by Victor David Hanson
The unlikely 2016 election of Donald Trump—the first president without either prior political or military office—was a repudiation of the American “aristocracy.” By “rule of the best” I mean the ancien régime was no longer understood to suggest wealth and birth (alone), but instead envisioned itself as a supposed national meritocracy of those with proper degrees, and long service in the top hierarchies of government, media, blue-chip law firms, Wall Street, high tech, and academia.
The 2016 election and refutation of the ruling class did not signal that those without such educations and qualifications were de facto better suited to direct the country. Instead, the lesson was that the past record of governance and the current stature of our assumed best and brightest certainly did not justify their reputations or authority, much less their outsized self-regard. In short, instead of being a meritocracy, they amount to a mediocracy, neither great nor awful, but mostly mediocre.
This mediocracy is akin to late 4th-century B.C. Athenian politicians, the last generation of the Roman Republic, the late 18th-century French aristocracy, or the British bipartisan elite of the mid-1930s—their reputations relying on the greater wisdom and accomplishment of an earlier generation, while they remain convinced that their own credentials and titles are synonymous with achievement, and clueless about radical political, economic, military, and social upheavals right under their noses.
Remember the “new normal”? Our economic czars had simply decided anemic economic growth was the best Americans could expect and that 3 percent annualized GDP growth was out of the realm of possibility. Big government incompetence combined with Wall Street buccaneerism had almost melted down the economy in 2008. Recent presidents had doubled the debt—twice.
Few could explain how recent agreements such as the Paris Climate Accord or Iran deal could ever have achieved their stated aims, much less were in America’s interest. War planners had not translated interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya into strategic advantage—much less lasting victory—and never offered reasons to be in such places that appealed to half the country.
Most elites had assumed the deindustrialized red-state interior was doomed to a sort of preordained and irreversible decline, much of it supposedly self-induced. In more candid moments, elites jested that red-state losers might be better replaced by new immigrants, both legal and illegal.
Our ruling classes either could not or would not defend American traditions and civilization in our colleges, in our government, and in our popular culture—and they were increasingly accepting of the globalist consensus that America had a flawed past requiring some sort of reparatory future.
Our leadership accepted a world in which America’s misdemeanors were the source of global outrage, while China’s felonies were largely exempt from criticism. China’s global hegemony was seen as assumed and fated. Efforts to derail it were near inane or retrograde.
Most Americans figured that those who lectured them on television, in op-eds, and throughout popular culture about guns, open borders, green mandates, fossil fuels, and the public schools, had the money, desire, and clout to live in desirable neighborhoods, sometimes behind walls, with ample taste for fine cars, jet trips, and private academies for their children.
The charge of hypocrisy against the elite was considered juvenile—given that exemptions were needed for the ruling class to serve us all the better.
How could Al Gore save us from our carbon emissions without his private jet? How could Nancy Pelosi craft drastic climate change legislation without flying to a Kona resort over the holidays?
How could Eric Holder stop prejudice without a jet junket to the Belmont Stakes with his kids? How could our Malibu elite nobly sermonize about their loyal gardeners and dutiful maids without walled estates?
How could Silicon Valley wizards pontificate about the evils of charter schools and the need for teacher unions, without private academies for their own? And how exactly could the heads of our intelligence agencies and justice department officials track down the crimes of Donald Trump without committing greater ones themselves?
Much of the Trump agenda, although nominally embraced by the Republican Party after the July 2016 convention, was largely crafted in antithesis to the bipartisan status quo that either could not or would not end illegal immigration, secure the border, call China out on warping world trade, seek greater reciprocity with allies, curtail optional military interventions, massively deregulate, expand fossil fuel production, and return the federal judiciary to a constitutional and constructionist framework.
If such a nontraditional agenda had been advanced by an “acceptable” outsider or billionaire such as Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, or Michael Bloomberg, it would have been seen as eccentric but nevertheless not blasphemous. However, Donald Trump advertised himself as a renegade whose own notorious apostasy was inseparable from his message, and who felt no allegiance to the political protocols and customs that had prepped past presidents. Trump’s often crude demeanor at times seemed to suggest that he was not just interested in revoking the results of status quo policymaking, but the very premises of the status quo itself.
