David Frum

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A phrase I began using (overusing) in 2015 is “the American people won’t forever settle for bread and Kardashians.” That played out in a shockingly horrible fashion when Donald Trump, a Simon Cowell-ish strongman, was elected to the highest office of the land (with, it would appear very likely, the cooperation of the Kremlin).

The non-treasonous means he employed to win were to move the GOP far to the right on some issues and to the left on others. In the latter category, his promises were more than just the usual election-year exaggerations–they were the cruelest lies. Trump has no interest in extending and improving healthcare or preserving Medicare or Social Security. He’s the iceman cometh, intent on policies that would literally kill off swaths of his base.

In a Vox Q&A, David Frum questions Edward Luce about his new book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism. The interviewer wonders if the economic problems in the U.S. and UK can be cured in the short run by three measures: thicker social insurance, less dynamic labor markets and less immigration. The first would be helpful, the second unrealistic and the third a very bad idea. Unskilled immigrants do the jobs Americans will not do. Entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists from abroad create jobs and propel progress. International students welcomed into our universities often pay full tuition so that less-privileged U.S. students don’t have to. Refusing this bounty from beyond our borders would be a self-inflicted wound, a brain-drain that would make us poorer and less secure.

One exchange:

David Frum:

We talked earlier about the role of elite demophobia as you called it, oikophobia as you called it. The book bears on its cover an endorsement from Larry Summers, and on its back are others of the great and good. This is not written for the talk radio audience. It is written for the Davos inhabitants whom you scorn on the inside of the book.

What is the summons to the people who are doing well in the present dispensation here? What do you think are their responsibilities? How do you persuade them to think in a larger, longer-term way than they seem to be doing right now?

Edward Luce:

I totally agree with the supposition of your question, and I’ve thought about this. I’ve thought about the fact, well who’s my book going to be read by? Who’s the Financial Times read by? It’s not typically read by the left-behinds. The same goes for Vox and the Atlantic.

But actually, this is the relevant market, and my book is written for what I think are still — in spite of everything that has happened — the complacent elites in our society. One of the pieces of evidence of their complacency is this tendency to talk about the other half as deplorable, and to mark them off. This is not a sign of thinking. It is not a sign of addressing what I think are addressable problems.

So what would I recommend for converting elites to the point of view I’m trying to argue?

To recognize that if you live, as we increasingly do, in a sort of modern-day Versailles, eventually that palace gets burnt down. You cannot wall yourself off from the people in society. There’s no Hunger Games that ends well.

And to recognize that your wealth comes from society. It has a social basis, however individually talented you are. You would not be wealthy if it weren’t for society. You can fantasize about living in gated communities that have robots as security guards, and drones delivering your goods, and, you know, no humans actually employed. But they’re still there, and they’re going to make life difficult for you. You’re not going to be sleeping well at night.

That’s the scare-the-kids version. The better way of putting that is to appeal to people’s enlightened self-interest. I continue to believe America is a country that can lead the world in enlightened self-interest. Take the Marshall Plan: America is the country that coined the term pragmatism. That’s an American philosophy. I don’t think it’s dead, but I think it’s not something the elites are as familiar with as they should be, and must be.•

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It took Republicans seven years to meet their Obamacare waterloo, as David Frum promised they would in 2010 when the party invested heavily in the Tea Party’s incoherent populism, rife with threats about death panels and the mercy killing of capitalism. Today was the finally the day when members of the GOP was forced to face what had been obvious to just about every sane person: They never had a reasonable alternative, their plan was bankrupt, health care is complicated.

Problem is, Republicans have yet to face their comeuppance in a broader sense. Moving forward, they’ll still try to undermine the Affordable Care Act, institute unreasonable tax cuts for the highest earners and work daily on policies antithetical to the health and well-being of the majority Americans. In an angry country overrun by low-information voters, that fever remains unbroken.

Two excerpts follow.

From Ezra Klein at Vox:

President Donald Trump is supposed to be the dealmaker-in-chief. He’s supposed to get the deals his predecessors couldn’t get, the concessions they couldn’t make, the wins they couldn’t find.

