Restoring American Democracy
By David Frum
In our current contagion — biological and political viruses, rampant — a terrible question, unimaginable since the Civil War, has emerged: How inevitable is our democracy? Are we in danger of a crisis that will shatter our brilliant experiment in self-government? And, if so, what can we do about it? The Atlantic writer David Frum is well situated to consider these questions and in “Trumpocalypse” — a dreadful title for a serious book — he gives it his best shot.
Frum is well situated because he is a former neoconservative, a longtime pillar of the Republican Party’s intellectual elite who was shocked to learn in 2016, with the rest of us, that the Republican Party no longer had an intellectual elite. “I came of age inside the conservative movement of the 20th century,” he writes in a new, post-coronavirus introduction. “In the 21st, that movement has delivered much more harm than good, from the Iraq war to the financial crisis to the Trump presidency.”
Donald Trump’s victory was devastating for people like Frum; they were suddenly politically homeless. The more enlightened of them went back to first things and wondered what had gone wrong. By tacitly supporting Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy, had they been accomplices to the racial tribalization of American politics? By coddling anti-science evangelicals, had they taken the wrong side on issues ranging from “creationism” to climate change? By pushing for a bellicose crusade — yes, “crusade” is the proper word — in the Middle East, had they destroyed America’s credibility in the world, and unleashed a know-nothing populist whirlwind at home? By denigrating almost every aspect of the federal government, had they helped destroy the public trust? These are the questions that impelled the writing of “Trumpocalypse.” Indeed, Frum’s intellectual journey is what makes this book so fascinating. He can look at our current condition with fresh eyes, earned through humiliating experience. It is a humility to which the rest of us should aspire.
“Trumpocalypse” is divided into two parts. The first is a brutal takedown of Donald Trump, occasionally to a fault. “President Donald J. Trump did not start the pandemic of course,” he writes in the new introduction. “But at every step of the way, Trump has acted as if guided by one rule: ‘How can I make this trauma worse?’” Frum’s best observations are more subtle. Here he is, quoting Trump’s self-revelatory evaluation of the Korean dictator Kim Jong-un: “Hey, when you take over a country … and you take it over from your father … if you can do that at 27 years old, that’s one in 10,000 that can do that. So he’s a very smart guy. He’s a great negotiator. But I think we understand each other.”
Frum is on shakier ground when he places Trump internationally, as part of a “fascoid” movement — an awkward coinage he uses to indicate a diluted form of fascism — that is based not in nationalism, but in white racial identity “with a capital in Moscow.” Well, maybe. The “replacement of nation by race may explain why so many Trump supporters felt untroubled by Russian help for the Trump candidacy.” Or perhaps they were just convinced by their hero that the Russian disinformation campaign was fake news.
Trump’s tribal appeal has exacerbated a structural defect in our Constitution, the overrepresentation of rural America, a region slipping farther away culturally and economically from the country’s dynamic urban centers. There is a strong chance that if Trump wins in 2020, he will do so, once again, with a minority of the popular vote, but a majority of the Electoral College. Is it possible, Frum wonders, that this will be the new American electoral reality? If so, the Constitution itself will look “ever less credible.” And as the United States becomes an increasingly polychromatic nation, Republicans may begin to argue that “with the country composed of the wrong kind of majorities demographically, it cannot be governed by majority rule electorally.”
Happily, Frum remains a small-c conservative, not a radical. The solutions he proposes in the second half of “Trumpocalypse” are bold and provocative, but not wild-eyed. He does not want to eliminate the Electoral College, or combine the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana into one state (which would have half as many people as Los Angeles); sadly, such things aren’t feasible. He does suggest some small structural changes: eliminate the Senate filibuster, make it illegal for politicians to withhold their tax returns, have congressional districts drawn by independent commissions, not state legislatures. There are several others.
But Frum’s boldest proposal involves policy, not governmental structure, and it goes back to the notion that too many Americans — Trump supporters, mostly — see government benefits going to the “wrong” people. He proposes a political trade: a severe tightening of immigration rules in return for the passage of much-needed social and climate legislation — a comprehensive national health care system, a carbon tax (that would include products imported from polluters like China and India). “If Democrats want to perpetuate their health care reforms, they must do a better job of solidifying a sense of national belonging. If Republicans want to safeguard the border, they must offer a better deal to those living on that border’s American side.”
This would be a difficult pill to swallow for those of us who believe that our immigrant heritage is truly what has made America exceptional in the world. But Frum builds his case carefully. Immigration has always been tangled up in our “tortured racial history.” A century ago, Jews and Italians were the nonwhite interlopers; it took generations for them to be seen as “us.” It is possible, he observes, that stopping the human flow from Eastern Europe, and creating a more homogeneous America, made it easier for Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson to pass their enormous social programs. “If society allows its sense of ‘one of us’ to weaken, so will its willingness to provide for members of that ‘us.’” It may be no accident that at the very moment President Johnson was passing the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid, he also signed an immigration law that loosened the 1924 strictures and, arguably, set us on the path to toxic hyperpartisanship. Frum is careful not to attribute everything to this conundrum. The concentration of America’s economy, a celebrity society that aggrandizes the wealthy and a fragmented media have certainly played a role as well. Still, Frum’s proposal seems prescient: Covid-19 may have pushed the national mood toward the deal he posits — a stronger health care system and stronger borders.
There is a problem, though, with basing a national restoration of civility in a policy proposal. Tribal identity may be a stronger force than ideology in politics. To my mind, the only government program that can mitigate tribalism is a robust form of national service. The United States military has no equal when it comes to creating a sense of “us.” Frum doesn’t address this, which is a shame. But he has done something crucial: He has recognized that a new national conversation is coming, and, with “Trumpocalypse,” he has provided a thoughtful way to start it.