David Frum’s journey to the White House began in Toronto. In 1975, Frum was a teenage volunteer on a provincial political campaign. The candidate belonged to the New Democratic Party, but Frum, whose political views had yet to solidify, was not supporting him out of solidarity. Frum rather signed on because he wanted to see a political race up close and his family happened to know the nominee. “The campaign’s headquarters was a 45-minute bus and subway ride from my parents’ house,” Frum wrote in the Canadian edition of his book What’s Right (1996). “I devoted the resulting reading time to a book that my mother had given me: the first volume of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. The horror of Soviet communism burst upon me like a bomb. A kind of evangelical fervour gripped me: everybody had to know about this! (Remember, I was fourteen.)”
Frum’s encounter with Solzhenitsyn as a precocious Canadian teenager set him on the path that eventually led to writing speeches for George W. Bush. In that capacity Frum is perhaps best known for helping coin the term “axis of evil,” a phrase intended to legitimize the invasion of Iraq by depicting it as part of a network of terror-supporting states as dangerous as the Axis nations of the Second World War. Frum’s primary career, however, has been as a journalist, and in this role the Wall Street Journal has fairly called him “one of the leading political commentators of his generation.” Since Donald Trump’s rise, Frum has arguably been his most outspoken critic on the right. Less than a week before Americans went to the polls to choose between Trump and Hillary Clinton, Frum published a strongly worded article ridiculing the Republican talking point that Clinton was so vicious that any GOP candidate, even one as offensive as Trump, would be better. “To demonstrate my distaste for people whose bodies contain mean bones, it’s proposed that I give my franchise to a man who boasts of his delight in sexual assault?” Frum wrote in the Atlantic. “Who mocks the disabled, who denounces immigrant parents whose son laid down his life for this country, who endorses religious bigotry.”
Given this background it is no surprise that Trumpocracy is an indictment of Trump. The book recounts the major moments of Trump’s election campaign before cataloguing and criticizing Trump’s many scandals. Frum is clear-eyed on the disastrous consequences of Trump’s presidency. But one of the questions Trump raises is historical: What is his relationship with organized conservativism? Frum depicts Trump as the corruption of a previously wayward but ultimately respectable political tradition. “He has ripped the conscience out of half of the political spectrum and left a moral void where American conservatism used to be.” Such an account requires us to forget the moral void that was already present during the Bush years.
That void is powerfully illustrated by Mohamedou Ould Slahi. Slahi was a prisoner at Guantánamo Bay between 2002 and 2016. In 2005 he managed to complete a 446-page hand-written manuscript in his cell. It was composed in English, a language Slahi achieved fluency in only while incarcerated. After Slahi tried to have the manuscript released, it was classified secret and deposited in a facility near Washington, D.C., where it languished for years while Slahi’s lawyers fought to clear its publication. Eventually a censored version, with 2,500 black-bar redactions, was published in 2015 as Guantánamo Diary. Now a second edition has been published without redactions. It documents the Bush administration’s embrace of torture and related crimes straight out of Solzhenitsyn. Contrary to Frum’s portrait of Trump as a break from a conscientious U.S. conservatism, the real story is one of amoral continuity.
A distinctive feature of Frum’s writing, aside from its nimble prose style, is that his brand of conservatism has long been a contrarian one. Well before Trump, Frum regularly criticized American conservatism in the name of making it stronger. He once wrote a magazine article that condemned Pat Buchanan, then on the verge of seeking the Republican presidential nomination, for his “sly Jew-baiting and his not-so-sly queer bashing.” Frum’s first book, Dead Right (1994) was published shortly afterwards. It again took aim at Buchanan-style paleo-conservatism, but also argued that more mainstream conservatives had compromised their commitment to small government in favour of “triviality and faddishness.”
After the 2008 financial crisis, Frum’s message changed. He argued that conservatives should accept a larger role for government. “There are things only government can do, and if we conservatives wish to be entrusted with the management of the government, we must prove that we care enough about government to manage it well,” he wrote in Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again. Frum’s post-2008 writings on issues such as Social Security, health care, and the environment have often staked out positions that a left-wing reader can agree with. The venerable left-wing magazine the Nation has gone so far as to call Frum “one of the media’s most effective anti-conservative, or at least anti-Republican, commentators.”
What makes Frum an anti-Republican rather than an anti-conservative—a critic of a party more than a set of first principles—is his stance on immigration and, especially, foreign affairs and national security. On Iraq for example, Frum has subsequently criticized how the invasion was managed and sold, but not the decision to go to war itself. As Frum told his Nation interviewer, “I believe in an American-led world order. I believe in the strength and power of America.” If Frum’s views on many domestic issues have moderated, he remains recognizably conservative on international issues related to war and terrorism. (Hence the title of his Atlantic election article: “The conservative case for voting for Clinton.”)