Instead, Trump signed onto the first health care bill Paul Ryan came up with only to watch it go down in flames. As I write this, the question has moved from whether the bill will pass to whether Trump can force a House vote to humiliate Ryan. So what the hell happened?

The answer can be found in Trump Steaks. And Trump University. And Trump Vodka. And Trump Suits. And Trump’s fragrance line, his board game, his ghostwritten books, his energy drink, his eyeglasses, and his chocolate bars.

Yes, these are all real Trump products. And they expose the reality of Trump’s dealmaking. Trump is not a guy who makes particularly good deals so much as a guy who makes a lot of deals — many of which lash his name and reputation to garbage products.

Trump, a lifelong teetotaler, didn’t scour the globe to find the very best vodka. No — someone offered him an opportunity to make a quick buck by putting his name on a product he wouldn’t ever touch and he took it. Trump University was a far darker scam. Trump Steaks were, and are, a joke.

This is Trump’s pattern: He licenses his brand and lets others worry about the details of the products. Trump’s partners often end up going out of business and his customers often end up disappointed, but Trump makes some money, and he gets his name out there, and it’s all good.

This was Trump’s approach to the health care bill, too. He let someone else worry about the product and he simply licensed his name, marketing support, and political capital. Trump didn’t know what was in the Affordable Health Care Act, and he didn’t much care. It broke his promises to ensure health care for everyone, to protect Medicaid from cuts, to lower deductibles, and to guarantee choices of doctors and plans — but he didn’t pay attention to any of that. In private, Trump was apparently bored by the subject and eager to move onto tax reform.

But being president of the United States isn’t like being a downmarket consumer brand.•

From Frum in the Atlantic:

So, when the Democrats indeed did pass the law without Republican input, just as I’d warned they would, a fury overcame me. Eighteen months of being called a “sellout” will do that to a man, I suppose. I opened my computer and in less than half an hour pounded out the blogpost that would function, more or less, as my suicide note in the organized conservative world.

The post was called “Waterloo.” (The title played off a promise by then-senator and now Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint that the Affordable Care Act would become Obama’s Waterloo, a career-finishing defeat.)

We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.

There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or—more exactly—with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?

I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters—but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination. When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say—but what is equally true—is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed—if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office—Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.

So today’s defeat for free-market economics and Republican values is a huge win for the conservative entertainment industry. Their listeners and viewers will now be even more enraged, even more frustrated, even more disappointed in everybody except the responsibility-free talkers on television and radio. For them, it’s mission accomplished. For the cause they purport to represent, it’s Waterloo all right: ours.•

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In this time of potential totalitarianism, two very different journalists, former Dubya speechwriter David Frum and veteran Putin chronicler Masha Gessen, have done the most outstanding work, warning of the gathering threat to American liberal democracy. Each has a new piece on the topic. 

In “How to Build an Autocracy,” an Atlantic cover story, Frum writes speculatively about how the U.S., over the next four years, could be pulled from its foundations, despite a system that supposedly safeguards us from such affronts.

“Checks and balances is a metaphor, not a mechanism,” offers Frum, asserting that our system is only as good as those who serve it at any given moment. We depend on Americans of good faith to combat a Berlusconi angling to become a Mussolini, and while many such citizens exist in the country, they will be far from levers of power. The Administration will only appoint and tolerate conspirators. Anyone who defies will be dismissed.

The Senate and the Congress could prevent our fall from decency, but if Mitch McConnell was guided by the Constitution, Merrick Garland would have received a fair chance, and if Paul Ryan was committed to democracy, hearings about James Comey’s outrageous pre-election actions would be foremost on his mind. They will not save us. Only we can. That’s complicated, since millions of Americans seem to not notice the danger, maybe even wouldn’t mind a dictatorship if it supported their politics or proved financially profitable. 

Former Nixon lawyer John Dean says the Trump Presidency “will end in calamity.” I think, horribly enough, that’s true whether liberty wins or not.

In “The Styrofoam Presidency,” Gessen’s New York Review of Books essay, the writer explains how kakistocracy (government by the least qualified or most unprincipled) has taken hold in America. I’ve written previously that this election seemed to me propelled by, among other factors, a “large-scale revenge of mediocrity, of people wanting to establish an order where might, not merit, will rule.”

