Trumpocracy – The Corruption of the American Republic
by David Frum
Earlier this month, I had the good fortune to be in Washington DC visiting family while David Frum was publicising his new book, Trumpocracy – The Corruption of the American Republic. Frum was speaking at Politics & Prose which is not simply a bookshop as its unassuming exterior might suggest, but an institution in its own right and consequently an integral part of DC political culture. How good was my timing.
David Frum is editor of the Atlantic magazine and author of several books but is best known as speechwriter to former president, George W. Bush. Frum is also a regular commentator on TV and social media and is someone worth listening to, (not least as he’s a long term Republican voter) but he has the intellectual heft and political gravitas that is not often evident on our TV screens. And in the flesh, Frum does not disappoint.
From the outset, Frum provides his definition of Trumpocracy:
“Trumpocracy as a system of power rests not on deregulation but on non regulation, not on deconstructing the state but on breaking the state in order to plunder the state.”
This book continues in a similar vein to offer an excoriating, blistering attack on the Trump presidency, his enablers and appeasers, to say nothing of the family. The author does not pull his punches. Instead, he asks whether Trump is a destructive incompetent or an outright Russian intelligence asset who tangles government, family and business in the style of an authoritarian third world kleptocrat. Frum’s mind bristles with insight and a crystalline intelligence, consequently he can speak authoritatively as someone who undoubtedly has enviable sources at the heart of the political landscape.
Despite being a fervent Republican, Frum freely admits voting for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election for two key reasons: first, he believed her to be an American patriot and second, “she could do the job”. Ideally though, Frum wants Republicans to reclaim the Republican party from Trump taking it back to its original values and agenda pairing small government with low taxation. The author certainly cares passionately about the state of America today, its current leadership and the president’s shift away from its core values, attitudes and behaviours.
“We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that any alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you.”
In Frum’s opinion, Trump is a symptom rather than a cause of what’s going wrong in America today e.g., stagnant living standards, economic frustration caused by automation and globalisation, generational issues and rising ethnic diversity, all of which need competent leadership. Added to the mix is the leverage exerted by Trump’s billionaire friends some of whom donate to Trump funds in order to influence or enact laws or in the case of the Koch brothers to deregulate corporate practices. (Recent tax changes designed to be advantageous to billionaires and large corporates suggest that the Koch family will benefit to the tune of $1 billion each year. Meanwhile, in the next ten years, the country’s deficit will increase by $1 trillion. Just saying.)
“A Trump voter is a successful person in an unsuccessful place”
At the heart of Frum’s book is the assertion that some people are attracted to the core of Trump, the essence of which is cruelty and sadly too many people are energised by cruelty towards others. Trump appealed to what was mean, cruel and shameful, man’s most base instincts which included bragging about assaulting women: the casual disregard for women is on display constantly.
Indeed, George W Bush agreed with Frum’s opinion of Trump’s cruelty when he made a speech last year which unmistakably rebuked his Republican successor for degrading America’s national discourse with divisiveness and even “casual cruelty”. Mr Bush went on to urge America to secure both its electoral infrastructure and democratic system against subversion by foreign powers. The importance of heeding the U.S. intelligence service warning was critical i.e., that the Russian government contrives to turn Americans against each other. Mr Bush stressed that foreign aggression including cyber attacks, financial influence, and the spreading of disinformation via social media should not be down-played or tolerated.
Democracy is in retreat in the West
In a 2016 research study, only 30% of young Americans (those born since 1980) believed that living in a democracy was essential.
One of the the most worrying pieces of research that Frum discusses in his book is that undertaken by Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk published in the Journal of Democracy in July 2016. Citizens of both North America and Western Europe have not simply become more critical of their political leaders, they seriously doubt the value of democracy. When people were asked how much importance they ascribe to living in a democracy, naturally enough the older generation fervently believed it to be crucial, possibly because WWII is relatable. However, when younger people, i.e, those born since 1980 were asked, only one in three in the Netherlands believed democracy to be essential and in the U.S., even less, only 30% believed it to be essential. Part of the reason is that people don’t really appreciate what’s at stake.
So why is democracy being challenged to such a degree at this time? Perhaps politics is not perceived to be working for people any more and is not viewed as the vehicle for improved social outcomes, hence a space becomes available for a demagogue promising the earth in public while in private beholden to a small group of corporate elites/billionaires who can yield enormous power.
Spare a thought for White House staff who have to cope with a President who requires few words but lots of pictures in his briefings. The opposite was the case with the previous incumbent, President Obama, who could frustrate staff by spending hours analysing an issue before reaching a decision whereas Trump’s modus operandi is to jump to a conclusion without understanding very much at all. As regards the current Press Office team, Frum suggests that the current staff should go work for a tobacco company instead and warns any potential new press advisors that taking a job with the Trump administration will inevitably lead to their corruption. No mincing of words there.
