President Donald Trump speaks at the White House March 21, 2019, during a signing ceremony for an executive order to improve transparency and promote free speech in higher education. CNS photo/Joshua Roberts, Reuters

Bob Brehl: Book paints Trump as tragic hero

  • March 26, 2019

In a new book, The Case for Trump, scholarly classicist Victor Davis Hanson paints the U.S. president as a tragic hero like Achilles or Ajax from classic Greek literature.

“What makes such men and women both tragic and heroic is their knowledge that the natural expression of their personas can lead only to their own destruction or ostracism from an advancing civilization that they seek to protect. And yet they willingly accept the challenge to be of service,” Hanson writes.

“Yet for a variety of reasons, both personal and civic, their characters not only should not be altered, but could not be, even if the tragic hero wished to change. … In the classical tragic sense, Trump likely will end in one of two fashions, both not particularly good: either spectacular but unacknowledged accomplishments followed by ostracism … or, less likely, a single term due to the eventual embarrassment of his beneficiaries.”

Donald Trump, with metaphorical sword and shield in hand, slaying 21st century dragons like illegal immigrants or foreign despots threatening America; all the while, his selfless bravery misunderstood. It’s quite an image.

But it would be wrong to swiftly dismiss Hanson’s ideas and his book, especially by those opposed to the president and his policies. Hanson himself calls Trump “flawed,” but his presidency exemplary.

Hanson is a retired classics professor from California State University, Fresno, and senior fellow in military history at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and he has written two dozen books on topics ranging from the ancient world to the Second World War. He lives on a working farm in a multiracial, rural area in the interior of California, southeast of San Francisco. He doesn’t live in an Ivory Tower.

He also uses his hometown of Selma as a classic example of why America elected Trump. Once prosperous with family-run farms and food-processing plants and other manufacturing jobs, now most jobs are gone, unemployment high, crime and drug abuse commonplace. “In 1970, we did not have keys for our outside doors; in 2018, I have six guard dogs,” he writes. 

While he is a conservative with an upfront agenda, his critics come from the left and the right. One of the nastiest attacks upon Hanson comes from a Republican who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and calls him a “Nazi sympathizer,” “racist enabler” and a “treasonous sophist.” A liberal writer says it’s oxymoronic to call Hanson a “pro-Trump intellectual.”

If his ideas are ticking off both ends of the spectrum, they must have some merit, or, at the very least, be interesting.

In defending his book, Hanson’s tone is civil. He tells stories from antiquity to make a point; or he acknowledges that Trump is a blowhard like the character Rodney Dangerfield played in the movie Caddyshack. But that doesn’t mean Trump’s policies aren’t working, he says. When one defends a position with reasoned thought, instead of rants and personal attacks like so many Trump supporters and detractors, it’s a welcome change.

Some of Hanson’s observations are disagreeable, others are worthy of pointing out and giving Trump his due. 

For example, Trump’s stand towards China and its murky trade practices is a reprieve from the appeasement of recent years. His support of the Catholic and Jewish faiths is also admirable.

Ultimately, though, The Case for Trump crumbles on two fundamental points.

It is disingenuous to separate the man from the presidency, but Hanson does. “Trump’s own uncouthness,” he writes, “was in its own manner contextualized by his supporters as a long overdue pushback to the elite disdain and indeed hatred shown them.” 

Hanson also points out character flaws in former presidents as somehow a reason to hand Trump a “get-out-of-jail-free-card” for his extracurricular activities with hookers and porn stars. 

“It doesn’t mean Donald Trump is a saint,” Hanson said during a recorded book tour event, “but he’s not an aberration either.”

My mother often said “two wrongs don’t make a right” and that applies here, along with Trump’s penchant to surround himself with hucksters, grifters, con men, liars and felons. Then there are the relentless and often vicious personal tweets and attacks on the Constitution. 

Sorry, but these character cancers cannot be ignored simply because one likes Trump’s tax cuts and deregulation that may or may not have boosted economic growth.

Besides, Hanson doesn’t make the case — with hard facts — that Trump’s policies are actually working. Has picking on allies like Canada really helped Wisconsin dairy farmers? Has he really tamed Kim Jong Un and his nuclear aspirations? Have Trump policies really boosted growth more than simply the cyclical nature of the economy itself? The list goes on and on.

Trump opponents probably won’t read the book, but it’s not your regular right-wing diatribe camouflaged as a book. It’s readable and, at times, highly entertaining in how he skewers Trump’s adversaries.

But, in the end, the book can’t make a case that electing a status quo disruptor like Donald Trump is any more than a Pyrrhic victory in the classical tragic sense.

(Brehl is a writer and author of  many books.)

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