Crossing the Trump Rubicon
by Victor Davis Hanson
We are in a veritable war of competing visions. The strife inside the two parties is irrelevant—when compared to the larger existential war for the soul of America.
Like it or not, Donald Trump in fits and starts has chosen not to accommodate the progressive vision. But in most unlikely fashion he leads the fight against it.
Those who found him too crude, who saw his tweets as too adolescent, and who vowed never to vote for such an antithesis of conservative and family values have all weighed in.
So have those who are embarrassed that Trump—as did Obama during the Henry Louis Gates fiasco, the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case, and the Ferguson shooting and subsequent riots—quite inappropriately weighs in on current criminal investigations and trials.
And yet, warts and all, the Trump presidency on all fronts is all that now stands in the way of the completion of what was started in 2009.
The Age of Intolerance
We are no longer in the late 1950s era of liberal reform. It is now a postmodern world of intolerance and lockstep orthodoxy.
There are few Berkeley-like free speech areas on college campuses any more. Students charged with particular crimes enjoy little due process. There is no Joan Baez-style acknowledgement of the tragedy of good Southern poor men fighting for an awful cause. No one acknowledges tragedy anywhere at all; it has all become melodrama. We may yet see Joan Baez’s version of The Band’s ballad or Shelby Foote’s commentaries in Ken Burn’s epic Civil War documentary Trotskyized.
The media is not disinterested. Networks such as CNN see their role actively on the barricades, devoted to the higher cause of destroying the Trump presidency, not as reporting its successes or failures. The danger to free expression and a free media is not even Trumpian bombast. It is the far more deliberate and insidious transformation (begun in full under Obama) of journalism into a progressive ministry of truth. Even if he wished, Trump could not take away what the professional press already surrendered voluntarily.
The Cultural Abyss
After the nocturnal effort to tear down historic statuary, the NFL player psychodramas, the therapeutic reactions to radical Islamic terror attacks inside the United States, and the often unhinged profanity and assassination chic of the anti-Trump “Resistance,” Trump almost alone seems to sound off in opposition.
On one side are traditionalists who believe the United States is the most exceptional nation of a uniquely self-critical West. They believe that we need not be perfect, past or present, to be good and certainly are and were always far better than the alternative. And while reform and protest may be innate to the American character, traditions and values of the past simply cannot be airbrushed away because a particular generation suddenly believes that the dead of a far more hazardous and impoverished age must meet their own transitory mores of the present. Oddly, few of the Republican establishment speak out for them.
The new progressive Left believes that America has always been defined by its collective sins, which outweigh those of other cultures. They identify the white heterosexual male as the font of most pathologies (cf. the Democratic National Committee’s unapologetic effort not to hire white males for some of its jobs). Like it or not, Trump is now a central figure in resisting a full-scale dismantling of the idea of the uniquely individual, free, and outspoken American.
Economically, the new progressive party seems either to be uninterested in or of the opinion that it can’t do much about problems such as GDP growth, labor participation rates, industrial output, and increased consumer optimism and confidence—all relatively stagnant in the last few years. Upward mobility is seen as nearly impossible anyway, given the greater need for regulating all manner of commerce. We were warned that a return to a 3 percent economic growth was little more than a right-wing fantasy.
Instead, the new Democratic Party sees the economy as largely static. Indeed, stasis is apparently good for the environment, stops the rich from getting richer, ensures the growth of compensatory entitlements and offers a fixed target for government regulators, wealth redistribution, and identity politics set asides.
Like most neo-socialists, the new progressive party that supplanted the old Democratic Party promotes social justice in relative terms, and not defined by absolute incomes of the middle class.
The new progressivism would prefer an America in which everyone made about $50,000 a year, overseen by a far greater and more intrusive government (of properly insightful and caring souls, whose selflessness would earn exemption from the consequences of their ideologies) to the alternative of a country where a small minority made well over $1 million but the middle classes achieved average incomes of $75,000.
The strange meteoric career of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is illustrative of the anti-Trump agenda: free college tuition, single-payer socialized medicine, an EPA as ultimate arbiter of government regulation, much higher taxes, and greater leeway in reinterpreting the First, Second, and Fourth Amendments to isolate those who would push back against such an agenda.
There is no longer a Democratic workers party akin to something that Hubert Humphrey once championed. or Bill Clinton’s third way Democratic Leadership Council. And there is certainly no longer an old-line Republican establishment that can win Michigan or Pennsylvania or have a shot in Minnesota and Virginia.
The Marquess of Queensberry world of John McCain and Mitt Romney has ossified into either one of losing nobly or sort of an “I got mine” assumption that personal money or success will provide familial sanctuary not available to those of Youngstown or West Virginia.
