Just about four months from now, we hope, we’ll know whether President Donald Trump has been reelected to a second term or rejected by voters in favor of Joe Biden. More than a few conservative thought leaders are coming forward to say that American democracy may not withstand a second Trump term.
David Frum of The Atlantic magazine is a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, and the author of the new book “Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy.” Owing to the pandemic, Frum will virtually deliver the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College’s annual Mona Sherman Memorial Lecture Thursday.
What's it like being on book tour during a pandemic?
It is a very challenging experience. You know, writing a book is a solitary experience. You're with your own thoughts. You're in your own space. You have as a reward at the end of it, the book will be published, you will emerge, you'll be able to connect with people, meet your readers, have human connection. Instead, you're in the same room at the same desk looking at the same screen talking electronically so you are cast back to where you were you're cut off from the human connection. I was really looking forward to coming to the Berkshires and meeting people there and discussing these ideas face to face. Obviously impossible.
You don't have to spoil it for people who have signed up, but give us a sense of what you'll talk about on Thursday night.
Well, one of the hazards of talking in the Trump era is you have to be very flexible. It used to be that a good book talk like a good suit could go five, six uses between dry cleanings. Now events move so fast, I am often having to rewrite everything at the very last moment. But what I what I plan to talk about is the work of reconstruction of the country after the Trump experience should the president lose in November. Should he leave office in a orderly way in January. What happens then? What how do we put America back on its feet? There are reforms at home and even more work abroad to make America be America again.
We'll talk about some of those things in just a little bit. First of all, you were on the show way back in 2008. And you're talking about your book “Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again.” I take it this is not what you had in mind.
For sure, no, although let me just enter caveat there. Many of the themes have come back more now more than a decade ago, or themes that were hijacked by Donald Trump. The argument of “Comeback” was that Republicans were getting carried away within too much emphasis on rad economic change too much emphasis on economic individualism, the needs of the country were for a healthcare solution or for a slowdown in the pace of immigration. We had to take seriously environmental challenges during the Trump campaign of 2016. I remember getting an outreach from someone who was near the campaign. So David, you have been for a decade criticizing Paul Ryan-style Republicanism. Well, no one has rejected that more radically than Donald Trump. He's talking about healthcare. He's talking about opioids. He's talking about immigration. He's not talking about the environment, but he was talking about other issues I cared about. Why aren't you backing him? I remember saying to this acquaintance, the reason I talked about those issues a dozen years ago was I saw Donald Trump coming and wanted to stop him. If we didn't address these issues, we would get this kind of demagoguery. I'm not here. So I'm not going to use these issues to empower him. We need to understand that if we don't address these issues in a way that Republicans missed the Tea Party for years, we will get this kind of demagogue. And then here he was.
You write in the foreword to the book that you think the U.S. is about to swing far away from Trump and Trumpism. And I take it right now you imagine he will probably lose in the fall?
The bulk of this book was written in 2018 to 2019, and I thought at that time, he would probably lose. At this point, given where unemployment is, given the devastation of the coronavirus, it's almost impossible for me to imagine how incompetence survives failure on this scale.
Nonetheless, you know, 63 million people voted for him last time around and no matter what's been going on, during the interceding three and a half years, there's been anywhere between 35 to 40% of the population that has just remained as a rock solid base. Why do you think that the country is ready to get away from this?
Well, Donald Trump won 63 million votes. Obviously 335 million Americans is even more. Donald Trump fluked into office in 2016. He won less of the vote than Al Gore won when he lost in 2000. Less than John Kerry won when he lost in 2004. Less than Mitt Romney when he lost in 2012. As a share of the vote, Donald Trump won a little bit more than John McCain, and a little bit more than Michael Dukakis in 1988. That he used that vote, or that vote happened to be used very efficiently. It was spread in exactly the right way. It was like a real experiment with the Electoral College, and he was running against a candidate who, although 54% of Americans oppose Donald Trump, she was only able to get 48 of those 54%. But let me put this way. If you tell me your retirement plan is to take the mortgage money, go to the casino and bet it all on red, I will tell you that is not a good plan. When that happens, and then you say, brilliant, I've now found the answer. And next month, I'm going to take the mortgage money one more time down to the retirement to the casino and bet on red again. And I will tell you, even though you won last time with that plan, it remains a bad plan.
Why do you think so many conservatives, not you, and certainly there are many others, like you who resisted Trump, but many, many more, including people in the U.S. Senate, got on board with Trump despite sharing your same initial misgivings?
Different people had different reasons. For many in the upper reaches of the Republican establishment, at first there was an element of fear. He had beaten the Republican establishment in 2016. They wanted mostly Jeb Bush and Donald Trump beat him. Then there was greed, because once he won and once he fluked into the White House, he was such a reckless person. He was able to do things that another Republican candidate would never have dared try. He was he delivered on some of the items of the Republican agenda in a much more ruthless way than a Jeb Bush or even Ted Cruz would ever dare. I think there then became a kind of opposition-ism that they looked at Donald Trump's opponent and decided they couldn't stand them. They didn't like CNN, they didn’t like New York Times. They didn't like liberal America and Donald Trump seemed to thwart them. They enjoy that. And then finally, one of the ting that Trump’s done is given promotions, to people who just could never have had such jobs in any normal administration. Donald Trump surrounds himself with the dregs of American politics. So those people have to be loyal to him. I mean, there are people in the Trump administration who have had government jobs and security clearances, who, when I was working in the Bush administration, I would have thought twice about inviting them to enter the building because of their backgrounds.
