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David Frum: ‘The Truths of Politics Are Only Conditional’

Views from the Canadian who went from top Republican spinner to Trump foe.

David Beers 29 Aug

David Beers is founding editor of The Tyee.

David Frum’s path to the inner sanctum of America’s White House is more noted here in Canada, perhaps, than in the U.S. After all, he is the son of liberal CBC icon Barbara Frum, who went to work as speechwriter and special assistant for George W. Bush, helping to sell his invasion of Iraq. Frum went on to be a top advisor to the presidential campaign of Rudy Giuliani, who is now lawyer for Donald Trump. And Frum was a vigorous defender of the government of Stephen Harper in the most recent federal election.

Frum today is an editor for The Atlantic and author of Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, an indictment of Donald Trump’s commandeering of the Republican party from which Frum now feels marginalized. Earlier this summer Frum was interviewed by Peter Klein, director of the Global Reporting Centre at the University of British Columbia, for a Vancouver Institute special lecture. The entire interview is well worth watching here.

Below is a digest of David Frum’s views, edited for length and clarity with permission from the Global Reporting Centre. During the course of the conversation, here is what Frum had to say...

On whether Americans are getting what they deserve with a Trump presidency:

“If you've ever looked at any of those fake news Facebook pages that the Russians planted, they are laughably unconvincing and they’re just obviously preposterous. The most circulated fake news story of the cycle was a story that purported to originate on what looked like a local TV station and it was a claim that the pope had endorsed Donald Trump. Now if you are Catholic enough to care about the Pope’s views on the election you are probably Catholic enough to know the Pope never endorses anybody. Never has, never will. It’s not a thing the pope does.

“[Those ads are not] there to fool people who are applying a modicum of consumer sensibility to their behaviour. Why did it work? It worked because it found ready targets. Why? Donald Trump was speaking to the worst things in people, cruelty, and yet found resonance. Why? Why was voter turnout so low? I'm a great believer in the importance of leadership and the responsibilities of leadership. But democracy does depend on the citizens. Democracy rests on the theory that you can trust people.”

On what he means by ‘Trumpocracy’:

“The reason I called my book Trumpocracy was I wanted to move our camera lens to widen it away from the personality of Donald Trump — dysfunctional and fascinating as he is — to the broader question of his power.

“Because look, there are all kinds of dysfunctional and aggressive and dishonest people on the North American continent and some of them are rich and some of them are famous. But what we had all believed was that American constitutional systems, modern party systems, exist to screen people like that away from power. And not just people like him but people like the Le Pen family in France. We had built these ways of governing that would keep such people away from power and those systems have been screening less and less and less well for the past 15 years or so.

“So the question I’m interested in is not who is Donald Trump and is he a bad person? I think that’s self-evident. The question is how is it that he’s president and how is [it] that he’s not contained?”

On Trump as uncontained kleptocrat:

“Donald Trump does not release his tax returns. The affairs of the family remain very murky. Donald Trump received streams of payments from his partners in the Trump Towers in Istanbul and in Manila and the United Arab Emirates and India. How much? We don’t know. Is it a little bit of his income or a lot of his income? We don't know.... Does Donald Trump want to be an authoritarian figure? I mean he doesn’t like to be contradicted. But what he really wants to do is get rich. The problem is that his ambitions are in conflict with the legal order in the United States.

“[Trump has made] astonishing claims of legal impunity. He said ‘I can't be indicted while I'm in office.... Also I can't be guilty of obstruction of justice... never mind my motives. And finally, I have a hard power to pardon myself.’ You put those three things together and they all say, ‘I cannot in any way be punished for any crime I may commit.’”

On the Donald Trump who is trying to out-negotiate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un:

“The thing that helps us most understand what is going on in that summit has nothing to do with Korea. It’s Donald Trump’s purchase of the Plaza Hotel [in New York City] in 1988. Not only was he by far the highest bidder but he actually asked the person who was selling him the hotel to help him write his bid. His message was ‘I don’t know what I'm doing. I’m completely at your mercy. And I will pay whatever you ask.’ And he then paid $50 million or so more than anybody else. The purchase drove them into bankruptcy. It was eventually half a dozen years later sold at a price much lower than Donald Trump paid in 1989 and he then wrote a book about what a tremendous success he had with the Plaza Hotel. And that’s the guy. That’s the guy.

