Where it counts,Trump has been weak, not strong: David Frum

A ‘Never Trump’ Republican on how the weaknesses of U.S. institutions have been exposed, and the need for reform and renewal in a post-Trump world

June 12, 2020 03:38 pm | Updated 03:38 pm IST

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Canadian-American author and commentator David Frum has been at the forefront of a Republican resistance to President Donald Trump’s politics and style since 2016. In 2001-2, he served as speechwriter and special assistant to President George W. Bush. Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy , which came out last month, is his 10th book and the second one on Trump. Excerpts from an interview

Your book is unsparing in its criticism of President Donald Trump and generally critical of the U.S. system. Do you think Trump is an ailment or the symptom of an ailment?

Trump is both ailment and symptom. A truly healthy political system would of course have been resistant to him. Once in power, Trump has exploited pre-existing vulnerabilities in the U.S. system, weaknesses that formerly seemed only theoretical. Trump has exposed that the “checks” and “balances” of which Americans speak are only metaphors. Once Trump departs office, there will be a large work of reform to do. The U.S. political system of the 21st century is hobbled by features remaining from the 19th century. For example, electoral boundaries are drawn by politicians for their own advantage. No other advanced democracy tolerates such behaviour. Trumpocalyse offers feasible and incremental plans to edge the U.S. away from rural minority rule towards more honest representation.

Is the upheaval in the U.S. today different from previous ones? Will it lead to a fundamental remaking of U.S. society and politics?

The upheavals of 2020 are sometimes compared to 1968. That comparison could not be more wrong. At their worst, the disturbances of 2020 have been infinitely milder and less violent than those of 1968. It took the city of Washington DC almost 25 years to rebuild neighbourhoods burned out in 1968. In 2020, the damage is a few broken windows and some graffiti. Hundreds of people died in the riots of 1968; the highest estimate of the toll from 2020 is maybe 10 people. These protests have become more peaceful, more orderly, and more likely to draw a cross-section of the population, white and black.

The 1968 disturbances pushed the country to the political right. The era of major civil rights legislation came to an end; an era of Republican dominance of elections began. Of the six elections from 1968 to 1988, a Democrat won only one. In 2020, polls show the public moving toward greater sympathy with the demands of the protesters. Cities are legislating major police reforms. President Trump’s poll standing is crumbling.

How do you assess President Trump’s response to the situation ? How are both parties dealing with the fallout?

At the time of the killing of George Floyd, May 25, the U.S. had nearly 100,000 confirmed coronavirus deaths and Great Depression levels of unemployment. President Trump’s grip on events was already shaky. His response has been marked by panicky lurches from one extreme to the other. He and his administration ordered violent repression of peaceful protests. The president tweeted bloodthirsty messages about shooting protesters and setting vicious dogs on them. This is the authentic Donald Trump. The president has since discovered his political mistake. As the crowds have grown bigger and more middle class, Trump has sought to position himself as a voice of conciliation and sympathy. The trouble is, he just cannot do it credibly.

As for the Democrats, they have problems of their own. Yet Biden has had the political strength with black America to be able to offer a promise of reform while repudiating radical slogans like “defund the police.”

You write that Trumpism will outlive the Trump presidency. Could you elaborate?

Hyper-nationalism will persist after Trump. Mistrust between ethnocultural groups will persist after Trump. Social media that accelerate hoaxes and disinformation will persist after Trump. The political resources exploited by Trump will remain to be exploited by future politicians — and maybe future politicians less impulsive and less lazy than Trump. If we want to harden the American political system (and all democratic systems!) against Trump-style kleptocratic authoritarianism we have to realise that we are dealing with something bigger than just one bad man.

To restabilise American democracy, we need the Republican Party to recommit to the democratic norms it jettisoned during the Trump years. I’ve spent my life inside the Republican Party. I worked in a Republican administration. A lot of Trumpocalypse is written with an eye to cleansing that party so it can again play a positive role in American democracy.

Do you think the American judiciary, a critical instrument of the country’s checks and balances system, has been ruined by appointments made by President Trump?

