In two thousand years’ time, it will be possible to see whether the United States is now so rotten to the core that the decay has become irreversible. Some latter-day Edward Gibbon, musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, will feel impelled to write the history of the decline and fall of the American empire, and will be able to see what part Donald Trump played as a perhaps rather minor though singularly decadent Caesar in the hollowing out of the Republic before the sack of Washington.
We journalists cannot afford to wait that long. We rush to judgment, and are under a professional obligation to treat what is happening today as exceptionally disastrous.
The most we can hope for is that some scraps of our work may form the raw materials of history. And here David Frum’s admirable book will probably constitute more valuable evidence than most of us provide, for he conveys with unusual vividness and perspicacity the agony inflicted by Trump on upright North American conservatives.
Hillary Clinton failed to stop the present President, but so did the Republican Party. He routed his opponents by behaving with such outrageous and shameless mendacity that they had no idea how to cope. It was like playing golf against an opponent who cheats continuously and blatantly. Players brought up to respect the rules found themselves helpless in large part because they felt so angry.
Their indignation played into Trump’s hands, for the more furious the Establishment became, the more he delighted his supporters. He was their revenge on the snobbish, monied, moralising elite which behaved as if it had a divine right to rule America, and which despised the uneducated, struggling white working class which felt its troubles were ignored, and which found itself convicted of racism and bigotry when it protested against immigrants who seemed to be driving down wages.
As Frum reminds us, “Working-class white men suffered a nine per cent income decline between 1996 and 2014. Marriage, church attendance, civic participation, all plummeted.” Elite America did not care. After all, what liberal thinks marriage and religion are the bedrock of a thriving society?
Nor did elite America notice for a long time the opioid epidemic which last year led, through drug overdoses, to more American deaths than the entire Vietnam War. Elite America had other things to think about, which seemed more important. Frum searched the country’s greatest newspaper (a very good paper, by the way) and found:
“Between November 8, 2015, and November 8, 2016, the word ‘transgender’ appeared in the New York Times 1,169 times. The word ‘opioid’ — only 284.”
That was the year running up to the election won by Trump. He, unlike his rivals, spoke to America’s losers, the insecure young men who didn’t have any religion and weren’t even getting any sex, for who wants to have a relationship with a man so helpless and impoverished he is still living with his mother? Frum quotes a brilliant passage by Dale Beran about Trump’s appeal to this constituency:
“Since these men, like Trump, wear their insecurities on their sleeve, they fling insults in wild rabid bursts at everyone else.
“Trump the loser, the outsider, the hot mess, the pathetic joke, embodies this duality. Trump represents both the alpha and the beta. He is a successful person who, as the left often notes, is also the exact opposite — a grotesque loser, sensitive and prideful about his outsider status, ready at the drop of a hat to go on the attack, self-obsessed, selfish, abrogating, unquestioning of his own mansplaining and spreading, so insecure he must brag about assaulting women…
“But, what the left doesn’t realise is that this is not a problem for Trump’s younger supporters – rather, it’s the reason why they support him.
“Trump supporters voted for the con-man, the labyrinth with no centre, because the labyrinth with no centre is how they feel, how they feel the world works around them. A labyrinth with no centre is a perfect description of their mother’s basement with a terminal to an endless array of escapist fantasy worlds…
“Trump is loserdom embraced. Trump is the loser who has won.”
Frum describes how the Republicans ignored their own supporters as they decided what to offer the country in 2016:
“The Republican Party was built on a coalition of the nation’s biggest winners from globalisation and its biggest losers. The winners wrote the policy; the losers provided the votes. While the party elite coalesced upon more immigration, less secure health coverage, and one more Bush, the rank and file were frantically signalling: less immigration, better health coverage and no more Bushes.”
A gap opened into which Trump jumped. No moral qualms restrained him, and it was impossible to convict him of hypocrisy, for as Frum observes, he is the first post-religious conservative in America:
“What was ‘alt’ about the alt-right was precisely this stripping away of religiosity, to reveal a politics of resentment and domination ungrounded in any traditional moral claim.”
All this is profoundly embarrassing for Americans who know how to behave, and want their Republic led by a President who knows how to behave.
Frum remarks, in his Acknowledgments: “No single person could possibly plumb the foulnesses of the Trump presidency.” In this book he gives a more than adequate summary of Trump’s foulnesses. One’s appetite sickens as one is reminded of them. While Gibbon left “all licentious passages…in the obscurity of a learned language”, Frum gives them in plain English.
But how gloomy should all this make us? Conservatives are naturally tempted to be cultural pessimists. The world is not what it was, is quite clearly going to the dogs.
And yet the American Republic has repeatedly demonstrated its capacity to regenerate itself. Things have often been pretty bad in the past — a point Frum seldom acknowledges. Every president arrives in Washington promising to bring about “a new birth of freedom”.
Barack Obama has wonderful manners, an ability to behave with grace and restraint on any occasion. Trump, with his ability to behave like an oaf on any occasion, is a corrective to that.
But I am allowing myself to get blinded by personal antipathy. Frum himself claims, after describing how so many Republicans first attacked and then for the sake of their own advancement made their peace with Trump, that the President has “ripped the conscience out of half of the political spectrum and left a moral void where American conservatism used to be”.
That is overdrawn. Trump will inspire a reaction too. Reputable Republicans and Democrats will work out how to frame an appeal to the whole nation, and not just to the prosperous half of it. This will entail a recognition that some of the issues on which Trump campaigned, from immigration to decrepit infrastructure to the condition of the working class, were well chosen, and need careful attention.
In my opinion (which like many of my opinions could turn out to be sadly mistaken), the great American Republic will emerge stronger from this presidency, its institutions strengthened by the exertions required to restrain and correct Trump’s excesses, its constitution vindicated, its political parties brought closer to the people they claim to represent. As Frum himself writes:
“Perhaps the very darkness of the Trump experience can summon the nation to its senses and jolt Americans to a new politics of commonality, a new politics in which the Trump experience is remembered as the end of something bad, and not the beginning of something worse.”