There have been roughly two sorts of Democratic presidents over the last century. A few were revolutionaries who sought to take the country leftward with them. They were masters of “never letting a serious crisis go to waste” transformations and came to power after the chaos of national crises and near collapse.
Franklin Roosevelt created the modern notion of intrusive, redistributive government during the panic of the Depression. Lyndon Johnson, following the trauma of the John F. Kennedy assassination, pushed through the Great Society, which institutionalized the idea that it was the duty of government to use its power and money to seek an equality of result among the citizenry.
Barack Obama, following the economic crisis of 2008, sought to implant “lead from behind” foreign policy and an update of the Great Society, and to “fundamentally transform” the country, usually by focusing on identity politics as the core of the culture (in which the color of our skin rather than the content of our character would brand us for who we are).
In contrast, Democratic presidents such as Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton acted more as caretakers. They more or less administered what they had inherited but lacked the ideological fervor (or perhaps the political savvy or desire) to take the state further leftward.
The immediate Republican antidotes to Democratic revolutionaries were rarely themselves counter-revolutionaries. Dwight Eisenhower modestly tried to pull the country back to the center after 20 years of the New Deal — but nonetheless was hounded unmercifully for trying to do so. The supposedly dark and evil Richard Nixon instituted wage and price controls, created the EPA, and went to China. He did not dismantle the Great Society.
A true conservative revolutionary has been rare — Goldwater failed to get elected, and Reagan, without both houses of Congress, ended up more moderate than he expected and was followed in office by a Republican centrist.
Nonetheless, the media and the Left, in their respective arenas, howled that these modest corrections back to the center by Eisenhower, Nixon, and now Trump were nihilistic and extreme.
True to form, we are now hearing those same end-of-days accusations — even as Trump seeks to bring the U.S. back to about where it was between 1980 and 1992. Note that this endless cycle of change and counter-change is not a static phenomenon but incrementally (and over time radically) takes government and the culture ever more leftward.
So far, Trump has adopted the old Bill Clinton approach to illegal immigration, a formerly centrist but now strangely unorthodox position: He favors law enforcement rather than politically inspired amnesties calibrated to give him electoral and demographic political advantage.
His appeals to the white working classes are right out of the Clinton-Gore appeals in 1992, and they’re a rehash of Reagan’s courting of Democrats.
Hillary Clinton pandered more to working-class whites in 2008 than Trump did in 2016. The latter never said something akin to Hillary’s overt boasts about her white support in the 2008 primaries. “I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on,” she told USA Today, adding that an AP story “found how Senator Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in [Indiana and North Carolina] who had not completed college were supporting me.”
Trump seeks to finish the border wall that was authorized and started by others. And he is called nativist, racist, and worse, largely because between 2009 and 2016 what was extreme was presented not just as the new normal but as the new foundation of something even more radical to come. Trump’s proposed modest cuts in discretionary spending — less than 2 percent of a quarter of the budget — will hardly affect the deficit or the $20 trillion national debt. Nonetheless, Democrats will condemn him as a modern-day Scrooge.
On energy, Trump again is simply trying to finish the Keystone and Dakota pipelines that were authorized by others. His approach to coal is standard 1990s boilerplate Democratic politics. Sarah Palin’s 2008 mantra of “drill, baby, drill” was smugly written off by then-candidate Obama as Neanderthalism. In fact, she not only proved prescient; she also outlined the eventual energy protocols that saved the Obama presidency. When all of Obama’s efforts failed to achieve 3 percent economic growth, what he opposed — fracking and horizontal drilling — prevented a weak economy from completely tanking.
Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is mild-mannered and superbly qualified, and by design he avoids polarization. Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor had far greater records of unapologetic political activism.
Trump’s vision of the EPA, of regulations in general, and of taxes take us back to what was also normal in the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton eras. They seem revolutionary — again only because Obama used executive-branch regulations along with the courts as a means to implement radical agendas that otherwise lacked both public and congressional support.
If Trump’s tax reform is successful, the top brackets won’t be that much different from what they were under George W. Bush.
