The Corruption of the American Republic
By David Frum
301 pages; $25.99
Donald Trump is the oddest president America has ever elected. He lived in a gilded tower on New York’s Fifth Avenue but nevertheless became the voice of the left-behind. He made his public reputation as a reality-TV star but nevertheless defeated one of the most experienced politicians in the land. Trump has done so many extraordinary things in his first year in office, from tweeting about nuclear war to conducting public business in sight of paying guests in a resort he owns, it’s easy to forget that, unless impeachment intervenes, he still has another three years — and perhaps seven — to go.
Trump’s election has set off a furious competition among America’s pundits to explain what is going on: The most depressing political story of our time is also the most exciting. David Frum has usually been at or near the front of the pundit pack with a succession of articles in The Atlantic, where he is a senior editor. Most commentators are dyed-in-the-wool liberals who exhausted the language of fulmination during George W Bush’s presidency. Frum worked for Bush and even had a hand in writing his “axis of evil” speech. Most commentators regard conservative America as an alien land inhabited by monsters. Frum has been writing sharp but sympathetic books on that land since his first, Dead Right, on the weaknesses of Reaganism, in 1994. The central theme in Frum’s excellent new book, “Trumpocracy,” which draws on his Atlantic articles, is what Trump’s career tells us about the deeper structural problems of America in general, and conservative America in particular.
Frum argues that Trump’s greatest talent — his genius really — is spotting and exploiting weaknesses. The Republican establishment spent $100 million to put the crown on Prince Jeb Bush’s head. Trump incinerated Bush (and all that cash) with his gibe about “low energy.” He then proceeded to incinerate “little” Marco Rubio and “lyin’” Ted Cruz. Trump’s campaign against Hillary Clinton was in some ways a model of how not to run campaigns — he lurched from crisis to crisis and never bothered to enumerate any detailed policies. But he understood her great limitation: that she represented the nexus between meritocracy and plutocracy, indebted to Big Money and divorced from millions of heartland Americans.
Trump’s political operatics worked because he understood deeper weaknesses in American society. Trump grasped that America is suffering from an epistemological weakness as well as economic ones: The line between truth and falsehood is becoming dangerously blurred. Again, America’s knowledge elite is partly responsible for this: Armies of postmodern academics had prepared the way for Trump by arguing that truth is a construct of the power elite. But the biggest culprit is technological progress. Digitalisation is not only creating a deafening cacophony of voices. It is also making it harder to finance real journalism while simultaneously making it easier to distribute tripe.
What does Trump want to do with all his power? The answer, Frum argues, certainly does not lie in helping the white working class that put him in the White House. His tax cuts will widen America’s already high levels of inequality. It lies instead in “the aggrandisement of one domineering man and his shamelessly grasping extended family.” The essence of Trumponomics is running a country just as you run your family business: appointing people with whom you have strong personal ties, ideally ties of DNA, directing business to your properties, using public resources to avenge private grudges.
Frum thinks the combination of Trump’s drive for self-aggrandisement and America’s current weaknesses is nothing less than a threat to the democratic order. “The thing to fear from the Trump presidency is not the bold overthrow of the Constitution, but the stealthy paralysis of governance; not the open defiance of law, but an accumulating subversion of norms; not the deployment of state power to intimidate dissidents, but the incitement of private violence to radicalise supporters.”
Trump isn’t alone in the weakness-exploitation business. Some of the most eye-catching investors in his real estate empire since he won the Republican nomination hail from countries where there is a faint line between business and politics. Hanging over everything is the figure of Vladimir Putin, a man who has devoted his career to accumulating information on weaknesses, both personal and political, and turning that information into power. Rather than Russia turning into America, as America’s policymakers argued in that great age of illusion, the 1990s, America seems to be turning into Russia.
The immediate task facing the American republic is to limit the damage that Trump can cause: Here the checks and balances are already playing the role that the founders intended. But the bigger task is to eliminate the weaknesses that have produced Trumpism. Frum rightly points out that these are broad as well as deep. The travails of the white working class are symptoms of a bigger problem: the concentration of wealth in a narrow range of industries and companies. Likewise, the corruption embodied in Trump Inc. is the product of a broader corruption of America’s governing class, which has allowed Bill and Hillary Clinton to transform themselves into public-service millionaires and Barack and Michelle Obama to negotiate a reported $65 million book deal for their autobiographies. Getting tough on Trump is going to be a picnic compared with getting tough on the causes of Trumpism.
© 2017 The New York Times News Service