– The conservative movement as I knew it is over
The American republic was designed to stop people like Donald Trump from becoming president. And for 228 years it did, says David Frum.
David Frum was born to a liberal family in Canada, but starting out as an editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal in 1989, he has spent most of his adult life in the American conservative movement. He worked for the Manhattan Institute, contributed to The Weekly Standard, served for a year in the George W. Bush White House, and then worked for the American Enterprise Institute.
So there was a gap between the values of the organization and the interests of its membership. And Donald Trump stepped into that gap.
However, and in particular starting from his 2007 book Comeback: Conservatism that can win again, Frum has been a critic of the existing Republican party, challenging the orthodoxy of the party on anything from health care to immigration, as well as discussing his regrets for supporting the Iraq war in 2003 – three topics that were exploited by Donald Trump in the Republican primaries in 2016. Frum has nonetheless emerged as a scathing critic of not only Trump, but of the party and the institutional context that made him possible. In a few months, his latest book, Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, will be on the book shelves.
Nils August Andresen (NAA): I’ll start with a simple question: What went wrong with the Republican party, and more generally with the American conservative movement?
David Frum (DF): The conservative movement of the 1980s and 1990s has been losing relevance to its own supporters for some time. That loss of relevance happened at first gradually, and then fast – most especially since the severe recession of 2008 and 2009.
The institutional Republican party – donors, leaders in Congress – emerged from that recession believing that what the country needed was a strongly ideological approach: radical cuts in social insurance spending in order to finance big reductions in taxes.
Meanwhile, Republican voters were moving in the opposite direction. They were becoming more accepting of taxing the wealthy, and increasingly accepting of social insurance expenditure, coming to believe that they needed more protection after the crises of 2008–2009.
So there was a gap between the values of the organization and the interests of its membership. And Donald Trump stepped into that gap.
You can read the Norwegian version of this interview here.
The radicalization of white America
NAA: This explanation starts in the 1980s, but the thrust of it is really in the aftermath of the Great Recession. But critics of the GOP have been saying for a long time that the Trump wing of the party has been part of the GOP coalition for decades: A more authoritarian segment of the population, prone to white identity politics and bigotry, more engaged in the various aspects of «the culture war» than in the economics, that started to gravitate towards the Republican party after desegregation. Have establishment Republicans turned a wilful blind eye, or is what we see today a genuinely new development?
DF: The force that is radicalizing white voters – and they are being radicalized – is not the civil rights movement of fifty and sixty years ago. It is the immigration that is happening now. And the reason we can say that with some confidence is that this is not a uniquely American phenomenon. It is happening in every developed country, to a greater or a lesser degree. To a lesser degree in Canada, Norway and Germany; to a greater degree in Britain, France and Sweden.
As societies become more diverse, political competition among groups intensifies. When you have diversity at a time of steep recession, the competition becomes even more intense still. I made this point in my 2012 book about Mitt Romney: In a multi-ethnic society that is rapidly becoming more multi-ethnic, economic redistribution is inevitably also ethnic redistribution.
The traditional parties of the left thought expected that their voters would look at the redistributionist project and say: «This is still the same thing as I remember from the 1950s, you’re transferring from the rich to the poor. I’m less rich, so I’m in favor.»
What they discovered instead was that a lot of voters who traditionally voted for the left, said: «You’re distributing from the existing inhabitants of the country to the newcomers. I identify not as ‘not rich’, I identify as ‘an existing inhabitant of the country’.»
I think this is a point I stressed to you when we talked previously about Obamacare. Of those who lacked health insurance before the Great Recession of 2008, 27 percent were foreign-born. When you take money out of the existing social insurance programs to fund a new one, the people who get angry are both those who feel that they are economic losers, and those who feel they are ethnic losers.
And that, I think, is what has been driving the radicalization.
NAA: A striking feature of the opposition to Obamacare is that although there might be ethnic competition at work, views on Obamacare have changed significantly for the better after Obama himself left office, and the GOP alternative was presented. How do you fit that into this explanation?
DF: Just as Obamacare had a political vulnerability when president Obama put it forward, in that it created losers, and the losers rallied to oppose the law, so repealing Obamacare likewise would create losers. Obamacare has been in effect now for seven years, and in full effect for more than four. A lot of people have built a lot of expectations.
It will be an ironic thing if Donald Trump’s biggest political vulnerability turns out to be not any of his new and shocking attacks on established norms, but the most traditional GOP policy of them all, the thing that Paul Ryan wanted him to do: The attempt to repeal Obamacare, without putting anything adequate in its place.
