There are few Americans better qualified to comment on current political affairs and cultural issues than Dr. Victor Davis Hanson. He does so on a regular basis. With a Ph.D. in classics, he is a syndicated columnist, the author of many books and hundreds of articles, and the recipient of many awards.
Dr. Hanson, who also grows raisin grapes on a family farm in California, is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University; a professor emeritus at California State University; a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness; and a National Review Institute fellow. He is a visiting professor at several universities and, in 2007, was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush.
In conversation with Dr. Hanson, who analyzes geopolitical topics from the lens of a historian, he elucidates the ills of today’s society. In doing so, he demonstrates that there is nothing new under the sun.
You recently visited Israel. Can you talk about your impressions of the country as it is enmeshed in a conflict over judicial reform? Do you see parallels between Israeli protesters against reform and the American left?
Yes, I do. I think the Israeli left, like the American left, doesn’t believe that its agenda will achieve the 51% public support necessary to ensure they have the political power to achieve that agenda. In lieu of public support for an agenda that’s often utopian or impractical, or antithetical to the foundational documents of the country, they always look at process. Here in the U.S., if the left can’t get certain legislation through, then they look to the courts. If the courts are not sympathetic, they talk about packing them. Or if they don’t get the vote they want, they want to change the electoral college or get rid of the Senate filibuster or change the voting laws.
I don’t think people in the U.S. understand what Israel’s dealing with regarding their Supreme Court and its history. It’s not anything like our Supreme Court. It’s sort of a combination of the U.S. House, Senate, and Supreme Court as if they were all from one party, so it’s one ideology that can make legislation by judicial fiat. It’s not the same as it was 40 or 50 years ago, and its transformation had no legal statute.
From what I saw in Israel, whether it’s due to immigration, changing attitudes or the success of conservative policies, Israeli elites feel their message cannot persuade people as it might have in the past. So they count on the Supreme Court in a way that elites in the U.S. count on courts or bureaucracies to enact social change.
Is part of the reason that Americans don’t understand judicial reform because there are those, including the media, who don’t want them to know?
Yes, I think that’s 90% of it. If you look at NPR, PBS, the network news, The New York Times, The Washington Post, or social media, the message is consistently that Netanyahu is a counter-right Trumpian figure and a revolutionary rightist. That’s all they need to know. Our media think that Israel is dealing in the same manner that we are dealing with Trump, and therefore all means necessary are okay.
Just as in the U.S., they weaponize the FBI, the CIA, and the DOJ to stop Trump, so too, it’s okay in Israel to do anything necessary to stop Netanyahu. The same as we have myths like Hunter Biden’s laptop is Russian collusion, or January 6 was an armed insurrection that killed an officer, so too does Israel have a myth that Bibi Netanyahu is trying to destroy the whole court system.
When you get one expert jurist or legal scholar debating the other and actually go over point by point what the Israeli Supreme Court is doing and what the reform suggests, it doesn’t seem very radical at all. The reform is trying, in some ways, to make it analogous to the U.S. Supreme Court. But when you’re on the U.S. left and don’t like the U.S. Supreme Court any longer because it doesn’t give you the result you demand, then you attack the Court.
It’s also become a partisan issue, with President Biden and other Democrats openly reproaching Israel on judicial reform and Republicans supporting it. How has this affected the Israel-America relationship?
The problem is that the left always has special rules. It would be unthinkable for a Republican President and Republican Congress to go after Israel when there was a Labor government in power. They didn’t do that. But the philosophy of the left globally is that they are so morally superior to anybody else that they have to use any means necessary. This is not new. We had Bill Clinton sending his campaign advisors to stop the Likud Party before we had Obama doing that as well. It’s almost as much as the Biden administration vis-à-vis the Iran deal. The left feels there’s no problem interfering in the affairs of a sovereign nation, especially an ally.
When they look at Israel, there’s also the class element. Israel is a very diverse country. There are a lot of non-European immigrants. You see Jews who don’t look like the Jews of 1950 from Europe. Due to an economic reform, there’s an underclass that has been empowered; and they tend to go right. That’s analogous to the U.S., where the middle class is so despised by the bi-coastal elite. When you look at all the anger at Netanyahu, part of it is an entrenched establishment that feels that they were the intellectual elite, the wealthy, aristocratic Jews of Israel who know better than anybody what is good for Israel. That included sophisticated jurists who could come on high and issue these fiats. They were very skeptical of Orthodox, Chassidic, Ethiopian, Russian Jews, working class Jews, especially when someone of their own class and intellect like Netanyahu was able to appeal to them.
