this horrific policy to “sloppy administration,” adding that Trump had merely “followed the letter of the law.” But this, too, is flat out false. There is no law on the books that required the separation of families. The family separations were the result of a deliberate policy choice made by the Trump White House. 

Trump lies habitually. It seems that those like Hanson who choose to burnish the Trump cult must do so as well. At one point in his narrative, Hanson writes that “Loyalty or reciprocity were always Trump’s first ethical commandments.” Loyalty, ethical commandments, and Donald Trump! Could there be a more absurd collocation? Trump may be intensely loyal, but only to himself. Ask Jeff Sessions. Ask Michael Cohen. Ask Melania and Trump’s two previous wives. Hanson’s mode of argumentation only bolsters the obvious proposition, demonstrated vividly by his entire book, that writing an honest “case for Trump” is an impossible chore.

This is not to say that Hanson’s book lacks value. As a part of a larger phenomenon, it is instructive in its way. Anyone with an iota of historical awareness is familiar with the fact that intellectuals in Europe and the United States lauded Joseph Stalin even as he sent millions to the Gulag and their death. By the same token, Adolf Hitler, one of the 20th century’s other mega-mass murderers, also found his share of admirers in the academy, among them such brilliant minds as Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger. An entire branch of Western scholarship was devoted to the adulation of the genocidal Mao Tse-tung. Whatever Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, it is a grotesque absurdity to compare him to history’s most terrible tyrants. My point is something else: If such monsters could find admirers among the highly educated, it is unsurprising that our infantile, ignorant leader has found an assortment of professors to sing his praises. Julian Benda wrote The Treason of the Intellectuals in 1927. With legitimate historians like Hanson abasing themselves to write what can only be called propaganda, Benda’s title, if not his entire argument, is perennially pertinent.

Gabriel Schoenfeld

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, is the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law. Twitter: @gabeschoenfeld.