David Frum Is (Still Just) a Canadian Conservative
I have been curious about David Frum since I realized he was an actual Frum. I moved to the States from Canada in 1996, so 2000 was my first proper American election cycle and that’s when I first encountered David Frum and realized he was a Frum from the Frums of Canada. A real live Canadian Frum at the heart of the American political scene. But I was shocked to find him at the heart of the conservative American political scene; I thought then, holy shit, David Frum is a right-wing Republican, as in “USA! USA! USA!” right-wing Republican.
He wasn’t that kind of conservative. He still isn’t.
David Frum appeared on the American mainstream political scene in 2000 as a speech writer for George W. Bush. He was on the job for September 11, and helped pen the expression “axis of evil.” In 2004 he co-wrote An End to Evil with fellow neocon Richard Perle, and that’s the first time I started taking him seriously. Today, Frum has re-emerged as the central critic of the current Republican party, but to understand him and his argument in Why Romney Lost you have to go back earlier, before his gig with W and his alliance with the neocons.
Like Frum, I am a Canadian from Toronto. And if you grew up in Canada during the 80s you could not miss the televisual omnipresence of his mother, CBC news journalist Barbara Frum. Eruditely glamorous, she helped define an era of smart, in-depth, substantive Canadian journalism typified by the evening news show she co-hosted, The Journal. Barbara Frum was a cultural phenomenon, and to me she embodied the kind of journalism that was not the mainstream in America. Shows like The MacNeil - Lehrer Newshour, to me, felt more Canadian than American... maybe that’s because it was co-founded by another Canadian, Jim Lehrer.
So when I realized that David, Barbara’s son, was on the front-line of American conservative politics, I was immediately fascinated. Wow. Barbara Frum’s son is a key player in the American conservative movement? How far that apple fell from the tree, I thought. Maybe it’s silly and presumptuous, but I assumed that the Frum’s were left-leaning Canadian liberals. Maybe they weren’t/aren’t left-leaning, but they are Canadian (despite their passports), and that means everything.
When David Frum’s An End To Evil came out I bought it straight away. I wanted to know more about this guy. The title alone was exciting. David Frum knew how to end evil? Evil? This I had to read. I wanted to read something truly audacious. I wanted a passionate, messy, quasi-metaphysical account of how our Judaeo-Christian God was greater than their Islamic God because our political institutions and our economy were the gold standard. Or, even better, how their God was actually the Devil and they all needed to be converted. I wanted a glimpse into the born-again fundamentalist heart of the Bush Doctrine, but I got nothing of the sort. Unfortunately the book turned out to be a painful bore: a paint-by-numbers account of American neoconservatism and how to win the hot war on the ground with the terrorists and the cold war of ideas in the air with Islamic fundamentalism. The book begins, ironically, with a quote from Thomas Paine. It’s the standard quote trotted out about “these are the times that try men’s souls” bla, bla, bla. Quoting Paine was ironic, I thought, because he was famous for a) defending asymmetrical insurgent warfare (anathema to the Bush neocons), and b) for the separation of church and state (also anathema to the Bush neocons). Frum didn’t share that facet of Bush group-think.
Anyway, after the debacle of the Bush era, Frum regrouped. He wrote and occasionally appeared on this or that talk show, but he wasn’t the center of attention.
Now, David Frum is back. And he’s jockeying to be the front and center of the post-Romney American conservative movement by using the failure of Mitt’s candidacy to re-establish his power and influence.
On November 8, 2012, two days after the election, while the cadaver was still warm, David Frum published Why Romney Lost. The central thesis of the e-book is that Romney lost because he was play acting a part that he didn’t believe in: Romney was pandering to a Republican party radicalized and cut off from reality by the Tea Party and Fox News. And, in that, he’s right. I called it the Republican Tea Party and it was a force that distorted any candidate caught in its field. Romney was weak to begin with: he was stiff and out-of-touch with the middle class. His language, his jokes and references, even his hair, were from an older America. But stiff and weird, he was still a pretty moderate politician, the other Republican candidates made sure we knew that. To make matters worse, the other candidates did irreparable damage to him when they amped up the critique and painted him as a vulture capitalist... the Republicans did that! To save himself Romney had to overcompensate—he had to pretend he was more ideologically rigid than his technocratic soul wanted him to be. Frum wanted Moderate Mitt. Frum wants a truly kinder, gentler conservatism. A Canadian-style conservatism. His championing of Moderate Mitt is proof of that. His version of Mitt Romney is just a Leave It to Beaver version of Brian Mulroney.
Here is my wildly unfounded hypothesis: David Frum was raised, like me, during the era of the great liberal prime mover Pierre Elliot Trudeau. As a smart Canadian trying to forge his own political identity in the shadow of Trudeau’s vision of strong federal government, and his mother’s liberal-leaning journalism, the only obvious intellectual place for David Frum to move was to the right. But because Trudeauism and Barbara Frumism are more left than what American’s call left, any move to the right like Frum’s was bound to drop you more or less in the dead center of American politics. Even a serious stint at the heart of the Bush/Rove/neocon apparatus wasn’t able to change David Frum’s fundamental political disposition: he was then, and is now, a center-right thinker in the Canadian conservative tradition.
If you go back to his first book on American conservatism, Dead Right, you’ll learn that David Frum’s vision of the right has less and less to do with the reality of American politics with each year that you move beyond the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Today Frum likes to say that the current Republican Tea Party has lost touch with the electorate, but his version of conservatism is equally out of touch with the reality of the movement’s core constituency. That constituency being only partially motivated by a libertarian-like dislike of strong centrism. Much to Frum’s dismay (he acknowledges), American conservatism is at its core a cultural movement based on a vision (myth) of American-ness. Dead Right is a battle against the primacy of cultural conservatism. The only way to get to the Republican cultural promised land, Frum said—and says—is to focus laser-like on dismantling the big government welfare state. That’s what he thought then and that’s exactly what he thinks now, in the ashes of the Romney candidacy. And it’s a rhetorically cool space to inhabit, a discourse that not only does not survive on a Fox News panel, but does not survive out there with the existing Republican electorate. You can try to jam the Republican Tea Party into libertarianism, but it’s like jamming a large square peg into a much smaller square hole: I was at their rallies, the Tea Party is a metaphysical love-affair with God and the Saints (the Founding Fathers).
A few weeks ago I was in Los Angeles for the final taping of this season’s Real Time with Bill Maher. Frum was on the panel. During the taping I got myself ready to confront him at the after-party. I wanted to ask if a fundamentally Canadian conservative such as himself felt he could ever truly fit into the American movement. I wanted to ask if he thought his current effort to recast the conservative discourse in the USA—as much as his ideas are being echoed by the likes of William Kristol on Fox News, no less—was going to be any more successful now as his critique in Dead Right was in the early 90s. Did he really believe his thinking was going to take hold in a country where conservatism means everything from God-induced rape, Texas secessionism, wearing Revolutionary topcoats, and saying shit like “these colors don’t run”? Yes, I wanted to tell him—in so many snide formulations—that, as a moderate, centrist, Canadian conservative guy, he was doomed to failure.
I spotted him at the after-party and made my move. I might want to blame what happened next on the booze, or the pot, or just plain old starfucketry, but ultimately I have to blame my upbringing; in the last instance I was a victim of my Canadian-ness just as much as David Frum is of his... I walked up to him, stuck out my hand, and introduced myself: “Hello, Mr. Frum. I’m from Toronto too, the west end, born and raised. A pleasure to meet you.” He was gracious and friendly. And that was that.
You can take the guy out of Canada, but you can’t take Canada out of the guy.
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