Authoritarians Don’t Cancel Elections Anymore: Talking to David Frum

What most corrosive long-term consequences might we be overlooking while absorbing the daily antics of this Trump presidency? What might the presidency itself look like if and when Donald Trump gets through with it? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to David Frum. This present conversation (transcribed by Phoebe Kaufman) focuses on Frum’s Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic. Frum is a senior editor at the Atlantic, and former chairman of the British think tank Policy Exchange. In 2001-2002, Frum served as speechwriter and special assistant to President George W. Bush. He is the author of nine books. His first book, Dead Right, was described by Frank Rich as “the smartest book written from the inside about the American conservative movement.” You can read Frum’s work here, or follow him on Twitter at @davidfrum.


ANDY FITCH: Your book makes a compelling real-time case that a broad range of conservatives eventually will offer the argument that Donald Trump himself never was a true conservative — but that, for now, many of these figures still find themselves “locked in” as Trump’s outmaneuvered abettors and opportunistic enablers. So first could we step back, as much as one can, from somewhat sloppy everyday usages of the term “conservative,” and could you outline a few aspects of the intellectual project of modern-era conservativism that you find most under threat during the Trump administration? On what topics should conservatives most of all feel the need to check Trump’s presidency, and/or fear a broader public associating Trump with conservatism?

DAVID FRUM: That’s an ocean of a question. I won’t be able to do it justice. Let me fasten on just one or two points.

First, American conservatism, as a winning political movement, coalesced in the 1970s in response to a cluster of issues the country then faced: inflation, slow economic growth, crime, public disorder, the challenges posed by new social movements like feminism and gay rights, the perception that the United States was losing its military and ideological advantages to the Soviet Union. Politicians (beginning with Richard Nixon, and most successfully with Ronald Reagan) put together a new and highly competitive coalition at the national and especially at the state level to address these problems. Political successes of the 1970s and 1980s led to policy successes in the 1980s and 1990s against crime and inflation, and most spectacularly with the overthrow of the Soviet Union. This conservative political coalition remained intact into the 21st century, but its policy ideas have fallen more and more out of date.

So political conservatism has evolved from a political project to a cultural and entertainment project. The leading conservatives of the 1970s and 1980s were politicians and policy intellectuals. By the 2000s, the leading conservatives were TV and radio talkers.

That increasing conservative obsolescence paved the way for a terrible crisis when something new and important happened to which conservatives from the ’70s and ’80s did not have answers. That new and important reality showed up in 2008 in the form of the global financial crisis and the ensuing terrible recession. The Great Recession baffled conservatives, as did Barack Obama’s election — which came about partly as a consequence of this recession. Conservatives responded in the Obama years with a turn toward cultural radicalism, without much political content. And so when Donald Trump enters the story, by the second Obama term, you see a conservative policy agenda so removed from the concerns and experience of the people providing the votes that conservative leadership no longer can command any assent even from its own coalition. Donald Trump perceived this, intuited this, and stepped into that gap.

So if the questions conservatives framed in the ’70s eventually became questions people no longer felt the need to answer, which questions that present-day conservatives ought to ask does Donald Trump’s presidency most problematically obscure?

To clarify, I don’t see “conservatism” as a permanent, enduring thing. Consider this analogy: in the 1820s and 1830s, in response to the Andrew Jackson presidency, people from many different backgrounds grouped together as the Whigs. They saw Jackson as a potential dictator. They considered his economic policies and his political rhetoric primitive. They felt aghast at his treatment of Native Americans and his radicalized pro-slavery agenda, and they came together in a political movement that had a lot of success. It didn’t win many presidential elections, but it shaped the agenda and developed the policy legacy implemented by Republicans during and after the Civil War.

Of course we now talk about certain political movements being “as dead as the Whigs.” But many ideas they injected into the bloodstream of American politics still survive. The conservatism of the 1970s in many ways echoed the Whigs of the 1830s. But when the reason for a coalition coming together disappears, that coalition has to change — so I don’t consider the questions posed by 1970s conservatism essential or decisive. I’d rather ask: “What should the politics of the 2020s look like?”