Trumpocracy contains a chapter on Trump’s stumbling and farcical efforts at diplomacy, the main outcomes of which have been to alienate the U.S. from its allies and to embolden Russia, whose military intelligence service is widely thought to have hacked the servers of the Democratic National Committee to aid Trump’s election. Overall, however, the book focuses on Trump’s domestic politics, an area in which Frum, apart from some qualified sympathy for Trump’s view on immigration, finds little common ground. The book as a whole offers a sober warning against Trump’s ongoing assaults on liberal democratic norms.
Much of Frum’s material will be familiar to anyone who follows the news: Trump’s pathological narcissism; a White House staffed by fiends and hobgoblins (communications director Anthony “the Mooch” Scaramucci, assistant to the president Omarosa Manigault-Newman); a Twitter account that re-circulates material from Nazis; the constant efforts to delegitimize the press and other organs of accountability; Trump’s admiration for the most sadistic and repugnant figures in public life, as evinced by his pardoning of racist ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio, and his dismissal of the sexual harassment accusations against former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes (“It’s very sad. Because he’s a very good person”). Frum catalogues Trump’s depravity in unflinching detail.
Frum aptly identifies Trump’s disregard for truth as a defining feature of his presidency. “No American president in history—no national political figure of any kind since at least senator Joe McCarthy—has trafficked more in untruths than Donald Trump,” Frum writes. If this aspect of Trump has long been familiar, there is something to be said for Frum bringing many specimens of Trump’s dishonesty all together in one place, so as to document the full scope of his mendacity.
Trump’s enablers have included Republican media personalities, politicians, donors, and more than a few intellectuals. In some cases Trump’s enablers have been corrupted by him. In others their function has been to reinforce Trump’s own worst tendencies. Frum notes that Trump has made unprecedented appointments of former or current military commanders to his cabinet and other positions. They include his chief of staff, secretary of defence, homeland security secretary, director of the federal bureau of prisons, and two national security advisors. Given the otherwise incompetent nature of Trump’s administration, Frum suggests that this is a dangerous arrangement. “High among those dangers is impatience with law,” he writes. A common outcome of military training is a willingness to do whatever it takes to win a battle. “That outlook, good in its place, must always be balanced in a republic of laws by the lawyer’s insistence on the supremacy of legality.” Trump’s contempt for law is likely only to be exacerbated by his decision to surround himself with advisors with military instincts.
Frum argues that Trump ultimately represents an unprecedented assault on the norms that have constrained the American president since Watergate:
Tax disclosure refused for the first time since Gerald Ford. Conflict-of-interest rules ignored for the first time since Richard Nixon. Running a business corporation while in office for the first time since Lyndon Johnson. The first appointment of a relative to a senior government position since John F. Kennedy named his brother Robert attorney general. The first appointment of a presidential son or daughter to a senior White House position since Franklin Roosevelt’s son James. The first use of presidential patronage to enrich the president’s family since Ulysses S. Grant.
The one positive trait Frum associates with Trump is a lack of hypocrisy. His flaws were plain during his presidential campaign, during which he did not present himself as a traditional politician but as an outsider who would cleanse Washington with fire. In this way he spoke authentically to the concerns of his supporters within the GOP, who felt shut out of the traditional two-party system. “Just 13 percent described themselves as ‘very conservative,’” Frum writes. “What set them apart from other Republicans was their economic insecurity and their cultural anxiety.” Trump tapped into that insecurity and anxiety in a manner that allowed him to break free of the rules of partisan politics, by establishing a triangular relationship between himself and the two traditional parties. “Donald Trump created in effect a three-party system in the United States, by building a new Trump party in-between the Democratic and Republican parties.”
Trumpocracy contains scattered references to the presidency of George W. Bush, not all of which are positive. Their primary function however is to posit Bush and Trump as opposing figures. Trump expects servile deference and hysterical praise from his subordinates. The president whom Frum once served, by contrast, “distrusted flattery and flatterers. His eyes would narrow and a cynical smile would form, as if to say, ‘Now I see what you are.’” Trump’s rants about the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are contrasted with Bush’s wise European policy. “During his own tenure in the White House as speechwriter for George W. Bush,” the jacket of Trumpocacy states, “Frum witnessed the ways the presidency was limited not by law but by tradition, propriety, and public outcry, all now weakened.” The Bush years are portrayed as a time when, unlike now, morality and sanity prevailed. But how plausible is Frum’s attempt to cabin off Trump from Bush?
“Modern political lies are so big,” Hannah Arendt wrote, “that they require a complete rearrangement of the whole factual texture—the making of another reality, as it were, into which they will fit without seam, crack, or fissure, exactly as the facts fitted into their own original context.” Arendt, somewhat eccentrically, used “lies” to include false statements a speaker believes but should not. Bush and Trump both created their own alternative realities in this sense.
