David Frum (@davidfrum) is a senior editor at the Atlantic Magazine and a frequent contributor at MSNBC. He is a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and is known for coining the phrase “axis of evil.” He has been a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributor at the National Review. He is the author of nine books including most recently Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, which we discuss today.
Chris Martin: How do you currently define conservatism?
David Frum: Conservatism fundamentally is a habit of mind. It’s a mental disposition and it’s connected to the constitution of the individual mind. We also use the word “conservatism” to describe a particular ideology and what has happened in the United States in recent years is that definition has frozen, and what we now call “movement conservatism” is an anthology of policy solutions to the problems of the 1970s and 1980s. As it has become more obsolete, conservatives have lost interest in policy and what we now call conservatism has become a series of oppositional attitudes to what’s going on in the culture. I call them attitudes because they don’t really have content.
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Chris Martin: My guest today is David Frum. He’s a senior editor at the Atlantic Magazine and a frequent contributor at MSNBC. He’s a former speechwriter for George W. Bush. and is known for coining the phrase “axis of evil.” He has been a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributor at the National Review. He And he is the author of nine books including most recently Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, which we’ll discuss today. So here is David Frum.
Chris Martin: Hi David. It’s great to have you on the show.
David Frum: Thanks so much, Chris.
Chris Martin: Before we get to your new book, which is why I invited you here, I would like to talk to you about the definition of conservatism in general. It’s something you’ve talked about in recent interviews. How do you currently define conservatism?
David Frum: Look, conservatism fundamentally is a habit of mind. It’s a mental disposition and you’ve done work on this that it’s connected to the constitution of the individual brand. We also use the word “conservatism” to describe a particular ideology and what has happened in the United States in recent years is that definition has frozen and what we now call “movement conservatism”. It’s an anthology of policy solutions to the problems of the 1970s and 1980s.
As it has become more obsolete, conservatives have lost interest in policy and what we now call conservatism has become a series of oppositional attitudes to what’s going on in the culture. I call them attitudes because they don’t really have content. There’s a perfect demonstration of this.
You and I were talking over the weekend in which a Trump-North Korea summit has been first on, then off, then on again. At each of these somersaults, the people who call themselves conservatives have applauded the wisdom of precisely what the president and his administration are doing.
First one way, then the exact opposite, then the first way again. That tells you there’s not a lot of policy content there. What is there is a fierce dislike of the main trends in intellectual life, in media life, in cultural life. That’s what unites modern conservatism to make this a little bit longer.
So that’s why while I continue to use the adjective “conservative” to describe myself, I’ve really gotten out of the habit of using the noun “a conservative” because I want no part of that confrontational style of politics.
Chris Martin: If you were to repair conservatism somehow and make it relevant to the questions that we’re dealing with in our era, how would you do that?
David Frum: Politics begins by addressing problems in the society around it. So if your society is overtaxed, then it’s a good political response to talk about taxes. If you’re at a time when the vast majority of your fellow citizens do not feel overtaxed, you’re not going to get very far by making taxes your overwhelming policy concern.
So you start in politics with the problems. Declining life expectancy, pervasive addiction, the decline in America’s standing in the world that has been going on as a result of rebalancing of global economic power. I would be concerned about the more and more extreme weather events. It seemed to be battering the United States. I would be concerned about the productivity of the American economy and the way enormous numbers of our fellow citizens are being left behind and excluded. Many of them in sort of what were the traditional urban and small town heartlands of the country.
Chris Martin: How would the conservative response differ from the liberal response? Just take one of these issues for example, addiction. How would the conservative response be different?
David Frum: At that point, I would be telling you about my response because I don’t think there is a conservative response to that problem and I don’t think there will be for some time to come.
I think what a conservative response would look like is it would begin by understanding that addiction originates in the breakdown of – mass addiction. I mean individual people become addicts for their own reasons, but mass addiction originates in the breakdown of communities and it would begin by examining the places where the addiction is worst and that is in deindustrializing small town White America and it would have – it would say, “What can we do?” Either to rebuild those communities or to incentivize people to leave those communities and move to different communities.
