David Frum on Tavis Smiley’s show earlier this week.
The other night, as I turned off the Apple TV and paused just before turning off the tube altogether, I saw that Tavis Smiley was interviewing David Frum — former speechwriter for George W. Bush and current senior editor for The Atlantic.
So I stopped myself from turning it off, because Frum usually has smart, interesting things to say.
He immediately said something rather outlandish. He suggested it was highly possible that Donald Trump’s main goal in being president of the United States is to become the richest man in the world. And that as long as his tax returns are not disclosed, he’s likely to achieve it.
I was about to scoff, but paused. That would be a ridiculous goal to me, or to Barack Obama, or to George W. Bush (despite what Bud and others seem to believe about Republicans.) The sheer petty, two-bit cupidity of it is laughable, particularly since in our history, no one who was thus motivated has ever sought such a position, much less attained it.
But I then reflected that lots of people actually are that motivated by money, as Doug keeps insisting to me that everyone is. And if there’s anyone on the planet who might be that acquisitive, it’s Donald J. Trump.
Well, fine. I don’t care if he does become the richest man in the world. Were it in my power, I would write him a check for the full amount he wants if only he’d walk away and stop doing what he’s doing to our country.
I don’t know, but suspect, that Frum would do the same. Because the problem for him, and for me, is the startlingly insidious ways that Trump is undermining our republic, its institutions — particularly the effectiveness of our vaunted checks and balances — and its standing in the world as a beacon of how self-government can work. Whatever Trump’s goal is — money, popularity, power for power’s sake — the really horrible thing is what he’s doing to get there.
During the interview with Smiley, Frum alluded to a piece he’d written in The Atlantic. I finally read it tonight. It is without a doubt the most brilliant, incisive, on-point, and chilling thing I’ve read since this nightmare began.
The title is “How to Build an Autocracy.”
Orwell’s 1984 has been enjoying a surge of popularity in recent weeks, especially it seems since Kellyanne Conway’s remark about “alternative facts.”
Well, the first 878 words of this essay is a bit of speculative fiction imagining the world four years from now, when Trump has just easily won re-election. It’s scarier than 1984 because it’s not a theoretical projection of just how horrible things might get in a place like Stalin’s Russia. It’s chilling because everything it describes, in explaining how Trump becomes a power that can’t be challenged, is completely, immediately believable. It wouldn’t have been before the past year, but it is now. We’re seeing it happen.
The other several thousand words of the piece elaborates on how we get from here to there, and it’s amazing. Frum doesn’t generalize. He explains in detail why it’s highly likely that the checks and balances we rely on — from official ones like Congress to unofficial ones like the press — are being quite effectively neutralized. He sets out beautifully, for instance, how Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are motivated to look the other way because they need Trump more than he needs them. It explains so much.
As for the media, well, Trump is redefining the nature of truth itself, or at least the way Americans regard it. An example of how that works:
One story, still supremely disturbing, exemplifies the falsifying method. During November and December, the slow-moving California vote count gradually pushed Hillary Clinton’s lead over Donald Trump in the national popular vote further and further: past 1 million, past 1.5 million, past 2 million, past 2.5 million. Trump’s share of the vote would ultimately clock in below Richard Nixon’s in 1960, Al Gore’s in 2000, John Kerry’s in 2004, Gerald Ford’s in 1976, and Mitt Romney’s in 2012—and barely ahead of Michael Dukakis’s in 1988.
This outcome evidently gnawed at the president-elect. On November 27, Trump tweeted that he had in fact “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” He followed up that astonishing, and unsubstantiated, statement with an escalating series of tweets and retweets.
It’s hard to do justice to the breathtaking audacity of such a claim. If true, it would be so serious as to demand a criminal investigation at a minimum, presumably spanning many states. But of course the claim was not true. Trump had not a smidgen of evidence beyond his own bruised feelings and internet flotsam from flagrantly unreliable sources. Yet once the president-elect lent his prestige to the crazy claim, it became fact for many people. A survey by YouGov found that by December 1, 43 percent of Republicans accepted the claim that millions of people had voted illegally in 2016.
If you sow enough cynicism, you don’t have to murder journalists or imprison opponents. There are subtler ways of achieving autocracy, which have been employed in recent years in places like Hungary, and we Americans are just beginning to learn about them.
He sort of leaves open the idea that Trump is a fascist, and moves beyond it, to tell us that our notions and labels and expectations are behind the times:
Whatever else happens, Americans are not going to assemble in parade-ground formations, any more than they will crank a gramophone or dance the turkey trot. In a society where few people walk to work, why mobilize young men in matching shirts to command the streets? If you’re seeking to domineer and bully, you want your storm troopers to go online, where the more important traffic is. Demagogues need no longer stand erect for hours orating into a radio microphone. Tweet lies from a smartphone instead….
But I’m not going to be able to do justice to this piece with excerpts. You need to go read it yourself. If you care, you have to.
I’ll just close with a neat thing Frum did today on Twitter. He set out some of the main points of his essay with a series of 21 Tweets. Here they are:
2) Donald Trump is a uniquely dangerous president because he harbors so many guilty secrets (or maybe 1 big guilty secret).
3) In order to protect himself, Trump must attack American norms and institutions – otherwise he faces fathomless legal risk
4) In turn, in order to protect their legally vulnerable leader, Republicans in Congress must join the attack on norms & institutions
5) Otherwise, they put at risk party hopes for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to remake US government in ways not very popular with voters
6) American institutions are built to withstand an attack from the president alone. But …
7) … they are not so well-built as to withstand an attack from a conscienceless president enabled by a hyper-partisan Congress
8) The peculiar grim irony in this case is that somewhere near the center of Trump’s story is the murky secret of Trump’s Russia connection
9) Meaning that Trump is rendering his party also complicit in what could well prove …
10) … the biggest espionage scandal since the Rosenberg group stole the secret of the atomic bomb.
11) And possibly even bigger. We won’t know if we don’t look
12) Despite patriotic statements from individual GOPers, as of now it seems that Speaker Ryan & Leader McConnell agree: no looking.
13) So many in DC serenely promise that “checks and balances” will save us. But right now: there is no check and no balance.
14) Only brave individuals in national security roles sharing truth with news organizations.
15) But those individuals can be found & silenced. What then? We take it too much for granted that the president must lose this struggle
16) The “oh he’s normal now” relief of so many to Trump’s Feb 28 speech revealed how ready DC is to succumb to dealmaking as usual.
17) As DC goes numb, citizen apathy accumulates …
18) GOP members of Congress decide they have more to fear from enforcing law against the president than from ignoring law with the president
19) And those of us who care disappear down rabbit holes debating whether Sessions’ false testimony amounts to perjury or not
20) Meanwhile job market strong, stock market is up, immigration enforcement is popular.
21) I’m not counseling despair here. I don’t feel despair. Only: nobody else will save the country if you don’t act yourself. END.
Illustration by Jeffry Smith in The Atlantic.