The basis of Trump’s fantasies is mostly egotistical: he has the biggest crowds, he cuts the best deals, he is amply endowed (financially and otherwise). Bush’s fabrications were geopolitical: Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, mission accomplished. But Trump and Bush both rival Richard Nixon in their propensity to create dream-palaces of the kind Arendt described. Each poisoned the public sphere with enormously destructive falsehoods. If there is a difference so far regarding their alternate realities it is in Trump’s favour: his has not yet claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
American conservatism has long exhibited an antagonistic attitude toward instruments of international justice. Conservative parties in Canada, Australia, and across Europe have reconciled themselves to the fact that their countries are states signatories to the International Criminal Court (ICC), a flawed but necessary institution. The U.S. has never ratified the ICC treaty. To be sure, support for the ICC on the part of the Clinton and Obama administrations was lukewarm at best. But conservative Republicans have long opposed any version of a global court due to their hostility to all attempts to hold the United States accountable for its actions abroad.
During the lead-up to the Iraq war, United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix warned that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Vice-president Dick Cheney and other Bush administration officials responded by attacking the credibility of Blix, his agency, and the UN as a whole. When Trump, during his campaign, referred to “the utter weakness and incompetence of the United Nations” he was only following the lead of Bush and many other Republicans.
Among the most important issues faced by both Bush and Trump has been human-caused climate change. Rising global temperatures now exacerbate everything from wildfires in California to rising sea levels at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. The Bush administration withdrew the U.S. from the Kyoto Protocol. Rather than replace the problematic treaty with an adequate response to climate change, Bush appointees suppressed the findings of government climate researchers and engaged in repeated “incidents of political interference [as] part of a larger pattern of attacks on scientific integrity by the Bush administration,” as a scathing 2007 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Government Accountability Project put it. Trump, who has called global warming a hoax, has announced that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Agreement at the first available opportunity (under the withdrawal rules, the day after the 2020 presidential election). Trump has appointed numerous climate change deniers to high-level positions in his administration, including—tragically, pathetically, inevitably—the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Trump may have campaigned as a populist, but he has clearly governed as a conservative. In the Senate, votes by conservative Republican Ted Cruz agree with Trump’s views 92 percent of the time, those by left-wing Democrat Elizabeth Warren only 11 percent. In December, after Frum submitted the manuscript of Trumpocracy, Trump tweeted on behalf of Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore, who at the time was beset by credible allegations that he had harassed or sexually assaulted teenage girls: “The people of Alabama will do the right thing. [Moore’s opponent] Doug Jones is Pro-Abortion, weak on Crime, Military and Illegal Immigration, Bad for Gun Owners and Veterans and against the WALL.” One hopes Bush would not have supported an alleged sex offender such as Moore. But the issues cited in Trump’s tweet all play to the concerns of conservative Republicans, who largely supported Bush.
Frum, in short, exaggerates the differences between Bush and Trump. This is not to say there are no differences at all. Trump is more hostile to immigration and free trade than the former president, and less enamoured of foreign intervention. But American conservativism has traditionally been a diverse movement made up of proponents who inevitably disagree on some issues.
There is a more significant difference between the two politicians. It can be seen by recalling a description of modern political debate that sees all minimally plausible political theories as occupying an egalitarian plateau. Each theory affirms in its own way that members of the political community are moral equals. This notion of equality is a moral idea, not to be confused with equality of resources or talents. Rather it amounts to the belief that all members of the political community have interests that matter equally. The government therefore must respond to them, not necessarily with equal treatment, but with equal consideration and respect. Where the left and right have historically disagreed, on this account, is on the necessary preconditions for treating people as equals. In the economic sphere for example the left has defended some form of resource equality while the right has emphasized equal rights to one’s property and economic opportunity.
It is not hard to name right-wing thinkers whom this model doesn’t fit (Ayn Rand, Leo Strauss), but these thinkers are widely considered cranks in part because they do not occupy the egalitarian plateau. The diversity of right-wing thought has long included more respectable voices whose central arguments do endorse moral equality. They range from social conservatives such as Canada’s own George Grant to Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick, arguably the 20th century’s most rigorous libertarian. This wide acceptance of moral equality is not surprising: in the modern world, it is far more philosophically plausible and politically palatable to argue over what equal respect entails than it is to reject moral equality outright. This is why American presidents have long paid at least lip service to all men, and more recently all women, being created equal.
George W. Bush was no exception. In the same speech in which he referred to an axis of evil, Bush spoke of the “need to prepare our children to read and succeed in school,” taking “our children” to include all American children. Today it is normal to extend moral consideration beyond state borders and affirm the moral equality of all human beings, a perspective American presidents have been happy to adopt when convenient. Hence the passages in Bush’s speech graphically describing human rights violations the Iraqi regime had committed against its own people.