Chris Martin: Now, moving on to your new book, Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, what’s your central argument in this book and how is it different from the other books about Trump that are currently on the best seller list?
David Frum: The central argument of the book is that Donald Trump’s individual personality matters a lot less than Donald Trump’s system of power, that he holds and uses power by the permission of other important actors in the system.
Congress, his party in the country, donors, a conservative entertainment media complex and a lot of conservative voters who have been radicalized. So the book is about them, much more than it is about him. That’s why the book cover shows his back, not his face.
It makes two other points. One is that the rise of Trumpocracy is part of a global decline of democracy and second, this decline of democracy needs to be understood not as like some impending fascist takeover, but as slow rot democratic institutions.
The analogy I keep using is Trumpocracy is not the heart attack of democracy. It is the gum disease of democracy.
Chris Martin: And you say one of the things we have to fear from Trumpocracy among other things is the accumulating subversion of norms and Norm Ornstein and several other political scientists and writers who argue that this subversion of norms has actually been going on since the mid-90s, since Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House and perhaps Mitch McConnell is more responsible for this than anyone else. What do you think about that argument?
David Frum: One Norm whom I would never like to see obliterated is the great Norm Ornstein who is a good friend of mine. I hope that Norm is preserved for many decades to come. I would half agree with it and half disagree. The part I would agree with is, yes, this is an accumulating problem and I agree with Norm that it dates back to the early ‘90s and the end of the Cold War because the Cold War disciplined American political elites.
When it ended, the main restraining force on those elites was lost. Norm tells a partisan story in which the Republicans are wholly to blame. I think they probably deserve a larger part of the blame, not because they’re Republicans but because the people they represent have been under more stress since the end of the Cold War.
But in my first chapter where I talk about how this has been going on for a while, I point out a lot of ways that this has happened under both parties. I mean the practice for example of filibustering judges at levels below the Supreme Court, that started with democrats under President Bush and the use of executive orders in areas where the president plainly manifestly – that starts under Obama, that Obama’s immigration orders are utterly unlawful.
You don’t have to take my word for it because I quoted in the book half a dozen places where President Obama said so himself before he did it.
Chris Martin: In a recent interview, you also mentioned that the way North Carolina is heading, specifically the way the Republican Party in North Carolina is heading, might be a precursor of what we see at the federal level as well. Can you expand on that?
David Frum: I think it’s not just North Carolina. It is – you see similar things happening in Wisconsin. The core of what we call populism is people say, “Well, what is wrong with a politics that puts emphasis on the people?” But the core of what we call populism is to draw a line within the country between the people and those people.
Populism begins by excluding big parts of the country from its definition of who’s entitled to participate politically. So the way that this decline of democracy is happening is not that as in the 1930s. You got large parties that say we should have a strong man rule. There is nobody in the Western world who’s against elections. What they want to do is exclude from the electoral process people who they don’t think should belong there. The young, ethnic minorities, people who have – whose families haven’t been in the country a sufficiently long time. So that’s what’s going on is that – what you see is a – not an overthrow of democracy but a shrinkage – increasing advocacy that not everybody should vote. The way Republicans usually put this or Trump people usually put this is they don’t say not everybody should vote. But they will say voting should be more difficult. It’s good that voting is difficult. What that means of course, it’s not like you have to do chin-ups before voting. It means that certain parts of the population are going to have obstacles put in their way.
Chris Martin: What do you think the long term backlash to that is going to be?
David Frum: Well, it may not be – and they work because you see, the habit of voting is maybe the last habit of democracy that people who have gotten over the habit of watching news, who have gotten over the habit of participating in juries, who have gotten out of the habit of belonging to associations, they’re disengaged from the PTA or from veteran’s organizations. The American Legion is withering. That the whole – in your field of expertise, the whole breakdown of associational behavior, people will give up their right to vote quite voluntarily because they don’t care about it. It’s not connected to anything else in their lives.
