On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke to David Frum, a senior editor at the Atlantic and the author of the new book Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic. A former George W. Bush staffer and well-known neoconservative, Frum has become obsessed over the past couple years with Donald Trump’s assault on American norms and institutions, and the threat he represents to American democracy. Below is an edited excerpt from the show. In it, we discuss how American democracy has weathered a year of Trump, whether it is worth thinking of the president as having an ideology, and how Frum himself has changed.
You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.
Isaac Chotiner: I considered illegally leaving jury duty to make this podcast, so I hope you bring your A game today.
David Frum: I’ll do my best. Although I must say the last chapter of the book begins with a note from a reader who said he was inspired by previous articles I’d written not to skip out on jury duty. I don’t know if you’ve gotten the message on that.
I clearly did not read the book as well as I should have.
I want to read you something you recently wrote: “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. The stability of American society depends on conservatives’ ability to find a way forward from the Trump dead end.” Can you expand on that for a minute and connect it to what you think is going on with conservatism in America today?
I worry a lot, I think you worry a lot, about democratic breakdown. We’re always inspired to think of the spectacular examples from the 1930s. When democratic breakdown has taken place in more normal places, and especially when it has occurred in the United States, and it has, it is because people with resources become frightened that they will not be able to win and they will lose. In losing, they will then lose assets that they have that they value very highly. They then begin rewriting the game so that they are not at risk of losing.
That’s what happened in the American South after Reconstruction. To some degree that’s what happened in the cities of the Northern United States in the 1920s and ’30s after the mass immigration. I think it’s a little bit of what has happened in a lot of American states since 2010 and especially since 2014.
Where do you think we are versus where you thought we would be after a year of Trumpism?
First, we know way more about the Russia scandal than we did a year ago and that I ever imagined probably we would. We don’t know everything. What we know is so dark, so disturbing. I think this could qualify as the most severe espionage scandal in American history, and yes, I include the Rosenbergs. There may be more still to come. What has been amazing to me is how little practical political impact those revelations have had. I don’t imagine that if there are even greater revelations that they will have any more impact than we’ve already had.
The president’s attacks on institutions and on legality have been more blatant and less effective than I might have thought. I thought he’d be a little stealthier about this. To come right out there and denounce the FBI—that was something I did not imagine he would do. On the other hand, while he’s had some successes perverting the Department of Justice, he’s been less successful at interfering with the work of the FBI than I might have feared. He’s been less successful in corrupting the U.S. attorney’s offices as well.
You mentioned the FBI, the lack of success he’s had. Do you view that lack of success as a consequence of him being incompetent? Or do you view it as a consequence of him not having a plan or an idea of undermining democracy in some specific way. It’s not that he’s incompetent. It’s just that he doesn’t even think in those terms. He just thinks about what’s in front of him and who cares how American democracy is doing.
I think Donald Trump is quite wily. I think to the extent that Michael Wolff has persuaded or convinced large numbers of people that Trump is a drooling, senile imbecile he has not done anybody any favors, nor has he reported accurately. I think Trump is wily. He has authoritarian instincts. He has no ideology of any kind, but he hates any kind of restraint. You give him a restraint, and he will break through it.
What I think has been protective to some degree of the institutions to date is that Donald Trump has a very shrewd intuition for individual weaknesses and how to bully and domineer over individual people. He’s less good at figuring out systems and finding the weak point of a system and how to manipulate a system.
He’s wily enough that I think he will eventually learn. He certainly has the impulse to try. It is harder to corrupt the whole of the FBI than it is to bully one deputy attorney general as he has successfully bullied the deputy attorney general.
You said something about him having no ideology at all. I definitely believed that a year and a half ago. I’m not sure that I do now. I think that he has a strain of America First nationalism, which I used to be more cynical about him actually believing. He just keeps returning to the same nationalist core issues, the way he talks about race. It does seem to be a core of his thinking in a way that maybe I underestimated. I don’t know if I would say anymore that he has absolutely no ideology. I do think there is something there.
He’s got impulses and prejudices and bigotries and resentments. An ideology … Let’s always remember that term began as an insult, not a compliment. Not as a neutral term either.