In the final chapter of his book, Frum looks ahead to the future post-Trump. During both his talk as well as in the book, you can sense an almost herculean effort to be optimistic hence the final chapter has an ephemeral quality and is titled, “Hope”.
And there you have a flavour of the conversation with David Frum and if indeed this whets your appetite, here are some more salient points from his book.
So why did people vote for Trump?
Added to the mountain of data already available explaining how a Trump presidency came into being, the aftermath of this presidency will no doubt see a plethora of fresh analysis descend on a mostly ill informed American public, exercised by sound bites and slogans, most of which is meaningless.
In trying to understand the motivation of Trump voters, Frum draws on some background data which suggests that people born between 1930 and 1945 entered the workforce just in time to ride the longest boom in middle class living standards. But later on as working class white men entered their 50s and beyond, they suffered a 9% income decline between the years 1996 and 2014. In addition, marriage, church attendance, civic participation all plummeted. On the basis that middle class, middle aged people are seeking security rather than opportunity combined with falling incomes the result is resentment, feelings of displacement and humiliation: recent data suggests that radicalisation of white men online is at astronomical levels.
It would seem that Trump had an intimate connection to the resentments of the white American male who believe that the status quo is ceasing to work for more and more of them, perhaps there is a view that feminism if taking over. By voting in their own image, people may have felt empowered but in reality Trump has no sympathy for his core support, he is merely exploiting them for his own purposes, Frum suggests. The hype around Trump’s business success seems wide of the mark because for decades now Trump is seen as the least bankable name in New York real estate, (according to Bloomberg, Trump has defaulted on $334m of debt repayments due to Deutsche Bank and has another $1 billion of loans mostly to Bank of China and 150 other financial institutions).
“The White House is a mess of careless slobs”
Some of the key positions in the Trump administration are headed by three highly capable military men with proven accomplishments in the services, General Kelly as Chief of Staff, General Mattis, Secretary of Defence, and General McMaster, National Security Adviser. Although smart, competent and patriotic, Frum warns that it is unprecedented in a Western democracy to have military men in a civilian government because they have emerged from a different culture, and are of a distinct authoritarian mindset where the chain of command is paramount.
Apart from the military presence around the President, another worrying aspect is the involvement of his family at the highest levels of power especially his daughter, Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner. A previous president, Thomas Jefferson, pictured below, warned against nepotism when he said that the President’s focus should be on working for the people.
“directing their affairs with a single eye towards their good, and not to build up fortunes for himself and family: & especially that the officers appointed to transact their business, are appointed because they are the fittest men, not because they are his relations”.
It would not be necessary to watch reams of video coverage or read their statements to realise that the president’s relatives have anything more than C-class talent according to Frum, instead they defy long established standards of decent behaviour. Meanwhile, Kushner’s to-do list increases apace to include the destruction of ISIS and bringing peace to the Middle East – a tall order for a young real estate salesman with questionable business acumen, limited capabilities, and no detectable previous interest or experience in either diplomacy or politics.
Although Trump and his family claimed to have put in place ethical safeguards against conflicts of interest, in reality, these proved to be empty because the President has refused to put his business interests into a blind trust as was originally agreed. Reuters reported last year that “at least 63 individuals with Russian passports or address have bought at least $98.4 million worth of property in seven Trump-branded luxury towers in southern Florida.”
Only a few months ago, Kushner and his family were criticised for offering investor visas at a marketing event in China to those who purchased Kushner properties, indeed the strapline ran, “Invest $500k and immigrate to the U.S”. Nonetheless both the Chinese and the Russians are enthusiastic for Kushner’s American properties according to the New York Times. No prizes for answers why this might be.
So what’s Russia got to do with it?
Since the publication of this book, it transpires that the U.S. intelligence services agree unanimously about Russian interference in the presidential election of 2016 asserting to Congress that the evidence is now incontrovertible. However, Frum goes further to claim that evidence of the Trump campaign’s collusion with the Russians cannot be refuted. The collusion part is the bit that remains to be proven in a court of law or via impeachment procedures and perhaps that’s ultimately where the Mueller investigation can shed some light. Back in the early days of this presidency, recall that the reason for General Flynn’s sacking was that he lied when he denied speaking to Russian ambassador Kislyak about sanctions relief.
Once installed in the White House, according to Frum, top Trump officials tasked staff with developing proposals for the lifting of economic sanctions, the return of diplomatic compounds to Russia and other steps aimed at relieving tensions with Moscow. These sanction measures were enacted by President Obama in retaliation for Russia’s interventions in Ukraine.
