Thursday, January 18, 2018

Review: David Frum's Trumpocracy

I read David Frum's new book Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic in just a couple of sittings, and highly recommend it to people across the political spectrum, including current Trump supporters, as it is a valuable, cogent analysis that will provoke thinking and rethinking.

First, some context and disclosure: David is a friend of mine. I was a regular contributor to his onetime website FrumForum; among the articles I wrote there were ones on early American history that turned out to be early stages of research for my book about DeWitt Clinton and the Erie Canal. I broadly share Frum's desire for, to quote a passage in Trumpocracy, "a conservatism that is culturally modern, economically inclusive, and environmentally responsible, that upholds markets at home and US leadership internationally." We have some differences, of course, one being my more favorable view of immigration (watching the Trump administration's actions in this area has firmed up this opinion). David remains a member of the Republican Party, whereas I switched to independent the day after Trump clinched the nomination.

A formidable strength of David's, manifest throughout Trumpocracy, is his capacity to follow arguments where they lead, regardless of whether the results are pleasing to any particular political faction. He is known as a "Never Trump" Republican, but unlike some such he has no illusion that all was well with the GOP before Trump came along. (By contrast, see this Jay Nordlinger piece about leaving a party that had been suddenly--inexplicably--disfigured by Trump.) Democrats eager to plunge into a book about Trump's authoritarianism may be discombobulated, early on, to read about how President Barack Obama stated that circumventing Congress on immigration was beyond the rightful powers of his office--and then did so anyway when that became politically expedient.

My statement above that I hope Trump supporters will read Trumpocracy is in earnest. In this era, we have become cynical about the ability of facts and logic to change minds, and I suspect we have gone too far in discounting such possibilities. There are, I imagine, some Trump-supporting Americans who will be alarmed at seeing evidence of the widening chasms between Trumpism's sales pitch and its reality: a nationalism determinedly oblivious to the machinations of hostile foreign governments; a populism intensely focused on benefitting wealthy donors and enriching those in power; a proclamation of American strength while weakening alliances and values that have been crucial to America's position in the world; a religiosity in defense of a man who pays blackmail to porn stars.

Readers of various political stripes may be surprised by the optimism of the book's final chapter. Frum notes some quite unintended benefits that Trump has brought to the American political scene, such as: a greater awareness of the importance of truth, precisely because the president is so grossly untruthful; on the left, a growing concern about national security, in contrast to a onetime dismissal of the idea that Russia is any kind of a threat; and for the right, an opportunity to look beyond stale ideological orthodoxy--albeit perhaps at the price of an impending political catastrophe.

In a telling anecdote, Frum recounts how an attendee viewing a panel discussion complained along these lines: "We can't stop Donald Trump by going soft. If we want to stop him, we have to imitate him." To which David answered: "But if you imitate him, you won't stop him. You'll only replace him." Trumpocracy is a powerful argument for a post-Trump era that truly leaves the man's legacy behind.