I’d like to pivot from Israel. As a historian, you view the present and the future from the perspective of the past. You talk a lot about American greatness and its decline, mostly stemming from cultural and moral issues. Do you see history repeating itself in the way that occurred with the decline and fall of, say, the Roman Empire? And if so, what can be done to change course?
When you mention Rome, say in the 5th century CE or the Greek City-State in the 4th century BCE, or the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century, the culprits for decline and destruction are never poverty; they’re not even necessarily a foreign enemy. They’re usually a series of generations that have inherited affluence and leisure because of a winning system, usually of private property, consensual government, meritocracy, rationalism, and a whole array of Western values. As people get wealthier, they become more lax and have the margin of error and luxury to be self-critical to the point of being suicidal. One of the great symptoms of these periods of Western collective suicides that reappear in history is that fertility drops dramatically. It has happened in the U.S. Traditional families break up.
I think the problem is we were so wealthy, secure, and at leisure, that we have not been able to follow that successful paradigm of our parents’ or grandparents’ generations. They knew that they were always one year away from starvation or one war away from annihilation or one epidemic away from being completely wiped out. They had no margin of error, so they were very disciplined and careful.
Part of that is the universities don’t teach that anymore. The public schools don’t teach civics. The families are not the same. We’re declining not because someone forced us to, not because of COVID or an existential threat like China — it’s us. It’s a choice we’re making not to judge things that are anti-civilizational.
You can see it everywhere. They don’t think anything of abandoning $50 billion in weapons in Afghanistan. They’re spending and printing far too much money, universities are not meritocratic, research and development is suffering, we’re reinstituting a lot of the things we thought we’d never do — racial discrimination, separate dorms, separate graduations based on race. And they think they can get away with it. It’s incremental but it’s cumulative, so they feel that they have an unlimited expense account and all these layers of security. And then suddenly they go broke.
There is pushback like we saw with Bud Light and Target and with some school boards. Do you think it’s too little, too late?
It’s hard to know. You can see it in the panic of the left. The more people push back, the more the left gets paranoid and feels they have no popular support. Every single issue that Biden is pushing has no popular support. They have to be achieved by judicial fiat and bureaucratic decree. The left knows it and get shriller and shriller.
The question is — can the people focus their popular will into viable candidates and a viable political agenda, or are they going to get so frustrated that they’re going to go out in the street? We’ve never really seen that in the U.S. We saw a little on January 6th, but that was an incoherent riot. But people are very angry. They are angry at the media, the public schools, the government; they don’t trust the FBI, the DOJ, the CIA …
If the only recourse for people on the right is elections and they don’t trust our institutions, including the electoral process, then what recourse do they really have?
Well, they don’t have a recourse. That’s why you start to see things that are incredible. The more they indict Donald Trump the more popular he becomes. People say January 6th was a buffoonish riot but not an armed insurrection. They look at the asymmetrical treatment of that and the whole 120 days of rioting and arson and death and destruction during the 2020 BLM riots and they get very angry. They’re not afraid anymore.
We’re starting to see people stand up and say what can’t go on won’t go on. It’s not sustainable. You can’t have a society that legitimizes shoplifting or smash-and-grab, or racial discrimination, or borrowing $5 trillion, or that has no border with seven million people flowing across with no audit. The left is not interested in an oppositional agenda. They are interested in anarchy, nihilism, and chaos so they can rebuild society along their views. Everyone is beginning to see that this is not the Democratic Party of Hubert Humphry or even Bill Clinton. These are radical revolutionaries that have taken hold of the Democratic Party and want to destroy the institutions. But there’s a whole pushback that’s going on culturally against them.
Do these people mostly support Trump, who is leading in the polls? Who do you predict is going to be the Republican nominee?
I think people are making a big mistake when they say the election is over. If we had this discussion in 2004 at this time, we would say Howard Dean is a sure thing as a Democratic nominee or in 2012 we’d say Mike Huckabee would be the nominee. It’s way too early. We haven’t had one debate. And we’ve had a lot of wild-cards we’ve never seen before in an election. We’ve never seen the leading Republican candidate for the nomination facing four possible prosecutors with indictments. We don’t know how that will affect him. Will they issue gag orders? Will they have delays? It’s all political but we don’t know the effect.
We don’t know if we’ll find an honest prosecutor somewhere who says the Bidens are the most corrupt family in American history and maybe the left will dump him. We’ve never seen a president this encumbered. He’s one fall away from oblivion. There are so many known unknowns that can occur.
As far as the MAGA people, Trump will always have his 30% base. But there’s another 20-25% that are waiting. They think maybe DeSantis has got a lot more facts at his fingertips, an agenda, and a proven record. But what they’re waiting to see is if he’s a Scott Walker, a successful Governor who everyone thought was going to steal the nomination in 2016, and fell flat on his face in the first debate. Right now, it’s all fluid. If DeSantis proves that he can be personable, funny, and likeable, then I think he will do very well because there’s a lot of latent support for him.