“What is happening now is that Donald Trump is giving the North Koreans what they want — a face-to-face meeting with the president, pictures of the North Korean and the U.S. flag. Just think of the propaganda value of that inside North Korea. And he’s giving it to them in exchange for really nothing at all.”

On the Donald Trump that bashed Canada and its PM after the June G7 summit in Quebec:

“[In Trump] we saw a deal maker calling out Canada for its trade rules on milk and basically insisting the United States is in this massive trade deficit, which it’s not. But he claimed it was and therefore all of the sanctions need to be imposed. That’s a pretty tough negotiator? Or is it a reckless negotiator? If you walk into the house and kick the dog, you’re not tough. Just what are you achieving?

“Donald Trump cannot do personal confrontation. The guy who’s famous for saying you're fired can never fire anybody. So while he was there [in Quebec] he was sunshine itself. And [German Chancellor Angela Merkel] apparently made this very moving speech to him about ‘Think of all the things we’ve built together. Think of all we’ve done together. Look at the structure of peace and prosperity. Do any of our differences — even if they were real — amount to anything in comparison to that?’ And Trump, I’m told, said, ‘You know, you make good points.’ And then afterwards, when he was back in the safety of his plane on his Twitter box not having to talk to human beings, he lost it. And he didn’t make a deal. He has not gotten anything. What he’s got is an international crisis.”

On the scourge of ‘elderly politicians’:

“A dark joke: I think one of the things that explains a lot of what is happening in American politics right now is the consequences of the success of the campaign against smoking. It used to be that politicians would be active in their 40s and 50s and into their early 60s and then at 65 the cigarettes would remove them from the scene. Now, I plead with you, do not smoke. But it does expedite the renewal of people in government. Whereas now people linger. In the Republican world, so many people I see on television [defending Trump] who were all friends of mine, they’re in the grips of something...

“The Reagan and Thatcher revolutions have run their course. They did what they needed to do and their work is over. And we now face some new problems and we have these very elderly politicians who are applying out-of-date formulas and who are frightened of their own base and are failing tests.”

On whether Frum helped pave the way for Trump by moving the U.S. farther to the right:

“I find the words right, left decreasingly helpful.... In the Bush years, remember, Bush ran as a compassionate conservative. He ran with an implicit message that... the politics that had worked in the ’80s and ’90s were not going to work in the 2000s. And he was groping around before 9/11 with what this new kind of politics looked like. And he had some instincts, but he didn’t have a plan. And then 9/11 interceded and we lost our domestic agenda. And then the economy [was] in crisis and the only thing Republicans know to do in an economic crisis is do a big tax cut — a big tax cut in 2002 to try to jolt the economy forward from the 9/11 attacks. That really didn’t work politically.

“By 2006 the Democrats take both houses of Congress and the Republican domination that had lasted at that point a dozen years seemed to be over. And then we were hit by the global financial crisis and it looked like the country and the world would move sharply to the left. Instead what happened was [the opposite] because of the slow recovery from the financial crisis and because of the accident of not only the first black president but the first president who had a non-citizen father, the first president who came from a big city. Barack Obama was like all of the Starbuck-izing trends of America in one skinny form. And you then saw this extraordinary move to the right at a time when people expected a route toward returning the New Deal.

“Maybe for reasons of racial reaction [or] maybe because of the housing bust, the baby boomers, in like a 24-month period, moved dramatically to the right. And that explains the elections of 2010 and 2014. And that’s what set the stage for Donald Trump to appeal to the right in a different way from the ’80s and ’90s.

“[Trump’s base] is not really that interested in the size of government. But they are concerned they are living in a world in which there’s not enough to go around. In which this society is becoming more diverse. In which there is less social trust and in which they fear their retirement is in danger. I am not being disrespectful of anybody I hope. But they need to confirm their first claim on the diminished resources of the collectivity against the newcomers whom Barack Obama represents. And that’s the background that makes traditional Republican politics obsolete. That's why Jeb Bush can spend $110 million on his campaign and go through the floor. And that’s why somebody like Donald Trump can waltz in and take the Republican party away from the people who thought they owned [it] well.”

