Thinking for Trump

Other presidents had a brain trust. But the intellectuals backing this White House are a bust.

Thinking for Trump

Other presidents had a brain trust. But the intellectuals backing this White House are a bust.

Presidents are drawn to intellectuals — thinkers who can elevate their impulses, distill coherence from chaos and sometimes write the very history they helped shape.

It is not always a fruitful partnership. John F. Kennedy had wordsmiths and chroniclers in Ted Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., as well as the whiz kids who authored Vietnam. George W. Bush met with historians, philosophers and theologians during dark times in his presidency, when the fiasco of Iraq weighed heavy. Ronald Reagan leaned on the governing plans of the Heritage Foundation, while Bill Clinton combined endless policy salons with the centrist blueprints of the Democratic Leadership Council. Barack Obama had, well, himself. And recall how Jimmy Carter took inspiration from the writings of Christopher Lasch for his ill-fated “malaise” speech in 1979. Yes, surrounding yourself with the brightest does not always prove best.

Outlook • Book review
Carlos Lozada is the nonfiction book critic of The Washington Post. He has also served as The Post’s economics editor, national security editor and Outlook editor. He received the 2015 National Book Critics Circle’s citation for excellence in reviewing. Follow @CarlosLozadaWP
Illustration by Ellen Weinstein for The Washington Post

Being a Trump intellectual is an entirely different task. Donald Trump won the White House campaigning against established expertise. He doesn’t like to read beyond a page or so. His brain trust is more “Fox & Friends” than American Enterprise Institute, his influences more Bannon than Buckley. Even so, a clutch of pro-Trump intellectuals has emerged to issue manifestos, launch journals and publish books, attempting to impose a rational framework onto this most impetuous and incurious chief executive. They want to believe that the president embodies worthy objectives beyond his own personal benefit and political survival — that there really is something noble called Trumpism, not just someone crass named Trump.

Yet they struggle to make this case, or perhaps they make the only version they can. In their recent books, Trumpist thinkers spend less time offering specific, persuasive defenses of the president’s tenure than relentlessly attacking his opponents — liberals, establishment Republicans, Never Trumpers and any nonbelievers whose perfidy has rendered Trump not just necessary but inevitable.

The pro-Trump intellectuals claim to embrace Trump for his mind. But they stick with him for his enemies.

In September 2016, Michael Anton, a former aide in the George W. Bush White House, published “The Flight 93 Election,” a pseudonymous essay that previewed this adversarial fixation in melodramatic terms. Voting for Trump, he wrote in the Claremont Review of Books, was like charging the cockpit of a hijacked plane on Sept. 11, 2001. You might die, but if you do nothing, death is certain. A Hillary Clinton presidency would constitute an extinction-level event for American freedom and true conservatism; it would be “pedal-to-the-metal on the entire progressive-Left agenda.” Or, as Anton put it in an excess of metaphor, “Russian Roulette with a semi-auto.”

The essay drew criticism for its imagery, anonymity and hostility toward conventional conservatives as well as immigrants — Anton decried America’s “ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners” — thus making the writer a perfect candidate for a job in the Trump White House. Anton, whose identity was revealed by the late Weekly Standard, served for 14 months as a National Security Council official. Then-White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon dubbed him “one of the most significant intellects in this nationalist movement.” So with his new book, “After the Flight 93 Election,” Anton would seem well-positioned to move beyond the election and argue a more concrete case for the president, drawing on the administration’s first two years and on the author’s experience in the Trump White House.

Except Anton doesn’t even try; the “After” of his title is an afterthought. Instead, he reprints his original essay, plus a follow-up “restatement” that was posted a week later, arguing that Trump constituted “the first serious national-political defense of the Constitution in a generation” and that concerns over despotism were pointless because the candidate was more “buffoon” than tyrant. Also, Hillary was still way worse.