Critics of American presidents have often charged that their affirmations of equality really are just lip service. Certainly in Bush’s case it was a strange response to the Iraqi regime “leaving the bodies of mothers huddled over their dead children,” as his speech put it, for him to do the same. Whether it comes to America’s school programs or its foreign policy, critics of Bush and other presidents have often called for them to act in a manner that better lives up to their egalitarian rhetoric.
Trump is distinctive for not even paying lip service to equality. His rhetorical attacks on Mexican immigrants, African-American football players, and Muslims; his reluctance to condemn white supremacists; his sympathy for the racist conspiracy theory that denies that the United States’ first black president is American—it is impossible to reconcile these nauseating aspects of Trump’s record with even a minimal commitment to moral equality. I believe this is what Frum is getting at when he says there is no hypocrisy in Trump. Particularly during the campaign, Trump did not employ noble rhetoric about equality (or anything else). He was instead open about his contempt: for communities of colour; for his female opponent; for everything except himself and his cramped and exclusionary vision of American society.
One of the most extreme things Trump said during the campaign concerned how he would prevent terrorism: “When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families.” Trump was indicating his willingness to disregard human rights in pursuit of national security. For Bush this was not just rhetoric. It was policy.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed that people who fell into the hands of the secret police usually did not try to escape. “It isn’t just that you don’t put up any resistance; you even walk down the stairs on tiptoe, as you are ordered to do, so your neighbours won’t hear,” he wrote in The Gulag Archipelago. Because the victims of Stalinism were so often innocent they were unprepared for the knock on the door. This sometimes left them with a nagging sense of complicity after the fact. After his own arrest Solzhenitsyn was haunted by questions he found difficult to answer. “So why did I keep silent? Why, in my last minute out in the open, did I not attempt to enlighten the hoodwinked crowd?”
Mohamedou Ould Slahi had a similar reaction to his own arrest. It occurred in 2001 in his native Mauritania, when members of the West African country’s security service showed up at his door. After a week in detention he was informed he was being transferred to Jordan and was taken to the airport by agents who left his legs unshackled, thereby providing an opportunity to break away. Rather than seize it, Slahi co-operated with his escorts. “I could easily have run away and reached the public terminal before anybody could catch me,” he writes. “I could at least have forcibly passed the message to the public, and hence to my family, that I was kidnapped. But I didn’t do it, and I have no explanation for why not.”
Slahi did not know it at the time, but the Jordanian rendition team that brought him to Jordan was following a pattern, one that Human Rights Watch described in a 2008 report. It noted that “from 2001 until at least 2004, Jordan’s General Intelligence Department served as a proxy jailer for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), holding prisoners that the CIA apparently wanted kept out of circulation, and later handing some of them back to the CIA.” Slahi was originally told that he would be in Jordan only for a few days, but this soon proved false. During his first interrogation his captors asked him what he had done. When he said he had done nothing, they burst out in laughter. “Oh, very convenient! You have done nothing but you are here!” To be a detainee was to be deemed guilty, a rationalization Solzhenitsyn’s captors had also employed. As a colonel in the Soviet ministry of state security put it: “We are not going to sweat to prove the prisoner’s guilt to him. Let him prove to us that he did not have hostile intent.”
Slahi was incarcerated in Jordan for eight months. Prison rules ostensibly allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to all prisoners. Whenever the ICRC visited the prison in which Slahi was housed, however, he was hidden in a cellar, one of several steps taken to deny him contact with the outside world. Throughout his detention Slahi experienced acute stress and depression. His interrogations, which revolved around terror charges he knew nothing about, eventually turned violent. Slahi however suggests that the worst part was the psychological abuse. It involved having to listen to another detainee be beaten with an unidentified hard object outside the interrogation room. This lasted until the detainee was crying for his life and Slahi was shaking with fear.
In July 2002 Slahi was transferred to the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, where he was again interrogated about a terror operation he knew nothing about. Two weeks later, Slahi underwent rendition for the third time, to Guantánamo. During his transfer to Afghanistan, Slahi was already so broken that he had to be dragged on board the airplane. During that gruelling flight—prior to which he was made to wear a diaper—he was shackled, blindfolded, and earmuffed. The conditions of his longer flight from Afghanistan to Cuba were even worse. He was again earmuffed, this time with a set that had such an excruciating grip that his ears bled for several days. Equally painful goggles blocked out his sight. Every so often, a guard would remove his earmuffs and speak into his ear, “You know, you didn’t make any mistake: your mom and dad made the mistake when they produced you.” After being strapped into the plane, Slahi had a mask placed over his face and a bag put on his head. The belt strapping him in was so tight it constricted his breathing. A terrified Slahi did not know how to say “tight” in English: “I kept saying, ‘MP, Sir, I cannot breathe!…MP, SIR, please.’ But it seemed like my pleas for help got lost in a vast desert.”
