Frum, David. Trumpocracy. HarperCollins New York, 2018. NF;1/18.
Frum is the well-known conservative son of Canadian TV journalist Barbara Frum, who held a lot more left-wing views than her son does. David is a politics commentator, was a speechwriter for George W. Bush, and is a senior editor at the Atlantic. I was impressed with his commentary the night of the 2016 presidential election. He was as surprised as many others at the outcome, but looked worried and made sensible but quite radical predictions about bad consequences of electing Donald Trump. When another panelist compared Trump to Hitler, Frum immediately suggested Berlusconi as a better comparator. Not necessarily a mass murderer, just a greedy egotistical clown.
This book appears at about the same time as Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff (which I haven’t read and don’t think I will), both unequivocally critical of the president at the end of his first year in office. I sense from reading critical reviews of Wolff’s book that Frum’s is a bit more balanced. He has his eye more on serious and persisting dangers than on salacious detail.
There are chapters on the campaign and lead-up to the election, Trump’s businesses and conflicts with his presidency, Trump’s dishonourable behaviour to friends, colleagues, and employees, his treatment of the media, his relationship with Russia, isolationism, and the danger of lasting harm to the credibility of America and its political system. The final chapter entitled “Hope” feels aspirational not predictive. Frum’s Trump is narcissistic, venal, greedy, impulsive, mendacious, disloyal, destructive and dangerous.
Trump is presented as believing that chaos enhances his power, literally plundering the state for his own gain, saying things without qualification so “deceiving the inattentive into regarding him as a truthful man, rather than the most shameless liar in the history of the presidency.” Frum’s Republicans are said to have rewritten the laws in ways that make it more difficult to vote. Trump is shown cozying up to dictators like Erdogan and Putin and threatening NATO and other traditional national allies. Frum suggests there is a critical struggle between national sovereignty and globalism, Putin representing the former, free trade the latter. Trump trade deals are negotiated one-on-one, nearly always “overaw(ing the) counterparty”. The president “never understood that America’s power arose not only from its own wealth and its own military force, but from its centrality to a network of friends and allies” we are told.
Military and intelligence secrets have been blunderingly revealed by the commander-in-chief, causing officials to scramble literally to save lives. This might says Frum exceed in significance those events themselves. “Long after Donald Trump retires to the great golf club in the sky, prudent allies will remember what the Trump presidency revealed about the American political system, and not just a single man who held office.” He says there is “a world that remembers a different and better America”, but that “this new regime of deceit and brutishness… will… also retrospectively discredit the American past”
Frum characterizes the White House as a “mess of careless slobs” accustomed to “institutionalized lying about readily ascertainable facts.” Judicious officials, remembering those implicated in Watergate going to jail, are fleeing, he says. “White Houses can be dangerous places under leadership that does not respect the law.”
Frum discusses his own complex conservatism. “Maybe you do not much care about the future of the Republican Party. You should. Conservatives will always be with us. If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.”
As David Frum winds up, he tells us the “battle for men’s hearts is one that Trump never won, because he never fought it.” He says “Americans are turning off cable networks that lie to them to consume instead more and better news.” He quotes Peggy Noonan, a conservative commentator as saying of Trump that he ignores “traditional norms and forms of American masculinity. He’s not strong and self-controlled, not cool and tough, not low-key and determined; he’s whiny, weepy, and self pitying. He throws himself, sobbing, on the body politic. He’s a drama queen.”
We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can also be your finest hour as a citizen and an American.
… as I say, hopeful but more aspirational than predictive I’m afraid.
As I write this it’s three days after Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address, and comments on that speech (which I watched about three-quarters of) were positive even by critical journalists and experts, modified by the expectation that Trump’s “presidential” demeanour and affecting reference to heroes and victims of tragedy in the audience (which could help him to do well in the mid-term elections and win a second term) would be negated within a couple of days by idiotic contradictory Tweets. Nothing that I’ve heard of or seen so far… (Added Monday, February 5: Trump has lost it again in an intemperate tweet about Democrat Adam Schiff.)
I like David Frum because although he identifies himself as conservative, he is a believer in liberals being reasonably conservative and conservatives being reasonably liberal. My sentiments too, as the world and the United States drift into increasingly irreconcilable opposing camps. Lawrence O’Donnell may be mistaken in his opinion that Nelson Rockefeller was the last liberal Republican.
Until I read Trumpocracy I had to admit that my main problem with Donald Trump was that he’s just a jerk. Peggy Noonan I would have said was exactly right. This might sound superficial, and it’s partly based on my poor and media-informed grasp of politics. But there is something horrifying about a head of state, particularly the freely-elected one of the wonderful and terrible United States that I’ve lived so close to all my life, who is just disgusting: ugly, whiny, crass… All you have to do is listen to him speak to cringe with embarrassment at his personal shortcomings which have led to misuse of his office.
Frum’s book, if it’s even halfway accurate, adds a lot of substance to my image-focused opinion. We simple people need to look up to our leaders. Having read this damning apparently well-researched description of the president by a member of his own political party I’m quite a bit more worried than I was thinking about a figurehead who amounts to a joke. I said in my review of Playing with Fire that non-Americans were affected by the events of 1968. Neither do you have to live in the United States now to fear the consequences of Donald Trump’s presidency. Let’s hope he gets impeached or at worst does no terrible and irrevocable harm before he is defeated three years from now.