David Frum: Reflections on the Revolution in America
Donald Trump has conquered most of the conservative movement in the United States. But one conservative immigration opponent is still fighting.
We live in a time of a political revolution in the world’s most important and powerful nation, the United States. The Trump Revolution points to a upheaval of political norms and institutions in the country: between the president on the one hand and the rest of the executive power, Congress, and the courts on the other; and also between the president and the Fourth Estate and indeed the population as a whole. There is also a revolution in American conservatism: Trump has already changed its mindset, ideological concepts, yes, the language itself, in much of the US conservative world.
A revolution in the world’s most powerful nation will have global consequences, and the ideas that are born and die there will be born and die elsewhere as well. This was the case when France was Europe’s preeminent power in 1789, and the winds of the revolution spread and enthralled liberals across the continent. That is why it came to the attention when Edmund Burke wrote his Reflections on the Revolution in France. His views gave a new understanding of what the revolution, of where it could lead – and helped mobilize opposition to the ideas of the revolution.
Similarly, the Trump revolution is affecting the political systems of all western countries. Many Europeans who call themselves conservatives get excited; in the United States, Trumpism has all but taken over the conservative movement. But a few conservatives refuse to join the tour. And one of them is Canadian-American David Frum.
Some will ask: Why David Frum? And some may ask: Who is David Frum? So far in this lecture series, we have talked about great thinkers, renowned philosophers, important political scientists: an Edmund Burke, an Eric Voegelin, a Samuel Huntington. In such illustrious company, today’s conservative voice may seem out of place: David Frum is a commentator, a writer, a mere pundit, who is now a senior editor in the American journal The Atlantic.
He is a diligent writer, by all means, with many books to his name, and was a regular part of the GOP’s opinion machine over a 20-year period, from he began working as a Wall Street Journal editor, until he was ousted from the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute in 2010 – with a brief spell in the Bush administration as a speechwriter for economic issues.
Although Frum’s role within the organized conservative movement – with the exception of the early years of the Bush administration – was often the role of the internal critic, he had for most of his career views that were relatively normal for an American conservative of the time – although at different times belonging to different parts of the movement, bearing in mind that conservatism in the US context has encompassed a wider range of views than in Europe. I'll go through his development, as I understand it, in a moment.
But first, we can safely conclude that had Frum’s story ended before the Trump Revolution, he wouldn’t have merited a place in this lecture series.
Two facts make Frum interesting today: The first is the way in which he was thrown out of the organized conservative world in the US in 2010. His sacrilege was that he went against the Republican strategy of advocating first full resistance to and then full repeal of Obamacare, President Barack Obama’s health care reform. For Frum, this was a failed strategy both because the GOP lost the opportunity to influence a reform he felt had come to stay, and because the issue of health insurance for all Americans is an important question to which Republicans did not have their own and better answers.
This was the time when the Tea Party movement ran a grassroots rebellion against Republican elites – demanding less state and more freedom. After leaving the Bush administration, Frum had gone in the opposite direction and realized the importance of order, stability, and predictability: «How many Americans in these opening years of the twenty-first century feel too little liberty to do what they want to do?» he writes in the book Comeback: Conservatism that Can Win Again, written as a set of recommendations for Republicans in the 2008 election. He continues: «When Reagan (...) invoked the maximum of human liberty consistently with social order, he spoke at a time when order seemed abundant and liberty in short supply. (...) Today, our entire planet is seething with human dynamism – and the worries politicians hear on front steps are worries about disorder: illegal drugs, uncontrolled migration, and income volatility.»
The last sentence also points out another area where Frum at this time was heading in the opposite direction of Republican elites: Immigration. After the 2008 election, an important part of the GOP analysis was that one reasons for the defeat was that the party did so poorly among Hispanic voters – and the proposed remedy was to become more liberal on several important immigration issues. Frum, on the other hand, was early, and remains, very critical of high migration, for both economic, security and cultural reasons. He wanted to secure the boundaries and make it very difficult for illegal immigrants to work before talking about any amnesty for the more than 10 million illegal immigrants in the US.
Conservatives should embrace the nation-state, Frum said, and he writes in the same 2008 book: «The new globalism, by contrast, aims not to strengthen nations, but to subordinate them; not to consolidate democracy, but to constrain it.»