At Guantánamo, Slahi was sexually humiliated by female interrogators. He was warned that, if he did not confess, he would spend the rest of his life at Guantánamo; he was told that his family was in danger if he did not co-operate; subjected to extreme noise and light; constantly shackled by his wrists to the floor so that he was unable to stand without stooping, triggering sciatic pain in his lower back; and made to experience extreme cold in a punishment cell known as the cold room. This last technique, Slahi notes, has long-term health consequences that are difficult to trace back to a torturer. “The torture squad was so well trained that they were performing almost perfect crimes, avoiding leaving any obvious evidence.”
Slahi’s renditions to Jordan and Afghanistan were at the hands of the CIA. After he arrived at Guantánamo, responsibility for his interrogation was divided between different agencies. The redacted edition of Guantánamo Diary left open the possibility that the CIA was among them. The restored edition makes clear that it was the work of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and various branches of military intelligence. Military interrogators had a much higher cruelty threshold than their FBI counterparts, to the point that a schism developed between the FBI and military intelligence, due to the latter’s adoption of the extreme interrogation methods that the CIA had been employing at its rendition sites. The FBI viewed such tactics as so inhumane and counter-productive that it eventually withdrew from joint interrogations.
Military interrogators subjected Slahi to extreme sleeplessness. It occurred when he was placed in an isolation cell that admitted no light:
The cell—better, the box—was cooled down to the point that I was shaking most of the time. I was forbidden from seeing the light of the day; every once in a while they gave me a rec-time at night to keep me from seeing or interacting with any detainees. I was living literally in terror. For the next seventy days I wouldn’t know the sweetness of sleeping; interrogation 24 hours a day, three and sometimes four shifts a day. I rarely got a day off. I don’t remember sleeping one night quietly.
The methods used on Slahi recall those used on Solzhenitsyn. The Russian writer’s interrogation had lasted for 96 hours and was made up, Solzhenitsyn wrote, of sleeplessness, lies, and threats. The sleeplessness in particular was “a great form of torture: it left no visible marks and could not provide grounds for complaint even [in] an inspection—something unheard of anyway.” Forcing prisoners to go without sleep for days did more than make them experience extreme tiredness. Withholding the biological imperative of sleep “befogs the reason, undermines the will, and the human being ceases to be himself, to be his own ‘I.’”
The CIA has long been aware of the lineage of the methods it employs. Guantánamo Diary cites a 1956 CIA report titled “Communist Control Techniques: An Analysis of the Methods Used by Communist State Police in the Arrest, Interrogation, and Indoctrination of Persons Regarded as ‘Enemies of the State.’” Whereas in recent years apologists for torture have preferred to speak of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and “special interrogation plans,” the CIA report is refreshing in its avoidance of euphemism. “These methods do, of course, constitute torture and physical coercion. All of them lead to serious disturbances of many bodily processes.”
If Slahi was unable to provide information about terror operations he had no knowledge of, this was not an aspect of reality Guantánamo could easily accommodate. Slahi had to be withholding what he knew. For this reason, a year after Slahi arrived at Guantánamo, he became subject to a “special interrogation plan,” approved by then-secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld. After it went into effect Slahi’s captors became less concerned not to leave traces of their work.
The plan saw Slahi removed from his cell by soldiers in riot gear who blindfolded him and placed a bag over his head before placing him on a boat that drove around for several hours. The purpose was to deceive Slahi into believing he was undergoing rendition for a fourth time, to Egypt, where he would experience torture beyond human limit. During the boat ride Slahi nearly suffocated and was beaten so badly he could not stand or speak. When he passed out he was woken with ammonia and beaten again.
Solzhenitsyn observed that greed played a central role in keeping the gulag running. Transportation to the gulag was a long, brutal process. It involved being packed into crowded train cars and unloaded at intermediate transit prisons where non-political prisoners served the role of trustees. Such an arrangement allowed officials to keep a portion of the money budgeted for salaries. Rather than having to pay the trustees, the gulag’s managers gave them a free hand in their dealings with newly arrived political prisoners, whom they often robbed. And, as Solzhenitsyn put it, “they also take things from us honestly.” Political prisoners could pay trustees for various favours, such as changing their departure time or not putting them in a cell with thieves, non-political criminals who were even more vicious than the jailers.
Guantánamo operationalized greed in a different way. This is documented by Murat Kurnaz, whose detention coincided with Slahi’s. Kurnaz, a resident of Germany, was on a religious pilgrimage in Pakistan when police at a checkpoint ordered him off a bus and took him into custody before turning him over to the United States. Once at Guantánamo, Kurnaz was told that his arrest had been facilitated by a financial incentive directed at local agencies in Pakistan. “When I was apprehended, everyone knew that there was money to be made by turning in foreigners. Lots of Pakistanis were sold as well. Doctors, taxi drivers, fruit and vegetable sellers, many of whom I later met in Guantánamo.” Kurnaz’s discussion of his bounty, which he was told was US$3,000, appears in his own 2006 memoir, Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo. Although Slahi was not brought in this way, Guantánamo as a whole was the product of large numbers of bounties paid in Pakistan and elsewhere.