– No other candidate had any credibility on the immigration issue
NAA: I want to get back to the question of what it was that went wrong. You mention Trump’s shocking attacks on established norms. To me, aside from his sheer personality, the disregard for any and all inherited political institutions is what troubles me the most.
For even if, as you said, the values of the GOP and the interests of its voters had started to diverge, one would like to think that this gap could have be filled by less shocking candidates. And there seemed to me in the Republican primaries to be several candidates who at least gave the appearance of addressing some of the same policy issues as Trump. Ted Cruz, for example, ran as an immigration hawk.
DF: In the 2016 primaries there was no other candidate who had any credibility on the immigration issue at all. Ted Cruz had adopted for the campaign an anti-immigration stance. But that new, it was not the position he had had the rest of his career, including as recently as six months before.
He had come within inches of endorsing the «Gang of 8» deal in 2013 – he was originally a supporter, and changed his mind halfway through. Another candidate, Scott Walker, had experimented with some restrictionist themes, but in a way that was very obviously geared towards the 2016 cycle.
One important feature of the immigration issue is that because the leaders of American society on average have a very different view of this question than the middle of society, the voters who care about this issue understand that unless a politician is really, really committed, he is not going to deliver. Even Mike Pence was an immigration soft liner until the day before yesterday. And he will be an immigration soft liner tomorrow.
NAA: How did it get to that point in the immigration debate? If you go back even just a few decades, to the Bill Clinton years, the rhetoric on the issue is very different. People often share videos of Ronald Reagan or George Bush Sr. who would say much more welcoming things about immigrants the Republicans do today; but if you go to Bill Clinton, you find the opposite: In the early 90s, the Democrats would have a much stricter rhetoric. The view was that if you are here illegally, you should get out.
But suddenly, it seems that the majority Democratic opinion is that although you are here illegally, you should stay. Even in Norway, that would be a very uncommon position.
DF: Your question is exactly right. This is part of the polarization in a more diverse society. The Democratic position on immigration has changed. And the new effective position of the party is that if you can cross the border to the United States, you should not be removed, unless you commit severe crimes.
It becomes difficult to come up with pragmatic responses to immigration problems until we find a politician who is able to invite Black Americans into this discussion
And as immigrants become more numerous, the polarization becomes stronger. You see this across Europe as well.
NAA: But in most European countries – in Norway for example – a lot of more centrist and even leftist parties have developed stricter attitudes to immigration, in response to both increasing immigrant populations and the challenge of anti-immigrant populist parties. Why has that not happened in the US?
DF: Let me suggest three reasons why it has not happened here.
First, immigration in the United States is not in the same way a security problem. There is a crime and disorder problem. Second generation Latin Americans succumb to non-political delinquency at higher rates than their parents, but it doesn’t show up in statistics, it is not very spectacular, and it’s basically just the same old crime that we already produce a lot of. We don’t have the spectacular terrorism incidents that are attributable to immigrants, and in their place we have mass killings that are carried out by old fashioned white Americans. So in America, immigration is not really a security issue, so you don’t have that as something that drives moderate voters to take a second look at the issue.
Second, we have very large and well-established minority groups here, whose votes are really meaningful. Meaningful minority/immigrant votes. So as the Democrats have lost its hold on the FDR and LBJ working class voters, they have sought to replace them by competing more effectively for immigrant votes.
And third, because of the terrible history in the United States with racial repression, any question of ethnicity gets shoehorned into a framework left behind from the Civil Rights area.
So when somebody talks about any of the problems arising from immigration, a lot of Black voters hear: «You mean all voters of color – including those whose families have been here for the past three centuries.»
It becomes difficult to come up with pragmatic responses to immigration problems until we find a politician who is able to invite Black Americans into this discussion, and to make clear that the issue is not race versus race, ethnic group versus ethnic group, but citizens of all races, and their interests – as opposed to people who would like to be citizens, but whom citizens have a right to invite or not to invite.
– This time the system didn’t work
NAA: Alas, I don’t think we got that politician. Instead we got Donald Trump. Your book is called Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic. What does the advent of Trump tell us about the American political system?
DF: I don’t want to talk to much about the book before it is ready, but ’ll give a very brief sketch: Donald Trump is such a larger than life personality, such a damaged personality, and he does so many extreme and odd things, that it is natural that our attention is fixed on him and his family and their peculiarities.