The book’s only new material is the preface and a lengthy rumination (titled “Pre-Statement on Flight 93”) that purports to explain “the essences of conservatism, Americanism, and Western civilization, and to review the main threats to their survival.” The system of federalism, separation of powers and limited government bequeathed to us by the founders is under siege, Anton writes, and the barbarians rattling the gate are the latest iteration of early-20th-century progressives and 1960s radicals, justifying an ever-expanding administrative state with social-justice mantras of personal identity. “The post-1960s Left co-opts the language of ‘justice’ and ‘rights’ as a rhetorical device to get what it wants: the transfer of power, honor, and wealth between groups as retribution for past offenses.” The result, Anton contends, is crime, family dissolution, weak foreign policy, limitless government and restricted speech.

Trump embodies the true resistance, fighting the “revenge plot” of contemporary leftism. But the president’s battle plans are never made clear. Anton spends virtually no time detailing or defending particular policies of the Trump administration; all that matters is the enemy. For Anton, Hillary Clinton is no longer the chief nemesis — the entire left is, along with sellout conservatives and any other forces countering the president. They contribute to a “spiritual sickness” and “existential despair” pervading not just the United States but all the West.

This is the author’s own emergency declaration, except the emergency is of the permanent variety typically used to justify authoritarianism. Anton cannot get past the election and his own interpretation of its stakes. Apparently, Flight 93 did not end with the 2016 vote; we are forever on the plane, endlessly in danger, no matter who has seized the controls.

In President Trump, author Victor Davis Hanson sees Homer’s Achilles and Sophocles’s Ajax. He also glimpses Thucydides, the Roman emperor Augustus, Alexander the Great, Martin Luther, George Patton and even Dirty Harry. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

In “The Case for Trump,” historian Victor Davis Hanson also treats 2016 as a reaction by voters tired of progressive orthodoxy, globalization and left-wing identity politics. “Trump did not create these divides,” Hanson writes. “He simply found existing sectarianism politically useful.” Trump’s insults, vile language and incessant denigration of opponents are just part of his “uncouth authenticity,” which appeals to supporters and enrages the rest. From the start of his campaign, Trump displayed “an uncanny ability to troll and create hysteria among his media and political critics,” Hanson marvels. “In their anti-Trump rage, they revealed their own character flaws.”

Hanson relishes those flaws, and, despite the title, his book focuses less on the case for Trump than on the case against everyone else. Hillary Clinton’s infamous “basket of deplorables” line typified the “toxic venom” with which liberals regard the nation’s interior, he writes, while Clinton’s past misdeeds, real or alleged, provided “scandal vaccination” for Trump’s bankruptcies, sexual misconduct and endless lawsuits. Clinton’s problem, Hanson explains, was threefold: She lied so much that her various deceptions could not be reconciled; she never learned from her past scandals; and she thought herself exempt from accountability.

The fact that this trifecta nicely describes Trump’s behavior while in office does not seem to occur to Hanson. He’d rather indulge in casual sexism, criticizing Clinton’s “shrill” voice and her “signature off-putting laugh,” and inexplicably suggesting that while “Trump’s bulk fueled a monstrous energy; Hillary’s girth sapped her strength.”

By Victor Davis Hanson. Basic. 391 pp. $30
By Michael Anton. Encounter. 97 pp. $14.99
By Stephen Moore and Arthur B. Laffer. All Points. 287 pp. $28.99

Hanson, a senior fellow with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, assails the “deep state,” even while acknowledging that Trump’s use of the term is so vague as to be meaningless. He praises the “inspired” and “impressive” Cabinet members Trump has assembled, largely forgetting their high-profile scandals, conflicts of interest, obeisance and resignations. “The Case for Trump” is notable for such omissions. Hanson does not grapple with Trump’s effort to delegitimize the Obama presidency through the birtherism lie, his call to ban Muslims from entering the United States or his difficulty condemning white nationalism. In Hanson’s telling, the true force behind America’s racial fissures is Trump’s predecessor. “Much of the current division in the country was deliberately whipped up by Obama,” he contends.

Contrary to those who suggest that Trump sought the presidency for personal gain, Hanson explains that Trump is sacrificing himself for the larger good, like tragic heroes of ancient literature. A scholar of classics and military history, Hanson gazes upon Trump and sees Homer’s Achilles and Sophocles’s Ajax. He also glimpses Thucydides, the Roman emperor Augustus, Alexander the Great, Martin Luther, George Patton and even Dirty Harry. Trump contains multitudes.