The distance between Frum and the Republican Party continued to grow throughout the Obama years and up to the 2015 and 2016 primary elections: «Republican voters wanted less immigration, more secure healthcare, fewer wars, no more Bushes. Were offered opposite», Frum tweeted in spring 2016.
Criticism of Republican elites, opposition to globalism, immigration and cuts to middle class welfare schemes – all this serves as a premonition of the conservative wave that has hit most Western countries over the past five years. Frum saw these points clearly early on – and his advantage is that he came to all these conclusions long before Trump arrived on the scene.
From the list of Frum’s concerns, one might think that Frum could have been drawn towards the presidential candidate who stood for all these issues in the primary before the 2016 election: Donald Trump. For Trump not only wanted to build a wall against Mexico, he also wanted – at least in the election campaign – to provide health insurance to everyone and raise taxes for the wealthiest. He spoke in favor of the nation in the age of globalism and, like Frum, believed that Republican elites were out of touch with the concerns of the people.
But Frum was not drawn to Trump. While many Republicans were opposed to Trump early on, most have bowed, one by one. Now there is only a handful Republicans who are not subdued. And among them, David Frum is perhaps the most eloquent and most prominent.
There are conservatives in other countries who are against Trump, of course. Earlier in this lecture series, we had a talk about (now recently deceased) Roger Scruton, who has criticized Trump for not understanding conservatism. And of course: In Norway, most conservatives are critics of Trump. But among conservatives in the US, Trump has become a prophet in his own country.
The second, and most important, reason why David Frum is interesting today, then, is that he is an American conservative who is and remains against Trump – despite being a conservative who shared several of the concerns that Trump’s voters had.
But let's first go back in time and look at who David Frum is.
The beginning: Libertarians
Frum was born in Canada by Jewish parents in 1960. His father, Murray, was a businessman; his mother, Barbara, was a well-known journalist in Canada, of a liberal leaning. But David Frum left Canada to study at Yale, and got there just about when Ronald Reagan became president. Frum became conservative, Republican, and, eventually, American.
Although the GOP has changed significantly in the years that have passed since his time, Ronald Reagan has long been revered as something close to a saint among Republicans. But Frum’s first major imprint in the American conservative debate came partly as a criticism of the Reagan era, in the 1994 book Dead Right.
Frum’s premise is that American conservatism was a fusion of two completely different strains of thought: The first is traditionalism, which was primarily concerned with values, typically preserved by families, communities and churches – and which saw those values as the foundation of a strong economy. Traditionalists accepted the free market in the sense that they feared that a state-run economy could threaten their institutions: A government funded church, for example, might be pressured to bow to political demands – as we see in debates from countries such as Norway. But economic freedom had to them little value in itself. And if federal power and government money could be used to strengthen the values they cherished, they would take it without qualms.
The other strain is libertarianism – which in Norwegian terminology would not sort under conservatism at all – which sought to limit the government both in domains both economic and spiritual.
Ideological entrepreneurs created a fusion of these two streams of thought, and the result was presented as conservatism. This conservatism then had to go through a pragmatic meeting with focus groups and voters, and the result was a clear contradiction between conservative ideological rhetoric on the one hand and practice on the other. For example, Reagan was elected on a pledge to reduce the public sector. But when Reagan left the White House, the government share of GDP was actually slightly larger than when he became president. Conservatives talked about the importance of marriage. But the divorce rate continued to increase. Many of the key goals of the various parts of the movement thus remained out of reach for Reagan. This fact, however, did not affect the way in which conservatives spoke about policy. With the charismatic Reagan gone, these contradictions increasingly started to paralyze the ability of conservatives to rally support behind a positive political program.
The (relatively) young Frum was not indifferent to the preservation of traditional norms – and was, for example, critical of same sex marriage laws. Nevertheless, he mainly chose the libertarian way out of these contradictions: Moralizing, he believed to be evident from recent history, had little effect on the break-down of norms. Culture wars did not reinforce any positive values. A leaner government, and a leaner welfare state, with better incentives for work, could do more to foster healthy values. This is the kind of argument we find with traditionalist-leaning libertarians, such as Charles Murray (of The Bell Curve infamy).