America needs answers to the stagnating or even deteriorating living conditions of the majority of Americans: wage stagnation, drug addiction, declining life expectancy. America needs new ways to preserve our faith in institutions and our social cohesion (in an age of media that profit from social fissuring, and of rapidly intensifying cultural and ethnic diversity). The whole world needs a response to climate change that protects both the planet and economic freedom. American public finances have been disordered above all by a health-care system that delivers very poor value for money. That needs new solutions. The U.S.-led world order built after 1945 has come under terrible pressure as U.S. and European economic supremacy fades — so how can the best advantages of that system continue in a changing world?

And here could we also bring in a few broader orientational assumptions from your book, such as that democracies always remain works in progress (just as the undoing of democracies always remains a work in progress), that norms of public integrity (themselves forged over centuries) forever will remain much easier to unbind than to rebuild, that (since democracies tend to collapse by degrees) you here will concern yourself less with an overt constitutional overthrow than with a corrosion of government and an erosion of civic culture? Amid that weary watchfulness of democracy’s more incremental undoing, how should we combine, and how might we need to parse, concerns over executive mediocrity, corruption, authoritarianism? And as you introduce the concept of autocratic kleptocracy, what might we learn by looking at contemporary examples of rule-twisting, information-distorting, elite-coopting kleptocracies abroad — those in which lapses in the rule of law serve as the necessary means for self-enrichment, in which the state devotes itself less to persecuting the innocent than to protecting the guilty, in which leaders demand of us not servile subordination, but a complacent drift? Or for another way to frame this question, under the sign of Montesquieu: what might you find insufficient amid present-day attempts to determine conclusively whether we should consider Trump a shameless crook or a bumbling fool or a dangerous would-be tyrant? Do those categorical designations not differ, at least in their consequences for American democracy, so much as it first might seem?

Whatever else he is, Trump is no fool. He may say and do foolish things, but he has a shrewd instinct for exploiting points of weakness, both in people and in systems. The Trump Foundation offers just a small sample. Many dishonest people probably establish foundations. But those foundations don’t do what the Trump Foundation did. Honest foundations would consider it shameful to act this way. Other dishonest foundations would worry about getting caught and punished. But Trump figured out that, in New York, the grip is loose and the state has not set itself up to catch you. Trump sensed the weakness of that system, just as, with his cabinet, Trump finds the weaknesses in human beings and dominates people. He has no ideology. He doesn’t pursue power in order to advance any policy. He simply wants to get more rich while protecting himself from legal danger — both for his activities as president and before he became president. So this all puts Trump on a path towards blocking the rule of law, not towards effective governing.

Unlike the Trump Foundation, which escapes scrutiny, the Trump presidency of course has faced and will face a good deal of scrutiny. When the president breaks laws, violates norms, and engages in misconduct, people notice and pay attention. Trump has to turn off law enforcement just to survive. So when someone asks whether we should consider Trump a crook or an authoritarian, I reply that Trump has to be an authoritarian because he’s a crook.

So have we established sufficient context for you to introduce your “Trumpocracy” title, and to describe your interest in framing this book not as the portrait of an individual personality, but as an analytic investigation of present-day American “rulership”: a study of how a deeply flawed figure like Trump has gained power, how he has used it, and why he hasn’t yet been effectively checked? And since your book describes this Trumpocracy’s rise as revealing weaknesses in America’s political system, weaknesses which will remain even if Trump’s combustible personality does get sufficiently checked, could you begin to flesh out some of those national weaknesses — as you have with the specific example of New York State’s lax regulation of private foundations?

Well, over the years, a lot of us have discussed checks and balances as if some literal machine of government existed. Even if an improper person became president, somehow this governmental machinery would prevent him from doing real harm. But Trumpocracy offers a real-time study in which no such machinery comes to our rescue. The book starts from this basic premise that everyone (even the founders of the constitution) had failed to think through precisely how the American system of governance would restrain a flawed figure like Trump — and, crucially, how this bad man would respond in turn. Unfortunately, we’ve tended to think of this type of bad man threatening democracy as an inanimate object, rather than as a thinking agent, an agent with substantial power.