So it may work but I do worry in the book about backlash and I titled a chapter called Autoimmune Disorders where I talk about how parts of the government are reacting to the intrusion of Trump in ways that make total sense at any given moment. You can see why they would become – for example, the CIA would stop sharing information with the president’s distrust [0:13:03] [Phonetic]. But they have long term accumulating consequences of the loss of civilian authority over the security state.
Chris Martin: Do you see any pocket of the Republican Party that is pulling the Republican Party away from this trend?
David Frum: As yet, it’s just a few intellectuals and writers. But that may be important for the future. But right now, I think the Republican Party is divided between those who are eagerly cooperating with Trump and those who are unhappily cooperating with Trump.
Chris Martin: And on the other side of the aisle, if we’re talking about the left or the Democratic Party, do you see anything they’re doing that is effectively restraining this trend or do you think they’re ineffective?
David Frum: Not yet. I don’t see anything very effective there yet. I mean there’s some organizational work that may have consequences. But I’m glad you caught yourself and in fact with the left and the Democratic Party because the Democratic Party is talked about pretty rigorously. The left is a much more amorphous thing.
But as a non-Democrat, non-leftist, what I observe is the Democratic Party is being ripped apart between elements that do want to participate in politics and leftist protest movements that really don’t. The kind of messianic fervor that work at the Democratic Party and it’s so strong.
Your hunger for the messiah must be really intense if you can persuade yourself that Bernie Sanders of all people is a messiah. Ludicrous but there – but people attach themselves because they want to believe in the magical leader who will make problems go away.
That may be predictably. So the left wing of American politics is drifting to places where it just can’t take – the country will never follow. I mean when your central issue – and I think this is – so what today is the thing that gets left people most excited? It’s about abolishing immigration enforcement. That’s the thing they really want to do.
That was [0:15:04] [Indiscernible] when they briefly shut it down earlier in the year. That’s not a position that can mobilize anybody or enough people. But what has happened is the interest of the 2020 democratic candidates and its energizing activist left wing of the party are drowning the party’s deeper institutional interest and being competitive.
Chris Martin: I think that’s a fair criticism. I agree with your comment about messianic fervor. I agree with John McWhorter who has written about certain parts of the left being like religious movements in the sense that they have rituals now, rituals of perhaps confessing why the privilege certain – maybe fetishize their victimization or idolized. John McWhorter and Glenn Loury have talked about this in some of their podcasts and some of their writing as well.
I do feel like when you contrast conservatism and liberalism now, one of the contrasts you see is that liberals tend to be a little more concerned and conservatives about people who are at the bottom of the pyramid and sometimes that can lead to a fetishism of the victimization that they experienced. But at other times, that can lead to things like the Labor Movement or the Women’s Rights Movement.
Do you feel like conservatives are now addressing the issues that people in the Labor Movement or people in the Women’s Rights Movement would have addressed?
David Frum: No, of course not. No. There’s a difference between citing issues, listing them, and actually having a thought about what to do about them. So conservatives or I should say the Trump Movement has been willing to talk about the consequences, the adverse consequences of globalization. Let’s not lose sight that most of the consequences are good, but there are negative consequences.
It’s easy for the people who have done well out of globalization to write off those negative consequences. The Trump people in distinction to regular Republicans have mentioned them. So good and they’ve mentioned the opioid crisis. Donald Trump mentioned the opioid crisis more often than anyone else running for president in 2016. Good.
But mentioning things is just the beginning. But I want to go back to your point about – again, you glided there very quickly between liberals and the left and again, the left is an amorphous concept and a lot of conservatives use the phrase pretty irresponsibly. But I want to try to use it in a more focused way.
