David Frum’s “Trumpocracy” is a brave and fascinating book, made all the more brave and fascinating by its author’s apparent wish that it will be forgotten. “I sometimes wonder,” he writes in the Introduction,
what would have happened if some forward-thinking member of Congress had devoted his or her career in the late 1990s to fighting for the hardening of airline cockpits against hijackers. He or she would have battled a cost-conscious industry, faced election opponents lavishly funded by airline lobbyists, and might have prevailed just in time to prevent the September 11, 2001 attacks from taking the form they did—meaning that nobody would ever have known the service that member had rendered. Instead, he or she would forever be known as that bore who droned so uselessly about a threat that never materialized.
Not all premonitions come to pass. But if we are saved, we never know for certain what we were saved from.
Frum views Trump the way Gibbon viewed Commodus — a bloated, corrupt (and corrupting) figure who exploited but also illuminated and eventually embodied the structural weaknesses of the empire.
It might be helpful to read “Trumpocracy” alongside not just Gibbon, but also with “No One Left to Lie To,” the anti-Clinton pamphlet written by Frum’s late friend, Christopher Hitchens. Like Hitchens, Frum is aghast watching his co-thinkers prostrate themselves before a psychopathic god. Like Hitchens, Frum is determined to rescue his political tendency from its own decadence.
But where Hitchens hoped that his fellow leftists would shake off their delusions and become better comrades, Frum hopes that his fellow conservatives will shake off their delusions and become better stewards. He sees Trump and his cannibal band charging into the breach between the GOP’s donors and its voters. “The affluent and the secure persisted with old ways and old names in the face of disillusionment and even the radicalization of the poorer two-thirds of American society,” he writes. “They invited a crisis. The only surprise was … how surprised they were when the crisis arrived.”
Frum might’ve titled his book “Atlas Shirked.” He takes it more-or-less for granted that the desperate, angry people who put Trump in office have been duped, and reserves most of his scorn for the party elites who allowed the Volk to surrender so hysterically to their despair.
Frum, at least, owns his noblesse oblige. In his view, the elites are always with us. Besides, he has a more pressing fear: “If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically,” he writes, “they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.” This is a bleak diagnosis, all the more terrifying coming from a man who has spent the better part of a decade trying to nurse conservatism through its fevers.
One of the surprises of “Trumpocracy” is how little rancor it contains. Frum’s revisionism has subjected him to torrents of professional and personal abuse, and he often looks like a man who has been ordered to staff a suicide hotline for lemmings. Yet despite the pungency of some of his insights (chapter titles include “Appeasers,” “Plunder,” and “Betrayals”) and his stated mission to name names, his voice is pitched in the “more sorrow than anger” scale. He regards the fates of national security advisers H.R. McMaster and Michael Flynn as tragic, and he describes baby boomers’ bottomless avarice as “generational self-defense” — far more generous than this permanently outraged Gen-Xer can abide.
He even concludes his book with a chapter called “Hope.” Frum is cheered by Americans’ renewed sense of duty: “It is as if millions of people awoke … to the realization, ‘I must become a better citizen.’” Like so much about Trumpism, it’s an unintended consequence. With a lot of hard work and a little luck, Frum suggests, it’ll be a blessing if we forget to thank him for “Trumpocracy.”