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Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic by David Frum

March 2, 2018


I was much more interested in reading this book than Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. Trump is an easy target, but I prefer to see him hit by people from his own side of the aisle. Although many in the modern GOP might call Frum a traitor, he is a conservative. I disagree with him on many political positions, but I massively respect his intellect and desire for civil discourse. He believes—and I agree—that the Republican party jumped the shark when it aligned itself with (or was taken over by) the Tea Party. Trump is a symptom of this shark jumping.

Even before Donald Trump thrust himself forward as a presidential candidate, American politics had been veering toward extremism and instability. Trump seized a dark opportunity, but that opportunity had been opened and enlarged for him by others. Trump’s election was a system failure, but the system did not fail out of the wild blue yonder.

But Trump is a historical disfigurement of the Presidency, a superlative combination of immorality and incompetence. He is often compared to Nixon, and the line from All the President’s Men, Frum points out, is apt of the election, possibly prescient of the current situation: “The truth is, these aren’t very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”

Trump and his cronies are carrying out a crusade of anachronism, trying to turn back the hands of globalism and technology to a time when America thrived on manufacturing and extractive industries, when the U.S. wasn’t a cultural melting pot (a time that never really existed), when Americans didn’t criticize their leadership (also a time that never existed).

Trump himself is an amalgamation of some of the darkest of America’s traits. A bigot, a charlatan, a robber baron, an opportunist. He sees women as trophies, money as the object, and his elected office as a kind of kingship. Every decision he makes is filtered through how it will benefit him. Because he rewards loyalty over talent, he has surrounded himself with a cadre of yes-people in dangerously over their heads (“The Trump White House is a mess of careless slobs.”).

But to accuse Trump of being incompetent and morally bankrupt is not worth a book. What Frum sees is something more insidious. He sees Trump as corrosive to the very fundamentals of American democracy. He sees Trump, and Trumpism, as a force so potentially damaging that America may never recover. He is the wedge between Americans, and there is little reason for him to stop hammering it in.

“Trump gambled that Americans resent each other’s differences more than they cherish their shared democracy. So far, that gamble has paid off.”

Trump is intentionally setting a course of isolationism and protectionism, through policies, by bad-mouthing our allies and by reneging on our agreements.

He is pulling a page from the dictator playbook by deliberately attacking the notion of truth (fake news, alternative facts, etc.). Absent a discernible truth, there is no foundation for discourse. He relies on cries of “fake news” or “liberal media” to drown out any fact checking. He creates his own weather system of disinformation that plays to the unfortunate talent of Americans to believe almost anything that supports what they believe to be true.

Trump claims that the electoral college is rigged (it is, intentionally, and Republicans have recently benefitted from it twice, in 2000 and 2016), while his party is blatantly suppressing voter turnout to favor them in state elections (“Between 2010 and 2016, some twenty states rewrote their laws in ways that made voting more difficult, often with blatantly partisan effect.”).

And there is the Russia thing. The investigation is ongoing, but at the very least there is obligation for the President of the United States to show grave concern for an attack by a foreign nation on our electoral system, which Trump only answers with, “There was no collusion.” Time, and Robert Mueller, will tell. Trump seems unconcerned with defending the U.S. from another attack, perhaps because admitting the first attack would be admitting to an election that was, at least in part, rigged in his favor. This, for a man who still insists he won the popular vote and the crowd size at his inauguration…etc. etc. etc.

Frum admitted in a recent interview that he wrote this book fast. The urgency of it, he felt, was important. It feels like a fast book, reads like a fast book. He makes very good points, though they are somewhat scattershot. But his central theme is that this presidency is different. Trump is a turning point. We can decide to continue down this path where we erode our democracy, destroy our standing in the world, value our party identity over our identity as Americans, or we can see the sickness before us and choose a path more reasonable. Trump can be the DUI that forces us to face the fact that maybe we have a drinking problem and should attend rehab. Or we can ignore this warning  until we wrap ourselves around a tree.

The thing I have most grappled with in the Trump era, and why this book was not an enjoyable read, is that it’s a reminder of how incredibly disappointed I am in our country. Because none of this is surprising. This was a deliberate choice. Like I said, I really like and respect Frum. But this book is an easy case to make. It was also a pretty easy thing to envision before Trump was elected. Yet people decided, for whatever coalition of reasons, that this man was somehow the choice to make to lead this country. This terrible, immoral, bag of air and meanness. I find that deeply, deeply saddening.

When this all started to happen, I thought of a parable about a snake I’d heard in a movie. I didn’t realize it was an Oscar Brown poem. And I was surprised when Frum points out that Trump loves to read the poem (changing lines to suit his needs) at rallies. It’s the parable of a woman who finds a sick snake out in the cold. She brings it into her house and nurtures it back to health. Then one day, the snake bites her. As the woman is dying, the snake says to her, “You knew I was a snake when you took me in.”

Trump was in the news recently for reading the poem as part of a xenophobic bit about Syrian refugees and being called out by the daughter of the author. He is seemingly unaware of what is so obvious. He is the snake. He is the poisoner. There was nothing about him or his behavior that can surprise anyone. But a snake is a snake. So shame on us. Shame on us for inviting the snake in.


Related Reads:

Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen

Why Romney Lost and What the GOP Can Do About It by David Frum

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