What makes such figures simultaneously tragic and heroic is “their knowledge that the natural expression of their personas can lead only to their own destruction or ostracism from an advancing civilization that they seek to protect,” Hanson writes. “And yet they willingly accept the challenge to be of service.” Maybe that’s what Trump meant when he complained to the New York Times that being president is, financially, “one of the great losers of all time.” It’s a tragedy.

The president’s only risk is that things improve so much that contented Americans grow tired of all the winning and decide they no longer need Trump. Deregulation, tax cuts and a border crackdown have produced a “synergistic economic upswing,” Hanson explains, while on foreign policy, Trump has “questioned the previously unquestionable assumptions of the global status quo.”

Most of his criticisms of Trump, by contrast, veer to the stylistic and euphemistic. The president is “egotistical” and “bombastic,” Hanson writes, and he has merely “fibbed” rather than lied. When Trump’s approval ratings decline, it is less because of his decisions than “the formidable forces arrayed against him — the Resistance, the Never Trump movement, the Mueller investigation, and the media.” One of Hanson’s go-to adjectives is “sloppy,” as though the president is just a toddler coloring outside the lines. Trump had a “sloppy press conference” in Helsinki last year, when he took Russia’s word over that of U.S. intelligence agencies. And Trump’s “sloppy administration in the detention of illegal aliens” is Hanson’s fleeting reference to the inhumane policy of separating children from their parents on the southern border.

But Hanson proves sloppy, too. In his preface, he misspells the last name of his book editor. (Yes, really.) More important, he distorts the views of Trump critics. At one point, he suggests that Washington Post columnist Max Boot wants to deport Trump-supporting Americans en masse in exchange for Latin American immigrants, even though Boot’s column was talking about feckless Senate Republicans, not ordinary voters. Hanson also describes a 2017 post in the London Review of Books blog that quotes an anonymous political scientist predicting Trump’s ouster or assassination by deep-state forces. The political scientist in question, Hanson assures, is “knowledgable of the Washington permanent caste.” I looked up the piece (a process delayed by Hanson’s misspelling of the author’s name) and learned that the quoted academic was not a Washington insider but a North Africa specialist living in France, and that the essay’s author described such views not as realistic predictions but as the fantasies of an impotent resistance. Such sloppiness undercuts not only “The Case for Trump” but also The Case for Trusting Victor Davis Hanson.

For writers such as Hanson and Anton, Trump is an emergency measure for a decaying and divided society. He’s a Hail Mary pass (or maybe a Hail Caesar pass). And illegal immigration is that emergency, they contend, both cause and symptom of our division.

“No more importing poverty, crime, and alien cultures,” Anton admonishes in his 2016 essay, warning against the “ethnic separatism” that comes with large inflows of newcomers. Hanson, meanwhile, stresses the political benefits of a border showdown, which strengthens Trump’s “larger campaign narrative of an out-of-touch elite.” The historian also decries “anchor baby court interpretations” of immigration law and laments that rivalries among African Americans, Asians and Hispanics may give way to a “shared grievance” against a declining majority. And Hanson supports Trump’s wall, in part because fewer criminals broke into his own house after he built a six-foot-tall wall in 1993. Besides, he adds, “I have never seen a Malibu estate without a wall and gate.”

Both authors incessantly exalt Trump, ascribing great depth and forethought to his actions and pronouncements, reaching for a leader who is not just disruptive but infused with higher purpose and meaning. Anton and Hanson come off a bit like Renée Zellweger in “Jerry Maguire” — they love Trump for the man he wants to be, and for the man he almost is! But it’s clear he had them at “wall.”

Stephen Moore and Arthur Laffer disagree with some of Trump’s hard-line positions on immigration and worry about his trade protectionism. “To say the least, Donald Trump is a work in progress on trade,” they admit. “He is playing a high-stakes game of poker here with a big upside. But if it doesn’t work, the ramifications scare us to death.”

So why did the veteran conservative economists sign on as advisers for Trump’s 2016 campaign, and why did they write a book — titled “Trumponomics” and published late last year — enthusiastically defending the economic policies and instincts of a leader who thinks trade wars are good and easy to win? The answer is simple: “We liked his tax plan.”

