A Conversation With Victor Davis Hanson
On military readiness, woke generals, and his perspective on Never Trump.
I had the opportunity this week to interview historian and author Victor Davis Hanson at length regarding his new book, The Dying Citizen: How Progressive Elites, Tribalism, and Globalization Are Destroying the Idea of America. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of a portion of our conversation, which I hope you’ll listen to in full.
Ben: Let’s talk about your chapter on “The Unelected” which I think is something everyone should read because it is a clear danger to the future of the Republic, particularly as it relates to the nation's generals. Now I understand that many conservatives, as you know, are used to holding generals in high esteem and certainly they've had instances where that was deserved, but we have an unelected class of generals today and you run through them, chapter and verse, and the things that they were saying over the past several years: weighing in on politics, in a way that I find disturbing and I think that generals past and certainly many of the men and women in uniform today find disturbing.
There is a class now of politician general who seems to have more in common with with being essentially an unelected Senator than actually being in the business of of winning wars of winning in combat, as they ought to be. And I don't know the way, the path through this fundamental problem, because it seems to me they have installed themselves as our nation's font of civic virtue, and that is something that is very dangerous in a nation of constructed the way that ours is. And I don't necessarily know how to solve that problem where to get rid of these people, because the problem extends far beyond General Mark Milley. It is an entire class, it seems to me about people who are unequipped for their jobs and who use the politics of the moment to posture, and to essentially engage in PR campaigns to further their own interests. That's a disturbing thing for me as an American. Do you have a solution for this?
VDH: It's in human nature of these, as politicians who now feel that their natural constituents are left wing, public officials that in return for fast tracking women in combat or pregnant pilots or transgenderism in the military, in a way that avoids the messy give and take of the legislature, and then in exchange for that they can go right out to the Northrup Grumman and the left won't say anything. I think what we have to do is break up that culture.
And one of the ways I think we really have to say that if you're top brass and you leave the military, you're not going to go on a corporate defense contractor board for five years. Just forget it. So, that's not going to be an avenue of remuneration for you and you don't, if you don't like it, don't, don't go into the military officer corps. I think we also really have to either junk the Uniform Code of Military Justice or abide by Article 88.
It's very clear that retired four stars, three stars, two stars are just as required they're required just as much as active top officers, not to disparage or deprecate the President, the Vice President, the cabinet officers, so when you have these four stars, and there you are comparing your commander in chief, as Michael Hayden, did to Auschwitz camps, or he retweets something about sending Trump supporters to Afghanistan for not vaccinated, or you have General McCaffrey talking about having “Mussolini as the president”, we had others saying that he was a Nazi, essentially a Nazi, and then we had a very distinguished admin saying you should be gone, sooner or later as if elections wouldn't be quick enough.
So when you have that type of activity, then we have to enforce it. And we have to say you know what you're going to be cited and we're going to dock your pension or you're going to be subjected to criminal penalties, because that's the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
We're not enforcing, we don't enforce the law with these people. We don't say to them, if you are General Milley, and you know the ‘47 or the ‘53 or the 1986 statute about the purview of Joint Chiefs and you interrupted the chain of command by recalibrating the nuclear procedures, from an order from the President to commanders in the field, then you broke the law. And you're going to pay for that, you’ve got to resign. Or we're going to have to tell retired generals, if you were of a certain rank, you're accorded a security clearance, but you're not going to use that security clearance to go on cable TV and wink and nod that you have privileged information, and Donald Trump, just to take one example, is a “Russian asset”, while you brag or you monetize that security clearance. You're not that important to us anymore, you're not going to get it.
I think if we started just enforcing the statutes that we had, there'd be a big sea change, but the problem they're facing right now is that - and I think it's suicidal, I don't know what got into their mind - they had this Devil's pact with the left. I know that when they leave the military they love that culture in Washington and New York and the university and think tanks, but my gosh, their traditional source of support with traditional Americans, they supported the CIA, they supported the FBI, the DIA, the NSA, the Pentagon… and now you talk to people who are conservative and they have had it, they've had it with James Comey, they've had it with Michael Hayden, they’ve had it with John Brennan, they've had it with James Clapper, they've had it with Robert Mueller, they've had it with Lois Lerner, and they said you know what, these people do not tell the truth, and there's no consequences.
So when James Clapper lied and said he gave Congress under oath “the least untruthful” answer, John Brennan lied twice under oath about CIA activity or Robert Mueller claimed he had no idea what the dossier was, or Fusion GPS, when James Comey had amnesia and 40 Don's under oath, then they've got to be held responsible for that. We have the laws on the books, but we don't have the will, and I don't know what happened but I think things are going to change because I think in a year or two, there's going to be a radical change in the government legislative branch first and executive likely. And these generals are going to be shocked when they see that they don't have a constituency anymore, and the left never liked them and never supported when they just found that they were useful idiots for a while.
Later in the interview, we discussed his comments in his interview with Tucker Carlson on National Review.
Ben: I have to ask you about National Review, and I ask this as someone who contributed to their “Against Trump” cover. I still would defend it only because I think that the position that I took was, was quite different from the position that a lot of other people took, in the sense that most of my piece was actually about why we should listen to Trump voters, more than we listened to Trump, and that my concern with him was that he would ignore the Constitution and just run afoul of it.