I think there is such a thing as a left in America. It’s small but it’s fervent and it’s becoming increasingly important. It’s the left that is increasingly illiberal. That there is – you see that in the drift, in the rise of figures. I mean in the United Kingdom, like Jeremy Corbyn, the Italian Five Star Movement, which did so well in the last Italian election. That had left DNA. These are movements that are anti-parliamentary that despise traditional processes, that are not interested in incremental reform. They use language of revolution not because they imagine a violent revolution, but because they imagine that society can be dramatically changed in a short period of time, which is never true and the more sophisticated your society is, the less true it is.
I want to distinguish that from both philosophical liberalism and the mainstream of the Democratic Party which has been much more cautious.
You know, I have no particular brief for Hillary Clinton as an individual or a candidate. But the 2016 primary was – at least would have set the stage or stereotype of how that conflict would play out.
If Hillary Clinton had a message and hates Bernie Sanders, it was, “You want to run the government, you really have to know stuff. You have to be able to work with other people.” There’s a joke about Bernie Sanders that no one in America was happier than when Ted Cruz was elected to the senate than Bernie Sanders because that meant he went from being the most disliked person in the Senate to the second most disliked person in the Senate. But it is an amazing thing that Bernie Sanders has absolutely no achievements as a legislator because he won’t work with others.
Chris Martin: I agree. I definitely see an element of anger and it’s easy to channel anger through Twitter and through Facebook, more so through Twitter, and any movement regardless of its ideology can now channel that anger much more effectively. I’m laughing but it’s sad. They can channel that anger much more effectively than people in the past have.
Now returning to your book, given what has happened since the book came out, the book came out in January, so presumably you turn in the final draft a couple of months before that. Did anything happen since you wrote the book that has changed your opinion? Maybe more pessimistic, more optimistic?
David Frum: I mean there have been some events that shape the book. When I wrote the book, I was doubtful that the Republicans would pass a tax cut because the tax bill just meant the end of the Republican Party in Coastal America and I didn’t – there’s still I think about more than a dozen republican congressman from affluent parts of California. They have half a dozen congressmen from affluent parts of New Jersey. I didn’t think they would all agree to commit career suicide but they did. They did. So the tax bill passed.
That’s really the end of the – because what that bill does is it – to the extent it pays for itself at all, it pays for itself by taxing the California republicans, upper income but not super wealthy professionals in wealthy metropolitan areas. That’s to the extent this Republican Party of California – and to the extent it’s not farmers in the Central Valley. That’s where it is and I think they’ve written all of those people off. I didn’t expect that to happen. But nothing essential has changed because the book is not driven so much by day to day events.
Chris Martin: And in terms of criticism, you’ve received the questions. You’ve received – have you received any interesting criticism about the book that has made you rethink anything?
David Frum: I’ve received a lot of interesting criticism but I haven’t heard anything that I found so convincing. The most – from the right hand side of the spectrum, I mean we live in a world in which the pro-Trump people have thickened the intellectual walls around the conservative [0:21:17] [Inaudible].
So right hand side of people by and large have not even acknowledged that the book exists. They don’t acknowledge that I exist. I was on Fox News. I’ve been banned from the network since 2010. There was a mistake, a glitch in the matrix and I got through and did one interview about this book on a Sunday night with the Steve Hilton program and pretty obviously none of the participants had even read the publicity materials. They’ve just done a Google search for negative book reviews and they found a pretty sloppy one.
That was the basis of the interview and the interview starts with the interviewer asserting, “Well, in your book you say this,” and that was an argument in the book I had cited in order to knock it down and so it’s not my view and things spiraled out of control from there.
The most interesting criticism, it is from those who say – sort of in the professional media world. That Trump is simply too incompetent as president to be much of a problem.
He’s not actually president at all. He’s not doing it and so therefore this – you don’t need to worry very much and my response to that as well, Trump is indeed – they’re right. He’s incredibly passive about all the parts of the job that are proper to the president. He’s surprisingly active in the parts of the job that are not proper to the president. He may be utterly disengaged from tax policy and healthcare policy, but he’s super involved in concealing his financial affairs and concealing his ties to the Russians.