However, just as Dead Right was published, Republicans in Congress chose the other main solution: Culture war, under the leadership of Newt Gingrich. Frum remained within the larger Republican tent, but in the periphery relative to those who called the shots.
The Bush years: Neocon hawk
The next incarnation of Frum appears during the Bush years. Bush had been elected on a program different from both Frum’s and Gingrich’s: Compassionate conservatism was his slogan, and it focused less on spending and tax cuts than Frum, but less on culture war. Frum was invited in as a speechwriter for economic issues, and accepted despite concerns that compassionate conservatism implied an ever-growing government.
But the Bush administration is hardly associated with compassionate conservatism. Instead, it was defined by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the US response in the form of the war first in Afghanistan, and – devastatingly – in Iraq. This response was promoted by so-called «neocons», who constituted the core of Bush’s foreign policy advisers. The neocons were Republicans – though quite a few with a Democrat past – who were characterized by a firm belief that American (military) power could be used to shape the world for the better.
The question of the day was authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Neocons identified – correctly, I believe – that the authoritarian nature of these regimes contributed decisively to the radicalization of the Islamic world from the 1960s onwards. In an unfree society, no one can rely on official information, and conspiracy theories are spreading. And those in power have an incentive to guide the population’s anger toward external enemies of various kinds – often Americans and Jews – in order to shift focus away from the country’s own problems.
Although neocons were good critics of authoritarian regimes, they were not necessarily good conservatives, at least in the European sense. The term was coined as the opposite of «paleocons», old conservatives, who were harsh critics of all US military engagements abroad. The conflict between these groups encompasses far more than this. But in one important regard, «paleocons» had an important point: regime change and state building are insanely difficult, and the consequences of removing all authority in a society, such as it may be, are both dire and unpredictable.
The only time he was close to power, Frum became a part of it – and as such he was also at his least original and independent as a thinker. He was – or became – a neocon; and after leaving the Bush administration in 2002, he co-wrote a book with another leading neocon, Richard Perle, who had the not so conservative title An End to Evil, partly a defense of Bush’s policies. Symptomically, it starts with a quote by one of Edmund Burke’s main opponents in the English debate about the French Revolution, Thomas Paine. The quote ends thus:
«Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.»
Such idolization of conflict does not sound particularly conservative to a Norwegian ear. In those years, Frum is also engaged in pretty fierce polemics with palecons, whom he regards as quasi-treasonous in their stance on the war in Iraq – where, he believes, they are rooting for the enemy. Frum, as Americans in general and Republicans in particular in those days, are strongly influenced by 9/11, and see the world through glasses where terrorism is a threat on par with Hitler. In retrospect, Frum has publicly regretted parts of this program.
A new conservatism and Never Trump
It is when the Bush years are drawing to a close that Frum is approaching a more comprehensive reevaluation of his political program – and comes to the assessment I mentioned above: the importance of order, stability and predictability; economic security rather than more freedom; more national identity rather than more multiculturalism.
It is also at this time that he begins to write more explicitly about Edmund Burke – rather than Thomas Paine. In a review of Jesse Norman’s biography of Burke, Frum quotes that Burke spent only a few months of his long political life in power. He spent most of his political career at a distance from it, and had most of his influence through his writings and his speeches. It’s not entirely unlikely that Frum identifies himself with Burke here.
It is this reevaluation, then – towards Burke and towards the Norwegian concept of conservatism – that leads Frum to the two crucial breaks with the conservative movement in the US that I mentioned:
The first breal comes in 2010, and is linked to disagreements over opposition to Obama's health reform. He is pushed out in the cold by the organized conservative movement, but remains part of the conservative world in a broad sense: voting for Republican candidates such as Mitt Romney in 2012, and defending them against liberal critics. The next, and more complete, break comes in 2016, when he announces he is going to vote for Hillary Clinton, not because he likes her, but to stop Donald Trump.
And this is the point of departure for the most interesting part of Frum’s work, and is what makes him relevant to a discussion about conservatism in our time: Frum as a prominent critic of Trump, and a critic who cannot be accused of wanting open borders; Frum as a Never Trumper, one of the few remaining Republicans who won’t submit to Donald Trump.
