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Non-Politicians Talking Politics: Author Victor Davis Hanson On 2016 Election


During these weeks before ballots are counted on November 8, we're going to have a series of conversations with interesting people who are not politicians about the campaign of 2016, about ideas, the country and the world.

Victor Davis Hanson joins us now. He's a professor of classics and military history. His best-known book is probably "Carnage and Culture." He's currently a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, a visiting professor at Hillsdale College in Michigan and has written frequently for National Review. He's also a California almond farmer.

Professor Hanson, thanks so much for being with us.

VICTOR DAVIS HANSON: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: As you look out at this year's campaign, what do you see?

HANSON: Well, I see a continuation of the populist outrage that prompted the Brexit and sparked the Bernie Sanders campaign. It's very difficult, historically, to define what an elite is. But whatever it is, people are very angry at that idea, I think, not so much because of wealth or privilege as much as attitude that the populous masses, if I could use that overused term, feel that a particular government or cultural group is not subject to the ramifications of their own ideology.

SIMON: Now, I speak from some experience in this regard because we've had irate emails from people in response. Nothing angers Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders supporters more than being compared with each other.

HANSON: Yes. But they are alike in a sense that the Bernie Sanders anger at Hillary Clinton was that she was a so-called progressive and yet had managed to make $125 million. In the case of Trump, he was able to tell people that elites live in gated communities, where they have walls around their home.

But they deprecate anybody who would be Neanderthal enough to want a wall. Or the columnist like myself or people at Stanford University don't wake up in the morning and see their job outsourced. Yet we promote free markets. But we're not sensitive to what that does to other people who don't have our privilege.

SIMON: You spend a lot of time on college campuses.

HANSON: Yes, I do.

SIMON: You're at Hillsdale now - Stanford, ordinarily. What kind of conversations do you hear among students about politics these days?

HANSON: Well, you know, they're not that different. I think there's a group of students - whether it's the micro-aggression or the safe space or the trigger warning that garner a lot of attention - but that the fundamental issues that they're more interested in are - and I'll be very frank here - how much money do I pay for a unit? And what is that unit going to do for me when I'm graduating?

And even though this is mostly in a progressive landscape, they're asking questions that have not been asked of the university. And the university can't supply answers to them.

SIMON: What do you believe America needs to work on most?

HANSON: I'm kind of old-fashioned because I was born and live in the same house for six generations. I feel - and that's been a bipartisan problem. But we're in a very Orwellian situation where when we - we've slashed defense. And we've raised taxes. And we consider $600 billion annual deficit success because it's not $1 trillion.

SIMON: I'm going to throw a couple of other concerns at you - threat of terrorism.

HANSON: Well, this is something that Donald Trump has been very effective at exploiting because throughout our history, one of the things that was important to galvanize the country against a perceived threat has been philology.

SIMON: I've got to tell you, professor, I'm thrown by that word.

HANSON: The use of language.

SIMON: I should know that one, shouldn't I?

HANSON: It doesn't really mean what it should mean, love of words. And by that, I mean that I think everybody realizes some things went wrong in the Middle East and that most of the terrorism is emanating from that area.

We can disagree why or where. But it's radical Islamic terrorism. And yet, when you see the last eight years, something's gone wrong to call it violent extremism or man-caused disasters. It would be as if we were looking at Hitler in the 1930s. And we were afraid to say that he was a Nazi.

SIMON: What about persisting racial inequalities?

HANSON: Well, racial inequality has gotten worse in the last eight years because any time you have a moribund economy, the people who historically have had more problems getting jobs have suffered. And that, I think, is triggering a lot of the animosity.

And I don't see a solution there either. If I talk to rural people where I live - mostly Hispanic but also poor white - they're not sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement.

If I talk to black students on campus, they're not sympathetic to the people who are not sympathetic with it. The fact that you want to argue rather than find some common ground, I think, has gotten a lot worse in the last eight years.

SIMON: I'm struck by the fact, professor Hanson, that you've written so lucidly about classical societies and the ingenuity of democracy. There are so many people that have found 2016 to be a kind of nightmare version of democracy. But you think it's not the first one.

HANSON: No. I think people are beating each other up in the halls of Congress, as they did in the late 1850s. I always ask the question, maybe it's agrarian pragmatism - compared to what? I travel overseas a lot.

There's just no - nothing like this country, which is the only, really, multiracial country that's tried to share in a common culture in the history of civilization that's pulled it off. A lot of the times, we want perfection. If we're not perfect, we're not good.

But we have had raucous moments in our history. And I think we're in one now. But it's not going to endanger the future of democracy.

SIMON: Victor Davis Hanson, professor, author and almond farmer, thanks so much for being with us.

HANSON: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.