Answering Your Questions on Trump and ‘How to Build an Autocracy’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

(Editor’s note: David Frum dropped in on the TAD discussion group of Atlantic readers for an “Ask Me Anything,” and a lightly-edited version of that Q&A is below. Reader questions are in bold, followed by Frum’s replies.)

This reader community was founded as a refuge from the chaos of modern-day comment sections. Here at TAD, we really value honest, good-faith discussion from both sides, and not just cheap potshots. Something I’m always curious about, particularly from writers such as yourself: Do you think online commenting adds to civic discourse or detracts from it?

I’ve made friends through online comments ... and on Twitter and other social media platforms. On the other hand, there’s no denying there’s something inherently prone to trouble about anonymous discussion severed from in-person contact. As information becomes ever more abundant, personal contact becomes ever more rare and therefore precious.

Would you feel comfortable discussing the issues that caused you to leave National Review?

That’s easy: The parting was completely amicable. I had a vision for a forum to discuss the ideas of what we didn’t yet call the Reformicons, that didn’t carry the institutional conservative DNA of National Review. I contributed to that magazine through the election of 2008, wrote a farewell piece endorsing McCain over Obama, then launched my own site in 2009. Or are you thinking of AEI? That was a less amicable story; they fired me in March 2010. Here’s the piece that got me fired.

The question we must ask all TAD visitors: Cake or pie?

Not crazy about either, but if I must: open-faced French tartes. I never pretended to be anything other than a Beltway elitist.

Five years ago in an interview on Morning Joe, you coined the term “conservative entertainment complex” to describe how the conservative media and donors had fleeced the Republican base:

Looking back on that now, 2012 almost seems like the good old days. How do you think the conservative base can evaluate politics and the world accurately when it seems as if this conservative media complex has only become stronger and more isolated from objectivity?

Trump is like some divine wrath on conservative media. He makes clear every day his utter contempt for the principles they claim to have. He endlessly wrong-foots them.

“It’s not a ban!”

“Right, as the president said, it’s not a ban.”

“It is a ban.”

“Exactly, just as the president said.”

And Trump is accelerating the alienation and cultural isolation of his supporters from the national cultural mainstream.

I just read Ezra Klein’s “How to Stop an Autocracy”—a response to your “How to Build an Autocracy” cover story—and Ezra argues that the real problem is that the GOP Congress won’t stop Trump. I saw you RTed the article. What do you think of it?

Ezra makes sharp points, but I’d grant more agency to Trump himself. Ezra emphasizes Congressional Republicans ideological agenda as the main driver of their subordination to him. But political fear works too—and the fear exists because of Trump’s own connection with the party base and his willingness to ruthlessly exercise power to punish enemies, even when it seems self-destructive in the longer term to do so.

Do you think references to fascism help or hurt the cause of those who oppose Trump?

Hurt. As one of my favorite teachers used to say: “History never repeats itself. It only appears to do so to those who don’t pay attention to details.”

Seems lately everyone has a prescription for what the Democrats can do to right the ship. So, uh, out of curiosity, what’s your hot take?

Challenging question, because what’s good for the Democrats (mobilize their base, which is potentially significantly larger than the GOP base) is bad for the anti-Trump coalition. The base-mobilizing issues for Democrats are precisely those where Trump has acted most like a traditional Republican: the DeVos nomination, e.g. The issues that hold together an anti-Trump coalition are those in which he has showed himself most aberrant.

To my mind, everything turns on voting. Protest all you want, but if you don’t vote, then nothing can change. So with that said, I am increasing worried about the concerted effort to disenfranchise various groups. What do you see as an effective strategy to combat this?

What happened in 2016 was demobilization much more than disenfranchisement, in my opinion.

Your recent article “How to Beat Trump” offered advice from the political right to the political left. Is there a reason why you didn’t offer such advice to Americans across the political spectrum, including those within the GOP, on how they should participate in protests or start their own movement to curb the excesses of the Trump administration? What would you recommend Republicans do to organize in opposition? (I’m asking as a center-left independent who wants to support his GOP family in their opposition, and one who might even get radical enough to join the GOP if there was any organized and vocal opposition to Trump and his movement.)

Anti-Trump Republicans need to exercise voice and deploy the threat of exit. Demand that Republican elected officials defend the country against Russian interference. Complain when they protect Trump’s self-enriching and lawless actions. And make clear that your support, vote, and money (if you are in a position to give) should not be taken for granted.

Trump is shrewd but not strategic. He makes enemies. If he wobbles, they will try to pounce—if they feel that their own constituencies permit it. The permitting is the key variable!

I sympathize with elements of the Trump program. I’d like to see GOP commit itself to a universal health guarantee (paid for by a NON progressive form of taxation, so it is as insurance-like as possible); and to reductions in immigration flows. But Trump himself has no way to make himself acceptable to those repelled by his kleptocracy and autocracy. I hope we’ll see the rise of a Mugwump-style independent GOP bloc in the Congress.

What’s your explanation as to why so many of your conservative intellectual colleagues seem to be less visibly upset than you about the Trump presidency (Reihan Salam, David French, etc.)? Is it your stronger familiarity with the recent history of Eastern Europe? Or perhaps your Canadian background?

Probably my hawkishness on foreign policy. I signed up for conservatism as the politics I believed most determined to hold together the Western alliance. Trump’s subversion of that alliance (and the trade connections that sustain it) alarms me.

It appears that President Trump is not interested in the rules-based international order the United States has spent the last seven decades building and defending. If you were advising the EU Commission, what would be your advice in terms of positioning for future political, trade, and economic policies?

This question rends my heart. From the point of view of the larger democratic community, it is essential that the EU, UK, and U.S. be as tightly bound as possible. But in its own interest, the EU must now start thinking about independent guarantees of its own security. That’s one of the most terrible costs of the Trump presidency.

Where do you see the relationship with Canada going? Do you think Trudeau and his government will stand firm if Trump tries to seriously undermine the relationship by, say, forcing a renegotiation of NAFTA and refusing to compromise? Follow-up question: Do you think there is any chance at all of Kevin O’Leary riding a similar wave and beating Trudeau in the next federal?

Canada has very few options. It will have to accommodate the Trumpist agenda. Kevin O’Leary is very poorly suited to a parliamentary system, and his attempt to campaign for the Conservative leadership from Boston will be seen as arrogant and offensive.

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Frum. Do you think it is more likely that history will view this period as a step in the decline of the United States on the world stage, or as an aberration that was followed by another period of U.S. leadership (if not dominance) in the world?

The key thing to stress: This is up to us, to a great extent. The objective indicators for U.S. power do point downward. America’s share of world GDP is declining; its most important allies in Europe and Asia are losing share even faster. Here at home, key institutions are under stress; social cohesion visibly weakening. Yet the residual resources remain enormous. Intelligent leadership can make a difference. It’s up to us to insist on better.