Over and over, Trump was betrayed by his inability to hold in check his own ego needs for the good of the nation
Many years ago, my friend David Luchins, a Touro professor of political science and former aide to Senator Daniel Moynihan, pointed out to me that the Republican Party was consistently hampered in national elections by the fact that many of its "natural" voters had given up on the political process and no longer voted.
It was the genius of Donald Trump, argues historian Victor Davis Hanson in his incisive The Case for Trump, to bring those voters back into electoral politics. By doing so, Trump managed to swing Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania into his column in 2016. During the battle for the 2016 Republican nomination, I thought that Trump was the only Republican who could lose to Hillary. But Hanson argues persuasively that he was the only one who could have beaten her by engaging disillusioned voters. (He adds for good measure that Clinton's high negatives made her the only Democrat who could have lost to Trump.)
Trump was an immensely consequential president. He reordered the electoral map by putting the Upper Midwest into play. He was also the first president in recent memory to actually hew faithfully to what he promised to do as a candidate.
And many of the signature issues he raised may well continue to dominate the political debate: illegal immigration of unskilled workers, the loss of American manufacturing jobs, China's violation of trade agreements and industrial espionage, and endless foreign wars, in which young men of the working and lower middle class bear a disproportionate share of the burden. Or at least those issues would have continued to dominate had he not self-immolated, and cleared the way for long-term Democratic dominance.
Hanson is deeply sympathetic to Trump's positions on these issues, not just as a distinguished military historian and historian of ancient Greece, but more importantly, as a fourth generation grower in California's Central Valley, near Fresno, who has watched his area destroyed by an influx of illegal immigrants.
On one point, however, I would take issue with Hanson. He tends to downplay Trump's character flaws, noting, for instance, the tawdry relationships of numerous previous presidents, including while in office, and their deliberate deception of the American people. Woodrow Wilson's wife effectively served as president for over a year after he suffered a debilitating stroke; JFK was on powerful painkillers for his Addison's disease, which could have adversely affected his judgment. And while Trump was not the model of a scrupulously honest businessman, his sins in that regard were as a private citizen, whereas the Clintons used the promise of access to governmental power to mint over a $100 million dollars after leaving office and in anticipation of returning to power.
In an interview with the Hoover Institution's Peter Robinson, Hanson pointed out that many times it has fallen to men of unlovely traits to achieve what better human beings of gentler dispositions could not. He specifically mentioned General George Patton, the commander of the Third Army that captured much of Germany toward the end of World War II.
BUT THERE IS AT LEAST ONE QUALITY that dooms a democratic leader to failure, sooner or later: the inability to distinguish between one's personal needs, psychic or material, and the interests of the country one would lead. "L'etat c'est moi — I myself am the nation," might be said by Louis XIV, but should never be the attitude of American presidents. Over and over, Trump was betrayed by his inability to hold in check his own ego needs for the good of the nation — most recently when he could not stop crying from every Twitter feed that he had been robbed, even when that lack of self-control threatened to exact a great cost on the country, his party, and even himself personally — and did.
YUVAL LEVIN, in a National Review piece entitled "Failures of Leadership in a Populist Age," points to another specific requirement of a leader of a populist movement such as Trumpism: He must keep his followers tethered to reality. Levin, one of America's deepest political thinkers and sharpest observers, is far from antagonistic to the populist critique of American elites as routinely abusing their power and privilege for personal gain, "looking down on everyone else's way of life and actively threatening the religious and cultural foundations of American society." America's elite institutions, he writes, have produced a "leadership class implicitly hostile to the character and culture of the bulk of the larger society and blind to the weaknesses of its own claims to legitimacy." Those same elites have abused their position to the advantage of the upper tier of American society, educationally and economically, and to the disadvantage of the middle and lower tiers.
But it is the nature of populist movements, from the agrarian populists of the late 19th century to today's Trump followers, to make other assumptions about the motivations of the elites, or the sources of blame for their own situations, or to engage in wild conspiracy theories without basis in fact.
And while departures from reality may not be a fatal flaw in politics — at least not in the short run — they are in governing. Government detached from reality is debilitating and self-destructive. It is not entirely clear to what extent Donald Trump shared the fevered conspiracy theories of his followers: He certainly retweeted enough of them. But most of the failures of the Trump administration, in Levin's eyes, can be understood as "forms of choosing fantasy over reality and so failing to use the power at his disposal in a constructive way."
Levin details what he views as legitimate goals — goals that can be approached, if not fully achieved, through democratic politics: protecting religious liberty, lifting some of the burdens weighing on families struggling to raise children, pushing back against the radicalization of higher education, taking the threat of Chinese power more seriously, helping Americans yearning for meaningful economic security and more stable employment, increasing the opportunities for those who don't go to college, and securing our borders and improving the immigration system.
But that can only be done by leaders who are honest with their voters and can serve their interests "by connecting their legitimate grievances with the hard realities of governing. They need to choose to address real problems and ignore fake problems."
SENATORS JOSH HAWLEY AND TED CRUZ failed Levin's test for populist leadership when they announced they would speak on January 6 in opposition to certification of the Electoral College vote the preceding day. Neither man had the excuse of an evident personality disorder or ignorance of the U.S. Constitution. They are graduates of Yale and Harvard Law Schools, respectively. Both clerked for the Supreme Court.
Had they instead disabused the president of the fantastical notion that the certification of the Electoral College vote — essentially a clerical function — offered a route to overturning the result, or that Vice President Mike Pence had the authority to do so, Trump would have had no reason to call upon his followers to come to the capital and march on Congress.
Hawley had many powerful points to make about the manner in which social media platforms shut down potentially outcome-determinative information from reaching the American people, especially in the weeks leading up to the election, and has been a forceful critic of power of the social media giants in general. But the certification process was not the venue, as it offered no remedy.
Hawley and Cruz's attempt to hijack the certification process was a transparent effort to place themselves at the front of the line to inherit the Trump mantle in 2024. They played along with the president's folly, with disastrous results, not the least of which is their own political futures. (Sometimes the wheels of justice turn rapidly.)
Senator Tom Cotton, another likely Republican aspirant in 2024, got it exactly right: "The Founders entrusted our elections chiefly to the states — not Congress. They entrusted the election of our president to our people, acting through the Electoral College — not Congress. And they entrusted the adjudication of election disputes to the courts — not Congress.... Congress's power is limited to counting electoral votes submitted by the states."
To do otherwise, said Cotton, would be to take the power to choose the president away from the people, and place it in the power of whatever party controls Congress. It would undermine the Electoral College and federalize election law, something Republicans have always opposed. Later, Cotton would label the mob that attacked the Capitol as "insurrectionists."
Conservative Republicans Cotton and Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who excoriated Hawley from the beginning, were the true defenders of conservative values. Sadly, Hawley and Cruz betrayed them.