WASHINGTON — It’s not easy being David Frum these days. A lifelong Republican and former speechwriter for US president George W. Bush, Frum is living with layers of indignation — against the man who now occupies the Oval Office and, perhaps even more so, against his fellow Republicans who helped put him there.
Disgusted with the current state of affairs, the Washington resident refuses to walk past the White House anymore. “It’s too upsetting,” he told The Times of Israel in a recent interview. “You just look at it and say: ‘It’s in hands it should not be in.'”
His new book “Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic,” unpacks, in his words, the way Donald Trump’s presidency threatens the integrity of American democracy. It also aims to prescribe some remedies for what can be done to stop it — or at least ameliorate the damage.
Emanating from his March 2017 cover story for The Atlantic, where he is now a senior editor (and frequent Trump critic), Frum warns his fellow citizens that the corrosion of a liberal democracy happens less like a heart attack and more like gum disease. It happens slowly and systematically. Or as Ernest Hemingway once wrote of going bankrupt, it happens “gradually, and then suddenly.”
Below is a condensed and edited version of our conversation, in which Frum — who grew up in a Jewish family in Toronto, Canada, and now sits on the Republican Jewish Coalition’s board — deconstructs the Trumpian manifestation of the gingivitis infecting the US body politic.
He also explains why, in the midst of what he deems the GOP’s widespread complicity and moral rot, he remains a Republican.
The Times of Israel: You’ve been writing a lot of scathing articles about Trump for a while now. Why a book now?
David Frum: I’ve been writing a lot, obviously, not just about Donald Trump, but about authoritarian nationalism and repressive autocracy since 2014. With events moving so fast, people just forget a lot of the things that are important.
You’re so busy with the latest astonishing story — you know, the president hating sharks — that you forget the things that are most important. I wanted to bring all of the information that we needed into one place.
The title of this book is “Trumpocracy.” We’re now at the one-year mark of his presidency. What exactly is a Trumpocracy?
In recent highly sensational stories about Trump’s personality, from the Stormy Daniels interview to the Michael Wolff book, all of them make the story of Trump’s presidency very much about him personally. But a president does not rule by himself. He rules as part of a system of power, with the support of his political party, with the support of elements of the bureaucracy. And if you want to understand why we’re in so much trouble right now, you cannot just study Donald Trump alone. If Donald Trump were to retire tomorrow, the forces that brought someone like him to power would all still exist and we would remain in danger.
One of the points you make in this book is that if Trump were to truly spur the collapse of American democracy, it would not happen like a heart attack, it would happen like gum disease. What did you mean by that?
Some people have been writing about Donald Trump like his presidency would have some comparison to the total collapse of democracy that happened in the 1930s in Europe. You know: Storm troopers, arrests, shutdown of the press. That is not going to happen. These modern, complicated bureaucratic states don’t go wrong that way.
Viktor Orbán in Hungary has never improperly arrested anyone, and he’s as oppressive a ruler as there is in the world. What happens instead is that the law is perverted, that special favors are carved out. Secrecy is established to protect corrupt financial transactions. And a big segment of the political system, not just one man, but a whole political party starts fooling around with the electoral system making it harder for people to vote, because they have lost confidence that they can use power the way they want to in an election system.
You talk about the system, and I want to come back to that, but you also say in the book that the ascendancy of Trump has been less a failure of the system than it has been a failure of people.
President Trump is likely receiving millions of dollars in undisclosed payments from foreign business partners, from the Philippines, from Turkey, from the United Arab Emirates. Those business partners are subject to pressure from their own government. So the president of the United States is then beholden to people like [Turkey’s] Erdogan and [the Philippines’] Duterte for big chunks of his personal income. He’s able to do that because Congress has not changed the rules.
Congress could change the rules to stop all that: They could request to make public his income tax returns; they could make the disclosure requirements for the president stronger; they could simply convene hearings and demand to know what’s going on. They could change his behavior. They don’t — because they’ve struck a bargain with him.
The bargain that Republicans in Congress have struck is that if Trump will sign their bills, they will protect his wrongdoing.
What explains the fact that so many of your fellow Republicans have been complicit to this man, as you suggest?
Power. There are things they want to do. They are striking a bargain: Give me my tax cut, I’ll protect your income tax returns. Lighten environmental regulations, and we’ll help you shut up the investigation into your Russia connection.
I know this is a common observation, but have you heard ever any Republicans in Congress actually articulate that rationalization?
You see it happen in front of your eyes. Politicians don’t talk that bluntly. Very few people admit to themselves when they’re doing the wrong thing. They come up with language for it.
They have to create these fake stories and fake controversies about the unmasking memos and now the terrible scandal of Fusion GPS and how dare they investigate Trump’s Russia connection? You do these things to distract yourself, you find ways to rationalize your behavior. They don’t forthrightly say what they’re doing, but they do forthrightly do it.