The article that led to this book began as a series of interviews. I imagined a wide range of criminal schemes that a person with executive power might attempt to carry out. I asked legal advisors from past Republican and Democratic administrations: “How would you prevent such a criminal scheme from happening?” They often answered by saying: “Congress would check him.”

The American system takes for granted a Congress with its own interests and values, distinct from those of copartisans in the executive branch. Madison said: “Ambition will check ambition.” Supposedly, members of Congress will want to check the president in his role as president. But what happens when you have this bad man as president, and you have a Congress driven more by partisanship than by institutional ambition? That’s new. We’ve had strong partisanship before, but the last time we had partisanship this strong (140 years ago), we had a very weak presidency. The American Congress of 1880 was as partisan as today’s, but Chester Arthur couldn’t exploit that partisanship to any similar degree. He wasn’t the main actor in the system. Back then, however, the United States played a much smaller role in the world, the federal government played a much smaller role within the U.S., and the presidency played a much smaller role within the federal government. But from the F.D.R., to the Reagan, to the Obama presidencies, many powers have shifted to the executive, even as legislators increasingly perceive the president as a crucial player in partisan politics.

Amid these structural flaws in American constitutional mechanisms, could we likewise pause on the clarifying concept (borrowed from Alan Abramowitz) of “negative partisanship,” a phenomenon by which voters might drift away from consistent party affiliation, even as they remain quite steadfast in knowing which parties, which politicians, which policies they dislike, distrust, oppose, fear?

Abramowitz noted a decade ago a huge increase in the number of independent voters. This had led many observers to speculate that we had entered a new age of transpartisan cooperation. People unthinkingly assumed that “independent,” “moderate,” and “centrist” all mean the same thing. But as fewer and fewer people identified as Republicans or Democrats, those parties and their voting patterns in fact became more polarized. And alongside that shift, Abramowitz realized that, for respondents who identified as “neither” in terms of party affiliation, the most clarifying follow-up question to ask was not “Which party do you like better?” but “Which party do you hate?” When you put the question that way, you could measure that not since the Civil War’s aftermath have Americans felt so polarized. And hate now motivates any number of identifications. If you ask Republicans which politicians they dislike, Nancy Pelosi heads the list, but Mitch McConnell appears not far behind. Today’s voters hate their own party too. They just hate the other party a lot more.

Let’s say we then start to look at Trump’s rise as (in some ways, at least) a symptom more than a cause of problems in America’s politics, maybe with negative partisanship standing out as one primary cause of Trump winning the presidency. What do you consider this negative partisanship itself a symptom of?

Faith in democracy as a system of government is measurably declining. At the same time, citizens can disengage into the pleasures and distractions of private life and social media. You get a president like Donald Trump as punishment, in many ways, for us becoming such bad and quite cynical citizens. Donald Trump exploits (as one of his most powerful resources) our widespread belief that everybody in politics is corrupt. According to this cynical perspective, Trump just does what everybody does.

Still we do need to focus on the very real problems we face, and not distract ourselves with false comparisons and imagined problems. Democracy does truly find itself in trouble today, but not in the ways it did in the 1930s. This is not an age of ideology, at least not outside of the Islamic world. This is an age in which violence is something that governments have to be very careful about using. Governments cannot commit rampant violence against their own people without considering the international consequences.

So in terms of wanting to describe as accurately as possible which present-day social dynamics motivate Trump’s voters, again within this context of discerning the causes (rather than just the symptoms) of pervasive negative partisanship, how might you further parse the oft-conflated impacts of rising income disparities (with, you say, roughly 70% of Americans facing ever-more isolating, demoralizing, potentially radicalizing economic circumstances), increasing cultural diversity (with a historically dominant white population quite anxious about soon losing its majority status), and an intellectual ghettoization verging on cultish group-think (with, say, 75% of Republicans unwilling to acknowledge with any confidence that President Obama was born in the U.S.)? Or how might you yourself speak to those Trump supporters who perceive themselves as targets, as losing out in some epochal shift in how social power and cultural status get assigned in the United States? Specifically for those Trump voters who first found the concept of “white privilege” filtering into the vernacular precisely as they faced the worst job prospects since the Great Depression, how might you address the (false, you and I might agree) causal assumption that the paramount fact of their cultural displacement has led, almost by default, to their economic struggles?

