The famous Never Trumper thinks conservatism is "obsolete," but will Republicans listen to him?
David Frum thinks I should smoke less weed. “If you start it early, it will have an effect on your IQ, and it does seem to have strong effects on motivations and ambition,” he told me. We were sitting in a Georgetown Starbucks on an unseasonably beautiful Saturday morning in January, the federal government had been shut down mere hours ago, and Frum was happily chattering away about his favorite topic—the slow demise of the American republic.
Though Frum spends his days decrying Donald Trump and working as an editor for the liberal Atlantic, he’s still a sort of stereotypical Bush-era Republican, a pundit who has penned multiple articles on the dangers on legalizing pot. So naturally, I thought it would be fun to split a joint with him to convince him weed wasn’t actually that bad. I’d tweeted at him a bunch of times about the prospect of getting high together, but he (sensibly) ignored my smug trolling. So when his book editor reached out to me about covering Trumpocracy: The Corruption of an American Republic, his latest polemic on the country’s slow collapse, I once again found myself begging Frum to get high with me.
Instead, he proposed an alternative that was effectively the opposite of smoking weed—would I care to join him for a workout? Exercising with a former Bush administration speechwriter who helped coin the now-iconic term “axis of evil” was an offer that was simply too weird for me to refuse.
We met atop Washington DC’s Exorcist Steps, one of the steepest and scariest staircases in America, famed for its appearance in the iconic horror film that it’s named for. Immediately I was in trouble: I feared if I attempted to do Frum’s biweekly routine—three sets of five flights with a two-minute rest in between—I would actually die. “I’m not joking when I advise not to be a hero about it if you haven’t done something like it before,” Frum had ominously warned me before we met.
Frum is a fundamentally serious man, and his particular brand of seriousness manifested itself as he briefed me on the rules of the Exorcist Steps, which are usually crowded both with tourists looking to get the perfect picture at the cinematic landmark and athletes who simply want to work out. Frum compared the conflict between two types of visitors the narrow stairway attracts to the Israel/Palestine conflict, in that both groups were entirely unwilling to even recognize, never mind accommodate, each other’s interests. He emphasized that when we got to the bottom of the steps, I was not to immediately turn around to climb back up, but instead walk a couple feet forward before turning around. This was important for safety reasons, he explained.
“I’ve seen accidents here. I’ve gotten into altercations once or twice,” he told me, explaining a feud he got into with a personal trainer who frequents the Exorcist Steps with his clients, and often blocks the way of others. Frum, clearly, is a man who believes in and enforces the rules.
My anxiety about death on the Exorcist Steps proved entirely rational. As we descended down the stairs for the first set, I psyched myself into thinking I could do it. Even though I’m not in peak physical condition, I live on a third-floor walkup and generally use stairs in my daily life. But on the steep, steep journey back to the top—after walking a couple feet forward, of course—my breath grew heavier and louder, and I knew I was going to heed Frum’s advice and drop out. “I should really quit smoking,” I said insincerely.
As I tried to regain my breath at the top of the steps, unable to wrap my mind around anything aside from taking my next breath, a worry gnawed at me. Am I being too chummy with David Frum? I wondered. In the Trumpian political scene, condemnation is always in the air, and the left is quick to judge anyone deemed problematic. And from a leftist perspective, Frum is certifiably problematic.
Although he has consistently been an anti-Trump conservative voice, lefties despise him for fairly understandable reasons. He’s an Iraq War-defending Zionist who is “sad” about the trend of legal cannabis in the US; a George W. Bush–lovin’ Republican who isn’t so sure we should be letting more Syrian refugees into the country. He’s also been welcomed on NPR, CNN, and MSNBC; Trumpocracy has elicited praise from the anti-Trump right but also at least one former Hillary Clinton advisor, the actor Robert de Niro, and Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. In other words, he’s exactly the sort of establishment figure who drives the revolutionary-minded insane.
“Frum is nothing more than a mediocre man with bad opinions, which makes it all the more puzzling how much personal history his benefactors are willing to overlook,” wrote Alex Nichols on the reliably leftist website, The Outline. “Listen to your conscience and not David Frum,” Judd Legum of ThinkProgress suggested on Twitter in September. “There's a particular grotesquerie to welcoming David Frum into the Resistance but the worst part might be that the ‘normal’ right fueled the alt-right,” a Twitter leftist mused.
Frum is unconcerned with this sort of criticism, and doesn’t think that his status as a right-winger has much to do with his opposition to Trump. “People sometimes say, ‘Well I don’t like your view on the Iraq War, why should I listen to you?’ I say, ‘You don’t have to listen to me.’ I put it on the internet, I put it between covers. Read it or don’t. Don’t ask me why you should,” he told me after our workout.
Frum’s critiques of the president echo alarms sounded by political veterans on the center, center-left, and center-right. “Trump is much more of a constitutional problem than he is a political problem,” Frum told me. “It’s about American leadership in the world. The problem with Trump is not just that he has bad manners. The fact that he’s so terribly cruel is obviously a huge disgrace, and makes him a bad person and a bad leader. American institutions were in trouble anyway. This was a moment of vulnerability that would’ve taken a lot of effort by a very wise president to prevent those problems from getting worse.”