The furor over Trump’s efforts to reform Obamacare (rather than repeal it and start over) largely grew out of the assumption formed over the last eight years that it was the duty of the federal government to demand that everyone have one standard brand of health insurance, regardless of individual circumstance and preferences. If Trump ever reforms health care, it will probably be a return to the old system prior to Obama, with some state subsidies for the indigent to buy their own private health-care plans and with a few protections about preexisting conditions and young adults being able to stay on their parents’ plans until age 26. These are radical ideas only to radicals who had envisioned Obamacare as the final step to a one-payer system like Britain’s National Health Service.
So far, the Left has not said much about Trump’s foreign policy, to the extent its shape can be discerned in the administration’s first 100 days. But again, what is emerging is something that is neither neoconservative nation-building nor “lead from behind” Obama-era recessionals.
Practically, it looks to be an unleashing of the restrictions on American power against ISIS, but no intention of occupying and rebuilding Syria; a Jacksonian determination to deter Iran and North Korea, but no desire to implement regime change by force in either country; and a return to the status quo of old friends and enemies after the Obama-era recalibration of American interests (Israel and the Gulf States are once again friends, Iran most certainly is not). Putin is Putin — to be quietly deterred rather than loudly, gratuitously romanced or alienated. He is neither worthy of attempting another reset along the lines of Obama’s open-mic promises of “flexibility,” nor is he the existential demon who robbed them of a third term of the Obama presidency, as the Democrats have suddenly decided.
Trump’s foreign-policy team has few hard-core politicos like Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Samantha Power, Susan Rice, or Ben Rhodes.
James Mattis, Rex Tillerson, and H. R. McMaster may or may not have voted for Trump; they are Jacksonians, certainly not international utopians, ideologues, and globalists. They have never been elected to anything. Mostly, the trio wishes to protect American interests abroad, and they agree that U.S. interests come first. In other words, in them, we have something in between George Marshall and John Foster Dulles at the helm, rather than Cyrus Vance and John Kerry.
If Trump so far has tried to push the country back to the center after the last eight years of Obama’s efforts to “fundamentally transform” the country, why the hysteria?
Three obvious reasons come to mind.
1) Some in the media and the liberal community are mimicking Trump’s own “Art of the Deal” methodology. They know that Trump’s agenda so far is pretty much centrist by their own standards, but they believe that by exaggerating and demonizing it as nearly a John Bircher project, Trump will back off — and therefore end up to the left-center rather than in the center or right of center. If Trump is smeared now as 90 percent demonic, they can later negotiate downward for a 55 percent demonic president and consider it a smashing victory.
2) Other hysterical leftists are still furious, as much at themselves as at Trump. In the 2016 election, they had everything imaginable going for them: the Clinton brand name, the country’s Big Money from Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood, Republican civil war and Never Trump insurrections, a captive and toady media, an abandonment of Trump by conservative megaphones, veritable collusion between the press and the Obama campaign, popular culture, the foreign press, and the European bureaucracy — and they blew it.
To admit that they imploded because Hillary Clinton was a shrill and unimaginative candidate, that the campaign was both horribly and arrogantly run, and that the proverbial “people’s party” was not seen as populist by millions of Americans in the key swing states is still impossible. In contrast, Trump as the beneficiary of Russian collusion and as a veritable Hitlerian Gruppenführer offers leftists the psychological atonement they require to recover from their self-inflicted disasters.
3) Finally, Trump the person, not the particulars of his agenda, drives the Left crazy. It is not just that he can be crude, blunt, and uncouth, but that by doing so he delights the half of the country that is sickened by supposedly elegant political correctness.
If Trump’s political agendas so far are correctives of Obama radicalism, his cultural and rhetorical agendas — Americans first, nationalism in lieu of globalization, economic and military rather than soft power, confident American ascendance rather than slow and comfortable adjustment to decline, the melting pot over the salad bowl — represent to the Democrats heretical apostasies from the entire politically correct national faith.
We know from the history of American politics that zealots more often are provoked by words than deeds, and react more to symbols than to statistics.
What to expect in this new civil war?
Trumpism, to the extent it can be defined, will be deemed successful and even iconic if it achieves a GDP growth of 3 percent or above.
If not, then expect the present hysteria over the journey back to the center to grow.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.