September 16, 2020

Frum Charts “Trumpocalypse” Dangers, Offers Hopes for Saving Democracy

By Donald Gilpin

President Donald Trump was the subject of a Monday, September 14 virtual book talk with Atlantic editor and writer David Frum, author of the recent Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy, in conversation with Princeton University History Professor Julian Zelizer under the auspices of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.

Beyond the discussion of the upcoming presidential election and the possibility of an approaching end to the Trump presidency was the belief that even if Trump is defeated on November 3, “Trumpism will not be so easily removed from American life,” as Frum has stated in his book.

Though Frum, still a registered Republican and a longtime proponent of the conservative movement, was sharply critical of Trump in both his 2018 book Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic and in his recent book, which was published in May, he remains hopeful for the future of the American democracy and for the Republican Party.

Frum explained that an apocalypse, or a Trumpocalypse, does not necessarily mean the end of the world. “Apocalypse means a revelation, a vision, but not just a vision of the end of the world,” he said. His book, he stated, explores “what comes after, what comes next, with a view that we can shape what comes next,” amidst “challenges to the democratic order and American government driven by the fact that systems all over the world have not delivered very well.”

Discussing Trump’s base as an essential reason why Trumpism will not be going away soon, Frum noted, “We are going to have to govern the country in a new way.” Frum estimated the “often exaggerated” Trump base at 25-30 percent of the United States population that expresses strong approval for Trump, “knowing everything we know about this terrible pandemic, an economic crisis, a litany of troubles unlike anything seen since the early 1930s, and they’re still with the president who delivered all that.”

Noting that those supporters are bound to him through their disregard for Constitutional institutions and a contempt for liberal values, Frum added, “Those people are going to be with us and they are a proven political resource.”

Republican Party Future

The Republican Party, Frum said, faces a choice: “Either change the Party’s ideas or change the American political system, and Trump showed that the second is a viable option. It is possible to gain a lot of power in the American system by dispensing with norms of democracy as they have been understood for a long time.”

Emphasizing the need for dramatic reform in the Republican Party, Frum looked to the future. “One of the most important battles of the next decade and the most important battle for me is to join the fight to return the Republican Party from the path it is on towards a kind of neo-fascism,” he said. “It needs to be a proper center-right party of enterprise again. My sympathies, my interests are always with the business holders, the business creators, the investors. I worry about open trade and a dynamic profit economy. That’s my world view.”

He warned of parties of the right moving towards a new identity politics and people from diverse backgrounds becoming “ethnically more assertive to their micro group so that the former majority also becomes more assertive.” He added, “This new kind of politics is a dangerous way to organize political life.”

International Standing

The most destructive effects of Trump’s presidency, what Frum says he’s “worried about most,” is the declining power and status of the United States in the world. The Chinese economy will overtake the U.S. economy in absolute size sometime in the next decade, he said, and the U.S. response to that should have been to build coalitions.

“If you seek to restrain China, you have to do it through coalitions, partnerships, not just the familiar and comfortable ones with the Europeans and the British, although Donald Trump has done a lot of damage to those, but also some new and exotic ones with India, Vietnam,” Frum said. “These have to become coalition partners with the United States — not to fight China, but to constrain China.”

He continued, “That was the idea of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Donald Trump has done a lot of damage to that, and he has done damage that will be enduring. They all think a little differently about the U.S. now, and that thought is not going away. We are now a much lonelier country than we were, in a much more adverse international environment.”

Election 2020

In response to Zoom viewers’ questions about the upcoming election, Frum emphasized the high stakes with potentially dangerous scenarios. He pointed out that control of state governments would give parties the power to redraw boundaries and state maps. “Many red states today will remain red states only if Republicans retain the power to draw the boundaries,” he said.

He continued, “This is an existential election, not only for the president personally, who faces serious legal jeopardy if he loses, but also for all kinds of local power holders. And what will the president be like if he feels desperate, what kind of permission will he give to the kind of people who rode into Portland a week ago carrying weapons into the center of that city?”

Frum noted that “Donald Trump has been the most unpopular first-term president in the history of modern opinion polls,” but worried about the dysfunctions of the system that could see him re-elected. “Will the increasing defects of the American electoral system be engineered again so this massively unpopular president can somehow find a way to engineer a score into a second term presidency?” Frum asked.

In assessing what Democrats have to do to not lose what seems to be an advantage with less than two months until the election, Frum warned against too much political correctness. “The preoccupations of the educated upper class seem so incredibly alien and threatening,” he said, and he went on to comment on the violence of recent demonstrations. “Democrats need to take that seriously.”

He noted a softening of Biden’s numbers among Latinos in the past week, and he warned against “increasing rationalization and justification of disorderly and outright lawless behavior.” He added, “The president’s message of disorder, I think, is penetrating with people who care about order.”

Zelizer, in introducing Frum, described Trumpocalypse, Frum’s tenth book, as “a wonderful, important, and troubling read.”