A major difference between Guantánamo and the gulag is that Guantánamo has been within the reach of law. Human rights groups working on behalf of prisoners launched lawsuits that challenged their lack of basic procedural safeguards. One such challenge resulted in the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision Boumediene v. Bush, which allowed Slahi to challenge his detention in 2009. Thus his case, unlike Solzhenitsyn’s, did include a trial to determine whether his detention was justified, albeit one held eight years after his arrest.
Slahi was arrested because he was believed to be an active member of al-Qaeda. Multiple pieces of Slahi’s background appeared to suggest as much. He received weapons training in Afghanistan at an al-Qaeda camp; he was in contact with Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who was accused of helping organize the 9/11 attacks, and his cousin was on al-Qaeda’s shura council, the body just below Osama bin Laden in the terror organization’s hierarchy. Finally, Slahi was thought to be part of the so-called millennium bomb plot. It involved Ahmed Ressam, who was arrested in 1999 after getting on a ferry in Victoria, B.C., and trying to disembark in Port Angeles, Washington state. U.S. Customs agents found the makings of a bomb in the trunk of Ressam’s rental car, with which he had been planning to destroy the Los Angeles airport. Ressam lived in Montreal, where Slahi also briefly resided. Canadian and U.S. intelligence agencies suspected Slahi, who attended the same mosque as Ressam, of having provided assistance to him.
These allegations were enough for Slahi to be presumed guilty by his torturers. When the case against him was finally subjected to courtroom scrutiny, however, it fell apart. The judge noted that the training Slahi received in Afghanistan had taken place in 1990, before al-Qaeda had taken up terrorism against the United States. Slahi’s training had been for the purpose of fighting the Soviet-sponsored communist government, a cause the U.S. supported. As for Ahmed Ressam, his time in Montreal did not overlap with Slahi’s. The two never met. Slahi did have contact with his cousin who was in al-Qaeda, but this relative had been opposed to the 9/11 attacks and had tried to persuade Osama bin Laden not to carry them out, an effort documented in The 9/11 Commission Report. Slahi occasionally performed favours for his relative, but they involved activities unrelated to violence, such as helping to electronically transfer money to a family member. As for al-Qaeda member bin al-Shibh, Slahi barely knew him. Both men were living in Germany in 1999 when bin al-Shibh and two friends met a stranger on a train with whom they discussed jihad and their hope to go to Chechnya to fight the Russians. The stranger suggested they contact Slahi. When the three did so, Slahi put them up for the night and suggested that they could train for fighting Russians as he had, in Afghanistan. But there was no discussion of violence beyond the Chechen-Russian conflict, and no discussion of Slahi harming anyone.
“The evidence does show that [Slahi] provided some support to al-Qaeda, or to people he knew to be al-Qaeda,” Judge James Robertson concluded. “Such support was sporadic, however, and, at the time of his capture, non-existent.” Slahi’s interactions with al-Qaeda members, importantly, did not show he was a member himself, the ostensible grounds for his imprisonment. “Rather, they tend to support Salahi’s submission that he was attempting to find the appropriate balance—avoiding close relationships with al-Qaeda members, but also trying to avoid making himself an enemy.” Judge Robertson ordered Slahi freed in 2010, but an appeal by the Obama administration meant he was not let go until 2016, 14 years after his initial arrest.
In addition to his civilian trial, Slahi was also subject to military commission hearings at Guantánamo. A primary purpose of his interrogations was to gather evidence that could be used against him in such hearings. A central lesson of his case concerns the profound procedural inadequacy of military terror courts relative to civilian ones. By favouring military tribunals over civilian trials, the Bush administration exhibited a cynical contempt for truth, both factual and moral.
This became clear to the prosecutor assigned to assemble the case against Slahi at his military tribunal, a Marine named Stuart Couch. Couch had joined the prosecution in the hope that, in his words, he would “get a crack at the guys who attacked the United States.” In 2003 however, after reviewing Slahi’s file, Couch saw that Slahi had falsely confessed to being a terrorist as a result of his torture. Couch was moved in particular by a fake letter that stated Slahi’s mother had been detained and threatened to bring her to Guantánamo, as well as a sudden admission of guilt that Slahi offered after being subject to the U.S.-approved torture plan. Guantánamo Diary quotes an interview in which Couch describes the effect these discoveries had on him:
It was at the end of this, [after] hearing all of this information, reading all this information, months and months and months of wrangling with the issue, that I was in church this Sunday, and we had a baptism. We got to the part of the liturgy where the congregation repeats—and I’m paraphrasing here, but the essence is that we respect the dignity of every human being and seek peace and justice on earth. And when we spoke those words that morning, there were a lot of people in that church, but I could have been the only one there. I just felt this incredible, all right, there it is. You can’t come in here on a Sunday, and as a Christian, subscribe to this belief of dignity of every human being and say I will seek justice and peace on the earth, and continue to go with the prosecution using that kind of evidence. And at that point I knew what I had to do.
