David Frum, who is an author and conservative editor at the Atlantic magazine, thinks Republicans have backed themselves into a corner.
In Frum’s book Trumpocracy, he argues that Republicans are wedded to an ideology that cannot succeed democratically. They have virtually abandoned the democratic process, he believes, and have chosen to support a demagogue who can push their unpopular agenda. It’s a strong rebuke of the current president and the Republican establishment that has enabled him at every step.
I spoke to Frum about the dangers of this moment, and why he thinks Republicans will, ultimately, have to face up to the fact that what they believe can’t be achieved if everybody votes.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
What’s the main argument you’re making in this book?
The argument I’m making is that Donald Trump’s rococo personality is outrageous and ridiculous and consumes all of our attention, but what we really need to pay attention to is his system of power. A president does not rule by personal authority and personal charisma. He is part of a system, and you have to understand that whole system — who supports him and why.
Let’s talk about that system. Is it broken, or is it merely being tested?
Trump has taken control of the Republican Party and the conservative media infrastructure. They started off opposing him; even Fox opposed him. He bent Fox to his will, and he defeated the organized Republican Party. He’s leveraged his control of the Republican Party, then, to dominate the American political system.
I think a lot of people console themselves by noting how little policy impact he’s having. Some people will note that to the extent that he’s having an impact, it’s a pretty conventional Republican policy vision. But that’s not what’s new about Trump.
What’s new is the way he’s shutting down the ethical standards of the US government, and thwarting the defense of the country against foreign espionage intervention in those elections.
You can look at what’s happened in a couple ways: You could say our process is decadent, corrupt, and perhaps irremediable. Or you could look at the inertia and incompetence of the Trump administration and say our institutions are holding the line and checking Trump’s worst instincts.
That’s an interesting way to frame it. The United States government is a set of giant bureaucracies, and most of those bureaucracies can function on their own for a long time before they run out of steam. Any place where the work of the bureaucracies has to be coordinated is broken. The National Security Council is defective. There’s no office of national drug policy, and we’re in the middle of the worst drug addiction epidemic in American history. The Department of Justice keeps arresting people, [Health and Human Services] keeps sending out the Medicaid checks, but there is no center, no real stability.
We’re stumbling toward a war with North Korea. Who’s in control of that decision-making? Russia continues to disrupt the whole American alliance structure, and the president of the United States, to the extent that he’s got a policy, is helping Russia make things worse. The world trade system, every day, is being attacked from some new direction.
The courts are always the most resistant part of the American system. When people say the institutions are holding, what they mean is the courts are working, but even in the worst moments of American history, the courts were the hardest part to change. That was true in 1919. That was true in the aftermath of Reconstruction. If you could actually get yourself in front of a federal court, you would get a fair hearing.
But the chaos of the Trump administration extends into every branch of the government, so nothing can be taken for granted.
What I’m hearing from you now is an account of a massive system failure. Yet in the book, you say we shouldn’t talk about “system failures” because it’s people who failed, not some grand machine. But people think, judge, and act within a system of incentives and disincentives — and something has clearly gone wrong with ours.
I’ll say this: A giant gap opened between an increasingly insulated economic, political, cultural elite and the rest of the country, and Donald Trump stepped into that gap. Populists don’t become popular by talking about things people don’t care about. Donald Trump talked about drugs at a time when none of the other Republican candidates were doing it. Hillary Clinton talked about drugs, but it was one point in her 972-point plan. She didn’t talk about it in way that people could hear.
Donald Trump talked about immigration, an overwhelming concern for the majority of the Republican Party and a substantial minority of the American population. He was onstage, and 16 people had the same view while he had the other view. Donald Trump was the only Republican who talked about the Iraq problem. He talked about things that people cared about in a political system that seemed organized not to talk about things that people cared about.
I would quibble with some of that, but I’m not interested in arguing about Clinton or the campaign here. Let’s talk about Trump’s enablers in the Republican Party, the people in power who have failed to do what they know they ought to do. How surprised are you by the capitulations of Republicans in the Trump era?
I’m horrified, but I’m not shocked. The Republican Party has a platform that can’t prevail in democratic competition. This is one of the big themes of this book, and why I think this situation is so dangerous. When highly committed parties strongly believe [in] things that they cannot achieve democratically, they don’t give up on their beliefs — they give up on democracy.
As the outlook for conservatives and Republicans becomes more bleak, they’re going to face a choice: Either they accommodate some of the changes that are happening to American society, like universal heath coverage, or else they’re going to have to face up to the fact that what they believe can’t be achieved if everybody votes.
You hinted at it, so I’ll just ask straightforwardly: Has the Republican Party given up on the process of liberal democracy?
No, but I think it’s being contested. I tried to avoid two things in the book. One is predictions and the other is categorical statements, because I think we’re at an incredibly fluid moment. None of the things I’m talking about have been completed, and none of the outcomes are inevitable.
I’m calling on people to act. Those of us on the conservative side who want to protect markets, property, want business lightly regulated — those of us who are comfortable with the post-Reagan status quo — if we’re going to defend that effectively while preserving liberal democracy, we need to face the tides that are pulling us in bad directions. We need to make a conscious decision to go in another direction by creating a more modern and democratically competitive kind of conservatism.
Obviously we cannot be a Trumpocracy and a liberal democracy at the same time, so what are we now and what are we going to be tomorrow?
We’re in the middle of a struggle. The most powerful concept for me right now is the economic idea of the revealed preference. A lot of us are discovering what our truest commitments are. What do we really care about?
For some people on the left, it turns out they care more about their sectarian identity than they do about Trump. For some people on the right, they’re discovering they care about the culture wars more than they care about a constitutional democracy.
The only way to check Trumpocracy is through a constitutional movement that’s bigger than politics. The whole reason we have constitutional politics is to manage our differences. The goal is not to extinguish all differences; it’s to protect the right to differ.
Can we achieve this? I don’t know. But there’s no excuse for not trying.