“The main benefit of controlling a modern bureaucratic state is not the power to persecute the innocent. It is the power to protect the guilty.” I wrote that sentence at the very beginning of the Trump presidency. It has described his approach to law over the past three years. The legal powers Trump has most abused have been abused to cover up his wrongdoing and that of his associates — and the centre of that abuse to date has not been the judiciary, but the law enforcement operations of the federal Department of Justice.

But I emphasise “to date.” The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to rule sometime before the end of June whether Congress has the power to subpoena Trump’s business documents to enforce anti-corruption rules. Literally every precedent over nearly a century and a half is on Congress’s side here. On the other side: the partisan loyalties of the court’s Republican-appointed judges, especially the two who owe their seats to President Trump. So we’ll await the decision anxiously — all the more anxiously because President Trump and Majority Leader McConnell have already made clear they will not hesitate to cram through one more justice if a vacancy appears.

You focus on Russia as an irreconcilable adversary of the U.S.. There is a view that the excessive focus on Russia has blinded U.S. thinking so much that it loses focus on China, which might be a more consequential rival.

China is a richer and more powerful country than Russia. Russia is more adventurous and reckless than China. The Chinese economy now nearly equals that of the U.S. in size. If the U.S. is to contain China peacefully, it will need to assemble a coalition of partners, market-minded democracies that can agree on a code of proper international behavior. Russia’s successful raid on the U.S. presidency in 2016 helped install a President who despises partners, who doesn’t understand coalitions. Trump is waging trade wars on half the world. Which means he deals with China alone, unaided. You’ve seen polls where three-quarters of Europeans wish to stay neutral in any dispute between the U.S. and China.

So, yes, I agree that China is the larger challenge. But Russia’s direct interference in our democracy to impose the Trump presidency has for three years prevented us from dealing with China in a rational and effective way. In 2020, Russia is trying again, and again Trump is welcoming it.

Many Indians think the President’s willingness to confront China head-on is reassuring.

In Trumpocalypse , I talk about one ominous scenario for conflict between India and China. Chinese scientists are working to avert climate change by firing solar energy deflecting particles into the upper atmosphere. Indian scientists have modelled that one risk of the Chinese geo-engineering project is that it could accidentally change monsoon patterns, interfering with India’s rainfall. To prevent such bad behaviour by China, the world needs an effective coalition for peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. Yet Trump has instead cancelled the Trans-Pacific Partnership, alienated South Korea, lost public opinion in Canada and Australia, and treated the European Union as a hostile power rather than an indispensable friend.

I can understand why Indians enjoy watching the U.S. be rude to China. But rudeness is not a strategy. Where it counts, Trump has been weak, not strong. He got himself into a losing trade war with China in 2018. To avert an election-year recession in 2020, he began frantically offering concessions in 2019 — and hailing obviously impossible Chinese promises to buy more U.S. farm goods as huge breakthroughs. Trump’s false assurances boosted the stock market in December 2019 and January 2020. (Nobody has yet taught stock-trading algorithms how to discount the worthlessness of Trump’s promises.) And it does seem that Trump’s eagerness to levitate the stock market explains why he so gullibly accepted China’s false claims that they had the coronavirus under control at a time when the U.S. could still have acted to protect itself. Remember, Trump dismantled the independent U.S. medical operation inside China over 2017-2019, in part to spite President Obama (who bequeathed that apparatus) but also perhaps to ease the way to the deal he hoped would save his re-election from the disaster of his trade war.

You have outlined a politics that could replace Trumpism. Do you think Joe Biden is capable of pulling it off?

Trumpocalyse offers ideas to heal the terrible social divisions that Trump has exploited to gain power: rural versus urban, young versus old, native versus immigrant, white versus non-white, men versus women, rich versus poor. We need to renew national cohesion inside the country — and international cooperation outside. American leadership in the 21st century will be leadership by consent. That consent must be regained. Can Biden do it? He’s the only available alternative, so let’s hope so!

Are there many Republicans like you, who will be waiting to vote Trump out in November? And will that happen this year?

Not many. But enough. At least, that’s what I expect and trust.


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