On the eve of Civil War, Abraham Lincoln told the story of an Eastern monarch who “once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’”
Today this melancholy prophecy may seem alarmist, considering that the American republic is no longer beset by the supreme challenge of secession and disunion. But the present derangement of our politics behooves us to recall the Eastern counselors’ wisdom at a time when few know the predicament we are in.
By any measure, David Frum must count as one of those knowing “few.” In his new book Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, Frum has produced a work of surpassing insight, laying bare the scope and speed of the wrecking ball that has been unleashed against the American system. Trumpocracy is a dogged exposé of the greed and intellectual dishonesty that animate President Trump’s “rulership,” and deserves to be read by anyone concerned with public affairs.
Evidence of the crisis has been apparent since Trump began his campaign for the presidency on June 16, 2015, but it has been insufficiently appreciated thanks to dulled nerves and wits across the political spectrum. Thus, the facts of the case against Trump are there to be recognized by Frum, a senior editor at The Atlantic (full disclosure: also a mentor to this reviewer), although no one else has recognized them so systematically and arranged them so convincingly.
The embryo of this book was Frum’s Atlantic essay, “How to Build An Autocracy” that appeared after Trump took office. It warned that the president’s character and behavior were standing dangers to the republic’s norms and laws, which Trump — in league with a supine Republican Congress — would endeavor to subvert to secure protection for his schemes of self-enrichment.
Thus far this working thesis looks depressingly accurate. Consider Trump’s longstanding refusal to adhere to the convention of financial disclosure, including publishing tax returns. Also observe his maintenance of a business corporation while in office, including the cheerful acceptance of substantial payments from foreign partners into the bargain. Even at this late date, Trump has refused to be forthcoming about his balance sheet, leaving any minimally curious citizen to wonder what enormous debts he has incurred, and to whom they are owed.
One might think such opaqueness about the finances of the chief executive would detain the attention of a remotely vigilant Congress. Instead, with the connivance and complicity of self-proclaimed constitutionalists, the world’s greatest deliberative body has balked at any serious investigation of Trump’s receipt of foreign cash flows. This negligence is also proof that, contrary to the assurances of Trump apologists, so far from Republicans restraining Trump, he is remaking the Republican Party in his image.
Congress has further averted its gaze from Russia’s covert influence operation to help elect Trump that culminated in what Frum calls, with good reason, “the most successful foreign espionage attempt against the United States in the nation’s history.” Although this story still has many secrets, the author suggests “it has no mysteries.”
What we already know — that Trump requested, and received, the aid of a hostile foreign power to improve his electoral prospects — is foul enough. Separately and together, these facts lend credence to Hamilton’s portentous fear in Federalist No. 68 that “foreign powers [seeking] to gain an improper ascendant in our councils” may “raise a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union.”
This is a serious and sophisticated reading of the Trump episode, but it is by no means overwrought. Frum’s sound judgment helps us take stock of this aberrant and ominous moment in American life without imagining that we are on the brink of stone-age tyranny. “The thing to fear from the Trump administration is not the bold overthrow of the Constitution,” Frum writes, “but the stealthy paralysis of governance; not the open defiance of law, but a covert disregard for law…”
The Spirit of the Law
The author invites us to consider that the form of corruption that plagues republics usually tends to be latent rather than blatant. Frum invokes Montesquieu to suggest that a free society must fear not only “a certain slackness in the love of the homeland” but also corruption “which does not run counter to the laws but eludes them.” It is appropriate in this context that Montesquieu’s work bears the title “De l’esprit des lois,” not “De lettre des lois.” For it is the spirit of the constitutional order, rather than its letter, that Trump most directly threatens.
Frum understands that a concerned citizen alarmed by Trump’s rise has to bear a number of considerations in mind simultaneously. The most salient of these is that there are better and worse responses to the fact that the president of the United States is manifestly unworthy of the power and responsibility vested in the nation’s highest office.
It should go without saying that, after failing to arrest the election of the least popular and least formidable major-party candidate in modern U.S. history, those who oppose Trump ought to proceed with due modesty. They should be fastidious about pursuing a moderate agenda that has a good chance of garnering widespread support to check the worst impulses and inclinations of his grotesque presidency.
Unfortunately, this spirit of moderation is conspicuously absent among an opposition still riddled by mingled self-pity and self-righteousness. In its cultural and political dimensions, the left has embraced an increasingly strident social progressivism whose steady torrent of words and deeds may be categorized under the heading “this is why Trump was elected.” Such imprudence can readily be detected in the tone of apocalyptic criticism emanating from the “resistance” to Trump as if the president were the leader of a fascist cabal. (It has rightly been observed that the death of democracy is an oddly delayed point to wait to be crossed before mobilizing an unusual degree of dissent and opposition.)
