David Frum: Donald Trump is a threat to Western democracy

The conservative commentator and author warns that ‘Trump-like events’ are proliferating around the world, not just in Washington
David Frum for Maclean’s. (Photograph by Erik Putz)

At the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, David Frum admits, he was “Trump-curious”—intrigued, and willing to believe the Manhattan real estate developer might shake up a staid Republican Party. That didn’t last. Now Frum, the veteran Canadian-born journalist and former speechwriter for former president George W. Bush, sees Trump and his enablers as a threat to American democracy, and as part of a widespread assault on democratic rules across the Western world. He spoke in Toronto with Maclean’s about his new book, Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: One of the first things that I noticed about this book is that if you took Donald Trump out of it—if you took Donald Trump out of today’s United States—your book still describes a country that’s in a lot of trouble.

A: It describes a Western world that’s in a lot of trouble. This is maybe something that, from a Canadian perspective, I bring to this project. I keep telling my American friends, “If you think of Donald Trump as only something that is happening inside the United States, you’re missing it.” Because there are Trump-like events happening across the Western world, in Warsaw Pact countries, in France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands. As we speak, the second-largest party in the Dutch legislature—who’s more level-headed than the Dutch?—is Geert Wilders’s party, which is a very Trump-like party, and they’ve got 33 out of 150 seats.

Q: Your book describes an impressive array of what you call “enablers”: a conservative entertainment complex, essentially Fox News, that propagandized for him; fellow candidates for president who appeased him; a Republican Party apparatus that submitted to him; a donor elite who funded him; a Congressional party that protected him; writers and intellectuals who invented excuses for him; and millions of rank-and-file Republicans who accepted him. What is it in Donald Trump that brought all of those people to heel? Or what is it in them that made them ready to be seduced?

A: Different people had different motives. In some cases, it was just arrogance, the belief that they could use Donald Trump for their own ends rather than be used by him. For example, Trump didn’t have a polling operation until very late in his campaign. How did he know what to do? And the answer was that the Ted Cruz people leaked their polls to Trump because they were looking forward to eliminating all the other rivals, clearing the way for a Cruz-Trump fight that they were certain Cruz would win. Well, in the end, Cruz was the last man standing, it’s true. And Cruz lost. If he had known at the beginning what he knew at the end, he might have thought twice. The Congressional Republican Party thought they could make Trump their tool to impose their very unpopular agenda. Instead, they became his tool.

I need to make it clear: I am a very conservative person. And there are a lot of things that Donald Trump’s government or administration is doing that I might agree with. The point is we have to defend the rules of the game. And one of the things that has empowered Donald Trump is that not enough people are serious enough about defending the rules of the game, maybe because they don’t understand how endangered those rules are.

Q: Trump says the rules of the game are the problem, because the rules of the game—and we hear this from the governing party in Poland, for instance—elevate a certain kind of person and create a certain spoils system that not everyone benefits from. And that you have to smash the rules of the game so that ordinary people can get back into the game.

A: Right. What has enabled these kinds of parties is precisely the failure of elites to deliver. I wrote a history of the 1970s a long time ago, and one of the stories I tell is: whatever happened to the man in the white lab coat? If you watch a movie from between the end of the Second World War and the mid-1970s, whenever anyone steps out in a white lab coat, they’re there to offer a solution. They’re there to tell you how the time machine is going to work, how the laser’s going to save the day. They’re going to give you James Bond’s array of tools. After about 1975, whenever the man in the white lab coat steps out, it’s to come up with some crazy idea that’s going to bring ruin on everybody. “Let’s clone dinosaurs!” And the last we see of him is disappearing down the gullet of the Tyrannosaurus rex.

I mentioned I’m a conservative person. I’m going to say something very conservative. Elites are inevitable in politics. That is how politics is going to work. Because most people will not put in the effort, most people don’t have the knowledge. It is an elite game, always. The question is, are your elites responsible, patriotic, public-spirited? Do they think about the interests of others, not just themselves? And the story of Western politics since, I would say, the beginning of the century, maybe a little earlier, is that as elites become more separated, more selfish, as they leave behind their populations and don’t think about them, they become discredited. And the people look for alternatives. But the alternative is worse. Those rules of the game protect us all. And they are more precious than almost any political outcome.