It’s hard to argue that is not what now will oversee us on a day when Jerry Falwell Jr. revealed he’s to lead a Federal Task Force on Higher Education policy. If Liberty University is to be the template for the American college, the “genius” Peter Thiel may have to wait quite awhile longer for his flying cars.

From Frum:

Trump-critical media do continue to find elite audiences. Their investigations still win Pulitzer Prizes; their reporters accept invitations to anxious conferences about corruption, digital-journalism standards, the end of Nato, and the rise of populist authoritarianism. Yet somehow all of this earnest effort feels less and less relevant to American politics. President Trump communicates with the people directly via his Twitter account, ushering his supporters toward favorable information at Fox News or Breitbart.

Despite the hand-wringing, the country has in many ways changed much less than some feared or hoped four years ago. Ambitious Republican plans notwithstanding, the American social-welfare system, as most people encounter it, has remained largely intact during Trump’s first term. The predicted wave of mass deportations of illegal immigrants never materialized. A large illegal workforce remains in the country, with the tacit understanding that so long as these immigrants avoid politics, keeping their heads down and their mouths shut, nobody will look very hard for them.

African Americans, young people, and the recently naturalized encounter increasing difficulties casting a vote in most states. But for all the talk of the rollback of rights, corporate America still seeks diversity in employment. Same-sex marriage remains the law of the land. Americans are no more and no less likely to say “Merry Christmas” than they were before Trump took office.

People crack jokes about Trump’s National Security Agency listening in on them. They cannot deeply mean it; after all, there’s no less sexting in America today than four years ago. Still, with all the hacks and leaks happening these days—particularly to the politically outspoken—it’s just common sense to be careful what you say in an email or on the phone. When has politics not been a dirty business? When have the rich and powerful not mostly gotten their way? The smart thing to do is tune out the political yammer, mind your own business, enjoy a relatively prosperous time, and leave the questions to the troublemakers.•

From Gessen:

The rule of the worst seemed to become a thing of the past in the 1990s, but under Putin mediocrity returned with a vengeance. Not only did the media come under the control of the Kremlin but it acquired an amateurish quality. Not only did the government start lying, but did so in dull, simple, and unimaginative language. Putin’s government is filled with people who plagiarized their dissertations—as did Putin himself. The ministers are subliterate. The minister of culture, who has a doctorate in history, regularly exposes his ignorance of history; indeed, Trump might be tempted to plagiarize the minister’s dissertation, which begins with the assertion that the criterion of truth in history is determined solely by the national interests of Russia—if it’s good for the country, it must be true (much of the rest of the dissertation is itself plagiarized). Other ministers provide the differently minded Russian blogosphere with endless hours of fun because they use words the meaning of which they clearly don’t know, or ones that don’t exist—as when a newly chosen education minister invented a word that seemed to mean that she had been appointed to the cabinet by God. They also make ignorant, repressive, inhumane policy. But their daily subversion of integrity and principle is indeed aesthetic in nature. And it serves a purpose: by degrading language and discrediting the spectacle of politics the Russian government is destroying the public sphere.

Sometimes vastly different processes yield surprisingly similar results. Trump is staging an assault on America’s senses that feels familiar to me—not because he admires Putin (though he does) or because he is Putin’s puppet, but because they seem to be genuinely kindred spirits. It might take a long time to understand why we have come to enter the age of a kakistocracy, but evidently we have.•


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Few Americans have distinguished themselves in the aftermath of the election as has David Frum, the erstwhile Dubya speechwriter who’s become a post-partisan truth-teller, history professor and, perhaps, self-designated mourner. It seems all his education, employment and life experience prepared him for this moment which he clearly hoped would never arrive.

The nation’s best-case scenario is a cast of brand-name robber barons fully strip struggling Americans, eventually redirecting the nation’s teeming anger at a foreign enemy (real or imagined) after the check bounces. The worst case is that 240 years of American democracy ends ignominiously, World War II and the Cold War lost retroactively, with a Berlusconi who aspires to be a Mussolini now destabilizing any institutions than can counter his whims with laws or reason.

