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David Frum’s Hold Over the Center

The Never Trumpers styled themselves as critics of the GOP. Instead, they built up power over liberals.

Mark Peterson/Redux

I will grudgingly admit that I underestimated the Never Trump conservatives. Like many on the left, I shared the view summarized by Jeet Heer in The New Republic on the eve of the 2016 election—that this small but vocal clique of conservative operatives and pundits vastly overstated its own importance. The Never Trumpers failed to block Donald Trump’s nomination, and their prediction that he would marginalize the Republican Party has been thoroughly discredited by events.

Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy
by David Frum
HarperCollins, 264 pp., $14.99

But judged by a different metric, we should give the Never Trumpers their due. They may not exercise any appreciable leverage over the GOP, but they’ve enjoyed considerably more sway over the Democratic Party; more, one can argue, than the party’s insurgent left wing. For the past four years, these self-styled dissidents—including Max Boot, Jennifer Rubin, Matthew Dowd, Rick Wilson, Ana Navarro, and Bill Kristol, to name just a few of the most prominent voices—have ingratiated themselves with the liberal establishment, becoming mainstays of cable news and respectable opinion pages, publishing books, and piling up likes and retweets. All of the Never Trumpers preferred Joe Biden to Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee for president—and as The Daily Beast reports, the Biden campaign is preparing to use them as surrogates. Should Biden defeat Trump this fall, the resulting administration is at least as likely to consult with these avowed conservatives on policy as with anyone who supported the democratic socialist runner-up in the primaries.

David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and current staff writer at The Atlantic, is one of the best known Never Trumpers, but he’s also an exception, having made his break with the GOP long before Trump. In 2008, Frum harshly criticized the choice of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate—a choice that, in hindsight, foreshadowed Trump’s run—though he ultimately still voted for McCain. His subsequent criticisms of the GOP for blocking Barack Obama’s health care reform efforts, as well as of right-wing media organizations like Fox News, eventually got him fired from his perch at the American Enterprise Institute and marked him as an outcast from the conservative movement. A genial, Harvard-educated Canadian, a perfectly decent writer, and a fixture of the Washington social circuit, Frum has been one of liberals’ favorite conservatives for a long time.

Meanwhile, on the left, he is best known as the speechwriter who coined the phrase “Axis of Evil,” which was deployed in Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address and helped pave the way for the invasion of Iraq the following year. Frum’s current position seems to be that the Iraq War was well-intentioned, misguided, a failure, and, above all, not his fault. But he is well aware that it is a legacy he will continually have to account for.

His new book, Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy, initially presents itself as a deeper and more searching look at the conservative movement and its role not only in unleashing Trump but also in creating suffering and misery in the United States and around the world. In the introduction, Frum recalls telling his youngest child on election night in 2016: “I am so sorry. We failed you.”

I came of age inside the conservative movement of the twentieth century. In the twenty-first, that movement has delivered much more harm than good, from the Iraq War to the financial crisis to the Trump presidency. Underneath it all, there remain ideals in which I still believe. Yet I cannot deny the tally. It is long past time to correct course.

That paragraph lays out a book I would be interested in reading: an honest and thorough accounting of the conservative movement’s moral toll, and of Frum’s own. But the book he has written is less interested in taking responsibility for those failings and more concerned with assuring fellow centrists—both moderate Democrats and Frum’s fellow Never Trumpers—that their values are fundamentally different from Trump’s, and deserve to prevail.

Trumpocalypse is essentially a distillation of Frum’s past two years of Atlantic columns, the same format as his previous book, Trumpocracy, which drew on his columns from 2015 to 2017, including an influential cover story on Trump’s authoritarian threat to American institutions. Trumpocracy was a New York Times bestseller, and Trumpocalypse is a straightforward attempt to replicate its success (in the acknowledgments, Frum says of his agent, “I thank him, as does the bursar’s office of my youngest daughter’s college of choice”).

As the title implies, Trumpocalypse is overwhelmingly concerned with diagnosing Trump’s unfitness for office, and for this it puts forward a convincing case, if anyone still needs convincing. Frum brings a degree of nuance to his observations of the president; if in 2017 he was concerned that Trump would become an all-powerful autocrat, the intervening years have revealed the limitations of the president’s attention span and ideological commitments. At times, Frum seems almost frustrated that Trump won’t follow through on policies Frum himself opposes, as, for instance, when he lays out what a pro-Russian foreign policy would have looked like.

Trump could have pivoted US foreign policy to Russia. He could have appointed a secretary of state, secretary of defense, and national security advisers who shared his pro-Putin views. He could have waived US sanctions on Russia and accredited a US ambassador to Bashar al-Assad. He could have ended US naval operations in the Black Sea and withdrawn US forces from Poland and Romania. He could have invited Vladimir Putin to Camp David for talks, given a speech to Congress or to the country arguing for an alliance with Russia.

But as Frum notes, Trump did none of this. “Presidents hold enormous power over foreign policy,” he writes. “Trump did not use those powers. Trump was conspicuously uninterested in all those regular operations of the executive branch.” Having worked for a president who did use his immense powers after 9/11 to launch two disastrous wars and totally remake the national security state, Frum might have taken this opportunity to acknowledge that it’s a relief Trump is less competent at deploying executive power, and even to argue that no one should ever have such power at their disposal. But Trump’s laziness seems to offend him at least as much as his actual agenda.

It’s hard to imagine anyone in 2020 still needs to be told that Trump is incompetent, malevolent, or dangerous (as Frum notes in his introduction, he finished this book “under virtual house arrest” in March, due to a pandemic that even then Trump was clearly exacerbating). Reading through the greatest hits of the president’s failings is tiresome, as Frum himself acknowledges toward the end. “Over the past four years, I have thought and spoken and written about Donald Trump almost more than I can bear,” he writes. “You probably feel the same fatigue. We are all just exhausted with this worthless man.”