Do you want to name any names?
I that's probably actionable. So I'm not going to name it. But, you know, there used to be elaborate protocols to bring a visitor into the White House. They're in proximity to the president. They were always worried about doing something politically embarrassing. So you were careful. You're constantly information gathering, so you want to meet somebody with maybe strange views. You would meet them off-site because you didn't want them their name in the White House record. It's not that I share this person's strange views, but I want to be informed by them. And so you're careful. Those people are now working in the White House. And then there are people who work in the White House who are obviously such third class talent, that again, I mean, maybe they'd be doing this job in a state legislature somewhere, but the president of the United States?
So let's talk about what happens after Trump, whether that's in, you know, January of 2021, or January of 2025, or somewhere in between that range. How do you get this process of reconstruction underway? And the reason I asked that is because presumably, there will be many hard feelings, no matter how and when he goes. I don't know that we're going to patch up the divisions we see today anytime soon.
Well, first, even the process of him leaving, that may be very difficult. I don't think that I don't take seriously this idea that Donald Trump would simply defy the Electoral College and say, I'm staying. The Constitution sets Inauguration Day as January 20 of next year. There will be an inauguration that that day and if Trump refuses to leave the White House, you know, we have a landlord tenant problem, but he's simply not president after that moment, and no one will execute his orders.
But between the voting day, and the days when the Electoral College meets in the states in early December, and then in Washington on January 6, but the election is not formally certified until the sixth of January. There's a lot of opportunity for mischief between voting day and the sixth of January. So I worry a lot about that. afterwards. I do think we have to find some ways to make this feel like one country again. It's been a powerful resource of Donald Trump to make Americans feel that we actually inhabit two nations, a red nation and a blue nation and that we're each other's enemies and to make us feel not like enemies, but like citizens of one country. I have a lot of specific suggestions that require some degree of political reform, so the Congress of the United States reflects the American majority. We have situations now like right now in a state like Wisconsin. In the last election, 2018, Republicans got 45% of the vote for the two houses of the Wisconsin State Legislature; they have almost two thirds of the seats. So the Wisconsin majority has been disenfranchised. That radicalizes people when you say, even though you're the majority, you don't win, that majority gets angry. And it begins to lose faith in the political process.
You write about nonpartisan redistricting in this book as one way of doing just what you're suggesting, making more fair fight districts and so on. We're in the midst of a census year. The last time around, the Republicans perationalized the census in a way to help them retain the vast majority of state legislatures and basically do the opposite of what you're arguing. So how could you put that into place?
I don't believe that that nonpartisan redistricting is going to happen anytime soon. I think it's a goal. So how do you get from here to there? So I suggest that after the 2020 census, I think we're gonna find Democrats in control of some of the states that Republicans really want. I think they will be in control of Wisconsin, I think control Michigan, they will have control of North Carolina or at least have greater control. And I propose that the Democrats draw two maps for the states: a fair map that gives each party a real shot and an unfair map and say to Republicans, look, we let's restore some deterrence here. We can do the fair maps, it makes the states competitive for you. But we expect the courtesy in states where you have the advantage right now. If not, we will do unto you in 2021 what you did to us in 2011.
What about the Electoral College? We spoke with Michael Steele on this show last week. He's lent his support to the national popular vote compact, which if enough states signed on, would get rid of the Electoral College in all ways, except for practically casting the votes to the popular vote winner. I don't think you favor that idea.
Well, look, I see I'm seeing nothing wrong with it. I just don't think it's a very realistic plan. What these national compacts say is, all the states that are disadvantaged by the Electoral College, pledged to work together if all the states that are advantaged by the Electoral College agree. The states that are advantaged by the Electoral College are gonna say, blow it out your ear! We love it that we have disproportionate power. We don't think that's a problem. We think that we don't think that's a bug. We think that's a feature.
So I don't think the Electoral College is going anywhere. But I don't think the Electoral College is the worst evil in our system. I think the worst evil is the systematic mal-representation of the U.S. Senate. Donald Trump would have been a much more dangerous president if the Senate, like the House, the House is also unrepresentative, but if the Senate were less extremely non-representative, if the Democrats had won the Senate in 2018, which on the basis of votes cast or offices, they should have, Donald Trump would have been checked. The failure here is, obviously there's something went terribly wrong in our process of selecting nominees for the president that Donald Trump could get through. But the biggest failure has been the failure of the Congress to do its job of checking and balancing the president. So that's where a lot of the energy of “Trumpocalypse” is: how do we make the state legislatures work better? How do we make Congress work better? How do we make that that system fairer? And then how do we take some of the pressure off the divisions in our society so that a demagogue like Donald Trump cannot exploit the level of hatred that he is exploited?
How would you reorder the Senate?
