The American middle classes, the Chinese, and Vladimir Putin have never been convinced that Ivy League degrees, vast Washington experience, and cultural sophistication necessarily translate into national wisdom. Trump instead relies more on instinct and operates from cunning — and we will soon see whether we should redefine “wisdom.”
But for now, for example, we have never heard a presidential candidate say such a thing as “We love our miners” — not “we like” miners, but “we love” them. And not just any miners, but “our” miners, as if, like “our vets,” the working people of our moribund economic regions were unique and exceptional people, neither clingers nor irredeemables. In Trump’s gut formulation, miners certainly did not deserve “to be put out of business” by Hillary Clinton, as if they were little more than the necessary casualties of the war against global warming. For Trump, miners were not the human equivalent of the 4,200 bald eagles that the Obama administration recently assured the wind turbine industry can be shredded for the greater good of alternate energy and green profiteering.
No other candidate talked as constantly about jobs, “fair” trade, illegal immigration, and political correctness — dead issues to most other pollsters and politicos. Rivals, Democratic and Republican alike, had bought into the electoral matrix of Barack Obama: slicing the electorate into identity-politics groups and arousing them to register and vote in record numbers against “them” — a fossilized, supposedly crude, illiberal, and soon-to-be-displaced white working class.
For Democrats that meant transferring intact Obama’s record numbers of minority voters to a 68-year-old multimillionaire white woman; for Republicans, it meant pandering with a kinder, softer but still divisive identity-politics message. Trump instinctively saw a different demographic. And even among minority groups, he detected a rising distaste for being patronized, especially by white, nasal-droning, elite pajama-boy nerds whose loud progressivism did not disguise their grating condescension.
Yet even after destroying the Clinton Dynasty, the Bush-family aristocracy, the Obama legacy, and 16 more-seasoned primary rivals, Trump was dismissed by observers as being mostly a joke, idiotic and reckless. Such a dismissal is a serious mistake, because what Trump lacks in traditionally defined sophistication and awareness, he more than makes up for in shrewd political cunning of a sort not seen since the regnum of Franklin Roosevelt. Take a few recent examples.
Candidate Donald Trump was roundly hounded by the political and media establishment for suggesting that the election might be “rigged.” Trump was apparently reacting to old rumors of voting-machine irregularities. (In fact, in about a third of blue Detroit’s precincts, to take just one example, more votes this election were recorded than there were registered voters.)
Or perhaps Trump channeled reports that there was an epidemic of invalid or out-of-date voter registrations. (Controversially, the normally staid Pew Charitable Trust found that 2.4 million voter registrations were no longer accurate or were significantly inaccurate.)
Or maybe he fanned fears that illegal aliens were voting. (Another controversial study from two professors at Old Dominion suggested that over 6 percent of non-citizens may have voted in 2008; and the president on the eve of the election, in his usual wink-and-nod fashion, assured the illegal-alien community that there would be no federal interest in examining immigration status in connection with voting status.)
Or perhaps Trump was convinced that the media and the Democratic establishment worked hand in hand to warp elections and media coverage. (The WikiLeaks trove revealed that media operatives leaked primary debate questions and sent their stories to the Clinton campaign for fact-checking before publication, as two successive DNC chairpersons resigned in disgrace for purportedly sabotaging the primary-challenge efforts of Bernie Sanders.)
For all this and more, Trump was roundly denounced by the status quo as a buffoon who cherry-picked scholarly work to offer puerile distortions. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both expressed outrage at Trump’s supposedly incendiary suggestions of voter irregularity, alleging that Trump was either delusional or insurrectionary or both.
But was he?
Or did he sense that his candidacy was touching off an “any means necessary” effort of unethical progressives to warp the law and custom for purportedly noble ends? After the election, that supposition was more than confirmed.
The Joke’s on Them
Trump’s enemies have now proved him a Nostradamus. Fourth-party candidate Jill Stein, joined by the remains of the Clinton campaign, asked for a recount of the 2016 election, but only in those states that provided Trump his electoral majority and only on the assumption that there was zero chance that Stein’s candidacy would be affected by any conceivable new vote figure. Though perhaps, Trump’s critics wished, the recount would resurrect the candidacy of Stein’s stalking horse Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s enemies have now proved him a Nostradamus.
Then members of the Clinton campaign and powerful Democrats joined an effort to pressure electors of the Electoral College to defy their state-mandated duty to reflect the vote totals of their states and instead refrain from voting for Donald Trump. That was all but a neo-Confederate, insurrectionary act that sought to nullify the spirit of the Constitution and the legal statues of many states — part and parcel of new surreal progressive embrace of states’-rights nullification that we have not seen since the days of George Wallace.
Trump then earned greater outrage when he questioned the CIA’s sudden announcement, via leaks, that the Russians had hacked Clinton-campaign communication. When Trump said that the newfound post-election “consensus” on Russian hacking was improper, unreliable, and suggestive of an overly politicized intelligence apparatus, he once again drew universal ire — proof positive that he lacked a “presidential” temperament.
Yet our intelligence agencies do have a history of politicization. The 2006 national intelligence assessment at the height of the Iraq insurgency and of George W. Bush’s unpopularity oddly claimed that Iran had stopped nuclear-weapons work as early as 2003 — a finding that, if plausible, would probably have rendered irrelevant all of Obama’s frantic efforts just three years later to conclude an Iran deal. And our intelligence agencies’ record at assessment is not exactly stellar, given that it missed the Pakistan and Indian nuclear-bomb programs, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, and the status of Saddam’s WMD program.