When I include the earlier parts of Frum's work, it is partly because it provides a useful background for understanding how he ended up where he did, and partly because it is important for understanding how Frum is perceived by other American conservatives. There he is, understandably, hated by the old paleocons, with whom he always disagreed. Among those who defended the Tea Party program between 2009 and 2015, he is viewed as a traitor. And establishment Republicans today, who might privately abhor Trump, despise Frum as someone who jumps ship when the going gets tough.
The norms and the republic
But what is Frum’s accusation against Donald Trump, when the two, after all, share several misgivings with the Republican policy platform before 2015?
Frum has, in my interpretation, two main accusations against Trump: First, that he destroys all political norms – the norms which created and which have protected what are basically good societies, and which «made America great» in the first place. And secondly – and as a consequence – that his self-proclaimed nationalist politics undermines the unity of the nation he purports to defend – splitting it up by race, religion and region.
Frum articulation of his concerns, then – and I don’t think it’s a coincidence – is reminiscent of Burke’s writings against the French Revolution. Burke, too – as someone who had supported the American Revolution a few years earlier – shared some of the goals of the revolutionaries: making France more like England, with more secure rights and improved representation. Furthermore, these same two points were fundamental to Burke’s attack: That the revolution destroyed all political norms and all sources of legitimate political authority; and that the revolution for freedom would destroy all liberty.
So what are the norms that Frum has in mind? That was the theme of the article «The Seven Broken Guardrails of Democracy», written as early as May 2016, when Trump had just clinched the Republican nomination (and the themes later featured in Frum’s book Trumpocracy – the Corruption of the American Republic). I will not go through all the norms he addresses there, but I’ll give some hopefully illuminating examples of violation of some of the norms that are crucial to our form of government, regardless of the specific policy being pursued at any times.
The first norm Frum addresses in the Guardrails article, is a degree of humility among politicians – and that there should be more humility the higher up you come. It may not be entirely intuitive that humility is crucial to the Republic, or that lack thereof is unique to Donald Trump. Frum’s examples might make it a little clearer. The first example is Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate who ran against Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. In his speech to the 1952 Democratic Convention, he tried to convince the delegates that he had not sought nomination at all: «That I have not sought this nomination, that I could not seek it in good conscience, that I would not seek it in honest self-appraisal, is not to say that I value it the less.» It may be an extreme example, but if you go through the speeches of presidential candidates and senators from both parties historically, you discover a pattern of a clear political norm. Leaders will insist they accept their job with great humility, they will ask for God’s guidance, they will insist that is not about them, but what the country can achieve together.
Donald Trump has not only said things like «I alone can fix it» and not only does he regularly complain that he is «really smart» and a «VERY successful businessman», or perhaps the best known phrase «a very stable genius»; he often demonstrates that he sees himself as something more akin to a king of God's grace than a humble servant of the republic. He lets religious leaders surround him, stretching out their arms to touch him so as to receive the blessing. Governing as a Caesar, rather than being the first among equals, Trump demands, and gets, near total obedience by party officials and Republicans in Congress.
Of course, Trump is hardly the first president who has in fact been less than humble. But past presidents have been bound by norms for their conduct and by norms of humility. They have assumed that they will be punished by their own party, by the electorate, by the judgment of history – and perhaps by their own conscience – if they violate these norms, if they behave like monarchs. But Trump, alas, has not been punished.
The next norm Trump has violated is the expectation of truthfulness of politicians. Politicians are constantly lying, Frum believes – in the sense that they stretch the truth as far as possible and then a little: they present misleading figures, they leave out important context, and assert as truth dubious analyses of the effects of policy. But, says Frum, flat out lies, and in particular: flat out lies about something that can be fact-checked, have occurred very rarely – because politicians have feared the costs.
And the costs have historically been huge – the many small half-truths that led to the one big falsehood about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, destroyed the Bush administration's legacy. How rarely politicians produce flat out lies, can we see by looking at the fact checker faktisk.no here in Norway; even when politicians do get the lowest grades there, it is usually for statements that were slightly misleading, a poor phrasing, uncertainty about sources or interpretation of data or some trivial misunderstanding. They are held to a pretty high standard.