So who is this book for, then? Leftists aren’t going to read it, and neither are the president’s die-hard supporters. Mainstream liberals will probably read it to confirm what they already know, and to congratulate themselves for their open-mindedness in reading a conservative, but they are unlikely to learn much. Perhaps Frum’s core audience can be found in the book’s dedication:

To the conservatives, Republicans, and libertarians of “Never Trump.” As sung in the old American hymn: “When all were false, I found thee true.”

This is the context in which Trumpocalypse makes most sense: as a manifesto of the Never Trump movement. As such, it is most interesting when it turns its attention away from the president and toward actual prescriptions, some of which any liberal—or even leftist—might endorse, and some of which are considerably more troubling.

On the positive side of the ledger, Frum deserves credit for advancing a suite of reforms that would break the GOP’s undemocratic stranglehold on the federal government and reduce corruption. He correctly points out that the Senate, the Electoral College, and gerrymandering have enabled minority rule. He has a whole chapter devoted to “Unrigging the System,” in which he argues for mandatory disclosures of politicians’ tax returns, nuking the filibuster, D.C. statehood, an updated and more effective Voting Rights Act, and a reassertion of the Department of Justice’s independence from the White House—a very reasonable, if incomplete, list of proposals, and one any number of liberal writers might argue for in similar terms.

Frum’s Canadianness is evident in his sympathy for universal health care and firearm restrictions. He is concerned about climate change, and despite or perhaps because of his experience with the Iraq War, he has no apparent enthusiasm for future military deployments in the Middle East or elsewhere. At one point, he critiques the post–Cold War argument by the late neoconservative commentator Charles Krauthammer that the U.S. should embrace empire, calling it a harmful fantasy. “I partook in some elements of the fantasy at the time,” he admits, “and I do not write these words to criticize others more than myself. Yet it is long past time to awake from the fantasy. If nothing else, the Trump experience should have tossed the cold water of reality in the face of even the dreamiest fantasist.”

So for any left-of-center reader, what’s not to like? In a chapter called “How to Lose to Trump,” Frum indulges his inner conservative, lashing out at “the left” for its post-2014 “Great Awokening,” as he describes political correctness. There’s more than just terminology and discourse at stake here; when it comes to immigration, in particular, Frum, himself an affluent white immigrant from a developed country, firmly believes that permissive immigration regimes empower the far right and therefore must be curtailed.

“The United States runs an immigration policy as if it were a country facing a desperate labor shortage,” he writes. “In fact, the United States faces a desperate social cohesion shortage.” Frum urges the U.S. to model its policies on his own native Canada and to prioritize educated immigrants like himself over lower-skilled migrant workers from poorer countries. At one point, he describes the elaborate multicountry, multimodal journey a refugee from the Congo might take to illegally enter the U.S. and then expects the reader to emerge somehow less sympathetic to such a refugee’s plight.

Frum doesn’t have all that much to say about the insurgent left wing of the Democratic Party, but what he does say is condescending and dismissive:

It’s become evident over the Trump years that there exists a militant progressive constituency who regard Trump as a much lesser evil than Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden. This constituency may be small, but in 2016 it proved sufficient to tip a close election to Trump. Trump is hoping the trick can be repeated.

You are either helping Trump—or stopping Trump.

Later, he writes “The people who most vociferously cheered for Edward Snowden and Julian Assange in the first half of the 2010s made clear they preferred Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the second half,” as though Glenn Greenwald represents an appreciable slice of the U.S. electorate. This is a very broad brush with which to paint the left, and one that reveals little attempt to understand or reckon with its perspective on the shortcomings of a Clinton or a Biden—or to help the presumptive Democratic nominee do anything to earn its support. Frum’s online brushes with the left have no doubt colored his impressions. “Twitter is in danger of becoming the Fox News of the Left, policed by pile-ons by angry Twitter mobs,” he warns early on. It’s true Frum can hardly tweet anything without being deluged with replies calling him a war criminal, but he ought to at least consider whether that has less to do with the left than with his own decisions.

But Frum understands who his real base is. Of the Democratic victories in the 2018 midterms, he writes, “They won because unhappy suburban moderates voted anti-Trump from the top of the ticket to the bottom.” He runs through some of the affluent and once staunchly Republican House districts that went blue because of Trump, then crows about how Trump rallies invariably take place far from SoulCycle and Equinox gyms, which he characterizes as “sophisticated, urban, and inclusive.” The point is clear: Never Trumpers actually do exist in the electorate, and not just in the media. By and large, they are comfortable suburban white people across the country who have migrated to the Democrats out of personal distaste for Trump, and they hold—and moreover, deserve to hold—the balance of political power nationally. Trumpocalypse is a book for them, meant to express their worldview and flatter their very specific notions of right and wrong.

I would love to be able to dismiss this argument, but as I said at the beginning of this review, the Never Trumpers—the actual demographic, as well as its media champions—have managed to exert a significant amount of influence over the Democratic Party. Joe Biden will be their president, if he is to be president at all. Where that leaves the left—by which I mean the third of Democratic primary voters, most of them under the age of 45, who supported Sanders and who are distinctly unenthusiastic about Biden—I can only guess, but the question doesn’t seem to trouble Frum at all. For all he and his cohort style themselves refugees from the two major parties, they are actually quite adept at working with the elites of either to maintain a set of policies that comfort the comfortable. Trumpocalypse is Frum’s tenth book, and no matter what happens this November, he is likely to find an audience and a nice advance for the eleventh.