Like Trump or not, by the end of his first three quarters of his presidency, GDP growth had rebounded and was growing at a pace set to achieve 3 percent for the year. Real unemployment (U6) had fallen below 8 percent; business and consumer confidence were at record levels. Energy production was likewise. Manufacturers expressed confidence unlike that seen in the last two decades. Corporate profits were unparalleled. The radical turnabout was largely Reaganesque in spirit—predicated on a new can-do psychological climate, ending insidious deregulation, the specter of impending tax-cuts, and a determination that manufacturing could return to the United States if energy was cheaper than elsewhere and industry had proper incentives. One can see the sudden bustle anywhere one goes.
In sum, the gap between Trumpian conservative economics and progressives is as wide as at any time in American history. The new Democratic Party is the updated vision of Eugene Debs. Its dream is a uniform coastal California culture, a San Francisco of renters and Presidio Heights spreading from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
For now, the unlikely Trump is the only road bump left on such an expressway to a medieval world of masters and peasants with few in between.
Obama finished off the remnants of the old Scoop Jackson wing of the Democratic Party. The post-Obama years were supposed to be a gateway to the internationalist and globalist world in which transnational agreements such as those of the EU or the Paris climate accord naturally trumped a supposedly blinkered and unenlightened popular plebiscite and their representatives in the national legislature.
The United States, given its past flaws and the blood on its hands, would remain a nominal world leader, but only in the sense of being one among many in a much to be preferred multilateral world that checked historic American aggression. Regional autocratic hegemonies—Shiite Iran in the Middle East, China in the Pacific and most of Asia, a reset Russia in the Eastern Europe, and new “moderate” socialist countries in Latin America—would naturally oversee their own neighborhoods, albeit with occasional nods to U.N. mandates on energy, the environment, and “human rights.”
Again, by mid-2017 Trump offered about the only alternative vision of an all-powerful United States, in Jacksonian fashion protecting its own classically liberal interests and those of its allies abroad, often by punitive deterrence rather than hearts-and minds-nation building,
The current progressive party does not really believe in sovereign and secure southern borders. Preferable are large annual influxes of Latin American and Mexican indigents who would turn the American Southwest blue, and thereby provide near permanent constituents for ethnic and progressive activists.
The alternative—a secure border, and legal, diverse, measured and meritocratic immigration—is an anathema for the new Democratic Party for two reasons: first, the entire Latino-American diaspora would then soon resemble the Italian-American experience, given rapid assimilation, integration, and intermarriage, making it politically unpredictable and therefore of no more use to the Democrats than are Cuban-Americans; second, identity politics hinges on claims of large numbers of non-white constituents who are not achieving parity, requiring self-selected ethnic and Democratic elites to craft equality of result entitlements that enhance their own power and influence. Diverse and meritocratic immigration would put character, not appearance, first and thus would also not serve that agenda.
The result is that at least with Trump the voter sees a chance for the melting pot to work. In contrast, Trump’s opposition prays the future will be a salad bowl—a celebratory multiculturalism in which our first allegiances are to our tribes, as the United States eventually becomes a veritable Yugoslavia and our individual states become updated versions of ethnic enclaves and ideological enclaves like Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia.
Quo Vadimus? (Where are we going?)
The 2016 election showed that most registered Democrats and Republicans voted in predictably and historically partisan fashion. The “civil war” in each party was largely rhetorical and irrelevant. The real conflict instead is over the 20-30 percent of both independents and eligible voters who either do not register or who do not turn out to vote. Whomever manages to galvanize them, wins the future of the country.
The first nine months of Trump’s first year showed a president often mercurial, widely disliked, and occasionally reckless, but also improving on the job, surrounded by excellent appointees, and about the only force that consistently and without apology fought the insidious dismantling of the American project.
For now, there is no alternative other than Trump to the new progressivism. The Republican establishment bemoans Trump’s crudity. But it can explain neither why its favorites lost the popular vote in four of the last five elections, nor why it was petulant in 2016 when earlier 90 percent of the party loyally had supported centrist establishment candidates who, in the last six presidential elections, did not manage to win 51 percent of the popular vote.
Looking back, the improbable election of 2016 proved a Rubicon moment. Once Trump crossed over the Rubicon, carried by his base of “crazies,” “irredeemables,” and “deplorables,” the die had been cast, and those who were fearful where America had been headed had no choice but to follow him through the river.
Either Trump will restore economic growth, national security, the melting pot, legality, and individual liberty or he will fail and we will go the way of Europe.
For now, there is no one else in the opposition standing in the way of radical progressivism. At best, some not actively promoting progressivism are only begging it to slow down a bit; at worst, the “I told you so” others wish for now progressivism to prevail to demonstrate what happens when the hoi polloi do not listen to their supposed betters.