I met David Frum once. That was in 2000, at a Bilderberg conference in Belgium. I had just given a brief analysis of the success of radical right-wing populist parties in liberal democracies when he stormed up to me. Visibly irate, he berated me for having mentioned Preston Manning’s Reform Party of Canada. Once I told him that I actually lived in Canada, he calmed down.
In hindsight, it was probably a bit unfair to place Reform on par with what were then France’s National Front and Italy’s Northern League, and Austria’s Freedom Party. I remember an article in The Washington Post around the same time, recounting a meeting of “Reformers” with Republicans at the Heritage Foundation. After the meeting, they were asked what they thought. There was a lot of shaking of heads and mutterings, What extremists.
How MAGA Sunk the United States
Reform has long since passed away into oblivion. Not so David Frum. Frum went to the United States to assume an illustrious career as a public intellectual, following his stint as George W. Bush’s speechwriter. A darling of the GOP establishment, he wrote for The Wall Street Journal and Forbes, and secured a position at the prestigious American Enterprise Institute (AEI). The infatuation of the American right with David Frum did not last very long, however. Neither did his infatuation with the GOP. By 2007, he had become an American citizen. But it seems to be not that easy to eject the Canadian from the naturalized American. Or maybe he remembered the insights of his Reform friends from earlier years.
Three years later, David Frum had become the bête noire of the American right, under attack from the pages of The Wall Street Journal, sacked by the AEI. Another two years later, Frum joined The Daily Beast, the news portal known for lashing out against both sides of the political spectrum. There he appears to have had his own personal road-to-Damascus experience, triggered by a new book by Charles Murray, a fellow AEI member, who had attained notoriety as co-author of a controversial 1994 work, “The Bell Curve.” In it, the authors argued that the United States was “rapidly becoming a caste society stratified by IQ, with an underclass mired at the bottom, an elite firmly ensconced at the top, and only a limited scope for public policy to boost the disadvantaged.” Murray’s new offering, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” was in line with the earlier book’s dystopian vision.
Reviewing it (“not a good book” but nevertheless important) allowed Frum to settle the score with facile and lazy thinking dominating much of contemporary American right-wing rhetoric. Central to this rhetoric has been the notion that everything that’s wrong in American society is the fault of America’s post-1968 cultural elite — that “tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving left-wing freak show” famously evoked by the conservative Club of Growth in 2004. These are the “overeducated elitist snobs” who have nothing but contempt for ordinary Americans, these Columbia professors and Hollywood screenwriters responsible for the “moral collapse” of America’s white working class, no longer committed to hard work.
For Frum, this line of reasoning — if indeed it can be called that — is disingenuous and intellectually dishonest, not least because it blends out and ignores the socioeconomic realities that have prevailed over the past few decades: the disappearing jobs as a result of deindustrialization and offshoring, the falling wages, the hollowing out of the middle class, a dramatic increase in inequality and, last but not least, the state’s abdication of its responsibility for the common good. In one of the most revealing passages of the review, Frum (an avowed libertarian) quotes from one of his previous works, acknowledging an “awkward fact: America became more culturally stable between 1910 and 1960 as it became less economically and socially libertarian.”
This was followed by the observation that the “greatest generation” in American history “was also the most statist generation.” Never in American history “had the country been more economically equal, never had it been more ethnically homogeneous, seldom was its political consensus more overpowering.” With observations like these, no wonder Frum was treated as a renegade, an outcast by America’s Republican right.
In the years that followed, Frum moved even more to the opposite side of the political spectrum. In 2014, he joined The Atlantic, one of America’s leading intellectual and most progressive magazines, as a senior editor. Since the election of Donald Trump, Frum has distinguished himself as one of Trump’s most principled and persistent critics, culminating in his most recent take, “Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy,” published a few days ago.
A recent New York Times reviewer did not particularly appreciate the title. As far as I am concerned, it’s a prefect fit. Americans pride themselves of being the most Christian country on earth. As Christians, they should know their Bible, particularly the Book of Revelations. In it, John evokes the image of the four horsemen sent out to wreak havoc upon the earth, disseminating violence, famine and plague. The image is fitting, given Trump’s callous response to COVID-19. Ironically enough, Trump’s support has been strongest and most unwavering among America’s evangelicals.
This probably explains Trump’s most recent stunt of positioning himself in front of a church in Washington, DC, holding up a Bible as the Black Lives Matter protesters were cleared out of his way with tear gas. Trump’s supporters, many of them from the Bible Belt, are likely to have cheered him, forgetting the famous line from Ecclesiastes 1:2-11: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
But, then, Trump might have nothing to do with the Bible. He certainly does not seem to care much for it. Maybe the proper analogy is elsewhere. Francis Ford Coppola once noted that for his epic Vietnam War drama “Apocalypse Now,” he drew inspiration from Werner Herzog’s 1972 film “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” which tells the story of the Spaniard Lope de Aguirre who leads his band of conquistadors down the Amazon in search of El Dorado. One of the most striking scenes of the movie comes at the end, with Aguirre standing alone on a ramshackle raft, surrounded by monkeys, his crew killed, uttering “I am Aguirre, the wrath of God.” It is reminiscent of Trump standing in front of that church, defiantly holding up a Bible, while the world is falling apart around him.
Trump has arguably done more damage to America’s institutions, American political ethics, American democracy and America’s international reputation than any president before him. Frum has characterized himself as a Hamiltonian, a strong believer in “an American-led world order” based on its economic and industrial strength. Today, however, not even America’s closest allies want to be led by Trump’s USA. His has arguably been the worst administration in recent memory. Trump has singlehandedly managed to thoroughly corrupt a political party that once stood for at least a modicum of decency.
This is no longer the case. As David Frum has pointedly put it, today virtually “all Republicans in the House of Representatives, and the great majority of Republicans in the Senate, will act to defend a president they despise against charges they know to be true. The worst of them will hare after crazy conspiracy theories.”
In 2016, Trump promoted himself as the candidate of ordinary people, whose grievances were ignored by the political establishment. In the years that followed, he did nothing to alleviate these grievances. Inequality has continued to grow, and the COVID-19 crisis is bound to exacerbate it even more. In Trump’s America, it is everybody for themselves. Irving Kristol once remarked that neoconservatives are liberals mugged by reality. With Donald Trump, it seems genuine conservatives have met an even worse fate: They might never recuperate.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.