Was it during the Dreyfus affair that it came about?
The term actually began to circulate in the early 19th century. The Emperor Napoleon was the person who popularized the term. He didn’t coin it. He meant it disdainfully. What ideology was was a way of grouping together ideas into idea sets. You have a bunch of ideas about free trade, therefore it’s going to follow that you have a bunch of ideas about how Parliament should be organized therefore and so on.
In Napoleon’s view, he wanted to pick and choose. He didn’t know why he had to be told by liberals, as the ideologists he disliked then were, why he couldn’t take some from Column A and nothing from Column B. In Donald Trump’s case, when I say he doesn’t have an ideology, his ideas don’t necessarily go together. He’s very skeptical of trade, but he doesn’t care enough about it to understand how it works.
I agree with you in that sense that he’s uninformed, he doesn’t understand these things beyond a very surface level. But I had been under the impression a couple years ago that essentially the last person in the room to tell him something can convince him. I think there’s some way in which that’s true. At least in the very short term. But I also think around issues like trade and nationalism and around racial issues he does keep coming back to these core parts of himself. Now maybe as you say, that’s just petty prejudices. It’s not something that we want to deem an ideology. But I definitely think that’s an aspect of him that was underestimated by a lot of people.
Well, let me use a different word to convey what I mean. I don’t think he has political ideas. Had Jeff Sessions somehow become president of the United States, he would never have been interested in building the wall because if your job is to reduce the flow of illegal immigrants in the United States, if that’s the thing you really want to do, there could not be a worse return on investment than building the wall.
As Jeff Sessions knows, and Donald Trump may or may not know, somewhere between a quarter and a third of illegal immigrants in the United States come by airplane. They arrive on a visa and overstay their visas. You could build a properly functioning entry/exit visa for a lot less than the cost of a wall. That’s what you would do. You would have enforcement at the workplace. These are the ideas that people who think about the immigration issue a lot and have Jess Sessions’ point of view, these are the things they would emphasize. Donald Trump can’t be bothered.
He’s prepared to trade away everything Jeff Sessions cares about in order to get the wall because the wall has become now a part of his ego. He doesn’t care whether it works, he doesn’t care whether it makes sense, he doesn’t care whether it will achieve the things that Donald Trump claims for it. He just wants to do it because he said he would do it. It’s an extension of his will. That’s what I mean when I say he doesn’t have an ideology. He doesn’t think, “How do I rationally connect the ends I supposedly have to the means I have?” That doesn’t mean he’s an all-purpose idiot, because when he is dealing with things where he does have ideas—self-protection, self-enrichment, the magnification of his own power—he can be very wily and very effective.
One of the lessons of Trump, given how awful he’s acted and how 35 to 40 percent of the country is willing to put up with it, is that partisanship acts strongly on people. As someone who follows your Twitter feed and knew you a little bit back in Washington when I lived there, it does seem to me that you’ve changed in other ways now that you’ve kind of made this big change of distancing yourself from the Republican Party and from the Republican Party’s president in very strong terms. I’m wondering: Do you feel that partisanship in a different way? That by being off the team you’ve noticed some of your other views have started to change in some way?
That’s an interesting question. First of all, I should stress I remain a registered Republican. I remain a very conservative person in a lot of ways both personally and ideologically. Here are some things, though, that I think do happen. Because Donald Trump is so cruel he magnifies things that might have seemed like the ordinary frictions of life. He makes them big. You really can’t not look at them. When the president of the United States demeans people in ways that …
It’s one thing when Tucker Carlson does it on his white nationalist Fox News show. That’s bad enough. When the president of the United States says these things, it’s like a magnifying mirror and you really have to think about them.
Yeah, there’s some things … I think part of it is things happen in my own life. I now have a daughter who is just entering the workforce. I hear stories from her and some of the things that she’s been subjected to. When you come along at this moment of revulsion against the way women are treated in the workforce I think partly the magnifying effect of the president and the micro fact of having a daughter of age to be the target of such things, things like that have an impact on my thinking. Sure.