The proper response to Trump is to realize that he is more a symptom than a cause of our present discontent. For many years, the governing class has been “veering toward extremism and instability” even as America’s middle class has shown signs of mounting distress. Between 2000 and 2016, half of Americans saw no gains in their real incomes; the proportion of national output going to the top 1 percent went from 9 percent of GDP in 1974 to 24 percent in 2008 – and has only continued to grow since.
For the first time since the 1990s, Americans are dying at a faster rate, and dying younger, due to so-called “despair deaths” — alcoholism, drugs, and suicide. These “pre-existing conditions,” as Frum terms them, have bred widespread resentment toward a political class whose allegiance appeared to be more to global economic success than the nation to which they belonged — if you’ll excuse the expression — by citizenship.
Since the early 2000s, the world has been suffering what Larry Diamond has called a democratic recession, and it is complacent to think United States will necessarily stand athwart the trend. Frum cites an alarming international study published in the Journal of Democracy in July 2016 showing waning support among established democracies for the ideal of bourgeois democracy.
Although Americans who came of age in the shadow of World War II consider democratic governance “an almost sacred value,” the millennial generation has considerably less attachment to the democratic ideal. When asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how “essential” it is for them “to live in a democracy,” 72 percent of those born before World War II check “10,” the highest value. Only 30 percent of Americans born since 1980 accord similar importance to living in a democracy.
By the time Trump arrived on the scene, in other words, the political system was ripe for reform, and America’s civic religion in desperate need of shoring up. The recovering prosperity of the American economy notwithstanding, the political task was immense, and partly for this reason Trump was never going to be the man for the job. Despite campaigning as a nationalist, Trump “never spoke to or for the whole nation,” writes Frum. “The nation was too big, and he was too small.”
Overpromising and Underdelivering
Even certain Republican skeptics of Trump argue that the administration “isn’t sinister” but “farcical,” as if these conditions were mutually exclusive, and that we shouldn’t “exaggerate the importance” of the president. However, the presidency is a vital office properly filled by a public servant who, like Caesar’s wife, should not only be pure, but above suspicion of impurity.
This may sound like a utopian standard, but it recommended itself to the eminently pragmatic men who founded the American republic. Arguing for a strong executive that commanded respect in Federalist No. 70, Alexander Hamilton contrasted the office of presidency with that of a king’s privy council, arguing that the former assumes a stupendous degree of responsibility. “From the very circumstances of being alone,” Hamilton wrote, the president “will be more narrowly watched and more readily suspected.”
The frantic hope among Republicans that Trump, despite broad and deep deficiencies in character, might nonetheless prove able to steady the ship of state, have not been born out. Despite being narrowly watched and readily suspected, Trump has maintained his lifelong modus operandi while in office, lavishly overpromising but woefully underdelivering.
Everybody with eyes to see knows that Trump is not protective of the blue-collar worker so much as he is stridently anti-trade, not so much skeptical of illegal immigration as he is anti-immigrant, not so much weary of military commitments abroad as he is weary of the world. Trump’s collection of resentments was never going to reopen the shuttered steel mills and abandoned coal mines of Appalachia, let alone launch credible reforms that would help assure the next American century.
In this epoch of contending populisms and outdated party establishments, it is said that a “one-nation” conservative party is dead on arrival, but then again, who thought the United States could be where it is now? A liberal republicanism, rooted in tradition but devoted to reform, is still where the decent right must repose its hopes.
Such a guiding philosophy will attract xenophilic nationalists skeptical of the effect of mass immigration on the integration and assimilation of newcomers. It will feature free marketeers who welcome trade with nations competing fairly but averse to those who flout the rules. Not least, it will summon elevated patriots who regard the defense of the liberal international order as a national interest as well as a solemn duty.
This is an eclectic vision for a post-Trump conservative politics, but a very American one. Given the recent and abiding failure of American institutions to give rise to such a vision, it is the task of like-minded citizens to rediscover who, at our best, we always were and ensure that it remains who we will always be.
In a greater hour of peril for the republic, it was the American statesman par excellence who refused to take refuge in either foolish optimism or fatalism. Lincoln knew that the struggle over our national ideals was eternal, and coolly resolved that the noble experiment in self-government “shall not perish from the earth.” He assured his fellow citizens that the American experiment would endure by “the best cultivation of the physical world beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us.” And so it is today.