Q: Do you think he’s going to serve out his term?

A: I think that’s the way you have to bet, barring some kind of health event. Obviously, he won’t be impeached or removed so long as the Republicans hold even one House of Congress. And even should they lose both in November of 2018, launching an impeachment—as the Republicans discovered with Bill Clinton—is very dangerous to the impeaching party. Unless you have a highly credible set of extremely damning facts, you turn a constitutional crisis into a political crisis. You rally potential supporters of the impeached president to him. You make his base bigger. So I imagine that he is likely to serve out the full term.

Q: So the thesis whereby the Republicans decide he’s a liability—he dips below a certain level in the polls and they decide that he’s a stone and not something lifting them up—you don’t buy that?

A: Donald Trump is the least unpopular thing about today’s Republican Party. I mean, the idea that a Mitch McConnell or a Paul Ryan could say, “Let’s toss Trump overboard and return to our program of plutocratic politics, health care removal, massive income tax cuts for the affluent, deregulation of finance”—if they cut loose from Donald Trump, it’s like, you know, storm in channel, continent cut off. If they cut loose from him, they are much likelier to sink.

Q: Your defence of Obamacare—or at least your constant Cassandra-like warnings to the Republican Party that trying to take Obamacare back would never work and would be self-destructive—that’s well-known. Your suspicion of the current state of the American immigration system probably makes you fewer friends in Canada. A Canadian asking a Canadian would say: What’s your problem with immigration?

A: Well, let’s start with the health care. Because I actually see these as very related issues. One of the great drivers of the alienation that has made Donald Trump possible is that the growth in the American economy has been weak. In the decade from 2005 to 2015, there was not one year when the United States hit three per cent growth. And to the extent there’s been growth, virtually all of it—and, in many years, literally all of it—has been collected by the top 10 per cent of the population. Obviously, if we knew how to make growth faster, we would. We don’t. And it’s very difficult to make growth more broadly shared. Because it’s not just the United States that has this problem.

So, one of the reasons I’ve been interested in health care is that here is something you can do, that governments know how to do, that could lift one of the largest burdens of worry from the shoulders of tens of millions of people for whom the rest of the economy isn’t working. A lot of the things that are in Obamacare that Republicans don’t like were deliberately put there to force Republicans to negotiate. Republicans wouldn’t negotiate, so we got Obamacare with all of the fur on it. Once it’s there, of course, it’s very hard to take health care benefits away from people, as the Republicans discovered.

Immigration is driven by the same concern, which is how do you build a middle-class society? The argument is very strong that immigration in the United States, because it is so concentrated at the bottom of the labour market, because so much of it is illegal, depresses wages and working conditions. Economists will say that’s not true. They have models that show that even the lowest-skilled immigration drives up wages. But when you look at those models, how do you get this? And they say, “Well, what we do is we compare the effect of this group of immigrants on that group of natives and we see what happens.” And I say, “Well, what if a native leaves the job market altogether? What happens then?” “Oh, we stop counting him.” “Oh, okay. How many people is that?” “Oh, that’s a 10th of American men between 25 and 54.” Labour force participation for that group was 98 per cent when you and I were young. It’s 88 per cent now. They vanish from the economists’ models.

Now, they’re not driven out entirely by immigration. It’s drugs and disability and other things. But America’s immigration system has created a society in which labour is very, very disposable.

Q: It’s striking how hopeful the note you conclude on is. It’s a call to arms to people: if you value the institutions, participate in the institutions. Is that something you can really get your heart into, that note of optimism?

A: Look, I’m not an optimist by temperament at all. It’s easy for me to sink into pessimism and despair. But the one question I don’t dodge—that I actually point-blank refuse to answer—is when people start asking me to predict how this is all going to go. I refuse to do it because I don’t want to be a spectator. I don’t want to be making book on this contest. We’re in it. So you have to act as if you’re an optimist, even if you’re not. I was in the White House, probably the only administration I’ll ever work for. The administration was not a success, neither at home nor abroad. The Iraq War was not a success. The condition of the average person was not enough better at the end of seven years of George Bush [than] it was at the beginning, and certainly it all ended in the collapse that was the Great Recession. So I feel a sense of karmic obligation to the universe because of that.