In the very immediate term, conservatives need to recognize that American constitutionalism is under attack. Donald Trump most immediately wants to politicize and destroy the FBI. So we need to defend a set of law-enforcement bureaucracies and norms of behavior. We need to restore faith in the democratic project, which in the U.S. means that we have to make government work better for people, and give people the feeling that they have more of a stake in their society.

Then in the longer term, I worry that, if we get to the other side of this Trump crisis, we might have another period of reform like in the 1970s, when we’ll try to weaken the presidency. It seems paradoxical and contradictory that our best defense against future Trumps would involve making the president more effective, establishing a strong president who can actually deliver. But an upcoming article of mine makes a whole host of suggestions about how to make government function better, and how to bind people more closely in part by giving them the sense that our government and our society are working for them. This does mean that the United States well have to develop a thicker social-insurance system.

One of the things that a lot of the commentariat tries to do is to treat cultural diversity as an unchangeable and irreversible fact, like the movement of the tectonic plates on which the continents sit. We act like people just have to get used to ever-increasing diversity, even as evidence suggests that most people dislike it (or at least enough voters dislike it to destabilize society). So I do think we have to slow down the pace of immigration, and how it transforms societies.

Employers might say that the economy needs immigrants because, especially as our population growth slows down, futures workers will have to come from elsewhere. But we face this irony where the economies that need immigration the most have developed in societies that can cope with it least (Japan, for example). So you need much stronger projects to build a clearer national identity. You need to make citizenship matter.

Think of the startling fact that, during the 2016 campaign, everyone knew, in real time (not all the details, but enough), that Russia kept interfering in the American election. If you didn’t know it, you had chosen not to know it. Once upon a time, that Russian interference would have mattered a lot to almost every citizen. But it doesn’t matter as much in an era when many Americans consider their fellow citizens as alien to them as the Russians — when they hate Hillary Clinton more than they distrust Vladimir Putin. So we need to knit the nation back together again. We need nation-building in the 21st century, just like we needed it in the 19th century.

I’ve asked specifically about Trump voters, though you’ve started to outline a broader, more constructive nation-building vision. And in terms of knitting the entire country together, Trumpocracy addresses communities of color less directly, but certainly many such communities have their own frustrations with cultural, social, economic circumstances. Could you outline a conservative appeal to such voters that might not differ so much from an appeal directed to white voters who felt themselves on the losing side of the Obama era?

First I want to note a common practice in journalism, where journalists go: “Oh my god, Trump won, let’s put a bunch of reporters on a bus to Kentucky and find out what’s bothering people.” And both the media and politicians end up ushering the angriest voters they can find into the first-class compartment and saying “Your needs come first.” This book doesn’t do that. In fact, it talk a lot about race and ethnicity, and in particular about how a mature Trumpocracy depends on highly targeted voter suppression. Authoritarians don’t cancel elections anymore. Even Putin has elections, and might well genuinely win them (we don’t quite know). Viktor Orbán certainly wins his elections, but whereas Orbán consistently gets 40% of the vote, he gets 65% of the political power. Modern authoritarian kleptocracy works this way — devaluing political participation by some, and over-valuing political participation by others. And those over-valued voters in fact think of themselves as special, as the preservers of democracy.

Threats to democratic government tend to come from the haves, not the have-nots. Historically we can see that, to make democracy work, you need to have buy-in from people with higher status and more wealth than their neighbors. You don’t have to work as hard for democracy to get buy-in from people who have less, because democracy ultimately speaks in their name.

For one specific group of potential “haves,” how might you, as a younger (more on-the-cusp) baby boomer speak to fellow boomers about what Trumpocracy describes as their latest posture of generational self-defense, their departure from Reaganesque optimism, there zero-sum tendency towards differentiating, say, between “deserving” Medicare recipients and “undeserving” (more often nonwhite, non-native-born, not coincidentally) Affordable Care Act recipients? Or how should the rest of us respond as this voter-rich demographic trades in the political rhetoric of universal opportunity for a political rhetoric of self-protective security? How have the conspicuous perversities of the Trump administration potentially helped to illuminate and/or to obscure these more systemic social, economic, policy frictions? And what could a more constructively intergenerational push for, say, retirement security look like?

