David Frum’s first novel reckons with conservativism in crisis

Theme: a U.S. conservative party hijacked by dastardly ideologues. Sound familiar?
Party Fiction
Photograph by Jeff Fusco/Getty Images

“It’s a book about Washington and how it really works,” explains David Frum, the Canadian-American who once wrote speeches inside George W. Bush’s White House, but now finds himself in a genteel exile from the power circles of America’s conservative movement with a surprising new turn in his career.

A one-time true believer who helped coin the “axis of evil” label, who wrote a book defending Bush (The Right Man), and who was foreign policy adviser to the presidential campaign of Rudy Giuliani, Frum has since been called a turncoat, a rat, and a “RINO” (Republican in Name Only). The Wall Street Journal editorial page has denounced him as “the media’s go-to basher of fellow Republicans.”

His sins have included denouncing Sarah Palin (“too irresponsible, reckless and crazy to be president”) as well as right-wing stars like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Andrew Breitbart (the latter on the day he died). But Frum’s most costly move may have been blasting Republicans in 2010 for refusing to work with President Barack Obama to shape his reform of the U.S. health care system—arguing that they had ceded their opportunity to shape it in a more conservative direction. (That heresy was followed by the swift termination of his job at a marquee conservative think tank in Washington, the American Enterprise Institute.)

His independence of mind has earned him admiration, too. “David Frum has been a profile in courage in American conservatism,” says New York Times columnist David Brooks. “While many in the right have been locking themselves in a self-enclosed information loop, Frum has continually dragged challenging evidence in front of their faces, urging them to confront reality. This hasn’t always made Frum popular, but it’s been a heroic effort.”

“I was intellectually prepared, but I was not psychically prepared for the radicalism that took over the party,” says Frum, sitting back in the office in his elegant home in northwest Washington, where photos of him with Bush hang on the wall amidst history books and biographies.

The financial meltdown of 2008, and the government bailouts and mass joblessness that followed, led to the Tea Party backlash and a small-government drive among many Republicans. But they led Frum in the opposite direction.

“It was the shaping event of my latter life,” says Frum, 51. “It has forced me to rethink a lot of the things I have always believed.” Among them: the conservative axiom that it continues to make sense to dismantle the welfare state, because reducing the security of the safety net leads to higher economic growth and employment. But while the 1970s demonstrated that it was possible to over-tax and over-regulate, he says, 2008 proved the opposite was possible too. “When you have this degree of shock, you have to think very hard about maybe the people in the 1930s who built the welfare state knew something that was not just true for their time but had some continuing truth,” he said.

His novel, Patriots, is part of his reckoning with the crisis, which left him personally unscathed. “If you live through the plague, and you don’t get the plague, what are your duties to the people who did get the plague?” asks Frum. “You’d better be a nurse, right?”

Nurse Frum’s prescription for a party taken over by ideological fever has been moderation, compromise and incrementalism. He acknowledges that the patient so far has shown little interest in his cure, at least when presented in non-fiction books and blog posts.

In the book, Republicans are thinly disguised as “Constitutionalists” and Democrats as “Nationalists.” Gen. George Pulaski, a maverick moderate conservative war-hero president—think John McCain melded with Mitt Romney—has just been elected to replace a one-term black liberal president, Monroe Williams. The country is mired in economic malaise and a war with drug lords in Mexico. The conservative fundamentalists in the Constitutionalist party turn on the new president when he wants to raise taxes to cover budget shortfalls and pay for the war effort. “If Pulaski doesn’t keep the faith, I say, tear his heart out,” says the publisher of a Constitutionalist magazine. They use every tool at their disposal: corrupt think tanks, a manufactured “grassroots” protest movement, and a cynical conservative cable news channel run by a ruthless megalomaniac who beds his “on-air blondies” while plotting to bring the president to heel. The operatives are not above using private detectives and bankrolled bloggers to engage in blackmail and scandal-mongering.

In other words, Frum has channelled every liberal’s dystopic vision of a vast right-wing conspiracy. And he has infused it with the authenticity of someone who has been there, done that. The book is thick with insider-y details, like the ample portions of steak cut into bite-sized pieces and served as “appetizers” at a lavish lobbyists’ reception—because serving steak that requires utensils would violate congressional ethics rules about free meals.

Conservative think tanks in particular come in for particularly harsh treatment in the book. Frum portrays them as intellectually dishonest hives of faux research where nonentities are blown up into national experts who have no qualms about manufacturing facts to suit an agenda. “Why do we have think tanks instead of PR firms? Increasingly you can’t tell the difference,” says Frum.

At one point in the novel, an aging senator explains to Frum’s fictional protagonist, Walter Schotzke, a wealthy and aimless twenty-something who lands a job on Capitol Hill office, that the conservative party isn’t a “what” but a “who”—”an informal central committee of maybe 20 people. They decide the party line and who is a true constitutionalist and who is not.” But Frum says he is not trying to compare the modern Republican party to the Soviet politburo. “It’s more like high school than a repressive political system,” he says.

Frum is also quick to note that the heroes of his story are members of the conservative party too—and that one of the most cynical villains is a member of the stand-in for the Democratic party. Frum still considers himself a Republican and a conservative. “A lot of people will dispute my right to use the title. But I don’t accept the claims of this would-be membership committee,” he says.

A stalwart foreign policy hawk who backed the Iraq war and has argued for regime change in Syria and Iran, Frum argues that congressional Republicans are risking national defence with their hard-line positions on taxes and spending. He calls the Republican budget proposals “more about brand management and party identification” than about governing, an approach that he fears will result in America running out of defence dollars: “I believe in markets and a strong national defence—that is my touchstone. The no-tax rule and the no-touching-my-Medicare rule mean that defence is in danger.”

Frum had launched his own website and blog, FrumForum, but since January has moved his writing full-time to Tina Brown’s Daily Beast and Newsweek magazine. He also has a contract with CNN and writes elsewhere, including in the National Post.

Frum, who grew up in Toronto—his mother was the late Canadian broadcaster Barbara Frum, and his sister, Linda, is a senator—concedes that his view that government may be part of a solution, not only a problem, may reflect a Canadian sensibility. “I think it’s very Canadian,” he nods.

And he has a theory about why U.S. conservatism is more prone to ideological extremes. “I think Canadians are much more afraid than Americans about the possibility of social instability,” he ventures. From the threat of Quebec separatism to the experience of the Conservative-Reform party split, he notes, “Canada could crack apart in a number of different ways and repeatedly almost has. All Canadians are aware of that. Everyone has to be careful not to stress the system too much.” Meanwhile, he adds, “Americans, in part because of their Civil War experience, feel that all their questions are settled.”

Frum doesn’t share the disdain of many Republicans for Obama, but would not vote for him. “Personally I find him a very sympathetic figure. I like his seriousness of mind,” he says. But he adds, “I think he is very, very liberal—more so than Clinton was, and more than he understands about himself.”

His list of favourite Republican politicians includes Indiana’s fiscally conservative governor Mitch Daniels, former Bush budget director and Ohio senator Rob Portman, House Speaker John Boehner—who has wrestled with the Tea Party congressmen in his own caucus—and Mitt Romney. “I have enormous respect for Romney and I intend to vote for him. I still think Romneycare is a good idea,” he chuckles.

Asked what his readers will get out of his novel, he says, “I want people to come away with a sense of responsibility to the political system.” But mostly, he says, “I hope they will laugh.”

Serial excerpts from David Frum’s new novel, Patriots, are available via Huffington Post:

Patriots, Part 1
Patriots, Part 2
Patriots, Part 3