But despite his strange new existence as a conservative voice of reason among the anti-Trump Resistance, Frum is not a fan of the term, telling me, “I don’t think you get to call yourself ‘the resistance’ unless you’re risking torture [if] you get caught.”
What sets Frum apart from many anti-Trump conservatives is that he’s been speaking out against his party’s descent into extremism since long before Donald Trump appeared on the political scene. After leaving the Bush administration in 2002—he says he never much liked the work of being a speechwriter—Frum became a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. In 2010, he left that gig after writing a blog post in which he criticized the Republican Party for not compromising on the Affordable Care Act, a remarkable bit of heresy widely covered at the time in both the mainstream media and blogs.
“Through the debate over Obamacare, I thought the principle of universal coverage was welcome and that Republicans should work on that and offer their own proposals and counter-proposals through the process,” Frum told me. “I’ve written an article [about that] that's caused an outcry. The next morning, I get summoned by the president of AEI, and two days later, I’m out on the street. So I tell people about this, I was just sacked by AEI. And AEI tells people that’s not true, he’s lying, he wasn’t fired. I think I was! 'No you weren’t, we just took away your office and salary. But you weren’t fired.'” (“David Frum resigned,” an AEI spokesperson told the Daily Beast in 2010. The think tank did not immediately respond to my request for comment.)
That post about the ACA marked a major break from his conservative allies, and since then Frum, though still a Republican, has come to believe that much of the policies his party champion are obsolete. In Trumpocracy, he wonders, “By August 2017, what was left of the philosophy formerly known as conservatism beyond ‘fuck you, leftists?’”
His main insight is that “the philosophy formerly known as conservatism” was in trouble long before Trump entered the scene. In 2011, he railed against the Tea Party in a post on his now defunct blog, Frum Forum, which he poured his energy into after leaving AEI. “[The Tea Party is] looking for an explanation of the [economic] catastrophe—and a villain to blame,” he argued. “They are finding it in the same place that [Michele] Bachmann and her co-religionists located it 30 years ago: a deeply hostile national government controlled by alien and suspect forces, with Barack Obama as their leader and symbol.”
Liberals may have cheered his bashing of the Tea Party just as they cheer his anti-Trumpism now, but he remains deeply concerned with rescuing, not defeating, the GOP. Over coffee, Frum told me, “I’m very angry with the Republican rule right now, but it remains my world. It’s my world in that I helped to make it the way it is, or at least, I was there, so I feel some obligation to clean up. I’m very worried that the Republican Party has become a party that has lost faith that it can achieve its policy goals by democratic means.”
The anti-Trump right, he maintained, doesn’t “have to give up their politics” to oppose the president. But he talks about politics in a way that sounds divorced from the rhetoric pushed by both Trumpists and more traditional Republicans. “I have had enough conservatives tell me I’m not a conservative. I think conservatism, it’s really obsolete,” he explained. “Conservatism stopped describing the world we live in. It stopped having answers to the problems of the world that we live in. It’s devolved into anti-leftism, tribal antipathy… For a long time [I’ve been talking about] how the Republican Party had to modernize, that incomes were stagnating, that the lack of health coverage was a real problem, climate’s a real problem.”
Tax cuts are “not the answer to everything,” he emphasized, although he can’t deny that he’s happy to see the corporate tax rate drop from 35 to 21 percent thanks to the GOP tax bill Trump signed into law late last year.
Obviously, if you're skeptical of tax cuts and admit that healthcare access and climate change are actual problems, you'll be arguing against not just Trump but all of the candidates Trump torched in the 2016 primaries. And at one point, Frum’s unorthodox views led him to be hopeful Trump would “liberate the party from Paul Ryanism.”
“He would talk about how he wasn’t going to cut Medicare, and that’s illiterate, but if what he meant was, we’re not gonna be the party that constantly is trying to take away people’s health coverage,” he told me. “Although he lied horrifically about his own background with this, I thought the party had to talk about Iraq… because it never talked about it, it was either in danger of perpetuating this trauma, and empowering those who wanted to step out of America’s role in the world.”
Right, so let’s talk about the Iraq War, the point at which the NPR crowd sharply diverges from Frum. “US-UK intervention offered Iraq a better future. Whatever West's mistakes: sectarian war was a choice Iraqis made for themselves,” he tweeted in 2016. The way Frum understands it, the mistake wasn’t necessarily going into Iraq to begin with, but rather, as he told me, America's failure to achieve “the larger objective stabilizing Iraq.” Because the US failed, Frum maintained, “You’re left only with the carnage... the reality of that is so overwhelming.”
Where does a tax cut–agnostic Trump-hating Iraq War-defending Republican rejected by his own party and the left even belong on the political spectrum these days? His position on marijuana legalization, as it turns out, is actually illuminating.
“By and large, what we have done is we’ve remade society so that, for the typical person, it [is] easier to get into trouble… We need to think harder about writing the rules of society in such a way that they are less likely to put the average person into a destructive situation,” he told me. “[In] American society now, on the left and on the right, we’re very hostile to the idea that sometimes rules have to be written with predictable human weakness in mind.”
“Americans just don’t like being told what to do,” I replied.
“Americans don’t like being told what to do. People don’t like being told what to do, but they also don’t like the consequences of not being told what to do,” he remarked.
“That’s the problem with politics,” I said with a sigh.
“That’s the problem with politics,” he repeated in agreement.
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