I think that he spent his presidency proving me wrong in a lot of different ways. I certainly never expected him to become the most successful pro life president of my lifetime, which I think is unquestionably true. The situation though, with NR is clearly one that involves a lot of controversy. It is and remains the flagship old guard conservative publication. Clearly though they seemed to become uncomfortable with you at the same time that they continued to run your, your syndicated column, which was something that I certainly noticed. I wonder what your thoughts are on conservative media and on the National Review experience in terms of, of how conservatives have gone in separate ways in their analysis of the last four years or so.
VDH: Well, you know, I did an hour as a lot of people do with Tucker, and that was one question, “Why did you leave?”, and I hadn't been expecting it so I answered it. I always try to give an answer of ask, and then a lot of media said that I had offered that. And the reason I'm saying that is but when I left after 20 years. I had said originally to the editor “I'm not going to argue about you, criticize you guys, you know, were very friendly to me for a long time”. And so it wasn't that I deliberately attacked them, all I said was that it got to the point where I felt that I had been attacked, at least by six or seven people in National Review over the last eight or nine years but it was always on, it was thematically the same and it was that they felt that it was their duty to uphold the Buckley legacy to be the guardians or the stewards of what was acceptable political discourse on the right.
And so, you know if Rush Limbaugh dies and he's, and you have some kind of sense that you don't speak ill of the dead and somebody from National Review suggests he was a Baleful influence, perhaps…
Ben: Can I interrupt you for just a moment? I took that one personally, because I wrote a column, the same day in the New York Post lauding Rush Limbaugh and talking about how he made so many people conservative. And I, I particularly disliked that one.
VDH: I wrote about him too, and he was a good friend and I think he was a wonderful person. And then we have people who would say, I mean there's ways of criticizing Donald Trump without saying he’s a monkey in a helicopter, and there just was a point of that, or when initially there were there were columns that were published there that were deprecating the middle class, that working middle classes if they were hopelessly pathological or they deserve their fate. I didn't think that was wise.
During the Covington. Kids controversy, I think a lot of people jumped the gun, reflecting the themes I'm just speaking about they wanted to be out on the barricades showing people that we can police our own that these are snotty little white kids… and you know I looked at it, I said wow, he says he's in combat in 1973 - when there are no combat soldiers in Vietnam.
So, in the Access Hollywood discussions, I said I don't think that we need to ask a person to step down after the voters and our series of primaries have given him by far the most votes, his party has nominated him. And this was a private conversation, regrettable as it was, over 10 years or so ago. Why would we ask him? So there were these disputes. And I think, finally, I couldn't be candid without criticizing people I don't think that's wise to criticize and I had a certain role that I had communicated to the editor. When this started, I said I will never ever preempt criticism… but I want to guarantee if somebody does that to me I will respond, and I did on six or seven occasions. There was a couple of heated heated podcasts, but I don't have any acrimony. But, you know, I think, I guess my worry was that National Review, I think, genuinely believe that Donald Trump, and his personal comportment was like no other presidents that we had. That he you know he was capable of exposing himself like, you know, LBJ into this cabinet, or bedding an 18 year old staffer as JFK did in the presidential bed, and no need to mention Bill Clinton, or you might conduct an affair in the White House with the agency of his own daughter the way FDR did, that there was a sense that [Trump] was just different. And that Joe Biden was really Joe Biden from Scranton, Illinois, and he was a centrist, and I thought that that was naive.
So after the election, I thought that there were other people I think that. I think Conrad Black probably shared those views, I think Jack Fowler shared views… I wouldn't want to speak to them. I don't have any acrimony. But then just very quickly to finish on the larger Never Trump, I think their problem is this, that, once you have this personal fixation on Trump, and once his as you said, his policies have brought prosperity and security to Americans and the United States in general, whether home or abroad. And once those policies, you know, for the most part, 90% - maybe tariffs or something like that is an exception - but you supported your entire life, then you've got to explain, and that's very difficult to do, why you reject policies that you had told people were essential your whole life. And suddenly they're not essential, they're toxic because somebody’s fingerprints are on them.
I think they weren't able to do that successfully and they're not now. And then when you add into the equation that Donald Trump got, you know, pretty much somewhere between 89 and 93% of the Republican Party, pretty much what every Republican candidate gets from his own party, so that this Never Trump megaphone in the journals and a lot of the think tanks was not very successful politically. So you know it was everywhere and I think, in my case, whether it was at the Hoover Institution, where I think the majority of people who were on the conservative side, which is not as much as it used to be, but they were Never Trumpers, I would say, where I was writing at the National Review… That was true I would say, in a lot of circles that I had I used to know. I knew all those Never Trumpers pretty well.
In the end I always had an idea of, you know, “reply in kind, but never preempt”. So when I remember the book came out and said you know the editor wanted to I had a title how Trump won, she said it wasn't effective and she was right - “The Case for Trump”. But, boy, I got I think 1700 words in The Bulwark saying I was a basically a Nazi spokesman, that I was an anti-Semite, and that came out the day that I was at the Hudson Institute, arguing that Donald Trump had been the most pro Israeli president in recent memory, and this was from a former editor of mine at Commentary. Then other people I'd had dinner with that would say, write things that were just lunatic. And some of these people I knew really, really well for 20 years and I just couldn't believe it. Their hatred came such that now that a lot of them, whether it's Jennifer Rubin or Max Boot or Bill Kristol, they've actually left the conservative movement, and what not…
That poses a question: where are they? Are they where are they always wanted to be?