“Ten thousand cuts an awful lot of family ties.”
— Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch
When Ronald Reagan entered office in 1981 amid negative economic growth, roaring inflation, and high unemployment, his critics immediately grew emboldened and sought to ankle-bite him at every turn: Reagan purportedly had created homelessness all by himself; Reagan was on the verge of ensuring a “nuclear winter” and a “day after” desolation from a likely nuclear exchange, given his nihilistic tough stance against the Soviet Union.
Yet four years later — with an economy booming at over 7 percent per year — Reagan breezed to reelection victory. It was suddenly “Morning in America.” His 1984 election opponent, a decent and respected Walter Mondale, was reduced to a cardboard-cutout caricature of fossilized 1960s liberalism.
Bill Clinton did almost everything imaginable to destroy his presidency in his last two years in office: kinky sexual explorations with a young subordinate intern, lying under oath about his tawdry escapades, and a recrudescence of older sexual-harassment allegations. Most Americans believed that he was an inveterate liar and would never leave their teenage daughters in the same room with such a creepy sexual predator. No matter — he was not removed from office even though he’d been impeached. His Republican accusers never quite understood that the American people preferred having an economy with a growth rate above 4.5 percent to removing a sleazy Lothario from office.
George W. Bush got reelected in 2004 despite massive opposition to the ongoing Iraq War because the economy was growing at nearly 4 percent in 2004. He left unpopular in 2009, not only owing to Iraq (evidence was already in by January 2009 that his bold surge had worked) but also because the economy had imploded in September 2008.
One reason that a personally popular, landmark Barack Obama failed as president — aside from doubling the debt, institutionalizing zero interest rates, leaving a mess in the Middle East, and using his un-Midas touch to undermine nearly everything he tapped, from health care to immigration law to race relations — was that he was the first modern president under whose tenure the economy never reached a modest 3 percent economic-growth rate. Had Obama just achieved 4 percent economic growth, Hillary Clinton would be president.
In other words, economic growth and perceived prosperity cut a lot of political ties.
Reagan lacked the legislative apparatus to become a true revolutionary; Trump’s windfall Republican majorities almost force him into that insurrectionary role.
The election of Donald Trump has turned everything in the political world, from the trivial to the existential, upside down. He is the first non-politician without military experience to become president. The polls and press caricatured him for nearly two years as a classic loser. He won despite being outspent and out-organized, and without real support from his own party or the mainstream conservative press. The Left is rightly convinced that he is a danger to the postmodern redistributive state. The Never Trump Right is still invested in his eventual implosion, issuing “I warned you about him” messages in a nonstop effort of self-justification.
Trump’s demeanor, language, and comportment remain antithetical to what we are accustomed to in a sober and judicious president. Cat-like Barack Obama gracefully tiptoed down the steps of Air Force One almost like a prissy metrosexual; a grimacing Trump stalks about as if he were on a work site inspecting the cement on a newly laid foundation. Obama, with his Mussolini-like strutting jaw, conveyed collective revolutionary confidence to the Left; to Left and Right alike, the scowl from a slouching Trump suggests unrepentant payback to come.
The nation’s stunning new First Lady is foreign-born and speaks heavily accented English. Trump is the first thrice-married president and the first billionaire to assume office. All that is just the personal disconnect from norms of the past.
On policy, Trump promises to outdo the reset of Ronald Reagan, who lacked Trump’s Republican-controlled Congress, vast majorities in the state legislatures and governorships, and the blank-check authority bequeathed by Harry Reid and Barack Obama, whose ends-justify-any-means-necessary changes in legislative and executive protocols have fortified the presidency with enormous new avenues of power. Reagan lacked the legislative apparatus to become a true revolutionary; Trump’s windfall Republican majorities almost force him into that insurrectionary role.
So Trump is intent on overturning Obama’s therapeutic foreign policy, slashing federal spending, rebuilding the military, exporting fossil fuels, waging a cultural war against political correctness and the liberal media, and enforcing immigration law. In other words, from his person to his policies, Donald Trump is a revolutionary, with a huge target on his back that the foundations, universities, networks, major newspapers, Hollywood, and the coastal-strip elite will always have in their scope.
Indeed, in that regard, the Trump revolution’s mantra of “drain the swamp” is a sort of political RoundupTM strategy: The root causes of progressive hysteria must be addressed by fundamentally recalibrating approaches to the media, the universities, and immigration. It seems that Trump means to challenge the tactics that to date have fueled left-wing agendas that otherwise would not gain support from a majority of the public.
Political observers, left and right, assume that Trump’s mouth and personal recklessness will derail his agendas. Heraclitus’s “a man’s character is his destiny” (an obscure fragment [ἦθος ἀνθρώπῳ δαίμων] that could be translated in a variety of quite different ways) is quoted ad nauseam to suggest that Trump’s intrinsic and immutable flaws will inevitably lead to overweening arrogance and thus catastrophe, as nemesis catches up with him at precisely the most opportune — and embarrassing — moment.
But it’s far more likely that Trump’s fate will hinge on his economic reforms. Achieve 4 percent–plus GDP growth rate and then Black Lives Matter, the residuals of Occupy Wall Street, the hysterical House Democrats, and the assorted unhinged fringe of Michael Moore, Lena Dunham, and Madonna will recede into the woodwork.
Economic growth cuts through political orthodoxy; economic stagnation intensifies it.
In truth, we are on the cusp of a great experiment. For decades, conservatives, both traditional and pro-growth supply-siders, have preached that deregulation, reasonable and predictable Federal Reserve interest rates, reduced government, a radically simplified and pruned-back tax code, new incentives for investment, an open energy market, and a can-do psychological landscape that encourages entrepreneurship will make the economy soar at rates of 4 percent GDP and more.
We shall soon see. If Trump unleashes American know-how and strengthens the economy, then his cultural and domestic agendas, as well as his personal demeanor and language, however radical and jarring, will probably be accepted. In contrast, if he blows up the deficit and sees interest rates spike at Carter levels and the cost of debt service soar, if he allows unemployment to grow — while never exceeding Obama’s dismal economic growth rates — then the Trump agenda will stall and the media will be liberated to obsess over the tweets, gaffes, and bombast of every nanosecond of his presidency.
Economic growth cuts through political orthodoxy; economic stagnation intensifies it. Regrettably or not, prosperity, not character per se, determines a president’s political fate.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.