Trump is lying in a completely different way: he is lying all the time, and he is also lying about things that there is absolutely no need to lie about. Perhaps the most absurd story is when Trump mistakenly thought a hurricane was on its way to Alabama. He then lied about his error by getting the entire state apparatus to insist that the first weather forecasts had reported that the hurricane was on its way to Alabama. It started the day he was elected president and has continued ever since. Other politicians would be embarrassed to lie like this. Trump isn’t, and the public doesn’t care – as long as they find the lie useful or amusing.
But when the expectation of truthfulness disappears, a political weapon that is crucial to our form of politics is removed from the opposition, the media and the citizens: Facts.
A third norm Trump violates, Frum believes, is that high-level politicians must have adequate knowledge of policy. Visible lack of knowledge has previously been devastating for political candidacies. When Rick Perry was a GOP candidate in 2011, he proposed to shut down three departments – but in a debate he could not remember which one was the third if his life depended on it. That was the end of his candidacy: his policy proposals appeared as mere talking points that were written down, without the candidate understanding the content behind it.
Trump, on the other hand, regularly demonstrates that he does not know how government operates, and that he has not thought through major policy questions at all, without being the least ashamed. One of his more well-known statements in that regard is: «Nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated» – nobody, of course, except people who had glanced once or twice at the American political debate over the previous decade.
However, this violation is, Frum believes, not unique to Trump; it is something which has become gradually more accepted within the GOP over time. The perhaps best known example is Sarah Palin in 2008. Republican voters have over the last few decades gradually become used to be dismissive of formal knowledge. But respect for formal knowledge, Frum believes, is crucial to the form of government we have in the West.
The taboo against discrimination
The norm violation maybe most commonly associated with Donald Trump, is bigotry. Frum believes Trump is the national politician who has appealed most openly to white identity since segregationist George Wallace, who ran as an independent presidential candidate in 1968.
Open racism has largely been a taboo in Europe since 1945, and throughout the US since desegregation. There has of course been considerable resistance to this taboo, and to the way in which it was established, and many individual violations will be found. But at the highest level, the taboo has been largely respected, albeit reluctantly by some.
Of course, racism has not therefore ceased to exist in politics, but it has found other outlets, for example in the form of dog whistles. What Trump has done is that he has demonstrated that dog whistles is a weak political and rhetorical tool in white identity politics. The dog whistle respects the taboo. The dog whistle recognizes that openly racist statements should not be made and that openly racist reasons cannot be given. And that recognition shapes the boundaries of politics. Trump, on the other hand, says that Mexicans are «rapists», compares migrants to snakes , proposes a «complete and total shutdown on Muslims entering the United States» and sees no difference between neo-Nazis and counter-protesters after a self-proclaimed white supremacist intentionally drove his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing a 32 year old woman.
The response to this norm violation has been strong and positive among Trump’s supporters; they have longed for someone who speaks loudly and clearly, rather than at dog whistle frequencies. For them, Frum believes, it is a strength, not a weakness, that Trump behaves not as president of the entire population of a multi-ethnic society, but as a clan leader for White America.
But such clan logic is not only problematic because it poses a threat to minorities; it facilitates a change in the norms for acceptable political behavior more broadly, for acceptable language, and ultimately for the whole way political disagreements are constructed and resolved.
Together, all these violations of political norms constitute a major threat to the last, and perhaps most crucial, norm for a democratic society: that you accept that you live in a political community – and therefore accept to lose elections. You recognize your opponent as legitimate, and trust that your political views will get a second chance next time around.
The erosion of this norm has occurred over time, and Frum sees Trump as both a symptom and an accelerator: Over time, Americans have become increasingly distrustful about their political opponents. And when negative partisanship goes far enough, people are willing to break more rules to win, and they are willing to vote for their side no matter what it does or stands for, because hatred of the opposing party is so entrenched.
Particularly among Republicans, this fear has been reinforced by the clan logic and white identity politics. Each election is presented as the last opportunity, as the last truly legitimate election – because next time there will be so many of them – minorities voting for Democrats. When politics is no longer seen as a repetitive game where you are sometimes in the majority and sometimes in the minority, sometimes winning and sometimes losing, the respect for the democratic system itself quickly crumbles.