Considering DeSantis’s age, his recent reelection as Governor, and the fact that this is Trump’s last showing, should he have jumped in now or waited?
That’s a good question. If we had this discussion before Trump’s first indictment, everyone said it was genius, that DeSantis was doing exactly what Barack Obama did. Obama had been elected to the Senate for just two years; he was young and they said, if you miss your chance now, you’ll never get it. A lot of people said, wait, it’s Hillary’s turn. And the rest is history.
After the indictment, DeSantis went from being a few points ahead in the polls to down 20, 30, 40 in some states. Now it’s conventional wisdom to say he should have waited. The polls have changed because he hasn’t yet shown that he’s charismatic and Donald Trump is being serially harassed. But the reason he did run hasn’t changed. I think he ran because he felt that Donald Trump was a kind of tragic hero who had done a lot of good but the mechanisms by which he did that good offended people.
What about the No Labels movement? A recent Quinnipiac University national poll finds that 47% of voters say they would consider voting for a third-party candidate. Would it hurt either Trump or Biden?
The polls will be all over the place depending on how it words the question. I think that if you talk to Democratic opinion-makers they’re very scared of it. They feel that if you had a Joe Manchin, he would take away a lot of Democratic voters, not the popular vote, but enough in some states to prevent Biden from winning the electoral college. If you put in Cornel West, who’s a sort of showboat figure but nonetheless popular in particular places with large black votes, he could draw off 3-5% of the black vote from the Democratic Party to make a difference in the electoral college. The anger at third parties is all from the left. Nobody on the right is worried much about them.
One of the main cultural issues fueling the right is education, which is driven by the left’s hyper-focus on children. What is the best way to reclaim traditional values for American children?
Most people don’t have the money or the time to homeschool or to send their children to private schools. Like it or not, for kids to be properly educated, both intellectually and morally, they’re going to have to deal with the public schools. That has to be one of the key issues of the Republican Party candidate. You can take away tenure and give teachers renewable 4-5-year contracts. Teachers can avoid the woke training without any academic enhancement by getting one-year’s master’s degrees in subjects that will allow them to teach in the public schools. You get rid of the mandatory Teachers Union dues. When we have charter schools they work, when we don’t have Teachers Unions controlling the schools it works.
Orthodox Jews in New York are fighting their own battle against the left, defending their private schools.
I think a lot of the anger from the left here is because the left-wing American Jewish community is Jewish in name only. They have no strong support of Israel; they’re not observant Jews; a lot of them don’t marry Jews. But the left says they’re Jews and the official spokesman for Jews. And they hate Orthodox and traditional Jews because they feel that you guys embarrass them. You’re too conservative, you still follow religious doctrine, and they can’t stand that. They don’t want traditional Jews to represent Jews in America. The left wants all Jews to hate Israel and be secular, and they need left-wing secular Jews to give them cover and credibility for it.
Are you hopeful that things can turn around?
I’m hopeful but not naïve. Look at Chicago and the killings there and the smash-and-grab. Shoplifting has been normalized. If you are very liberal with a home in San Francisco and a homeless person sleeps right in front of your front door, all of the forces of the law are on that homeless person’s side, not yours. That’s not sustainable.
Four years ago, San Francisco was a functional city, but when you defund the police, start changing the names of streets and buildings, start adding all these taxes to pay for homelessness, and hector people that they can’t have a gas stove or gas water heater, it catches up with you. Suddenly you go to San Francisco and it’s unlivable. You can’t park your car. There are signs in every car you see — “nothing in the car” — addressed to thieves. Or you go to Walgreens and it looks like a prison infirmary, where everything is locked up, and whole beautiful buildings are abandoned. It’s not quite complete anarchy yet but it’s getting there. And it came quickly. And that can happen throughout the U.S. unless somebody arrests that development.
I think people are starting to understand that if they don’t act and vote and speak out, the country will be on a path to destruction. It’s apparent now that people have to do something. They’re still confused and don’t like boycotting and “cancel culture” and deplatforming — that’s what the left does. So, they’re searching for mechanisms. For some it’s a school board meeting, for some it’s not going to Disney on vacation.
So, you see the good in the bad — it’s got to get so bad for it to become good?
Yes. We’re almost there. There are things that can’t go on like they are for much longer, and people know that and are standing up to stop it. Once you get the people on your side, and the people are on the traditional side, then it’s very hard to stop them in a constitutional democracy. So, I’m optimistic.