Modern day threats to a country are not merely via military aggression, but can be technological such as that revealed by the use of social media, hence the claim that Julian Assange and Wikileaks are widely believed to be sponsored by Russia. One example of the Republicans Party’s digital operation during the campaign is breath-taking in its audacity sinking the moral tone to subterranean levels: it showed a video on Facebook which targeted black voters titled, “Hillary Thinks African Americans Are Super-Predators”. The idea was not to win votes for Trump but to discourage black people from going to the polls and this is indeed what seems to have transpired. Needless to say, Hillary never believed nor said any such thing.
Reverberations across Europe
Undoubtedly, across the West there is a new and growing disenchantment with democracy. Divisive splits in Europe including Spain and the U.K. as well as a rising right wing presence in the Netherlands, France, Italy, Germany, Poland and Hungary are troubling. So what is the current U.S. administration thinking on this. To answer that you have to recall in interview with the New York Times in July 2017 when Trump repeatedly refused to commit to defending NATO’s Baltic allies, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia against Russia. This is breaking new ground, but not in a good way especially if you’re European.
Previous American presidents supported a more united Europe, the idea of Europe as a superpower in its own right, Europe as a counterweight to the Soviet Union and later Russia. American and European intelligence suggests that Russia’s motivation as regards the West is to destabilise it, undermine NATO and cause as much disruption as possible through social media. Meanwhile Russia continues unabated, reasserting itself in Ukraine and pushing back on European Union expansionism in order to re-unite the old Soviet Union. If proof were needed of Trump’s reticence on addressing Russian interference, the New York Times reports (4 March 2018) that Congress granted the State Department $120 million to fight Russian meddling. It has spent $0.
Frum believes that there are signs of hope, a social energy and mobilisation bent on dispensing with the services of the 45th President of the U.S. as quickly as possible. People are drawing strength from one another, e.g. at this Frum gathering there were more than 200 people in a relatively small space on a cold and wet February evening, dozens more than previous Frum appearances usually attract. A Trump Presidency has forced Americans to see issues on the left and right that were just too difficult to deal with. Effectively Trump has thrown the jigsaw up in the air forcing people to confront long term intractable problems such as drug abuse and falling middle class wages.
Although Trump has repelled a generation of young people from conservatism and Republicanism for which the GOP will pay a heavy price for decades to come, nevertheless there is opportunity for recovery and Republicans will offer a public service once again. If there is one thing which people in democracies should be reminded of, Frum suggests it is this:
“while constitutional government may sometimes look like an endless and pointless squabble, the promises of superior results from supposed strongmen are always self-servicing lies. The American president who most despised European democracy may end by perversely and unintentionally preserving and enhancing it. ”
Hardly a day goes by without another unpresidential utterance from the tweeter-in-chief at the White House, but still the Republican party continue to support and enable him no matter how distasteful his conduct, presumably as long as he pursues their economic agenda. Power at all costs is evidently the motto of the Republican Party leadership.
Most recent polling statistics reveal that only 9% of Republicans acknowledge that Russia tried to influence the 2016 election. Yet 60% of Americans reject Trump’s lies about his Russian connections according to Frum and he goes on to say that this has been the most successful foreign espionage attempt against the U.S. in the Nation’s history.
From my point of view, one of the most confusing contradictions of this presidency is the benign “Christian” reaction to anything from the Trump mouthpiece, evidently he can do or say no wrong. Whereas, Frum helpfully reminds us that Hillary remained married while Trump divorced twice. Hilary is a lifelong methodist while Trump cannot name the books of the Bible, nevertheless evangelicals continue to sing his praises.
For reasons of brevity, I will finish without touching on Korea, the Middle East to any great extent or a number of other issues which are hugely concerning but I do want to finish with just one example of Trump’s predisposition to shooting from the hip. Towards the end of last year when Qatar was in dispute with its neighbours, Saudia Arabia and the UAE, Trump weighed in swiftly in his usual dramatic fashion taking the side of his new BFF, Saudi Arabia, to criticise Qatar without obviously realising that the largest U.S. military base in the region, the headquarters of America’s Central Command, is based in Qatar.
Like Frum, I hope that the 45th presidency will come to an end sooner rather than later. Among Trump’s many inadequacies is his terrifying insularity of mind. We must hope that the repercussions will be limited and short-term as well as reversible in some circumstances. As George Monbiot says, “an ounce of hope is worth a ton of despair”. I’m still of the opinion that as the *Mueller investigation gets closer to the facts around Trump family finances, the President will have a massive tantrum and resign (so far there have been 19 indictments against the Trump team and 5 guilty pleas as the investigation moves steadily further up the food chain). In the meantime, brace yourself for a bumpy ride.
*Mueller is overseeing the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election. The probe has two parts, first, whether member of the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to tilt the race in his favour and second whether Trump sought to obstruct justice when he fired James Comey as FBI director in May 2017.
Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Washington DC February 2018
(did Bernie sneak it quietly, there on the left)