Couch’s epiphany amounted to the realization that he had fallen off the egalitarian plateau. Like the FBI, he deemed the methods used against Slahi so objectionable that he removed himself from Slahi’s case and refused to be part of his prosecution.
At its height under Stalin, the gulag is estimated to have incarcerated at least two million people. Guantánamo, at its peak, housed 779 prisoners. Even factoring in Guantánamo’s network of feeder sites in the Middle East and Afghanistan, there is no comparison in scale. The Center for Constitutional Rights and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have also done important work exposing injustices at Guantánamo. The legal universe that generated the gulag permitted no equivalent NGO ferment.
But if Guantánamo does not match the gulag either in size or pure lawlessness, it is recognizably an island in the archipelago that Solzhenitsyn described. According to a Seton Hall University analysis of U.S. government data, less than 10 percent of detainees were classified as al-Qaeda fighters. The same 2006 study, which examined 517 detainees, found that 86 percent were arrested after the payment of a bounty. In addition to Couch, six other military prosecutors requested reassignment or resigned due to concerns that hearings conducted at Guantánamo have failed to meet minimal standards of justice. Opposition to the twilight world described in Solzhenitsyn’s prison saga should entail opposition to Guantánamo. Not because the two are identical, but because the affinities between them, which include the imprisonment and torture of innocent people, are terrible enough.
Frum has often retold his origin story tracing his politics back to his reading of Solzhenitsyn. Yet as the axis-of-evil speechwriter, he served the administration that created the Guantánamo Bay detention camp. That administration responded to terrorism in a manner not subject to strong legal oversight. It was, to borrow a phrase, impatient with law. Ironically, the case Slahi was accused of being mixed up with—Ahmed Ressam’s bomb plot—ended in what has long been an example of a well-handled terror trial. It demonstrated that suspected terrorists are best tried by open civilian courts, because their respect for the rights of the accused allows them to more accurately address questions of guilt and innocence. Insofar as the Bush administration’s response to terrorism was analogous to a war, this entailed that it was conducted with fewer rights safeguards. By coming up with a pithy way of expressing the thought that opposing terrorism, and the regimes that allegedly sponsor it, is akin to waging war, Frum contributed to the climate of unreason in which the methods inflicted on Slahi became possible.
Of course as a mere speechwriter, Frum did not write policy or weigh in on decisions regarding Guantánamo. Accountability, however, is something we face not only for our individual actions, and the differences they make. We can also be judged for our actions as part of a group. Imagine a group of people who decide to hide a body. One of them is physically weak, so that when they all push the corpse into a river one night, her effort contributes nothing. On an individual level she plays no causal role in making the body disappear. She is still complicit in the group’s wrong. Frum is complicit in the moral disaster of Guantánamo in a similar way. Not because he caused it, but because he participated in the administration that made it possible. In particular, he participated actively in the project of justifying and selling a war on terror.
Frum has also been complicit as a journalist. Not long after Guantánamo began receiving prisoners, it attracted criticism in the international press. “As American forces advanced [in Afghanistan], Europe’s left-wing press invented atrocity stories to keep them company,” Frum wrote in The Right Man, his 2003 White House memoir. “The left-wing British tabloid the Mirror accused the United States of torture for the offence of handcuffing al-Qaeda terrorists in transit to Guantánamo Bay and issuing them plugs to protect their ears from engine noise en route.” Accusations of human rights violations were the invention of unreliable critics; all Guantánamo detainees are terrorists; Slahi’s bloody ears were for his own protection. The falsehood quotient in Frum’s account was high.
Frum’s writings have sought to delegitimize not only external critics of Guantánamo, such as the European press, but also internal ones, such as the FBI. The federal agency was deeply implicated in Slahi’s ordeal, having twice questioned him in Africa before he was arrested and shipped to Jordan. Nevertheless, the FBI’s institutional ethos did not tolerate torture, which made it unwilling to participate in the methods used on Slahi and other prisoners. Frum had this ethos in mind when he called for a transformation of American security institutions in his 2004 book An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror, co-authored with Richard Perle.
“The transformation must begin with the single worst performer among those institutions: the FBI,” Frum and Perle wrote. “The FBI is essentially a police force, and like all good police forces, it goes to great lengths to respect the constitutional rights of the suspects it investigates.” This concern with respecting rights renders the FBI “inherently disabled” in dealing with accused terrorists who are not citizens. “Noncitizen terrorist suspects are not members of the American national community, and they have no proper claim on the rights Americans accord one another.”
