Shannon Carey, a teacher from California, tweeted recently about the plight of children and parents who fear a knock on the door from America’s immigration police. It was heartfelt and fully believable — under President Trump, immigration and customs enforcement, known by the sinister acronym ICE, has become more energetic and aggressive than it was in most years of the Obama presidency.
There are real cases of cruel separations as people who have lived blameless lives in the US as illegal immigrants are sent “home”. But at the end of the tweet Carey went further. “I am not overreacting,” she said, “when I say the parallels to 1937 Germany are stunning.”
How bad is Donald Trump? Is he Hitler-bad? David Frum is not quite in the Hitlerbad camp, but not a million miles from it. Frum is a serious character: a conservative who worked as a speechwriter for George W Bush and has a wide range of contacts across the American Right. His analysis of Trump’s presidency is informed by a deep knowledge of how other Republicans have behaved and thought in the recent past.
And his judgment is damning: “We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered.” Trumpocracy, he tells us, “rests not on deregulation but on non-regulation, not on deconstructing the state but on breaking the state in order to plunder the state”.
This is a book about a culture, not a politician, about a political system, not a president. Where Michael Wolff, in Fire and Fury, went low, David Frum is going high.
His interest is not in racist tweets, narcissism or even incompetence — as serious as those charges are — but in a project to rip up the American state and steal from it, and the impact of that on democracy in the US. Frum is telling us there is a thief in the White House with a group of thieves assisting him and the damage they will do could be long-lasting.
First: “No president in history has burned more public money to sustain his personal lifestyle than Donald Trump.” And the private money has poured in too: Russian banks suddenly interested in the ventures of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law; Trump buildings from Argentina to India suddenly given go-aheads. It is, claims Frum, a mixing of government, family and business “in the style of authoritarian Third World kleptocrats”. In a chapter entitled Plunder Frum outlines the grisly, complex web of conflicts of interest and apparent failures of normal ethical rules. And why might they be doing this? Frum makes the interesting point that Trump and family are often portrayed as fabulously wealthy, whereas they are also fabulously in debt. They have been on the brink of ruin before. Might they be now? The presidency as get out of jail card. Very third world indeed.
So how did Trump come to seal the deal of the century with the American people? The wetness of his Republican opponents is part of the story, but Frum is also good on why Hillary Clinton was such a turn-off to many men. The problem is sex, he suggests. Not just biological difference: sexual desire as well, or rather frustration. Frum quotes the young social observer Siyanda Mohutsiwa: “When we talk of online radicalisation we always talk of Muslims. But the radicalisation of white men online is at astronomical levels.” When Trump’s sexism was highlighted during the campaign it was a red rag to these bulls — it fired up his base. Everything Clinton did, everything she was, helped him and hurt her. And Frum goes further: the percentage of Americans under 25 who report zero sexual contacts since turning 18 has risen to levels not seen since the early 1960s. Young men out of work and disconnected from women, what do they do? They get angry, Frum suggests. They watch porn and play video games. Politically, socially, they want to hit out. Did Trump come to power because young white American men are not getting enough sex? It’s not such a ridiculous idea. Look at the psychological profiles of Muslim radicals. Look at the lives of the wretched inadequates who kill people in terror attacks in Europe and wider afield: how often are they haters of women, fearful of women’s freedom? Frightened by sex as much as repelled by their inability to get any? But what have they done? What have they wrought, these basement-closeted onanists? Disaster, suggests Frum, unless something is done quickly.
He dangles before us the idea that it may be too late. Frum raises an interesting question about the senior military officers who have stepped up to exert some control and purpose in the White House. We are apt to think of General Mattis, the defence secretary, and General McMaster, the national security adviser, as selfless men doing a deeply unpleasant job. Frum broadly agrees, but wonders if this assumption of responsibility will be temporary.
He points out that from Pearl Harbor until the scandals of the mid-1970s the president often knew little about what the national security agencies were doing. What if the “deep state” also regards Trump’s successor as an outlier? “Trump has given them powerful and righteous motives to emancipate themselves.”
That would be a whole new set of problems for democracy even in a world from which The Donald had departed. This is not a warning of tanks on the streets, but it is a strong reminder that fears of the “deep state” should not be dismissed just because Trump enthusiasts living in gun-infested stockades in Idaho may have them. America has had a problem before with overmighty security bureaucrats. Trump (ironically, perhaps) may be the gateway to bringing them in from the cold.
Well, all right. It’s been tough. Trump may be a deeply odd man with little regard for, or knowledge of, the dainty habits of pluralism. But is he that bad? Frum himself points out that the destruction of democratic life in America has been limited so far. He quotes the great Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal (a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan) on the subject of Trump as a leader: “He is weak and snivelling … He’s whiny, weepy and self-pitying.”
Not a Strong Man then, because he’s not a strong man. America will tire of his moaning and move on. The Republicans will have some soul-searching to do and so will Democrats, who have suddenly become appreciative of the vital role of the national security agencies. As Frum puts it: “It seems an aeon ago that Edward Snowden was hailed as a hero.”
The Wolff book is much more fun. This is a lecture, not a peep show. Frum is an elegant writer, but nothing in these pages is unpredictable. There is also a risk (that he accepts) that he makes this fuss, Trump leaves office, someone normal takes over and this dagger aimed at the heart of everything we hold dear turns out to have been a shard of jelly. Few will recall Naomi Klein’s book The End of America, which suggested fascism was at hand under a previous president. It was George W Bush, for whom Frum worked. To an extent, then, fascism is in the eye of the beholder.
I wonder if future generations may look back on Trump as being a force for democracy — a re-set with the American people, a reminder that when the elites purloin all the money, all the top college places and have all the fun, then tell everyone else they must use gender-neutral loos, people rebel through the polls and change things. That’s not an attack on democracy. Isn’t that literally what democracy is? Call me naive, but the thought that took hold as I reached the conclusion was the opposite of what Frum is suggesting: America will come out of this OK. Everyone has been given a shock. Systems have been tested. The unwashed have spoken rather bluntly to Frum and his pals. Trump has improved his brand awareness more than his wildest dreams permitted. But the democratic show will go on and one day this polemic will look like a curiosity. Klein’s book looks downright silly now. Let’s hope for the day when Frum’s does as well. He certainly wouldn’t complain.
Trump may have won because young white men were not getting enough sex, he says.