Trump on the Ground

For months, I’ve been driving on different routes through the vast San Joaquin Valley back and forth from the California coast—and through the usually economically depressed small towns on and near the Highway 99 corridor through the Central Valley. The poverty rate in many valley counties is higher than in West Virginia. It is a world away from Hollywood, Silicon Valley, the Stanford or Caltech campus, Malibu, and Pacific Heights.

In an overregulated, overtaxed state of open borders and sanctuary cities, with the nation’s near highest electricity and gasoline prices, and facing a looming state and local pension unfunded liability of well over $300 billion, one might not expect much of an uptick from the supposed Trump economic revival. California’s calcified strategy, after all, is that global lucre pouring into coastal high-tech and finance will more than balance out the economic damage wrought by state government. Sacramento is a sort of court jester to Menlo Park.

Throughout California’s coastal and mountain forests there are waves of dead trees unharvested after a devastating drought. There are large fields of recoverable gas and oil in lots of places that are not being drilled, as well as valuable ores and metals not being mined, and unmatched farmland deprived of its long ago contracted water rights. The idea of a renaissance in the vast rich interior of the state seems implausible—especially when state government is more interested in banning plastic straws and mandating gender-neutral restrooms than in building dams or roads.

Signs of Hope in Central California
Yet signs for help wanted along highways are now ubiquitous—truckers, welders, fabricators, assemblers. Agriculture worries not just in perennial fashion about the lack of farm harvesters, even at wages of $10.50 to $14 dollars an hour. Now they’re short of forklift drivers, packing house workers, and mechanics.

New housing construction is growing after roughly a decade’s hiatus, at least to the degree carpenters, electricians, and plumbers can be found. Upward mobility is evident. At the local Walmart, the checkers often tell me they’re leaving despite raises—for better paying jobs. I drive home to my farm by a new warehouse that seems under endless construction. I finally ask the neighboring business, why? Answer: they cannot find or keep workers. The same reply comes from a friend redoing his house. Painters and floor workers no sooner start to paint and tile than they are hired away. Many now working have never held a fulltime job.

I do not know what the state’s figures on current public assistance show or could reveal, but when in line at the local grocery stores, I see less use of EBT cards than I did three years ago. Far less common is the shopper who pulls out four or five of them under various names. People have not become more honest. But they are in demand and making more money in a way not true prior in the 21st century. Labor has gained some leverage over the employer. Or rather the private sector is regaining ground on the administrative state. The fact of being needed and wanted makes a worker nearly as happy as increased compensation, this notion that he is not just appreciated, but desperately sought out by an employer far more eager to hire than to fire him.

The sense that the border may be closing, or that even in California ICE still deports criminal illegal aliens, has caused some self-deportation or perhaps slowed down the number of new illegal arrivals. Either way, American citizens, many of them of Mexican or Central American ancestry, have less competition for unskilled jobs and the rise in wages shows it. Employers do not pay more because they like paying more than the minimum wage but because they have no choice. How odd that the purported ogre Trump has ended West Coast sanctimonious talk over jacking up the minimum wage.

Does Trump Get Deserved Credit?
Does this boom translate into growing support for Trump? Not necessarily since it wars with the paradox that Trump is now seen by many as useful, but not as presidential. When one is doing well, he has the luxury of dreaming that it might be better to do poorly under a so-called presidential leader.

The media’s hatred of Trump is not necessarily determinative, but it is a force multiplier of the 24/7 unhinged narrative of the universities, popular culture, and Hollywood. Their shared goal is to make saying that one supports the Trump agenda so socially unpalatable, so culturally Neanderthal, that no sane person wishes to confess his delight with a new economy, foreign policy, and approach to the administrative state.

Amid the conundrum over Trump’s sometimes silly tweets, his 90-minute stand-up comedy routines at rallies, his spats with “fake news,” and the blood feud with the political lobby at CNN, what is lost in the calculation are these facts on the ground far from Washington, where slowly but undeniably life is getting better for the those in entry-level jobs among the forgotten near the bottom—and perhaps much better for the middle and upper-middle classes.

Surely in ethical terms that counts for something, given it was not an accident, and prior presidential efforts either failed or went untried. How odd that those who most despise Trump do what is necessary to ensure that they and their own stay in a refined class mostly barred to those who now are just benefiting from Trump.