Ultimately, your opponents are no longer considered politically legitimate. Frum could not know when he wrote his article in June, but a few months later Trump more than suggested that he would not accept the election result if he lost. This has hardly happened at the top political level in the West after World War II. So far, we have not found ourselves in a position to find out exactly how Trump and his supporters would behave if he lost.
And with this norm breach, Trump is also destroying what he is pretending to defend. What was one nation, «e pluribus unum», turns into groups that do not recognize each other and fight one another.
Jumping the ship or righting the vessel?
This is at the heart of Frum’s attack on Trump – and, just as much, on all those who enable and defend him: No one man can break down norms; rather, they disappear when violations have no consequences over time.
Frum’s message is not well received on the Republican side. This is not only because criticism from a supposed ally is always more unpleasant to deal with; but also because of Frum’s history within the GOP, where he had already acquired many enemies.
This is what it might look like for many Republicans: As a libertarian in the 1990s, Frum was out of touch with Republicans in Congress who were more concerned with preserving the culture than with spending cuts. As a Bush hawk in the 2000s, he used his position to go after those who disagreed with an Iraq war that would later become very unpopular. And when congressional Republicans actually put forth plans for spending cuts under Paul Ryan, while trying to win over Latin American voters, Frum moved in the opposite direction, now insisting on less welfare cuts and lower migration. Finally, when Republicans with Trump won both the presidential election and gained a majority in the House and Senate on a platform that would now reduce migration and were less concerned with welfare cuts, Frum turned on them again.
To them, Frum emerges as an opportunist, criticizing Republicans no matter what they do, unless he happens to be close to power himself – a useful idiot for Democrats who wants to be popular with the liberal media. At best, perhaps, they see him as a person of poor judgment who therefore changes his mind and reinvents himself every decade.
And it is true that he has changed his mind on several important issues – same-sex marriage, welfare issues, especially after the financial crisis, and the Iraq war are but three prominent examples.
In his defense: if he is an opportunist, it seems unclear what benefit he really get from being constantly at odds with the movement he has devoted his life to – and where he no doubt could have played a role if he had fell in line – while many on the left still regard him as something close to a war criminal because of his role in the Bush administration. Furthermore, it is generally commendable to change views in the face of new information – or, for that matter, with increased age and wisdom. Frum portrays his evolution on same-sex marriages, which he feared could further help to destabilize the American family, thusly: «the case against same-sex marriage has been tested against reality. The case has not passed its test».
More importantly, perhaps, for Frum is that his different views have evolved in response to distinct historical situations. The stagflation of the 1970s presented a set of challenges that are quite different from the problems that emerged after the global financial crisis of 2008. Immigration today is different from immigration in the past – and requires new solutions. But at the same time the debate about immigration and about immigrants looks different under Trump than it did a decade ago. What is most important to focus on has to do with the world and the society in which you live and work.
In this regard, too, one might suspect that Frum is inspired by Burke, who was similarly criticized by his opponents for inconsistency. Burke himself surely expected that accusation as he wrote the finishing lines of his Reflections on the Revolution in France – which features the following description of himself:
«One who wishes to preserve consistency, but who would preserve consistency by varying his means to secure the unity of his end; and, when the equipoise of the vessel in which he sails may be endangered by overloading it on one side, is desirous of carrying the small weight of his reasons to that which may preserve his equipoise.»
I think that description might be close to Frum’s self-understanding. And right now, the American ship is heeling heavily – so Frum uses his small weight to try to straighten it.
There will be a time after Trump. But a revolution is often followed by a reaction – and the reaction obscures how the revolution could happen at all. When the French Revolution was finally over with Napoleon’s exile on St. Helena, it was replaced by the Bourbon Restoration, and a 30 year pause in much-needed political reforms.
If the Trump revolution runs out of steam, the United States will need a conservative movement that can point to a different path forward than the progressive reaction that may come. In the meantime, therefore, someone needs to preserve an idea of conservatism in the US which is not Trumpism.
Frum’s reflections on the revolution in America is a place to begin.