But the fact is that in modern bureaucratic states, there’s a limit to what any one political leader can do. I don’t know if you have examples of this kind in Norway, but in Canada, there was a prime minister in the early 1960s who was very genuinely mentally ill. But his party got him out of office, in fairly short order. And he did no harm – because as he got more mentally ill, he was boxed in more and more, and when it became impossible to deny how mentally ill he was, he was removed from office by his own party.
So the question about the damage Donald Trump can do, is not primarily a question about him, it is a question about why those mechanisms have failed: Why hasn’t he been constrained? Why has his party been unable to constrain him, why haven’t the institutions of state been able to constrain him?
Trumpocracy invites readers to think of Trump not just as one damaged human being, but as a problem for the republic in general. If you read the founding debates of this country, and their words about how the presidency could go wrong, he is exactly what they are worried about.
In 1787 at the Philadelphia Convention, there were two things the Founding Fathers were most frightened of with a president: The first was that some very rich man would pander to the worst impulses of the less educated voters, and hoist himself into office – an American Alcibiades, since they all knew their classics, or at least pretended to.
The second thing they worried about was foreign interference. In 1787 the United States was the only the fourth most powerful country on the American continent, after Britain, France and Spain. They knew what had happened to Sweden, what was at that time happening to Poland, what had happened to Genoa and other Republics – namely, that a smaller country, with an elected government, could become the plaything of the great military powers, which could manipulate elections.
And an example of such manipulation that they were keenly aware of, is what happened with the Hats and the Caps in Sweden in the 1760s and 1770s, when foreign intervention brought the Swedish Age of Liberty and parliamentary rule to an end – an example that a Norwegian audience might recognize, although an American usually won’t.
Therefore, the Founding Fathers were terrified of foreign intervention in American presidential elections. So a lot of the design of the presidency, including the electoral college, is designed to stop demagogues and to discourage foreign manipulation.
But this time it didn’t work. You might say that 228 years is a pretty good run, for any piece of machinery. But the system didn’t work this time. Whenever we inaugurate a new president, we pat ourselves on the back and say that this peaceful transfer of power shows how the system works. But this time the system didn’t work, and my book is about that failure.
NAA: A way to constrain demagogues is through a strong party system. But Trump wasn’t constrained during the primaries by his party, although there were some feeble attempts. One reasons for that, of course, is that over the last two generations the primary system has been changed in order to become more democratic. And this is a trend that has come to Europe too, the wish to open up the party processes, and make them more democratic. And we too often don’t even think of it as a trade-off.
DF: Let me go back to the Canadian example I mentioned. If a prime minister goes crazy, the public may not immediately be aware. But his colleagues know.
In Westminster style parliamentary systems it used to be the case that the caucus could fire the caucus leader. That’s basically how the Conservative party fired Margaret Thatcher. When you move from such a system to a system where the caucus no longer constrain the leader, it becomes much more difficult to do something about a leader who goes wrong. There are information problems, because those who could constrain the leader, lack the information they need.
If you were watching a movie in the 1950s, and a character stepped into the movie who was wearing a white lab coat, you listened to him. He’s the guy who tells you how time travel is going to work.
So this kind of populism is not uniquely a problem of presidential systems, but it tend to become more pronounced. I really recommend Jonathan Rauch’s book Political Realism on this topic. So, a lot of the things we have done in the name of democracy, has had the effect of weakening the power of professional politicians, who want to be reelected, and strengthening not the voters, but party party activists, who want to advance beliefs or identities.
NAA: When you talk about the weakening of professional politicians, I’m reminded of a book by Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise. Because we see, not only in the Trump administration, but across the Western world, that in politics, the world expert has often become derogatory. And that seems to be to be a necessary ingredient in Trumps formula, but at the same time, it predates Trump. How did that happen?
DF: In my history of the 1970s, I had this observation that if you were watching a movie in the 1950s, and a character stepped into the movie who was wearing a white lab coat, you listened to him. He’s the guy who tells you how time travel is going to work.
But if you watch a movie from after about 1975, whenever a man with a white lab coat steps in, he’s got some crazy, hubristic idea. Like let’s bring dinosaurs back from the dead. Something that’s going to end in disaster.
The loss of confidence in experts is something that gets going that unsurprisingly begins just as the post-war boom comes to an end. For 30 years, the people who claimed expertise, did amazing things. They cured polio. They ended wars in Europe. They brought about stable economic growth and higher wages, in the longest economic expansion recorded in human history. They brought you washing machines and microwave ovens. They extended life expectancy and ended death in childbirth. One amazing accomplishment after another. So when a man with a white lab coat came in, you listened. They know what they’re doing.
