Donald J. Trump thus far has not shown that he has the level-headedness to be president. He has no political ideology and could just as well govern to the left of Hillary Clinton as to the right of her. Yet his sloppy way of speaking has earned him equally sloppy, over-the-top analogies — to Mussolini, Hitler, George Wallace, and a host of other populist and racist demagogues.
But is he uniquely dangerous, ignorant, or cruel in terms of either distant or recent American presidential history?
There are many ways to assess Trump. The debates and rallies give us glimpses of his ill-preparedness (at least in comparison to his rivals). So far his vision has not transcended banalities and generalities. He seems to have no team of respected advisers, at least not yet. Indeed, at this point, advising Trump apparently would be a career-killer in the Boston–New York–Washington corridor. No one quite knows who talks to him on foreign policy. He is an empty slate onto which millions write their hopes and dreams, as “Make America great again” channels the empty “Hope and Change.”
Those are grounds enough for rejecting him. But what we don’t need is high talk about Trump as something uniquely sinister, a villain without precedent in American electoral history or indeed public life. That is simply demonstrably false. Trump thrives despite, not because of, his crudity, and largely because of anger at Barack Obama’s divisive and polarizing governance and sermonizing — and the Republican party’s habitual consideration of trade issues, debt, immigration, and education largely from the vantage point of either abstraction or privilege.
What we don’t need is high talk about Trump as something uniquely sinister, a villain without precedent in American electoral history or indeed public life.
Take Trump’s worst, most repugnant rhetoric, and there will always pop up a parallel worse — and often from the lips of the heroes of those who are blasting Trump as singularly foul. He crudely brags of his past infidelities and sexual conquests — reminding us that he has an affinity with JFK and Bill Clinton (is it worse to boast or to lie about such sins?). Whether he would attempt to match either man’s sexual gymnastics while in the Oval Office is, I think, doubtful. I don’t believe the Trump jet so far has followed Bill Clinton south to Jeffrey Epstein’s sexual fantasy island. Is Clinton ostracized by the liberal media or pundit class because of his fawning over and cavorting with a convicted sex offender? Should Harvard have rejected Epstein’s cash?
Unfortunately, Trump was not the first politician to brag about the size of his genitalia. President Lyndon Johnson reportedly offered such jock talk often — as well as reportedly exposing himself to aides. Did LBJ’s sick obsessions turn liberals off the Great Society? In her civil suit, Paula Jones settled with Bill Clinton after alleging that he had likewise pulled out his penis. Is such exhibitionism cruder than vaguely alluding to penis size? A crude Trump certainly has not entered cruder Anthony Weiner territory.
In reprehensible fashion, a Trump aide recently manhandled a female reporter. Does that act reflect a Trump culture of sexism? Perhaps. But the locus classicus of such thuggery still remains Bill Clinton (currently on the campaign trail talking of various injustices), who on at least two occasions likely assaulted women through physical violence. Will someone uncover an early Trump essay with lines like the following: “A man goes home and masturbates his typical fantasy. A woman on her knees, a woman tied up, a woman abused.” “A woman enjoys intercourse with her man — as she fantasizes being raped by 3 men simultaneously” — replete with exegeses like the following: “Many women seem to be walking a tightrope,” as their “qualities of love, openness, and gentleness were too deeply enmeshed with qualities of dependency, subservience, and masochism.” If such a Trump text is uncovered, will he then be in league with the author of those lines, the young Bernie Sanders?
Trump crudely suggested that a Hispanic judge might be prejudiced against him in an upcoming civil trial. Did he take his cue from current Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor? She is on the record as saying that race makes some judges “better” than others (“I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male”). Again, the point is not just that Trump reflects a debased culture, but that the outrage is selective — e.g., is a justiceship on the Supreme Court an unimportant office?
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Trump is all over the place on abortion, flip-flopping almost daily and without much clue about the mission of Planned Parenthood. But he has not seen abortion on demand as a good thing because it falls inordinately on the poor and minorities — in the fashion of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who matter-of-factly said to a friendly reporter, “Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.” If we thought Ginsburg’s callous remark was a slip of the tongue, she clarified it a few years later with a postscript: “It makes no sense as a national policy to promote birth only among poor people.” Did prominent philosophers, ethicists, and humanitarians sign a petition demanding that she step down, given her judicial ill temperament and what can only be described as displays, on not one but two occasions, of crackpot notions of racist eugenics?
Trump supposedly is inciting violence by creating a climate of violence at his rallies. But did he say, or was it Ronald Reagan who said, at a time of widespread unrest, “If it’s to be a bloodbath, let it be now. Appeasement is not the answer”? Reagan called not for a punch or two but for something rather more existential.