It is easy to suggest that much of the unprecedented hatred shown Trump is the poisoned fruit of his alleged toxic persona. And yet it is hard to calibrate whether any president has faced, from the moment of his election, the level of venom shown Trump by both political parties, and by the elite media, and the centers of progressivism on Wall Street, in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Washington, and New York.
A country that once banned for life a clown from a state fair for wearing in puerile fashion a Barack Obama mask now ritually talks of impeaching, committing to an institution, overthrowing, or beating, burning, decapitating, blowing up, and shooting the elected president.
Certainly, we have never seen anything like the constant anti-Trump media hatred, the efforts since the election to remove Trump, in slow-motion coup style, by seeking to warp the Electoral College, to invoke the 25th Amendment and the Emoluments Clause, to unleash special counsel Robert Mueller with an unlimited budget, a toadyish media, a team of partisan lawyers and investigators, and prior help from the top echelons at the Obama Department of Justice, the FBI, the National Security Council, and the CIA.
The argument of these elites and their institutions has been not just that Trump is incompetent or inexperienced, but that he is corrupt, perverse, treasonous, criminally minded, and to such a degree that the results of the 2016 should be overturned before the 2020 election. And such an end to Trump’s elected governance is justified not merely by his toxic person, but also by the racist, sexist, nativist, xenophobic Americans—the counterfeit half of the country—who elected him.
A Case Against Trump?
If these arguments of the American aristocracy were valid, we would have to accept three arguments of the best and brightest:
1) There is a clear moral, legal and popular prerogative to remove Trump.
Yet for all the efforts of the professional politicians, the lockstep media, and the elite academic, legal, and financial communities, there is neither a rational nor legal basis to remove Trump. Instead, he enjoys about the general level of support as did many past presidents at this juncture in their administrations. He has survived his first midterm in better fashion than did either Bill Clinton or Barack Obama who were both later easily reelected.
No one has yet argued that the tenures of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, or Bill Clinton—still enshrined in the progressive pantheon—were marked by less crudity. The record of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Environmental Protection Agency, General Services Administration, IRS, CIA, and FBI between January 2009 and January 2017 does not qualify as “scandal free.”
It’s unlikely Trump will be convicted of any crimes as outlined by the Mueller collusion investigation. It is more likely he will prove to be the most investigated, probed, and audited president in history. And even more likely, top officials at the Justice Department, CIA, and FBI will be facing eventual legal exposure for unethical and illegal efforts to damage the Trump candidacy, transition, and presidency.
2) Trump has failed.
For all the perceived chaos and disorder in the Trump Administration, it certainly has so far achieved a stronger economic record than did his predecessors, whether adjudicated by GDP growth, unemployment, energy production, or deregulation.
Even a shaky stock market is still much higher than it was when Trump took office. Likewise, abroad, for all Trump’s supposed unpopularity, privately most Americans and many so-called experts agree that the Iran Deal was fatally flawed, the Paris Accord was a charade, the “Palestinian” problem was ossified, a radically new policy toward China was overdue, the Pentagon needed to be recalibrated, and old American partnerships were in dire need of recalibration from NATO to NAFTA.
3) There is a logical and systematic antithesis to Trumpism.
If so, will either primary or general election candidates run on open borders being preferable to secure ones? Eliminating ICE is better than maintaining it? Defense cuts are necessary? Far more gun control? Medicare for all?
There is too much American natural gas and oil production? The economy would be better off with higher unemployment and slower growth? Food stamps need to be increased not reduced by over 3 million recipients?
We are too harsh on Iran and too accommodating of Israel? Taxes are too low, government too small, and entitlements too few? Did Trump appoint too many unqualified strict constructionist judges? Were John Bolton and Mike Pompeo incompetent?
Whom Are We To Trust?
As we look to our celebrities, billionaires, intellectuals and senior statesmen, a sort of American pantheon, do we to find sources of reassurance in Hollywood, perhaps in the statements and behavior of the last two years of Cher, Barbra Streisand, Robert De Niro, Johnny Depp, or Madonna? Do the Oscars, Tonys, and Emmys showcase the expertise, competence, and professionalism of our entertainers?