Much of the defects of the Senate are in the Constitution. But here are two things you can do. The first is you can get rid of the filibuster so that it takes 50 votes or 51 votes to pass laws to the Senate, not the present 60. But why the Senate is already unrepresentative is the idea that you need a supermajority of this majority. That makes no sense. And the second thing is, you could without any constitutional amendment, just by ordinary legislation, you could make a state of the residential areas of the District of Columbia. That would add two urban Senate seats, probably Senators of color, and that would go far to rebalance the Senate. I'm sometimes asked about Puerto Rico. I'm concerned about the national unity aspect. Most of the voting and surveys I've seen in Puerto Rico suggest that about 55% of Puerto Ricans want to become a state. I don't think that's enough. Because you can get in that case a Quebec or Catalonia problem where you have a state where a significant minority does not want to belong to the United States.
One thing we haven't talked about yet is the role of money in all this. We know politics has changed since the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court. How do you change democracy for the better when there's so much dark money now influencing who even can get on a ballot?
Well, I actually am a skeptic that the right way to deal with the problem of money and politics is to deal with that part of the society. When you have a society that is as unequal as United States, where wealth is concentrated, that wealth is going to make itself felt. So I think you need to make reforms elsewhere in the society to rebuild the United States as a middle class society. Here's the way I think about this. So before 1970, there are almost no descriptions on money in politics. There's almost no disclosure on money in politics. And yet money matters less in the totally unregulated world of the 1950s and 60s, that it matters in the still fairly heavily regulated world of the 2020s. Why? The answer to that is, in the America of 1960, there just weren't so many people who could pay for a presidential election all by themselves. In fact, no one in 1960 could pay for a presidential election all by himself. And there were other institutions like trade unions and churches with active membership that mattered more. If our society looked like the society of 1960 or 1970, you wouldn't need to regulate money. The reason we think you need to regulate money is because our society is so plutocratic, but because our society so plutocratic, regulating money is not going to succeed.
What role does information literacy play in your project? And I say that speaking to someone who writes books and writes for The Atlantic and has an elite education on a public radio station. Sometimes I worry that we're just kind of speaking in a vacuum here.
Well, we are speaking to the people who care most about politics. The people are most politically connected. So your audience, whatever its size, carries more political weight than the size alone would indicate because they just they have people who vote, they're people who take part, they are people who serve on juries, I'm sure. They are people who stay informed. We have a lot of people disaffiliated from politics, and we had a breakdown of a lot of the institutions that used to connect people to politics, especially trade unions. So that that is a social change on a very large scale.
Here's something I I really think that we need to keep in mind. And I wrote about this more in my previous book about how Trump gained power. People in the media tend to think of the problem of bad information as a supply problem. There are these bots and trolls that are pumping out bad Information and that's the place where we need to put our attention. But there's a demand problem too, that a lot of the bad information is farcically unbelievable. Who's going to believe that 5G towers cause COVID? That's just stupid. People believe it because they want to believe it. So I think we need to pay some attention to the demand side — what is it in our society where there are people who are so hungry for bad information that they will believe really dumb stuff.
Here's another concrete example of this. In 2016, the single most circulated fake news story of that cycle was a story that appeared first in the spring and then again in the fall, and it was presented as if it came from a local TV news station somewhere that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump. I'm not a Roman Catholic myself. But if I were a Catholic, if I cared enough about the Catholic Church to care who the Pope endorsed, I would also care enough to know the Pope never endorses anybody. The very market of people who you would think would be swayed by the false information that the Pope had endorsed a candidate would be the people who know the Pope never endorses candidates. The Pope didn't endorse John F. Kennedy, the Pope didn’t endorse Al Smith. The Pope certainly wasn't going to endorse Donald Trump, who insulted the Pope personally just a few months before. The pope doesn't intervene in Democratic politics. Everyone should know that. So why did that story, which was targeted at Catholics, find the take up? Because the people who enjoyed the story knew at some deep level that it couldn't be true, but they liked it. They enjoyed the disinformation.
So there's a magical thinking aspect to all this that needs to be factored in.
There's a craving for group affirmation. That's what fake news provides. And you see this in in the way that false medical news is spread. I mean, why do people believe something as crazy as that it's bad to get your kids a measles shot? How could anyone believe something so crazy and farcical and stupid as that? And the answer is, is because they want to. They crave a world in which all dangers are external and are subject to parental control and are visible and you're tiny. We all think our babies are so beautiful and perfect that your baby is born perfect. And all the threats come from outside the baby's body. And because of the need to believe that, the people who want to believe that and then go on Facebook and find this garbage information and choose to believe it. When other people see the same garbage information and choose not to.
Will you vote for Joe Biden this fall?
Oh yeah. I voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. And that was that was a little bit more challenging. But when you think about what previous generations of Americans have had to do for their country, the prospect of casting a ballot for candidate who's someone whose views you disagree with, that's a that's a pretty small ask.
Do you think there's any truth to the idea that former President Bush will come out and endorse Biden?
I wish it would happen, but I can't see it happening. I think former presidents tend to keep a pretty wide berth from politics and especially for something as bold a move as campaigning for a president of a different party. I wish it would. I just don't see it.