The most important new book about the dangers of Donald Trump’s presidency is getting the least attention at the moment.
“Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic,” by respected conservative author David Frum, offers a persuasive and detailed account of how Trump is undermining American institutions, including the presidency itself. It’s never going to compete with Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” for incendiary anecdotes and speculation about Trump’s fitness for the highest office in the land, or the intellect of his favorite daughter or patriotism of his namesake son.
Neither is it going to encounter any questions about the thoroughness or methodology of Frum’s reporting. His attributions are meticulous, his footnotes are extensive, his willingness to call out deviations from his conservative brethren is commendable.
Therein lies the power and credibility of Frum’s conclusions. They are supported by verifiable facts, grounded in historical context, devoid of ideological hue. A senior editor at the Atlantic, he is a former special assistant and speechwriter for President George W. Bush and an alumnus of right-of-center think tanks.
“Trumpocracy” is a must-read for Americans who are in denial about the threat to democracy posed by a president absorbed in narcissism and recklessly indifferent to the institutions and norms of ethics and propriety that have sustained the great American experiment for 2½ centuries.
Frum does not attempt to psychoanalyze Trump, but the author pointedly identifies his shortcomings, especially his one-way view of loyalty. It helps explain why the Trump White House has been beset by so many leaks, a sense of betrayal that is underscored by the biting anecdotes of the Wolff book.
“Everyone who entered the Trump administration for nonselfish motives would sooner or later find himself or herself betrayed by a president who demanded loyalty in its most servile form, but who never returned it,” Frum writes.
Frum’s analysis of the Trump administration is at its sharpest, and most disturbing, when he details its potential lasting damage.
“Trump is one by one disabling the federal government’s inhibitions against corruption,” he writes. Frum noted how Trump’s firing of 46 U.S. attorneys — while not in itself unusual for a new administration — was followed by prolonged vacancies as the president sought personal loyalists. Frum cites Trump’s repeated calls for criminal proceedings against his vanquished opponent, Hillary Clinton, which may be coming to fruition, according to recent stories. Frum notes the nepotism of putting daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, in key positions with such little regard for conflict-of-interest concerns.
As for Trump’s contemptuous approach to institutions, Frum makes an excellent point: The national security apparatus is supposed to be subordinate to the civilian commander in chief. Yet Trump, with his erratic behavior and dismissive approach, has “given abundant reasons” for the Department of Defense, CIA and National Security Agency to distrust him. Will that change, or will his presidency be considered a one-off? The answer could be ominous.
“Bureaucracies always yearn to escape political control, and the national security agencies are the most powerful, autonomous, and well-funded bureaucracies within the American state. Trump has given them powerful and righteous motives to emancipate themselves. Will they ever again fully resume the uncomfortable subordination that may feel by the 2020s like a relic from a different and bygone era.”
Frum also devotes a chapter to Trump’s caustic relationship with the news media.
“What Donald Trump wants is more bias, not less; more fake news, not less,” Frum writes. “What he demands from the media is not objectivity, but complicity.”
Frum also reserves particular condemnation for the Republicans who looked the other way at Trump’s failings, or ignored the voluminous evidence that Russia had meddled on his behalf in the 2016 election.
“A president beholden to Russia had been installed in the Oval Office: the most successful foreign espionage attempt against the United States in the nation’s history,” Frum writes. “And from beginning to end, the president’s political party rallied to protect him — and itself — from investigation, exposure, and consequences.”
It’s essential to note that Frum has not undergone an ideological metamorphosis. He remains a devoted conservative who, painfully, voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 because of his concerns about Trump’s persona and preparedness. He does not believe that the principles of conservatism have gone astray, but that too many conservatives followed a false prophet in 2016 — repelling a generation of young people who might otherwise have been drawn to the ideals of individual liberty and less government.
Trump “has imprinted upon his party his own prejudices, corruption and ignorance,” Frum writes. “Republican candidates will pay a price for that legacy for years and decades ahead.”
Yet Frum also expresses cause for hope in his final chapter.
“But of all the gifts of Trump, the best is ... the surge in civic spirit that has moved Americans since the ominous night of Nov. 8, 2016. It is as if millions of people awoke the next morning to the realization, ‘I must become a better citizen.’”
“Trumpocracy” is a sober but ultimately uplifting reminder that it’s not only Democrats who are feeling that way.