Trump reprehensibly has urged his supporters to physically tangle with opponents. But, after Chicago, did he emulate a presidential urge “to argue with them and get in their face!”? When Trump does his next Philadelphia rally, will he, in Obama fashion, egg on his Trumpsters with this: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun. Because from what I understand, folks in Philly like a good brawl. I’ve seen Eagles fans.”
Or maybe Trump could adapt another line from Obama and use it with his working-class white supporters, cautioning them that, instead of sitting out the election, they should say, “We’re gonna punish our enemies and we’re gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us.” Or maybe Trump could try still another adaptation of a line from President Obama for those stubborn senators who favor open borders: “Those aren’t the kinds of folks who represent our core American values.”
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Of course, we must watch Trump’s associates. If he is indeed a devout churchgoer, will we learn of a Trump pastor analogous to the anti-Semitic, racist, and anti-American Reverend Jeremiah Wright? And will Trump get caught claiming that he is a loyal attendee of a church in the mold of Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ (“Yep. Every week. Eleven o’clock service. Ever been there? Good service.”) or that he could “no more disown” his racist pastor than his own (allegedly racist) grandmother? Is the title of The Art of the Deal borrowed from a sermon by a white nationalist?
We could play this tu quoque all day long, but the fact that we can play it at all suggests that Trump is hardly, by current standards, beyond the pale, much less that he is aberrant in U.S. presidential-campaign history. He is or is not as uncouth as Barack Obama, who has mocked the disabled, the wealthy, typical white people, the religious, and the purported clingers, and has compared opponents to Iranian theocrats and said that George W. Bush was “unpatriotic” — all as relish to wrecking America’s health-care system, doubling the national debt, setting race relations back six decades, politicizing federal bureaucracies, ignoring federal law, and leaving the Middle East in shambles and our enemies on the ascendant.
For those who point to Hillary Clinton as a more sober and judicious alternative, they might ask themselves whether the Trump financial shenanigans are on par with the quid pro quo Clinton Foundation scams, or whether the Trump companies are a bigger mess than Hillary’s resets. True, a historical precedent could be set in the current campaign, but that would be if Hillary Clinton was the first presidential candidate indicted before the election, given that all her serial explanations about illegally using a private server to send and receive various classified information have only led to updated and further misleading backtracking, and will continue to do so until she is either charged or, for political reasons, exonerated.
Trump certainly sounds both reckless and naïve. He repeats ad nauseam the same trite phrases, seemingly as confused as if he were claiming to have knocked away an amphibious rabbit from his canoe. He does not quite know whether Putin is a murderous thug or, as recent biographies have argued, a rather traditional Russian autocratic nationalist. He seems clueless about Israel, and he talks nonsense about stealing oil from Iraq.
My problem with all the rhetorical blather about him is whether such half-baked ideas are worse than concretely snubbing Netanyahu (e.g., “chickenshit”), or blaming, in a recent Atlantic interview, variously David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the Europeans in general for the Libyan disaster — which, if I recall, was supposed to be “We came, we saw, Qaddafi died”; or perhaps it was “What difference does it make?”; or was the instigator a rogue video maker who was summarily jailed for causing our consulate to be torched?
I had thought Obama was foolish for talking of ISIS as jayvees; now I learn from the Atlantic interview that it was the Pentagon that misled him with “flash in the plan” metaphors. Obama, remember, did not render null and void his own red lines. You see, it was the U.N. and Congress, not he, that set those lines in the first place — sort of like the hapless Chuck Hagel supposedly cooking up the Bergdahl swap.So let us all take a deep breath, calm down, allow the primary season to run its course, tally up the votes, and collate the Trump gaffes and inanities. Let us stop the condescending sermons about the Trump “mob” and cease pondering whether to walk or to support the eventual nominee — bearing in mind that a Democratic victory would, inter alia, change the Supreme Court for a generation. Let us go to the convention, seek an alternative to Trump, play out the delegate count, and then judge whether the nominee has said or done something that would appear far different from — and far worse than — the fare of our usual rogues’ gallery of presidents, advisers, judges, and senators.
I would not vote for Donald Trump in the primary, given that I have no idea what he would do as president and thus most certainly hope he does not get the nomination. But he seems about on par with the current president, in terms of reckless speeches, inexperience, crudity, and cluelessness. Yet I don’t recall hearing that many in the Democratic party ever felt that Obama’s provocative and ignorant campaign utterances, along with his past associations with the likes of Tony Rezko, Revernd Wright, Bill Ayers, and Father Pfleger, had driven them to vote for a far more sober and judicious John McCain or Mitt Romney.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.