At the top, of course, many are making lots of money, or at least believe that they are going to do so, given that new warehouse and plant construction is also ubiquitous. Cars are newer at shopping centers; tractors, too, on farms. I thought traffic to the coast would thin out given that California’s high taxed and special blended gas now nears $4 a gallon. No such luck. The roads are still clogged. Driving into the Los Angeles basin or the South Bay Area on a late Sunday afternoon is a nightmarish slog. Ride a bike on a main thoroughfare in California, and a steady stream of concrete mixers, and trailers with earth moving equipment speed by.

Facts Belie Sentiment
We are supposed to be in a near racial war. But the melting pot of the San Joaquin Valley seems unusually calm, the unity of wanting to make money is trumping the disunity that follows not finding a job.

I am now on a brief annual teaching stint at Hillsdale College in southern Michigan, in one of the poorer areas of the state. Here, too, things strike the stranger as far better than they were five years ago. There are more factory jobs in this greater automotive circumference. The food lines seem shorter, people more confident. There are more roads being paved, houses painted, and stores spruced up.

Abroad, for all the hatred of Donald Trump, there is a quiet, though usually repressed, recognition that the United States is doing what it long should have been doing—leading the world to an economic recovery, despite Trump’s trash-talking tariffs, and going to the mat with China. Critics concede that China is culpable of all sorts of trade violations. They add in the past that nothing much worked to persuade them to follow the global norms of currency, labor, environmental, and safety regulations, as well as copyright and patent laws. And while they abhor tariffs, they nonetheless have no ideas otherwise how to nudge China to follow the rules of global citizenship.

For all the op-eds condemning a polarizing Trump who has wrecked American foreign policy, there are also more silent concessions among many analysts that the team of Mike Pompeo, Jim Mattis, John Bolton, and Nikki Haley is impressive. They are more likely than imagined alternatives to stop any more Iranian nonsense on the seas of the Persian Gulf, or tune out the periodic ultimatums of the Palestinians, or take seriously the nuclear threats of North Korea, or get tough when Putin deserves tough treatment—and they have the will and, increasingly, the means to do what they say. The policy is to be ready for a fight, but neither to prompt nor to welcome one. For Trump, who values ratings and money most of all, wars can quickly lose viewers and cost too much.

In sum, we are witnessing one of the great ironies of the modern age. Minorities who are not Trump supporters are doing better under Trump than any past president, liberal or conservative. Environmentalists who despise him know that America has become more effective than its green European critics in reducing carbon emissions, largely through the breakneck production of natural gas. Diplomats who loathe Trump find their good cop talk and soft power has more resonance once it is backed up by a better military, a better national security team, and an unpredictable commander-in-chief who might just be capable of doing anything at any time to anyone anywhere in the defense of American interests and sovereignty.

NeverTrump legal scholars are perplexed that never has a Republican president appointed so many qualified judges and seen them confirmed so quickly. They wonder how that could be so, without at least one David Souter or Harriet Miers. They despair that it might become true that a president who enlists the best and brightest of the “you can’t dare do that” administrative state and the revolving Washington and New York diplomatic and financial elite, is a president who will be rendered inert.

How can things be getting concretely better than they were during the Obama years when expert opinion insists things are getting worse?

The simple answer is that for half the country Trump’s crudity trumps his cunning on the economy and foreign policy. That irony prompts the essential question of this presidency: could crudity have been the accelerant that pushed his agenda forward? And if so, what does that say about those who led us who were far less crude and far less competent—and far less worried about the consequences of their policies upon those whom they rarely ever saw? Or rather what is crudity when mellifluousness did such damage? And what is morality when a lot of ruin was done by those who claimed by birth, education, reputation, ZIP code, or influence to be so much better than those they hurt?

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Photo Credit: Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an American military historian, columnist, a former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004, and is the 2023 Giles O'Malley Distinguished Visiting Professor at the School of Public Policy, Pepperdine University. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush, and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson is also a farmer (growing almonds on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author of the just released New York Times best seller, The End of Everything: How Wars Descend into Annihilation, published by Basic Books on May 7, 2024, as well as the recent  The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, The Case for Trump, and The Dying Citizen.