Almost daily, President Trump manages to incense the media, alarm the world abroad, and enrage his Democratic opposition. Not since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office has change and disruption come so fast from the White House.
Let’s consider foreign affairs first. In response to North Korea’s nuclear threats to hit the American West coast, Trump promised Kim Jung-un utter destruction. And for sport he ridicules him as “rocket man.” ISIS is now on the run. The terrorist group has given up on its once-promised caliphate—in part because Trump changed the rules of engagement and allowed American generals at the front to use their own judgment and discretion on how best to destroy their enemies. Trump has bowed out from certifying a continuation of the Iranian deal and sent it back to Congress for reform, rejection, or ratification. In the case of the Paris climate accord, he simply pulled the United States out completely, reminding its adherents that the use of natural gas has allowed America to reduce carbon emissions far more dramatically than have most of its critics. As in the case of the Iran deal, the Obama administration never sent the Paris agreement to the Senate for a treaty vote.
Domestically, too, Trump has not been afraid to make major changes. In terms of the so-called Dreamers—children who were brought into the United States illegally by their parents and protected by the DACA executive orders of Barack Obama—for now Trump has sent the matter back to the Congress for proper legislative review. On Obamacare, Trump has issued executive orders to free up the health market and remove subsidies and monopolistic regulations on how health plans are structured and sold. His reasoning was that the Obama executive orders on health care were illegal, so revising them was necessary and legal rather than inflammatory.
On cultural matters, Trump has waded into the NFL controversies, blasting players who refuse to stand for the National Anthem as unworthy to play. Trump—a thrice-married erstwhile womanizer and unlikely moralist—has condemned Hollywood mogul and sexual deviant Harvey Weinstein, and by implication the entire industry of celebrities that appeased and protected Weinstein’s vile behavior while lecturing America on its cowardly inability to call out sexual harassment.
Polls, to the extent they retain any credibility, are ambiguous about Trump’s chaotic leadership style. They show that the public is in agreement with Trump on most of these hot button issues, while not being especially fond of Trump himself—perhaps in the manner that patients may fear their oncologists but ultimately appreciate their treatments for metastasizing cancers.
So is Trump creating chaos, or simply cleaning up the political and cultural messes of the past decade—or both?
The answer is complex. To achieve perceived noble ends, the Obama administration often used dubious means, mostly through executive orders and by deceiving the public about Obamacare, illegal immigration, and the Iran deal. Now, Trump is using Obama’s own tools to reverse what Obama wrought.
Trump did not create a nuclear North Korea with missiles capable of hitting San Francisco. The appeasement that did was a result of thirty years of prior presidents passing the problem onto their successors in order to avoid a messy confrontation on their own watch. At some point, a reckoning was inevitable: either North Korea would establish a de facto right to deploy both nukes and intercontinental missiles, or be judged to be too unhinged to be allowed into the nuclear club.
Trump seemingly has deduced that North Korea cannot remain nuclear, and thus is trying to force China to rein in its client, while apprising Beijing that the past few years of U.S. appeasement were an aberration, and the new pushback the more normal American response. It is always easy to lose strategic deterrence, dangerous and costly to restore it.
Condemning ISIS as a group of medieval psychopaths who can only be stopped by annihilation and humiliation is not very Politically Correct—but that’s what Trump did. Such moral and military clarity is apparently impossible in today’s asymmetrical and unconventional wars of the Middle East. But Trump’s easy reliance on overwhelming firepower was as simplistic as it may have been effective—like Alexander the Great cutting apart the Gordian Knot instead of playing by the rules and vainly trying to unravel the knot’s endless folds and loops.
By any fair interpretation, the Paris climate agreement and the Iran deal were treaties and thus should have required a two-thirds vote from the Senate. Obama knew that ratification was impossible and would likely be unpopular, so he simply rebranded them as presidential protocols, signed them, and declared that they were legally binding agreements.
Trump is following the law by turning these agreements over to the Senate for debate and resolution. But he is also following his political instincts by assuming that both of these deals were flawed and put the United States at a disadvantage. Therefore, neither will likely win majority support in the Senate. Praise for stopping an illegal and unwise treaty or blame for reneging on an existing agreement will be shared with the senators rather than rest on Trump’s shoulders entirely.
Prior to the presidential election, illegal immigration had been ignored. Federal laws were unenforced. The border was not secure. Opportunistic parties leveraged illegal immigration for their own selfish agendas: the Left to recalibrate the electoral college of the American southwest, the right to ensure cheap labor, Mexico to obtain $25 billion in remittances and a safety valve for social oppression, and ethnic activists to perpetuate a near permanent constituency that will slow down assimilation, integration, and intermarriage.
Trump has not only committed to building a wall and deporting illegal aliens, but he has addressed the problem of sanctuary cities that in Confederate fashion defy U.S. laws. An incoherent multiculturalism often results in illegal immigrants celebrating Mexico and faulting the United States, romanticizing the country that they chose to leave while critiquing the one where they wish to stay.
As far as the NFL is concerned, the entire enterprise is an easy target. Most football fans are traditionalists and resent players kneeling during the National Anthem—much more so when such protestors are multimillionaires whose lucrative salaries depend on poorer fans attending or watching their games. If a country has no borders and cannot unite to stand for a brief expression of collective patriotism, then it symbolically does not exist as a country. The NFL bet otherwise, hoping that its players could be appeased and its fans would forgive and forget. But the fans have not forgotten and the players have only grown more emboldened by concessions of the terrified owners. Trump’s political instincts proved far more savvy than those of a naïve NFL, given that the league is now losing fans and money.
Are there any constant themes in all of Trump’s chaotic controversies?
The Obama presidency was atypical in many ways—even when compared to other Democratic administrations, such as Bill Clinton’s. Obama tried to move the country hard to the left and, in the process, radicalized and then eroded the Democratic Party at the local, state, and federal levels. And with the loss of a once solidly Democratic Congress, Obama was reduced to running the government by fiat and edict rather than through legislative compromise and cooperation.
The national debt doubled to $20 trillion. The economy stagnated. Labor non-participation rates soared. Near zero interest rates wiped out the purchasing power of middle-class savers. Scandals at the IRS, the GSA, and the VA abounded; the Secret Service, the FBI, and the Justice Department were all politicized. The country divided further along racial and ethnic lines.
Abroad, Russian reset failed. Efforts to pivot to Asia and to deter Chinese expansionism died on the vine. Red lines in Syria were ignored. There was no containment of North Korea’s nuclear expansion. The Libyan intervention made things worse. The withdrawal from Iraq left behind a “secure” country in word, a failed one in fact. The surge against the Taliban ended up as a telegraphed stalemate. The war against a “jayvee” ISIS stalled. There were many secrets hidden in the Iran deal.
To address these challenges, Trump could have tried carefully to patch things up in a makeshift and incremental fashion. Or he could have found such ad hoc mending largely a waste of time, and instead found a better solution in slashing and burning the mess that was left, in order to create new policies from scratch. Trump chose the latter option—and predictably, as the old order declined chaos has followed ever since.
Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of "The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won."