Do the recent statements of the elite marginalized—a LeBron James, Alice Walker, or Tamika Mallory—remind us to reset our ethical bearings, or do they instead suggest that intersectionality can at times exempt, rather than serve as an impediment to, anti-Semitism? Has Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shown us superior erudition and common sense?
Perhaps Harvard, now facing allegations that it systematically discriminated on the basis of race, can reassure us of progressive values in these tough times? Can its first Native American professor Elizabeth Warren help us endure Trump? Or maybe Google, Facebook and Twitter can show us the way to protect our civil liberties, free expression, and non-partisanship?
Do the heads of our major entertainment and news organizations, a Harvey Weinstein and Les Moonves, offer sources of refuge in these supposedly dark Trump years? Have trusted journals like The New Republic or Der Spiegel been reliable beacons of truth?
Perhaps we can look to the elite of the media, to the careers of Dan Rather, Brian Williams, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, or Mark Halperin, or stellar writers such as Leon Wieseltier, Glenn Thrush, or Garrison Keillor to help us recover our moral bearings. Could a wide array of our best intellectuals, politicians, and activists help find our way home in in the age of Trump, perhaps truth tellers such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, Al Franken, or Dianne Feinstein?
Could not Joe Biden weigh in on the evils of plagiarism, Cory Booker cite the dangers of fabulism, Harry Reid warn of racial stereotyping, or Kamala Harris on the perils of religious bigotry?
Maybe the elites of government will be our touchstones. Trump critic, James Comey, the director of the FBI, has told Congress on 245 occasions during a single appearance that he does not know or cannot remember the answers when asked questions.
The cable television critic and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had lied under oath to Congress and fabulously claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was largely secular.
John Brennan, another cable television consultant and the former CIA head, has trumped Clapper by lying twice to Congress. Brennan also claimed that jihad was little more than a personal introspective religious journey. Are these our watchtowers of sobriety in these dark times?
Both Hillary and Bill Clinton, by education, careers, and service, are advertisements of the ruling class. Yet, she was the godmother of the disastrous Libyan incursion, knee-deep in scandal from cattlegate to Benghazi to Uranium One, and hired a foreign national during the 2016 election to find dirt on her political opponent through the paid services of foreign sources. Bill was impeached and somehow ended up worth well over $100 million largely by selling influence on the premise he and his spouse would one day be back in the White House. The Clinton Foundation is synonymous with corruption.
So do the most acerbic critics of Trump and iconic members of our aristocracy inspire confidence?
Former National Security advisor Susan Rice, to take just one recent example of a prominent critic in the news, lied repeatedly about the Benghazi attacks, about the Bowe Bergdahl swap (the Army deserter served, she said, “with honor and distinction”), about the sordid details of buying back hostages central to the Iran deal (“And we were very specific about the need not to link their fate to that of the negotiations”), about the elimination of weapons of mass destruction in Syria (“We were able to get the Syrian government to voluntarily and verifiably give up its chemical-weapons stockpile,”) and about the unmasking of names surveilled through FISA court warrants (“I know nothing about this”).
The point of this tour of our elite is not to excuse Trump’s often retaliatory crassness or bombast, but to remind us that our self-righteous anti- and pre-Trump aristocracy was so often a mediocracy. It had assumed status and privilege largely on suspect criteria. Its record abroad and at home inspired little confidence. Doing mostly the opposite of what elite conventional wisdom advocated since January 2017 has made the nation stronger, not weaker.
Strangest of all, the elite’s furious venom directed at Trump, couched in ethical pretense, has had the odd effect to remind the American people how unethical and incompetent these people were, are, and likely will continue to be.
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Victor Davis Hanson is an American military historian, columnist, former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He was a professor of classics at California State University, Fresno, and is currently the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush. Hanson is also a farmer (growing raisin grapes on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author most recently of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict was Fought and Won (Basic Books).
Photo “Donald Trump” by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0.