More economic growth would help.

More broadly, we need to find new ways to reassure older Americans that they are valued stakeholders in society. As people live and remain active much longer than they used to, it becomes even more clear that we die in a different country from the country into which we were born. This profoundly destabilizing fact means we can’t just take for granted that decent people will adjust on their own to demographic changes. And it’s not just a matter of talking people into things. We have to change socially to help older citizens reach a point where they can say: “You know what? This society works, and I feel a bond with my fellow citizens.” Right now, high levels of immigration in the United States, combined with a very low birth rate, can make older Americans especially experience a strong sense of population replacement. People in their fifties and sixties make significant financial contributions to the education of young Americans who don’t look like their own kids, their grandkids, their nieces and nephews.

So you do get resistance. You get an unbelievably wealthy state like California with starved schools producing terrible results, and with the people who pay most of the taxes feeling little affinity for most of these students. And you can try to change the minds of these taxpayers, but you could also try to run society in a way where they do feel more at stake. That means creating a stronger sense of demographic continuity than we have right now. One way Trump challenges us is that he demands…he challenges left and right each in their own ways. When faced with such a challenge, we tend to fight to preserve as much as we can of what we’re comfortable with and familiar with. On the more liberal side, the spectrum where most Los Angeles Review of Books readers probably find themselves, people don’t want to grapple with the newness of Trump or the challenges he presents, and they don’t want to consider the need for society responding by making some uncomfortable changes.

Do you want to give a few concrete examples?

Well if I had for the next three days a working majority in the House and Senate, and both chambers begged “Save us,” I’d want to start by using the profit motive, but offering a truly universal health-care system. I’d want to establish a student-loan system that didn’t bankrupt people, and a significantly more restrictionist immigration policy. I’d want to update the ethics rules of the 1970s, written at a time when the United States had never been more egalitarian, and didn’t have to contemplate how to regulate the political activities of plutocrats. I’d want to update those rules for a United States that has the extreme pools of wealth and power we see today. On some points, this policy vision might seem congenial to people on the left. Other parts might seem more congenial to people on the right. But if you only execute this platform’s liberal-friendly parts, you make our problems worse, not better. In a diverse society, when you do class or generational redistribution, you invariably do ethnic redistribution, and ethnic redistribution brings forth the fiercest political resistance.

On this topic of intergenerational alienation, of how, as people live longer, they no longer can recognize their own country, could you offer any international models of where you see diversifying societies still stitching together the generations better?

I do think of these as pretty universal problems, but among the countries doing best on this spectrum I’d put Canada, Australia, and Germany (until 2015). Merkel’s decision to open borders to refugees empowered the alternative German right, yet Germany does still seem less vulnerable to political radicalism than the United States and the United Kingdom. Each of these countries can show a more stable and secure middle class than in the United States or United Kingdom. They also offer more universal approaches to social insurance, which provide a quite tangible sense of what it means to be a citizen of these countries. You don’t just get a flag. You get stuff.

Amid older voters’ concerns for their own personal well-being, we’ve only indirectly addressed one of your most damning critiques of contemporary Republican leadership: that it has allowed Trump to triangulate the party on cultural norms and social policy, to present himself both as scourge of liberal political-correctness and as protector of entitlement benefits the Republican Party otherwise wants to snatch away, both as the sole advocate of a “strong” government and as the single effective check against hawkish Hillary and an interventionist Republican military establishment. And even more since Trumpocracy came out, events have validated your prescient observations that Trump has the upper hand over the party because their own agenda remains so deeply unpopular — and yet that the Trump administration’s siege mentality precludes bringing in any more pragmatic, technocratic, mainstream political players who could help to craft coherent legislative plans. Along all of those lines, do you see recent primary results as already beginning to fulfill your incisive formulation that: “the more isolated Trump becomes within the American political system…the more he will dominate whatever remains of the conservative portion of that system. He will devour his party from within”? What steps should the Republican Party take to prevent that scenario from occurring, and why should every American care that the party succeeds?