Chris Martin: I think that makes sense. I personally think too that if you look at Trump’s past, he is good at certain sorts of business tactics and one of those is doing things surreptitiously.
David Frum: There’s a ferocious wield of power. This is the thing that really is wrong in the Michael Wolff book, which contains a lot of interesting material. I don’t want to slide it. But Wolff presents as a kind of an unamiable dotard.
Somebody that was really disengaged and helpless and almost pitiful and that same man has bent to his will. Those fierce personalities in American politics, from Mitch McConnell to HR McMaster. He bends people. That’s not a dotard.
Chris Martin: That’s an interesting theory. I have read a recent piece by a social psychologist at Northwestern, Dan McAdams. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the piece but he did talk about how some leaders rise out of admiration and some leaders rise out of fear and Donald Trump seems to use fear as a strategy and I believe indeed at least at the national level, his ability to elicit fear has helped bent people to his will.
Now moving on to Jon Haidt, you mentioned that you’re an admirer of Jon Haidt. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the moral psychology work that has been going on since Jon Haidt published his work The Righteous Mind.
But do you think there’s anything that moral psychologists and social psychologists miss when it comes to the political scene?
David Frum: I think there’s something that we generally miss. This really – it’s across many, many specialties and that is that because we regard racism as such an unforgivable, immoral evil, that when we’re dealing with ethnic friction, a lot of analysts and intellectuals want to draw some line and want to explain why the people who are expressing attitudes that could be described as racist, what – why you’re allowed to listen to what they say.
So what they do is they find some other way of explaining their behaviors because they don’t want to say – allow people to unfriend the people and say, “Well, that’s just a racist attitude.” So one of the things I think we need to begin is by accepting that ethnic animosity is the normal state of humanity.
It is not pathological behavior. It is normal behavior. It is to be expected and you should study it in exactly the same way that you would study the way lungs react to cotton fibers. If lungs are exposed to enough cotton fibers, your lungs will get sick and that’s not because they’re bad lungs and it’s not because they’re pathological lungs. That is how lungs react to cotton fiber.
Well, in the same way, that’s how people react to ethnic diversity in ways – they don’t always react – there are conditions in which they might react positively to it. There’s enough prosperity. If the diverse elements are filling empty niches in the local economy or society, that the locals badly want to see filled, then you can have a great positive reaction.
But you should expect ethnic animosity and shouldn’t pathologize it. When you see signs of it, you should study it and understand it for what it is.
Chris Martin: When you say positive reactions, are you making a subtle reference to countries like Canada and Australia?
David Frum: I’m making reactions like – think of what happens when a lot of the more [0:26:28] [Indiscernible] towns in the United Kingdom. If it weren’t for recent immigrants from the subcontinent, there wouldn’t be any medical services at all.
So you can have places where there’s a lot of ethnic tension and yet, everyone makes an exemption for Dr. Muhammad, the pediatrician, without whom there would be no pediatrician in the town at all and because he’s occupying a niche that would otherwise be empty. Then you have a very positive reaction. I don’t want to – I’m from Canada. I don’t want to romanticize the Canadian [Indiscernible] experience. It is not without friction. But it has gone better because the immigration has been more integrated.
I think Canada and Australia are both taking risks because these things all happen with [0:27:11] [Indiscernible] and Canadian immigration systems become – Canada’s intake is now – from my point of view – dangerously high and it is becoming – because Canada also allows for generous family reunification. You bring in the specialist, the expert. But he’s allowed to bring in all of his relatives and they typically are not as skilled as the expert himself.
Chris Martin: I think Australia in particular is quite different. Well, Australia and New Zealand because they tend to have more migration than the United States and the United States tends to not have as much. So going back to what you said, I think there might be more appreciation of skilled immigrants there.
David Frum: Yeah. Just in general, I think we all need to be a lot more – when you say what is wrong with the profession that – I think they want to study things, they want to defend the people they’re studying and so they are looking for ways – always around the centrality of ethnic conflict, ethnic animosity to the politics of a 21st century developed world.