Right. Just following your Twitter feed, the way you talk about gender issues, about gun control, about even things like the Iran nuclear deal.
Gun control, that’s maybe an example of how it works. Gun control was an issue where I have never liked the kind of politics of the NRA. The part of it that is about, “Well, we need the guns so that private citizens can overthrow the state.” I have always taken the view we all pay a lot of taxes so that Cliven Bundy has zero chance against the United States Army. When the day ever comes that Cliven Bundy might have a chance, then we need to pay more taxes so that he won’t have a chance.
Before Newtown I just never talked about it. It was just part of the party bargain. There were things I cared a lot about that other people maybe cared less about and they went along with those things. In return, I kept my lips buttoned about gun violence. Newtown, again, you see it through the prism of your own children. There’s something in me that just said, “I cannot be on the sidelines on this issue.”
If in 2020, or probably 2024, a Marco Rubio is running for president on that conservative line that he ran on last time, can you see going to work for another Republican administration like that? Or do you feel like something within you has switched in some way and it’s hard to imagine that?
No. I don’t think it would happen. I think the Republican Party is going to … The divide between those who took one side and those who took the other side of this debate will be a long-lasting one. I think if you’re thinking about getting a job in a future Republican administration everything depends on your birthday. People who think the way I do if you’re 32 you will absolutely be in the ascendancy in the Republican administrations before your time is done. I’m 57, about to turn 58. For the rest of my working career these are going to be the wrong views for future Republican administrations.
There are a lot of liberals who admire your writing on Trump but also are still very angry about your support for the Iraq war and kind of feel like, “Oh, whatever David Frum says I don’t want to listen to it.”
It’s not even a thing I worry about very much. I go around, I ask questions, I gather information, I organize my thoughts, I type them, I send them out there. People respond … The customer is always right on these things. Some people say, “I don’t want to read what you said because I don’t like the Iraq war.” Others say, “I don’t care about the Iraq war. I just don’t like that look on your face so I’ll never listen to you.” Or, “Your last name reminds me of somebody I didn’t like in …” Listen, don’t listen. You’re either going to listen or you’re not going to listen. It’s not for me to tell people why they should listen to me.
The Iraq war, the thing that is a true quandary for me about it is I neither want to be untrue to the past. I supported it. On the other hand, there’s also a risk of—part of telling the truth about the past is to face the limits on one’s role. I can’t emphasize that point too much because then it sounds like disavowing responsibility. But I would not exactly [have been] a member of the inner Cabinet in those days.
Is there anything in terms of going forward that would be of bigger importance to American democracy in your mind than Democrats taking over at least one house of Congress in 2018 and then in 2019 beginning proper oversight of the Trump administration?
That will do some good but understand the limits. First, as Democrats do that, Republicans will rally more tightly to President Trump, not less. I think there is a real risk of Democrats veering off into far-left precincts that will mean that their successes in 2018 may be a prelude to disappointments and failures in 2020. Nor do I think that the left-hand side of the American political spectrum is immune to the illiberal forces out there in the land.
We saw in the Bernie Sanders campaign among his supporters, not Bernie Sanders himself, some of the divisive anger, men against women, and yes, some racial anger too. I think this is why I keep emphasizing that we need to study systems of power, not quirks of personality, because Donald Trump may decide tomorrow to spend more time with his golf and indulge himself more in Filet-O-Fish. I don’t think when he does that, that he will take all of the ills that he’s exploited away with him.
OK, so then what is the most important short-term thing that needs to happen to begin this process of bringing the country back to a healthier place?
I see Donald Trump in some ways as one of those oncoming trucks that you see when you’re doing a little bit at the wheel and the adrenaline of having to react and pull away and pull yourself upright gets you safely home. I think people need to be less sectarian.
One last story from the book. In the conclusion I mention an experience I’d had. I was at a panel and somebody came up to me afterwards and didn’t like what I’d been saying and said of people on his side, “We need to learn from Trump. We need to be as tough and as ruthless. We need to play the game in the way that he did.” He went on, “Take no prisoners.” I said, “I just can’t disagree with that more. If you emulate Trump you don’t defeat him. You just replace him.” I worry about that.
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