The reference to “suspects” is chilling. This is not because the rejection of torture presupposes that every victim is innocent. Reasons not to torture even convicted terrorists include the fact that people will say anything to make torture stop, resulting in worthless intelligence (such as Slahi’s confession). But Frum’s reference to suspects takes in a wider class of individuals than those convicted at trial. This is consistent with the view of national security as a theatre of war. According to that view, being unwilling to deprive someone of basic liberties until they have been found guilty is a pathetic feature of procedural liberalism. Slahi was not American and was a terror suspect. It follows that the methods employed on him were appropriate. Conservatism and Stalinism kiss.
In 2006 Frum took a tour of Guantánamo. One reason the U.S. military may offer such tours is to generate favourable press coverage. If so, Frum’s visit paid off. In a National Post article about his trip he cited transcripts of detainee testimony given at review tribunal hearings. The detainees’ words suggested that they were, in Frum’s sarcastic summary, “innocent goatherds and blameless wedding guests swept up by blind American injustice.” According to Frum however the testimony was remarkable in each case only for its implausibility. There was no excuse for “those in the west who succumb so easily to the deceptions of terrorists who cannot invent even half-way plausible lies.” Frum’s account of his visit uncritically recycled the official administration view. Tours of the kind he went on do not permit visitors to speak with detainees such as Slahi, or to concerned military staff such as Couch. This renders them worthless as fact-finding exercises.
Finally, as recently as 2009, Frum defended the Bush administration from criticism of its interrogation practices. Frum was prompted to do so by Barack Obama’s admission that the U.S. had used torture. Although Obama’s admission was limited to the use of waterboarding, Frum argued that it went too far. “Maybe waterboarding was wrong even in 2002-2003. The Bush administration itself has acted on the understanding that it was unnecessary after 2003,” he wrote in his National Post column. “But make no mistake: What is going on in this so-called ‘torture’ debate is an attempt to hijack humanitarian feeling to smuggle into international law new claims on behalf of the world’s most conscienceless criminals.” The use of scare quotes around torture and the robotic insistence that torture’s only victims are terrorists are bad enough. But the most pernicious aspect of Frum’s statement may be its insinuation that the use of torture at Guantánamo, which at the beginning of 2018 still housed 41 prisoners, is old news no longer worth dwelling on.
A longstanding fantasy has been that torture can be institutionalized in a controlled way. But torture is like a fire that always escapes the fireplace. It is inevitably directed at the innocent. And on a national level, it inevitably corrupts the institutions of any country willing to use it. During the Algerian war of independence, the colonial French government employed torture on a widespread scale. The phrase “la gangrene” was used to describe how torture, in the words of historian Neil MacMaster, “was seen as a form of cancer that inexorably led to the degeneration of the liberal democratic state, its institutions (particularly the army and the judiciary), its core values and fundamental respect for human rights and dignity.”
The United States under Bush was infected by the gangrene seen in Algeria and other torture regimes. One of the institutions most affected was the Republican Party. When Trump during his campaign called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” he was singling out for abuse a group that had long been mistreated under Bush, the former president’s rhetoric about recognizing Islam as a religion of peace notwithstanding. For years, Frum has participated in the gangrene’s advance as a Bush speechwriter and a Guantánamo apologist. This prevents him from seeing how the annihilationist conservatism of the Bush years foreshadowed Donald Trump.
In addition to creating Guantánamo Bay’s detention camp and invading Iraq, Bush signed the Patriot Act, which legalized warrantless wiretapping and indefinite detention. Although his administration took steps to eliminate racial profiling in federal law enforcement, it also instituted regulations that facilitated profiling on religious or national-origin grounds, with the result that “immigrants and visitors from Arab and Middle Eastern countries were subjected to increased scrutiny, including interviews, registration, and in some cases removal,” as a 2004 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report put it. Bush opposed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would have prevented discrimination based on sexual orientation, and announced his support for a constitutional amendment to deny legal recognition to same-sex unions. The common theme running through these and other initiatives of Bush’s administration is a glaring disrespect for rights. A similar disrespect now emanates from Trump in his utterances on Muslims, Mexican immigrants, transgender people, and countless other groups.
Unlike Bush, Trump has sometimes been too floundering and incompetent to turn his utterances into law. His contributions to public discourse however are bad enough in themselves. The president is a loud voice in the public sphere, and what he says has a huge influence on what counts as acceptable. Hence the renewed prominence of far-right groups since Trump’s election. More importantly, equality is the philosophy of democracy. It is naive to think that a president who is openly contemptuous of equality can be a reliable manager of democratic institutions. For these reasons Trump’s rhetoric has indeed been a step down from Bush’s, which is no small loss. But of course it is not just a president’s words that matter. So do their policies. And Bush, unlike Trump, was not so prone to disorganization and chaos that he struggled to implement his deadliest ideas.
The United States may someday have a president who respects moral equality in both words and action. To date, however, few presidents have fallen farther from the egalitarian plateau than Trump and Bush. Frum’s view of Trump as a break from his predecessor relies upon a self-serving amnesia we have long been warned against. In Milan Kundera’s words, the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.