Donald J. Trump’s presidency was, as he would say, a tremendous success until it wasn’t. Misunderstanding his success, many could also misunderstand his failure.
In January 2020 Donald Trump was well poised to win re-election. Domestically the US economy was growing at over 2% and unemployment was at its lowest level since 1969. Globally, the US corralled most of its NATO allies into greater military spending, drove a hard line against Beijing, and achieved concrete steps of rapprochement between the Arabian and Mediterranean seas while turning the screws on Tehran.
But there was always another, global, more ambiguous “success story” in Trump’s grand narrative. He drove many of his opponents into political insanity, to the wild delight of his base. Trump’s ability to create media storms and weather them, while drowning opponents, was without precedent in 21st century America. This elemental edge was key to his genuine successes too.
Probably no one understood this better than Victor Davis Hanson, one of the US’s most respected Ancient and military historians, who literally wrote The Case for Trump in 2019. The argument is long but can be distilled into a cinematographic recollection of the Country Western trope.
A small town is ruined by gangsters in cahoots with a corrupt or cowardly sheriff, the priest jitters, women wail for the dead, men grumble and do nothing. Enter the Outsider, who introduces himself by spitting into the dust. This place is a mess. A sound like gravel slouching uphill clanks through the wind, he spits again. This place is a real goddamn mess, but deep down the people are good.
To fix it the hero gets filthy. He exposes hypocrisy and decadence, but that requires going to the odd brothel first. He chases the crooked sheriff out of town, but that requires telling a few lies.
This antihero Outsider breaks rules, breaks noses, and then shoots holes through the gang’s brains, through wooden walls, and through every window in town. Rickety saloons come tumbling down. Gasps echo through the plain. Mothers hold their daughters back, fathers warn their sons not to be like that, but furtively the town loves its saviour even while half of it comes crashing on their heads.
In the grand climax the hero takes a blow, but shoots back at the gang leader, on the high street, through the neck, so the villain will bleed out to the sound of the townsfolk’s hisses. Begone.
Then comes the iconic dénouement, which you know even before you’ve seen it. The hero rides off into the sunset.
Antiheroes end off
Hanson’s point was that this American sense of an ending moves people precisely because there is tragedy in triumph, the departure is involuntary. Like an undertaker, the “tragic hero” strikes relief only in silhouette when you see the back of him. Until then his refusal, or inability, to act according to the norms of peacetime makes people uneasy. The hero leaves as an outcast, “begone”. The sunset is where he belongs, not here.
Years ago, Hanson saw Trump to be such a figure, a norm-breaking streetfighter of the airwaves that America would love as long as they needed him to humiliate their decadent, plutocratic, political aristocracy from on high, after which he would be ejected, self-righteously and ungratefully, even by those who once worshipped him earlier.
In a bar in Melville in January 2020, when Trump was peaking, an ardent fan described Trump’s appeal more crudely thus.
“My children think they are very sophisticated because they drink cap-poo-chee-no and love underdogs and antiheroes like the guy who sells crystal meth to pay for his chemotherapy [a reference to the character Walter White in the series, Breaking Bad]. But I know the real antihero of this world. Donald Trump. Trump will grab any pussy by the ballhairs, no matter how much of a big deal they are and twist it ‘til they squeal. They are shrieking even now. Russiagate! Ukrainegate! Orange Hitler! Racist, racist, racist! And while they go mad, he runs the world. It’s brilliant.”
“But what” I asked, “if Trump gets so caught up driving the other side mad that he goes mad too?”
“Then we have a problem.”
Reading Hanson’s columns and listening to his podcasts and speeches through the years of Trump’s administration one theme emerged clearly. If Trump was going to self-destruct it would be through “whining”.
Aesthetically whining does not fit the image of a pragmatist maverick who does what it takes whatever people think. Politically, whining threw Trump off the scent of real problems and degraded some of his support base into a circle of conspiracies as reckless as Russiagate. The final danger was that a tiny minority of his supporters would take his whining so seriously that they would break the law to try make him feel better.
Whining, in the end, proved to be Trump’s downfall. A proper adult would have told protestors to be wary of violence, to keep the peace, and apply pressure for investigation through words, not force. A proper adult in his position would have condemned protestors unambiguously once they breached and broke parts of Capitol Hill. A proper adult would have put the nation before his own ego. A proper adult would know how to look in the mirror and say, “Sorry, you lost”.
Trump did none of that. He went from acting the “bad boy” to playing crybaby, whining about how unfair it is that he got more votes than his advisors said he would need but still not enough to win.
Unlike the war generals Hanson evoked in earlier years, William Tecumseh Sherman, George Patton, and Curtis LeMay, Donald Trump wielded too much power to break rules right through without also breaking his own legacy. That is because his power was not just executive, but also symbolic. His final test, the symbolic acceptance of defeat, came and he failed. Then he stood by while great symbols of value were ruined in his name.
Unlike the great war generals Hanson evoked Trump also ultimately lacked the perspective to appreciate the significance of life after death. Brave soldiers never make the mistake of thinking it all ends with them.
But Trump did exactly that. His shadow will outreach his life, and possibly yours and mine too. Capitol Hill was taken for nearly a month in Seattle, but that will be long forgotten while people still remember the day the Capitol was breached. Trump has broken the norms of high office, broken himself, littering the path between his supporters and their best interests with the shards of an exploded presidency. He has become that age old thing, the man is his own worst enemy.
His former allies must pick up the pieces. To do that will require letting him go, “go home, and go home in peace” off into the sunset.
If you like what you have just read, support the Daily Friend