There is still no solid proof of deliberate Russian cyber interference intended to aid Donald Trump. Loretta Lynch is skeptical that Russia tried to help the Trump campaign. A Washington Post story alleging that the RNC was hacked was based on myth. WikiLeaks, for what it is worth, insists its source was not Russian. And we now learn that intelligence authorities are refusing to testify in closed session to the House Intelligence Committee about the evidence that prompted their odd post-election announcements — announcements that contradict their earlier pre-election suggestions that Russian hacking was not affecting the election.
One possibility is that the likelihood of a Clinton victory spurred the administration and the likely president-elect to suggest that the election process remained sacrosanct and immune from all tampering — while the completely unforeseen loss to Trump abruptly motivated them to readjust such assessments.
Trump has a habit of offering off-the-cuff unconventional observations — often unsubstantiated by verbal footnotes and in hyperbolic fashion. Then he is blasted for ignorance and recklessness by bipartisan grandees. Only later, and quietly, he is often taken seriously, but without commensurate public acknowledgement.
A few more examples. Candidate Trump blasted the “free-loading” nature of NATO, wondered out loud why it was not fighting ISIS or at least Islamic terrorism, and lamented the inordinate American contribution and the paucity of commensurate allied involvement. Pundits called that out as heresy, at least for a few weeks — until scholars, analysts, and politicos offered measured support for Trump’s charges. Europeans, shocked by gambling in Casablanca, scrambled to assure that they were upping their defense contributions and drawing the NATO line at the Baltic States.
President-elect Trump generated even greater outrage in the aftermath of the election when he took a call from the Taiwanese president. Pundits exploded. Foreign policy hands were aghast. Did this faker understand the dimensions of his blunder? Was he courting nuclear war?
Trump shrugged, as reality again intruded: Why sell billions of dollars in weaponry to Taiwan if you cannot talk to its president? Are arms shipments less provocative than receiving a single phone call? Why talk “reset” to the thuggish murderous Castro brothers but not to a democratically elected president? Why worry what China thinks, given that it has swallowed Tibet and now created artificial islands in the South China Sea, in defiance of all maritime custom, law, and tradition?
Two weeks later after the call, analysts — true to the pattern — meekly agreed that such a phone call was hardly incendiary. Perhaps, they mused, it was overdue and had a certain logic. Perhaps it had, after all, sent a valuable message to China that the U.S. may now appear as unpredictable to China as China has appeared to the U.S.
Perhaps the Taiwan call had, after all, sent a valuable message to China that the U.S. may now appear as unpredictable to China as China has appeared to the U.S.
More recently, Trump asked in a tweet why we should take back a sea drone stolen by China from under the nose of a U.S. ship. Aside from questions of whether the drone is now compromised, damaged, or bugged, would anyone be happy that a thief appeared days later at the door, offering back the living room’s stolen loot, on the condition to just let bygones be bygones — at least until the next heist?
On most issues, Trump sensed what was verbiage and what was doable — and what was the indefensible position of his opponents. Prune away Trump’s hyperbole, and we see that his use of the illegal immigration issue is another good example. Finishing the existing southern border wall is sane and sober. “Making Mexico pay for it” can quietly be accomplished, at least in part, by simply taxing the over $50 billion in remittances sent to Mexico and Latin America by those in the U.S. who cannot prove legal residence or citizenship. Ending sanctuary cities will win majority support: Who wants to make the neo-Confederate argument that local jurisdictions can override U.S. law — and, indeed, who would make that secessionist case on behalf of violent criminal aliens?
Deporting illegal-alien law-breakers — or those who are fit and able but without any history of work — is likewise the sort of position that the Left cannot, for political reasons, easily oppose. As for the rest, after closing off the border, Trump will likely shrug and allow illegal aliens who are working, who have established a few years of residence, and who are non-criminal to pay a fine, learn English, and get a green card — perhaps relegating the entire quagmire of illegal immigration to a one-time American aberration that has diminishing demographic and political relevance.
Trump the Brawler
Finally, Trump sensed that the proverbial base was itching for a bare-knuckles fighter. They wanted any kind of brawler who would not play by the Marquess of Queensberry rules of 2008 and 2012 that had doomed Romney and McCain, who, fairly or not, seemed to wish to lose nobly rather than win in black-and-blue fashion, and who were sometimes more embarrassed than proud of their base. Trump again foresaw that talking trash in crude tones would appeal to middle Americans as much as Obama’s snarky and ego-driven, but otherwise crude trash-talking delighted his coastal elites. So Trump said the same kinds of things to Hillary Clinton that she, in barely more measured tones, had often said to others but never expected anyone to say out loud to her. And the more the media cried foul, the more Trump knew that voters would cry “long overdue.”We can expect that Trump’s impulsiveness and electronically fed braggadocio will often get him into trouble. No doubt his tweets will continue to offend.
But lost amid the left-wing hatred of Trump and the conservative Never Trump condescension is that so far he has shattered American political precedents by displaying much more political cunning and prescience than have his political opponents and most observers.
Key is his emperor-has-no-clothes instinct that what is normal and customary in Washington was long ago neither sane nor necessary. And so far, his candidacy has not only redefined American politics but also recalibrated the nature of insight itself — leaving the wise to privately wonder whether they were ever all that wise after all.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.