David Frum’s cover story in the current Atlantic is worth reading. It’s titled How To Build An Autocracy, and of course it’s about Trump. Frum says:
By all early indications, the Trump presidency will corrode public integrity and the rule of law—and also do untold damage to American global leadership, the Western alliance, and democratic norms around the world. The damage has already begun, and it will not be soon or easily undone. Yet exactly how much damage is allowed to be done is an open question—the most important near-term question in American politics. It is also an intensely personal one, for its answer will be determined by the answer to another question: What will you do? And you? And you?
Of course we want to believe that everything will turn out all right. In this instance, however, that lovely and customary American assumption itself qualifies as one of the most serious impediments to everything turning out all right. If the story ends without too much harm to the republic, it won’t be because the dangers were imagined, but because citizens resisted.
The duty to resist should weigh most heavily upon those of us who—because of ideology or partisan affiliation or some other reason—are most predisposed to favor President Trump and his agenda. The years ahead will be years of temptation as well as danger: temptation to seize a rare political opportunity to cram through an agenda that the American majority would normally reject. Who knows when that chance will recur?
A constitutional regime is founded upon the shared belief that the most fundamental commitment of the political system is to the rules. The rules matter more than the outcomes. It’s because the rules matter most that Hillary Clinton conceded the presidency to Trump despite winning millions more votes. It’s because the rules matter most that the giant state of California will accept the supremacy of a federal government that its people rejected by an almost two-to-one margin.
I think he’s right about all of this, but there’s something about it that rubs me the wrong way. No doubt all of this is so clear-cut to Frum because he has long been a member of the Washington establishment. (I don’t say that as a slur, only as a description of his position.) Among the reasons America voted for Donald Trump:
- The Iraq War, a war of choice that was unjust, foolish, expensive, and catastrophic. None of the architects of that war, or any of the prominent conservatives who supported it (like David Frum, and a minor National Review writer named Rod Dreher) suffered any loss of power, income, or status because of it. In the Republican Party, no major presidential candidate (Ron Paul was not major) denounced the war as folly until Donald J. Trump spoke those words at the South Carolina GOP presidential debate a year ago. Why did it take 13 years after the launching of that war for a leading Republican presidential candidate to say what most people now recognize is true? The fact that the GOP establishment incompetently got us into that war, and could not own up to its mistake, undermined its credibility.
- The 2008 financial crisis wreaked havoc on millions of households. Official Washington — Republicans, Democrats, the Almighty Greenspan — created the policies that brought about the crisis. Wall Street got its money’s worth from all its political contributions: no bigshots were held liable for crashing the US economy and very nearly getting us into a new Great Depression.
- Out-of-control immigration. Take a look at this chart from the US Census Bureau:
Since Ronald Reagan took office, America has undergone by far the greatest period of mass immigration in its history. Both Republican and Democratic presidents have overseen this. They remained deaf to the complaints from the grassroots saying it was too much, too fast, and that they wanted the borders defended. So now the US has a president who actually intends to pay attention to these voters. A well-known Washington writer wrote earlier this week to criticize Trump’s Executive Order on immigration, but to say it was inevitable:
When liberals insist that only fascists will defend borders, then voters will hire fascists to do the job liberals won’t do. This weekend’s shameful chapter in the history of the United States is a reproach not only to Trump, although it is that too, but to the political culture that enabled him. Angela Merkel and Donald Trump may be temperamental opposites. They are also functional allies.
That writer, by the way, was David Frum.
4. Insider corruption and indifference. I refer you once again to the great and perceptive essay Tucker Carlson wrote for Politico a year ago, explaining Trump’s appeal at a time when very few conservative elites could make sense of it. Excerpt:
Everyone beats up on Washington, but most of the people I know who live here love it. Of course they do. It’s beautiful, the people are friendly, we’ve got good restaurants, not to mention full employment and construction cranes on virtually every corner. If you work on Capitol Hill or downtown, it’s hard to walk back from lunch without seeing someone you know. It’s a warm bath. Nobody wants to leave.
But let’s pretend for a second this isn’t Washington. Let’s imagine it’s the capital of an African country, say Burkina Faso, and we are doing a study on corruption. Probably the first question we’d ask: How many government officials have close relatives who make a living by influencing government spending? A huge percentage of them? OK. Case closed. Ouagadougou is obviously a very corrupt city.
That’s how the rest of the country views D.C. Washington is probably the richest city in America because the people who live there have the closest proximity to power. That seems obvious to most voters. It’s less obvious to us, because everyone here is so cheerful and familiar, and we’re too close to it. Chairman so-and-so’s son-in-law lobbies the committee? That doesn’t seem corrupt. He’s such a good guy.
All of which explains why almost nobody in Washington caught the significance of Trump’s finest moment in the first debate. One of the moderators asked, in effect: if you’re so opposed to Hillary Clinton, why did she come to your last wedding? It seemed like a revealing, even devastating question.
Trump’s response, delivered without pause or embarrassment: Because I paid her to be there. As if she was the wedding singer, or in charge of the catering.
You see where I’m going with this. Again, I think a lot of what Frum says in his new piece — which you should read — is true and worth taking seriously. But Trump didn’t come from nowhere. It’s a bit rich to complain about the sanctity of the “rules” when those rules too often didn’t seem to apply to people who weren’t connected, and when the “rules” were too often written to advantage those with money and influence.
To use a more extreme example, Putin emerged from the corruption of the Yeltsin years — and remains popular today. That does not make Putin a good man or a wise leader, but it does tell us why a man of his qualities was chosen by the people of Russia — and why his autocratic behavior doesn’t bother them as much as it ought to. Likewise with Trump.