For the third time in three years, I am using this column to offer readers a book review. My earlier efforts in this regard dealt with works by some of my former colleagues in the Canadian Foreign Service. Their tales were, for the most part, rather whimsical and lighthearted. There is nothing of that sort in the book that I am reviewing today. David Frum’s Trumpocracy, which is still on the bestseller lists in Canada and the United States, is a thoroughly depressing account of Donald Trump’s rise to power and of his exercise of that power.
What is perhaps most astonishing about this devastatingly critical text is that it emanates not from some liberal or left-winger. Nor is its author a disgusted or disgruntled member of the Democratic party. Rather Frum is a certified member of the conservative movement in American politics. As the author of no less than nine books and hundreds of articles, he has long been seen as a leading intellectual light on the right wing of the Republican party. He served as a speech writer and special assistant to President George W. Bush and is widely credited with having coined the phrase “axis of evil” to describe Iraq, Iran and North Korea in the run-up to the American invasion of Iraq. (In Canada, he is perhaps best known as the son of the late Barbara Frum, who in her time was one of the pillars of CBC radio and television journalism.) In short, Frum is a conservative’s conservative whose beef with Trump is that he has betrayed and besmirched the cause and the brand.
In bemoaning the divisiveness of the Trump presidency, Frum makes clear that Trump did not create the divisions that now beset the United States. He merely exploited pre-existing conditions. Early on in the book, Frum writes: “The affluent and the secure persisted with old ways and old norms in the face of the disillusionment and even the radicalization of the poorer two-thirds of American society. They invited a crisis. The only surprise was “¦ how surprised they were when the invited crisis arrived. Donald Trump did not create the vulnerabilities he exploited. They awaited him. The irresponsibility of the American elites, the arrogance of party leaders, the insularity of the wealthy: those and more were the resources Trump used on his way to power.”
Having successfully taken advantage of this situation, Trump came into office as a severely challenged personality. He was a narcissistic bully interested only in himself, and his business interests. And he was prepared to bend the rules to fit his purposes. What is more, he repeatedly proved himself to be totally unreliable. These characteristics lead Frum to paint a rather dismal picture of the future of Trump’s administration. He writes: “For the remainder of the Trump presidency, American allies will have to make their plans on the assumption of American untrustworthiness. That kind of planning can be habit forming. For the remainder of the Trump presidency, military and intelligence leaders will work around a president who makes impulsive decisions, issues reckless statements, and cannot keep secrets. Those who serve in government will perceive that public integrity has gone out of style, protected by a president who resents and resists the enforcement of rules. The one-third of America that identifies as “conservative” will be isolated even more profoundly within an information ghetto of deception and incitement.”
Frum also has some rather caustic things to say about Trump’s approach to government and administration. Beyond the fact that the White House has seen a senior staff turnover of some 40 per cent in one year, there are literally hundreds of positions still vacant in the government at large. This is in large part due to the president’s personal predilections and shortcomings. Frum explains it thus. “Trump himself insisted on reviewing the resume of every candidate for every sub-cabinet and sub-sub-cabinet job — a process that held the entire staffing process hostage to Trump’s short attention span, weak work ethic and ferocious demand for abject personal loyalty. Yet it would be wrong to regard the irregularity of Trump’s White House and administration as a story of failure. Trump the president, like Trump the businessman and Trump the candidate, plunged his working environment into chaos because he intuited that chaos enhanced his power.”
Frum is equally troubled by Trump’s non-stop war against the media. His repeated charges of “fake news” against respected journalists and newspapers have become a hallmark of his presidency. And here he has secured the complicity of right-wing media organizations and of conservatives across the country in his vendetta against the press. This leads Frum to express his dismay in these terms: “What we are seeing here is not merely one man’s petty ego needs on display, although we are certainly seeing that. What we are seeing is a grant of permission from millions of people to the president of the United States to diminish, discredit, corrode and ultimately subvert what the authors of the U.S. Bill of Rights listed among the very first freedoms necessary to their great experiment in self-government.” Frum’s terminology is perhaps a bit grandiose, but his concern is certainly well founded.
In a chapter entitled “America Alone,” Frum points to some disturbing idiosyncrasies in Trump’s approach to international relations. During his campaign, he had made approving remarks about now-defunct Arab dictators such as Moammar al Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein. In office, he deliberately alienated stalwart friends and allies of the United States such as Germany, Great Britain, Canada and Mexico while heaping praise on authoritarian despots such as Vladimir Putin, Roderigo Duterte of the Philippines, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and King Salman of Saudi Arabia. This and more leads Frum to this appalling conclusion: “The government of the United States seems to have made common cause with the planet’s thugs, crooks and dictators against its own ideals — and in fact to have imported the spirit of thuggery, crookedness and dictatorship into the very core of the American state, into the most solemn symbolic oval center of its law and liberty.”
In the conclusion to the book, Frum issues a rallying cry to Trump’s opponents in these terms: “As President Trump is cruel, vengeful, egoistic, ignorant, lazy, avaricious and treacherous, so we must be kind, forgiving, responsible, informed, hardworking, generous and patriotic. As Trump’s enablers are careless, cynical, shortsighted, morally obtuse and rancorous, so Trump’s opponents must be thoughtful, idealistic, wise, morally sensitive and conciliatory.”
Some readers may view this book as a well-researched and well-documented charge sheet against a man who is unfit to be president. Others may see it as little more than a hatchet job against a duly elected president of the United States. Both views have merit, but what seems irrefutable is that the author is a man honestly and deeply concerned about the future of his beloved Republican party and his equally beloved country. All in all, this is must reading for anyone interested in American politics and world affairs.
Louis A. Delvoie is a Fellow in the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University.