Trump is aided by wingnuts and political opportunists of all manner, who go along with him to get something out of him. Does anyone think Steve Bannon or Mitch McConnell care more for the Constitution than they do for power? It’s the perfect storm, and a deathly chill comes at us sideways.

In his latest Atlantic piece, Frum writes wisely of today’s shocking assassination of Russian diplomat Andrey G. Karlov in Ankara, arguing that political killings aren’t motivations for war but rather justifications. Putin and Erdogan may not militarize the moment, but Trump might not pass on such a future opportunity.

An excerpt:

Assassinations provide opportunities and occasions for wars; they do not cause them.

Consider an even grimmer example.

The murderer of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey has been described in some reports as motivated by rage against Russian atrocities in Syria. His act may summon to memory the example of Herschel Grynszan, a young Jew who tried to avenge the sufferings of his family at Nazi hands by killing a German diplomat in Paris on November 7, 1938. Hitler seized upon the killing as his excuse for the rampage we know as Kristallnacht.

Yet when a Jewish student killed the leader of the Swiss Nazi party in February 1936, Hitler did nothing. Germany had secured the 1936 Olympic games before Hitler’s rise to power, and there was much agitation that year to rescind the award to protest Nazi anti-Semitism. Determined to maintain domestic quiet, Hitler let the death of Wilhelm Gustloff vanish into historical obscurity. (His killer, originally from Croatia, survived the Second World War in a Swiss prison.)

Even Hitler used outrages for his own ends, rather than being motivated by them.

Will today’s crime spark conflict between Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey? Only if those two authoritarian rulers want trouble.•




There are antecedents in our nation’s history for the shocking and disgraceful rise of the aspiring fascist Donald Trump, especially when you consider his “America First” slogan is lifted directly from Lindbergh and the like who spearheaded the domestic Hitler-appeasement movement. In fact, if you go back to the 1930s and look at the landscape more broadly, you’ll notice a surprising number of U.S. plutocrats who thought our country doomed before the autocracy of Mussolini–Hitler, even–envious of the “orderliness” of Labor in those countries. The trains were supposed to arrive on time, as were the conductors. There would be no protests.

In a Wall Street Journal essay, David Frum recalls another populist insurgent, William Jennings Bryan, who wasn’t exactly Trump but can perhaps explain aspects of his emergence, and, maybe, eventual decline. Frum notes that both seized on the frustrations of whites who’d come to feel culturally and financially dispossessed, wooing them with easy answers and oratory skills suited to their respective moments.

One Frum line about Trump supporters seems dubious to me: “[They’re experiencing] not only the heaviest economic cost but the most onerous social cost too: family crackup, addiction, suicide, lost cultural standing, lost political respect, lost deference to their norms and expectations.” This economic narrative has been partly debunked, and the issues mentioned threaten almost all Americans, with technology, globalization and tax codes conspiring to destabilize. In response, some are buying into an impossible and ugly retreat into the past and others are moving hopefully if anxiously toward tomorrow, aiming to remedy problems without turning back the clock. And if those disappearing “norms and expectations” are steeped in racial privilege–which they are–they shouldn’t be preserved, no matter how discomfiting some may find that reality. 

The opening:

Underfinanced, thinly organized and reviled in the media, the Trump campaign has nonetheless apparently pulled even in some recent polls with Hillary Clinton. Every pundit can itemize the long list of things that Donald Trump has done all wrong throughout this election season—and yet here he is, poised to overcome all dissent at the Republican convention in Cleveland and to run a competitive race afterward.

Trump’s first and strongest advocate in conservative media, the columnist Ann Coulter, has vividly described the radicalism of what has happened: “Trump isn’t a standard-issue GOP, trying to balance the ticket to get his party into power. He’s starting a new party! He’s just blown up the old GOP.”

Dazed and baffled, the old GOP is still struggling to understand how it has reached this point. One way to understand the situation is to look at an unexpected historical parallel: the populist insurgency led by William Jennings Bryan, who was three times —in 1896, 1900 and 1908—the Democratic Party’s candidate for president.

As individuals, the gaudy businessman from New York City and the Great Commoner from the prairies don’t have much in common. But the political movements that they have championed do share much in common—both on the way up and, perhaps, on the way down.•

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