Had he lost, in some ways he’d actually have done American politics some good.
Then, after 1975 things begin gradually to go wrong. And after 2000 they go wrong very fast and very badly. Whether it was the dotcom-boom, or the Iraq war – which I was a supporter of – or the financial innovations that ended in the financial crisis, or the Obama Recovery act, which looked like it didn’t produce results for almost a decade, the experts looked like they don’t know what they are talking about.
NAA: Since you mention war, the Iraq war, and your view on that: An interesting episode in Trump’s primary campaign was when he said that the Iraq war was terrible. Many commentators – experts, if you will – said that this must surely be «Peak Trump», because he goes against not only the GOP establishment, but deeply held convictions by the GOP rank and file. And Republicans did support the Iraq war, of course, and saw it as a patriotic duty to do so, for a long time.
It turned out that it didn’t hurt him at all, of course. Rather, it might not only have helped him, but also contributed to changing the foreign policy views of Republican voters, who have become much more isolationist and much more positive to Putin and Russia.
But the whole way in which the Iraq war, and not least the debate about the Iraq war was handled by the GOP – that the faulty judgements behind it were never really challenged or corrected at any point before 2016 – seems to have created this room for Trump to say «experts have been so wrong, and I’m the only one, on the Republican side at least, who dare to say so».
DF: This might be one example of something I thought when Trump first appeared on the scene: That had he lost, in some ways he’d actually have done American politics some good. Because the Republican party had dealt with Iraq by never talking about it. It’s like a family with a trauma that can never be discussed, but it’s there. When Trump had that debate in Florida where he started talking about Iraq on a Republican stage, I compared it to a family Thanksgiving where they open one bottle of wine too many.
What Trump has exposed, is that the ideas and slogans of its leaders meant nothing to its own voters.
If we didn’t talk about it, it would never go away, it would always be present, and we would never be able to achieve a new foreign policy consensus. There would just be a gap in the place where the party’s thinking and analysis should be. So we needed to talk this out. That’s what the Democrats did after Vietnam. It took them a long time. The Democrats responded to Vietnam by becoming a very pacifist party, and by losing a lot of elections to Ronald Reagan, before finding a new way to talk about foreign policy. These are things parties have to go through.
But Trump not only opened the discussion, which was healthy, but he immediately poisoned the discussion. And then of course, he didn’t lose the election.
NAA: So, we are where we are. How do you see the way forward for the conservative movement in the US? What kind of policies should be pursued and what kind of strategic choices should be made? And how can they be made within the framework of the Trump GOP?
DF: I think the conservative movement as I knew it in the 1980s and 1990s is over. What Trump has exposed, is that the ideas and slogans of its leaders meant nothing to its own voters. And Trump has also created a new political map, where the Republican party will be responsible for Trump for years and years. Because so many people have defended him.
I don’t know how we will come out on the other side of this terrible experience, but I think that when we do, it will be to a new political landscape, with new political categories. I’m not sure what to compare it to, but maybe a bit like the Italian centre right had to redefine the party landscape after Berlusconi.
NAA: Do you foresee new parties in the US? A new centre right party opposed to Trumpism?
DF: I don’t foresee new parties, because in the United States it’s so difficult to start new parties, and much easier to change a party identity. So what we’ve been doing for the past 150 years is to put new wine into old bottles. So ten years from now, we will still probably have two parties, and they will be called the Democratic party and the Republican party. But there might be a lot of discontinuities within them, especially in the Republican party.
If Trump fails quickly and spectacularly, then there will be a fight for the identity of the Republican party. Anti-Trump voices will gain a hearing in that case.
If Trump fails slowly, and institutionalizes himself, and if he’s succeeded by Mike Pence, who will be accountable for the things Trump did, then the Trumpist influence will cast a long influence on the Republican future. And the anti-Trump forces in society will end up within the Democratic party.
NAA: Including, for instance, David Frum?
DF: I won’t speak for myself. But for a lot of people in my situation, we look at our children and ask «where do our children go»? I think we’re in a new landscape.
One of the things that are difficult for us as we get older, is to recognize that things that were hold true in the world of our youth, cease to be relevant in the world of today. I don’t see many points of continuity between the politics of the 1980s and the politics of today. So if you want to maintain some consistency with your values, you have to change many elements of your policies and many of the personalities.