It seems like they’ve made a utilitarian justification, in their view, that by going along with this presidency, they can get these things done, which they believe are for the greater good, and thus its worth putting up with all these other things.
For sure, but what they’ve signed up for is an ever-escalating set of demands. We now have met people in Congress demanding themselves the abuse of the FBI to investigate Trump’s political opponents.
Let me just give you one concrete example of how this works.
The head of the FBI is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The last president to fire a director of the FBI was Bill Clinton. When he fired him, there was first a credible accusation of wrongdoing. It was disputed how Sessions had used his expense accounts. And there was a process for investigating the wrongdoing. There was a record of the investigation. It was shared with the relevant members of Congress. There were weeks of consultation. Only after there was a real consensus between Congress and the president that Sessions had done something wrong, was he then fired. Trump, of course, did not of that with the firing of Jim Comey.
And he so obviously fired him, as he himself said, to shut down a criminal investigation — and that would normally be wrong — but Republicans started saying, “Well, the president has a right to fire the head of the FBI for any reason at all.” Well, that was never true before. The president did not have the power to fire the head of the FBI for any reason; Bill Clinton did not have that power. He had to fire the FBI director for cause and with consultation. So now there’s a new rule that the FBI director can be fired at any time for any reason, even to pretty blatantly protect himself from a criminal investigation. We changed that rule — and that’s dangerous. In no other democracy does the head of the state police force serve the personal interests of the head of government. The theory Republicans are using to defend the firing of Comey is a theory you only hear in undemocratic states.
Do you think there’s a point when Republicans get enough of what they want out of Trump and then decide Pence is one of their own, why not work to remove him and install Pence instead?
Not for a long time to come, because they will end up having to protect him. The more trouble he is in, the more they will have to protect him. If Republicans were to lose control of the House of Representatives or the Senate or both, they would need him more.
We could imagine that he’s shown to be guilty, that he’s forced to resign, Mike Pence becomes president and everything is normal. But the questions won’t stop at that point. We’ll then start to say, “Well, gee, Mr. Pence, what did you know about all of this? You kept saying things on television that turned out not to be true?”
What happens is that when a party gets into trouble like this, you can’t just isolate the president and load all the guilt onto him and send him away. They will know that and stay protective; they will protect him because that’s the only way to protect themselves.
You speak with such contempt about the Republican Party of today and the behavior of its leaders. Why are you still a Republican?
Well first, I am a conservative person. I live in the District of Columbia, where we don’t really have a state government, but if we did, I’d want to have a Republican governor. I do prefer generally the priorities of the Republican Party to the Democratic Party.
Second, I think it’ really important — we need an honest, democratic, uncorrupt right-of-center party. And I’m committed to staying and fighting for such a party.
Do you think the Republican Party can recover from this? Is the damage irreversible?
Irreversible is a long time. We’ll have a Republican Party in 30 years. We’re going to have two parties and it’s very hard to re-invent them from the ground up; so in time, yes. But the immediate question is not one about the Republican Party. It’s one about the country.
Americans often have this idea where the story of democracy is one where things just go up and up and up. Andrew Jackson gets the vote for all white men, then the Civil War comes and blacks are freed and with the long period of struggle, black men get to participate in politics, and then comes the Women’s Suffrage movement and women join, then vote is lowered to 18-year-olds and more and more democracy all the time. But that’s not really how it happened. It goes forward and it goes backward. It went backward in the period after Reconstruction. In important ways, democracy went backward after the First World War.
We’re in a period right now around the world, and here in the United States, too, where democracy is on a backward trend. It is harder for people to vote in the United States in 2018 than it was in 2002. And Republicans are actively engaged in making it harder still.
I remember you were as vociferous a critic of Trump’s during the campaign as you are now.
And yet, amazingly enough, the great and good American people did not take my advice.
So how did Trump do it? How did he pull off the greatest political upset in modern history?
It’s not amazing that Trump won the election. Once you get the party nomination, you have, at worst, a 40-60 chance of winning the presidency. So he won the presidency for a variety of reasons, including Russian help.
The important question, the strange question, is how did he win a Republican Party nomination?
Because the whole party system exists — I mean, there are always demagogues, there are always malign personalities — the party system exists to screen those people out, to keep them away from the presidency.
That’s why there are so many primaries, there is such a process. It is so long, you have to raise so much money, all of that is designed to bias the president toward being a person that is accessible to everybody. So all of that failed. And that’s the important question.
I’ve heard that you won’t even walk past the White House anymore since Trump’s inauguration.
I try to avoid walking past it, yeah.
It’s too upsetting. You just look at it and say, “It’s in hands it should not be in.” There are people who are working in that building who would not be allowed on a visitor’s pass in a normal presidency. It’s going to take a lot of fumigation afterwards to make that building decent again.