Now Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, has published a sequel, “Trumpocalypse” — an apropos title during a deadly pandemic that the president has struggled to counter. In the introduction, Frum notes how Trump played down the threat of the coronavirus, squandered critical time during the early days of the crisis and, typically, deflected accountability. “The Trumpocalypse of the title,” Frum asserts, “is now a Trumpocalypse in reality.”
Considering “Trumpocalypse” and “Trumpocracy” together is an instructive exercise, and not just as potential bookends for an administration or a chart of how the views of an influential Trump critic have shifted or hardened. If the first book described a system of governance, the second surveys the outcome of that system after nearly a full presidential term. One is prediction, the other, assessment.
Frum today is less concerned about presidential corruption, more pessimistic about the Republican Party’s future and far less sanguine about the country’s ability to bounce back from the world Trump has created — mainly because there is no going back, only a groping forward into a reality that, with or without this president, will look little like the before times. Even should Trump lose the next election, Frum cautions, “Trumpism will not be so easily removed from American national life.” He seems to believe that the president will be defeated, but it’s a belief born as much out of exhaustion as analysis.
Corruption was an overriding concern in “Trumpocracy,” back when violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause seemed like this White House’s most serious transgression. (Adorable!) “Costly as the Trump family was to the presidency, the presidency was correspondingly lucrative to the Trump family,” Frum wrote in 2018. The president’s goal was not really to deconstruct the administrative state but to exploit it. Trump would do so aided by congressional Republicans who averted their eyes, covered their ears and shut their mouths in exchange for tax reform, judges and deregulation. A devil’s bargain. One of many.
In “Trumpocalypse,” however, Frum concludes that Trump hasn’t been all that good at corruption, much as he is not all that good at lots of things. “No question, Trump extracted dishonest millions from the presidency,” Frum acknowledges. But his schemes were often small-time hustles, such as Vice President Pence’s stay at Trump’s golf resort in Ireland, or the doubling of admission fees at Mar-a-Lago, or all those foreign officials crashing at Trump International in Washington. “He convicted himself in the eyes of the public as the most corrupt American president in history, all for less money than Michelle Obama earned from her book and speaking fees,” Frum smirks.
Far more consequential is the moral damage Trump has inflicted on America’s global power and domestic politics. Frum laments the deceit and pseudo-information infecting our discourse, the performative cruelty overpowering our politics, and the misguided disdain for our democratic allies. “How to stand for any liberal, democratic, or humane principle or value under a president who so noisily repudiates them all?” he asks.
Once again, Frum emphasizes the complicity of his old Republican and conservative comrades. In “Trumpocracy,” he lamented that Trump had “ripped the conscience out of half of the political spectrum,” but he still hoped that a “redeemed and repurposed” GOP could emerge. Now, that hope is mostly dead; Republicans have embraced “white ethnic chauvinism,” Frum writes, and even with another presidential victory their party will be “wrecked forever.” That’s because, to win in November, Trump will need to wage a full-on culture war and suppress minority voters, all in the service of a narrow electoral college majority to offset a possible second popular-vote defeat, the third such outcome in twenty years. “What will be the character of such a political party after such a history?” Frum wonders. “Not a democratic political party, that’s for sure. It will have degenerated into a caudillo’s personal entourage.”
A Trump defeat, he hopes, could propel political reforms, akin to the post-Watergate period. For Frum, such efforts today would include ensuring that presidential candidates make their tax returns and financial assets public, finally killing off the Senate filibuster, providing statehood for the District to mitigate the Senate’s “partisan and racial unrepresentativeness,” adopting a modern Voting Rights Act focused on “the abuses of the present, not the memories of the past,” and depoliticizing federal law enforcement. Frum realizes that consensus on big reforms will be hard to reach anytime soon, but he hopes these “feasible small reforms” to our politics can help prevent future Trump-style abuses and loosen the GOP stranglehold on state legislatures, where a minority of votes can translate into a majority of seats.
In “Trumpocalypse,” Frum also calls for a carbon tax, an immigration overhaul emphasizing newcomers’ job skills and a reorganization of defense spending to encompass threats such as climate change. (I suspect he would now add infectious diseases to the list.) But what he desires above all is a post-Trump reconciliation within the country and beyond it — and that might be hardest to achieve.
After Trump, the United States must “inspire the rest of the world” once again and “lead by consent,” the author writes. (Sounds like the new leading from behind.) But exactly how Washington would exercise such leadership is unclear, and here, 2018 Frum may be more persuasive than 2020 Frum. For the rest of the Trump era, he explained two years ago, U.S. allies “will have to make their plans on the assumption of American untrustworthiness,” a condition that can prove “habit forming.” Persuading the world to break that habit today will be tough, even if we can “wipe the snarl off the American face,” as Frum now hopes.
The thing is, once you’ve seen that snarl, you know it can return.
At home, even the procedural reforms Frum proposes can pass only “if they are undertaken in a spirit of reconciliation” toward Trump’s supporters, he writes. The president deserves the full penalty of law for his actions, Frum assures, and his enablers in politics and the press deserve nothing but scorn, “but Trump’s voters are our compatriots.” Democrats won’t defeat Trump unless they can build an America “that has room for all its people,” he argues. “The resentments that produced Trump will not be assuaged by contempt for the resentful.”
And the resentful you will always have with you, Frum predicts. “Even if plague and recession topple Trump from the presidency, the core Trump base will remain,” he writes, while Trump himself likely would carry on unconcerned about the wreckage he leaves behind. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” the president declared in March, responding to a question about delays in coronavirus testing — a sentiment that Frum imagines will double as “history’s epitaph on his presidency.”
After two books and one term of Donald Trump, Frum can’t seem to take it anymore; the Trumpocalypse wrought by this Trumpocracy is just too much. “Over the past four years, I have thought and spoken and written about Donald Trump almost more than I can bear,” he confesses. (I feel you, David.) “We have to believe this shameful episode will end soon,” he writes, and that Trump will occupy “the very lowest place on the roster of ex-presidents.”
A plausible outcome, particularly with tens of thousands of American deaths and tens of millions of Americans newly unemployed because of the coronavirus. But there are other scenarios. In early 2017, the Atlantic magazine published a cover essay titled “How to Build an Autocracy,” which began by imagining Trump preparing for his second inauguration after a presidency of big tax cuts, big spending, power grabs, conspiracy theories, tweetstorms and inconclusive investigations, and with an electorate that had “subsided into weary cynicism.”
The author? One David Frum.