You might have seen the recent survey showing Donald Trump’s approval rating among Republicans now higher than Ronald Reagan’s ever reached, and second only to George W. Bush’s in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. But that survey fails to point out that 35% of Americans identified as Republicans under Reagan, whereas only about 23% do today. Donald Trump keeps winning more and more of less and less. But as he becomes more isolated, he also becomes stronger within his party. So you have this shrinking, radicalizing group within the American political system, and I do consider that quite dangerous. And all Americans should care because, in a two-party system, you can’t have only one party committed to democratic methods. You need both parties to believe in that system, and willing to limit their own actions because they care more about preserving the system than they care about winning the next election. No one wins all elections. You lose a lot. In a functioning democracy, healthy parties say: “We’ll beat them next time.” They can say this with confidence because they know the winners will only get so far. The smart losers in fact say: “We don’t like this. We need lower taxes.” Or “We need more benefits” (depending on who just won), and, in any case, “It’s only four years, and we’ll be back four years from now, and get the turn to do things our way.” If we lose that faith (and other societies have), we move into very dangerous terrain.

As we begin to close out the conversation, and since we’ve had to focus (as too many discussions do these days) so often on Trump, with too little attention given to any more proactive, prosocial agendas, would you like to mention any political figures (on the right or left) who seem to have recognized how at least some desires of dissatisfied Trump supporters might be blended into a coherent, broadly constructive policy vision and political practice? Or what specific intellectual pushes might conservatives need as they rethink not only how to win elections, but how to govern well along the lines your book lays out — culturally moderate, economically inclusive, ecologically responsible, upholding markets at home and U.S. leadership abroad?

I actually think Democrats face the more immediate test, especially if they do well in the 2018 midterms. They will then face a very consequential choice. Do they try to rev up their core supporters and push for turnout-driven success in 2020? Or do they try to reach out and build a bigger, broader party — at the risk of alienating core supporters, who will not find this message exciting enough? Many Democrats will feel incentivized to do base politics, but the country needs for them to do broad politics.

I can’t point to any one person right now and say they’re making the right or wrong choices, because obviously even the best policy people still have many difficult decisions to make. But a lot will turn on that post-midterms decision. And I don’t want to frame the question as: “Will the Democratic Party do this or do that?” That type of party doesn’t exist anymore. A relatively small number of people used to coordinate our political parties among themselves. Now you get these highly diffuse groups of people, with many different voices having a stake. I mean, parties constantly do things that smart or caring people inside these parties recognize as damaging. These individuals by themselves can’t prevent that from happening, so they end up wondering: Should I isolate myself, or should I go along with the crowd? That’s the story of Republicans in the Trump era. But many people (not just a few) in the Democratic world will need to make the decision not to take the Democratic Party down the same road.

Finally, with 2020 in mind, and given your searing personal assessment of Trump, how confident do you feel that he ever will relinquish power — subjecting himself to so much additional scrutiny, losing whatever legal immunity he might have, potentially facing prison time? Given all of the other seemingly untouchable norms that Trump already has broken, would only a foolish citizenry take for granted a default maintenance of our norms towards peaceful transitions of power? Given the fact that roughly 40 Nixon officials ended up serving prison time post-Watergate (and given, in the case of this present administration, your point that people with sense and people with options have tended to stay away from the start), how much can we expect this complicit motley crew to expose itself to a possibly similar scenario? Or given your far-reaching claim that Trump’s enablers eventually will face significant public shame for having abetted his corrupt, mean-spirited politics, what sort of exit strategy will it take to coax a critical mass of such enablers to step away from Trumpocracy and return to decency — especially if basic constitutional tensions do become all the more acute?

I actually try not to look so far into the future. I’m not an optimistic person by temperament. But in an emergency (and I think this is an emergency), I trust the advice that we all need to think like pessimists, but act like optimists. We cannot fall victim to the sunny assumption that: “Because we’re Americans, everything will turn out alright.” We always need to remember that the human race’s history is one of political tragedy, and Americans belong to that race as much as anybody else. But we also need to act like optimists, to act like our actions matter. This really is one of those moments when the decisions that millions of individual people make will ramify for a long time to come. So believe in the importance and power of what you do, and act the most humane and responsible way that you can.