It’s always a perilous thing for historians to turn their attention to the present, as they have known with varying degrees of clarity since the days of Thucydides.
Historians try to see the bigger picture behind (and obscured by) the news of the day – and the rest of us rely on them to see clearly. “When you discuss the past, you are a seer,” wrote a friend to one such historian, roughly 2,000 years after Thucydides. “When you discuss the events in [my newspaper], you are a blind pygmy, same as I.”
This has not deterred award-winning historian Victor Davis Hanson from writing his new book, The Case for Trump, in which he lays out a multi-point defence of President Donald Trump only two years into the first term of the Trump administration, when several tenure-defining scandals and investigations are still ongoing and shocking headlines appear in the news almost every day.
The core of that case has an elegant simplicity. In Hanson’s view, American political life has a pendular motion: when it swings (or is allowed to swing) too far in the direction of weak-willed accommodationist liberalism, it naturally swings back it in the direction of tough, uncompromising Reaganism.
In many ways in The Case for Trump, Donald Trump himself hardly matters; he's merely the person who happens to be leading the Republican Party when the pendulum swings back their way. This sentiment is key to the book and runs throughout; this idea of Trump as essentially a random political winner in a game of musical chairs.
Hanson’s programme on every page is to downplay and trivialise as many of Trump’s countless aberrant behaviours as possible, characterising them as the kind of trivia only effete snobs could possibly find objectionable.
At virtually every turn, Hanson uses euphemisms and little-kid vocabulary: gross violations of personal and social norms become “ethical dilemmas”; six decades of lying, cheating, fornicating, stealing, defrauding, blackmailing and bullying become “personal foibles”; endless, almost uncountable lies, become “fibs”.
“Trump’s strange orange hue, his combed-over thinning and dyed yellow hair, his ‘yuge’ tie and grating Queens accent made him especially foul tasting to the coastal elite Left,” Hanson writes.
The strong implication of The Case for Trump is that these things – the booth-tan, the obvious baldness, the body-length necktie worn in a futile attempt to disguise morbid obesity, and so on – aren't just the extraneous little details of Trump-dislike, but its core and summary.
This isn’t true and it’s the book’s biggest weakness, a flaw repeated so often it almost becomes a lie itself.
“Trump may have acted and sounded crudely, but beneath his uncouth veneer was an uncanny assessment of the politics of his invective,” Hanson writes.
“Critics repelled by Trump’s boorishness, of course, must disagree.” There is no “may” about Trump sounding and acting crude, but the implication that if his critics would only look past such things they’d seen something uncanny or even praiseworthy isn’t just wrong – it’s howlingly insulting.
Plenty of Trump’s many, many critics don’t give two bits about his “uncouth veneer”; they’re angered instead by the steadily growing amount of documentary evidence amassing that his campaign and administration have been fraudulent and criminal from the beginning.
Even in the short span of time between when Hanson filed his manuscript and when it appeared in book form, dozens of new and dire scandals have erupted around that administration; the “case” for Trump is not and never has been about a Queens accent. Hanson invokes “gentrification and the gospel of good taste” as the foremost engines of Trump criticism and claims they blind such criticism to Trump’s alleged accomplishments: “success in reworking Nafta, in prodding Nato members to keep their budgetary commitments, and in recalibrating long overdue asymmetrical relationships with Turkey, Iran and the Palestinians,” and so on.
It’s a key sign of Hanson’s rhetorical fancy-dancing that Trump himself would hardly understand these descriptions. His “reworking” of Nafta was a carefully presented repackaging of minor details in a working arrangement; his “prodding” of Nato members (over nonexistent slacking on “budgetary commitments”) took the form of embarrassing public gaffes and name-calling; and the “recalibrating” of relationships with nations such as Palestine was also regarded as the haphazard discarding of decades of careful diplomacy without much thought being put into it.
Every issue, from immigration to industry regulation to the economy to election integrity, has suffered at the hands of the Trump administration. And while all that damage was being done, equally important intangibles were being trashed on a nearly daily basis.
Hanson's The Case for Trump is built entirely on a combination of willful blindness, canny stage-dressing and a weird kind of aggrieved cultural defensiveness.
When the historian grumpily reports that Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy found that coverage of the Trump presidency in its first 100 days was 80 per cent negative, he’s simply refusing to consider the most obvious explanation.