Forget single-issue voters; Moore and Laffer are single-issue thinkers. Cutting taxes is the siren that lured them to Trump, and for which they appear willing to make any substantive or intellectual sacrifices. The authors recount their role in helping shape the 2017 tax bill — they’re especially proud of their op-eds, which they quote extensively in the book, along with praise thereof — and reiterate their belief that tax cuts and deregulation will unleash so much economic activity that hard choices melt away. “We have always believed that the shrewdest way to make entitlement programs solvent is to restore rapid growth,” they write. And they swoon over Trump’s “unyielding optimism” about the nation’s economic potential, even when he embraces growth projections that the two economists consider unrealistic.

Though Moore and Laffer support Trump’s call to drain the Washington swamp, they are selective about what makes it through the sewer. For instance, they praise Trump’s campaign meeting with chief executives of leading banks, manufacturing enterprises, tech firms, retailers and energy companies in May 2016. “Everyone was asked to pinpoint the one thing the feds could do to make their lives easier,” the authors recall. And they highlight Trump’s refusal to end the deductibility of interest on business debt as part of his tax proposal, on the grounds that it would be bad for the business he liked best. “We were a little surprised at how firm he was in this rejection,” Moore and Laffer write. “But after we argued for five minutes he put his foot down. ‘Look, I’ve spent my whole life doing real estate deals. Every one of them was financed by debt. I hate this idea.’ ” Those waters remain pretty slimy.

Much like Hanson, who argues that only Trump himself could have followed his formula to victory, Moore and Laffer regard Trump as a unique figure, restoring American growth and greatness by force of personality. “The message required the right messenger,” they write. And the economists gush over that messenger, as all Trump acolytes must. The president is “very charismatic,” “clever,” “gutsy” and “the greatest marketer of modern times,” they rhapsodize. “What a showman! What a gifted orator.” They even assure that Trump fosters “honest and fair-minded policy debates,” contradicting copious reporting on how the president reaches conclusions.

The messenger’s message, however, gets squishy. Moore and Laffer outline the principles of Trump populism, but many are mere slogans. Always put America first. Restore American patriotism. Reject declinism. Lead by example. Spurn identity politics. No matter that Trump’s campaign retrofitted identity politics onto his base. In this telling, any of Trump’s missteps are someone else’s fault. Moore and Laffer blame the Republican Congress, for instance, for delaying the tax cut and attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act as the first order of business in 2017 — perhaps forgetting that Trump himself promised, a week before the election, that he would “very, very quickly” replace Obamacare. And Moore personally urged Trump to simply do the opposite of whatever Obama did on economic policy. It’s the kind of advice one gives to a leader who stands for little beyond tearing others down.

Authors Stephen Moore and Arthur B. Laffer outline the principles of Trump populism, but many are mere slogans. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Trump has tweeted generous but generic praise of all three books: Anton’s is a “terrific read,” Hanson’s is a “great new book,” and Moore and Laffer have produced “a terrific read of a really interesting subject!” It hardly matters whether he has read them; all that matters is that they back him. On the cover of “The Case for Trump,” Newt Gingrich offers a fitting blurb: “A must-read for everyone who supports the President.” None else need bother. These works do not mean to convince but to affirm. In that sense, they mirror the Trump presidency, which seeks primarily to harden Trump’s support through emotion, not expand it through persuasion.

Presidents and intellectuals are always an awkward love affair, especially so when one side seems desperate and the other indifferent. Trump has seemed more concerned about retaining the affections of conservative media figures such as Fox News host Sean Hannity or commentator Ann Coulter, whose 2015 book “Adios, America” likely inspired his attack on Mexican immigrants in the speech announcing his presidential bid. Yet, for all their declared high principle, Trump’s intellectuals have tied themselves to the whims and feuds of their leader, captive minds to that indefinable mix of ideology, impulse and invective known as Trumpism.

Hanson, to his credit, attempts to define it in broad terms. Trumpism, he concludes, “was the idea that there were no longer taboo subjects. Everything was open for negotiation; nothing was sacred.” A useful interpretation, but a partial one. Even if nothing is sacred, must everything be profane?

 

Credits: By Carlos Lozada.