On the famous phrase he crafted for George W. Bush:

“George W. Bush took the line he did on North Korea in 2002 [when Frum helped coin the term ‘Axis of Evil’ which included North Korea, Iraq and Iran]. Here's the history. Bill Clinton had signed an agreement in 1994 with the North Koreans whereby the United States would provide them with energy and food in exchange for the North Koreans closing down their uranium processing facilities that were allowing them to make a uranium-based nuclear weapon.

“In 2002 the United States discovers that all the while this agreement was in effect the North Koreans were secretly operating a much more compact plutonium processing plant and had been cheating on the agreement the whole while. And the United States was completely taken aback by this. There was a furious argument in 2002. Should you re-engage them or should you sanction them? Opinions will to this day differ on what was the right answer. George Bush had his mind made up and there was also intelligence in 2002, which now is confirmed to be true. There were conversations between the North Koreans and the Iranians where they were swapping Iranian missile technology for crude North Korean warhead technology. And that was the context in which the axis of evil speech was written.

“I should stress I didn’t name countries when it emerged from my word processor. I actually assumed that they would not name any particular country because that’s, as they say in government, a real forward lean. I thought they would describe types of countries and say states like these and the terrorist allies yada yada. I was stunned that they actually named countries. I was not expecting that.”

On Russia’s role in Trump winning the presidency:

“We know that Russia interfered. I mean that’s established. Russia interfered with its bots and Facebook posts. Still unresolved is whether there was an overt action by the Trump campaign. We all are waiting for the special counsel's report. But look, we’re in the conservatory. There’s the dead body of Col. Mustard. There’s the bloody wrench and there are the fingerprints all over the wrench.

“I keep saying the story of the Trump presidency is a story of many secrets, very few mysteries. It wasn’t just this American election. The Russians were active in the 2017 French election. They’re active in all the small countries of South and Central Europe. They were active in Brexit, they were active in the Scottish referendum, and I was in the U.K. for the Brexit referendum and it was obvious. And the question is why didn't this provoke a reaction from those societies? ...I don't believe that 20 years ago we would have shrugged that off in the way the French and British and American voters have shrugged it off.”

On whether Trump has successfully delegitimized mainstream media:

“I think these trends have been under way before him. I think he’s accelerated it. The English phrase ‘fake news’ is now used by authoritarian leaders around the world to invalidate truthful criticism or reporting of what they do.

“Let's remember ‘fake news’ originated to mean a deliberately falsified fiction created in order to help Donald Trump. And Trump, with audacity, took this phrase that describes something that he was doing or that his supporters were doing or his Russian backers were doing and turned it around to describing truthful reporting that Donald Trump finds inconvenient, along with a lot of other people who look at the world the way he does. They say, ‘We can use that too.’

“You know there’s an old saying: We all are entitled to our own opinions but not to our own facts. And now we’re all entitled to our own facts.”

On what Bernie Sanders does to the hairs on his neck:

“I’m a registered Republican. I remain someone who believes more in markets than in government, somebody who believes more in the creativity of the private sector than in the regulation of the public sector. I believe in the western alliance. I believe in the importance of American world leadership and a strong military.

“I have the hairs on the back of my neck go up when I hear politicians like Bernie Sanders talk about revolutions. I go back to my Gulag Archipelago reading all those years ago. If they just thought for a minute about what usually happens in revolutions they would never ever use that word as anything but the name of a record album.”

On the lifespan of political truths:

“The western alliance is being attacked by its supposed leader, the world trading system is being attacked by its biggest beneficiary, and that’s where the threat comes from I think. We’ve all been formed by our experiences. And one of the tragedies of life is after a while you lose the ability to be formed by new experiences. But I have to say I was very shaped by the experience of the events of 2008 and 2009. I came of age in 1982 in the throes of that recession in the United States. Canada had a very bad recession in 1991 but in the U.S. from 1980 to 2007, a quarter of a century, there were two mild recessions and no major inflation.

“It looked like the big problems of how to organize a modern economy had been solved pretty well. And it looked like it was not possible you could have a return of 1930s-style economic catastrophe and so 1930s’ style economic tools looked obsolete. And [yet I saw] the college class of 2009 coming out with no work for them for years and years. And it made me think OK, you know, we have to dust off some of the old books. The truths of politics are only conditional. They’re true, or at best they’re partly true, and at best they’re true for a while but then they change.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics

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