From Hungary to Poland to Germany to France, to Britain, to the United States, where you’ve had authoritarian populist parties, they draw strength from many places but the trigger, the piece of the match in the haystack is immigration.
Chris Martin: Now moving to colleges and universities, which is what Heterodox Academy is about, if you were to give a talk to American undergraduates, let’s say at any university in the country, not necessarily about liberalism or conservatism but about the state of the American republic in general and things they can do to solve problems that are relevant to the American people right now, what sort of things would you say?
David Frum: I have been in this position and here’s the advice I always give, which is sign up for boring things. Sign up for committees.
If there’s a candidate you like, don’t sign up for the social media campaign. Sign up for the door-knocking. Democracy is boring. Democracy requires you to get along with people who are different from you and who you may not entirely like.
We have built for society, but especially for the – an environment in which everything is individuated. They’re algorithms. They’re robot slaves that make sure that the music that comes your way and the books that come your way, everything is designed to be agreeable. If you are a college student, especially if you go to a pretty good college, then you’re in a world that just – the food – everything is wonderful compared to what it was like when I was a college student.
I mean the car doors closed with a satisfying click. That wasn’t true in 1980. There’s espresso anywhere you want it and like in 97 varieties, 100 kinds of tea. You’re a vegetarian. That’s easy to adapt to.
The clothes fit better. Everything is better and so you become kind of authentically shocked. That’s what happens with these campus protests. You become authentically shocked when you’re subjected to something you don’t like.
But if you’ve ever served on a PTA, if you’ve ever taken part in the Union Movement back when there was one or a Veterans Movement, you would discover you are constantly encountering things you didn’t like and you had to deal with them and that is the thing that really has been lost and that’s why I think younger people are more susceptible to illiberal movements than their elders have been. They’re more shocked when they discover things don’t go their way.
Chris Martin: I think because of prosperity, American prosperity and the prosperity you see at colleges, you do see a certain emphasis on hedonism and self-actualization and people are reluctant to do things that are boring because they don’t feel like self-actualization pursuits even though if you’re really committed to values to making the world better, you do have to do things that are boring. I entirely agree. Now you end the book on a hopeful note. But how hopeful are you really?
David Frum: I’m not a hopeful person by temperament. But in the past, I’ve become more hopeful by intellection and so my advice – maybe this is advice to myself but I pass it on as if it’s words of wisdom to others is think like a pessimist but act like an optimist.
I do see levels of civic engagement rising. Certainly I will notice at places like The Atlantic, the New York Times and Washington Post. Not only a more – we have more readers but the readers are reading more intensely and I think some of the message that – about the troubled institution is really getting through and I am heartened by the number of people who understand that the thing you have to do to save the country from Donald Trump is not elect some liberal messiah but rebuild congress and make congress work better and rebuild local governance, which is even more important to make that work better.
Chris Martin: Do you have any closing thoughts?
David Frum: I think my main closing thought would be to say we only need to see that Donald Trump was in some ways God’s judgment on us. We’re not being good enough citizens and he should inspire us to make – there’s a little bit of self-improvement here and one of the things that’s useful about him is because he’s – whenever you’re tempted to say or do anything a little hot, ask yourself, “Would Donald Trump do this?” and if he would, then don’t do it.
He’s like an inverse Jesus. I mean he’s like the perfect example of what not to be and he may yet discover that his contribution to American society is – decades afterwards people will say, “You can’t do that. That’s something Donald Trump would do or say.”
Chris Martin: When I was younger, I had a refrigerator magnet that said, “If you can’t be a good example, be a terrible warning.”
David Frum: That’s very good.
Chris Martin: Yeah. Well, I think someone right now is a terrible warning. Well, it has been great having you on the show. Thank you.
David Frum: Thank you so much.
Transcription by Prexie Magallanes as Trans-Expert at Fiverr.com