Will Democracy Survive President Trump? Two New Books Aren’t So Sure.
Barely 12 months into the churn of the Trump presidency, when a week can be as eventful as a year, David Frum has published his new book aware of the perils he faces. “My choice of timing imposes on this project many risks of error and misunderstanding,” he concedes on the first page of “Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic.” There’s still plenty of time until the next presidential election for Trump and his sentries to do more: more fulminating, more tweeting, more back-stabbing, more enabling. “But if it’s potentially embarrassing to speak too soon,” Frum writes, “it can also be dangerous to wait too long.”
If this sounds a bit much as justification for a release date, it’s worth remembering that the neoconservative Frum, once a speechwriter for George W. Bush, was an early and ardent supporter of the Iraq war. Neocons don’t like to wait.
But Frum purports to offer more than a rushed assessment of the last year. After all, he says, President Trump is not a cause but a symptom. Like another new book, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s “How Democracies Die,” “Trumpocracy” is, in part, an exploration of the reasons for the president’s electoral upset and the roots of his rule. Trump, Frum writes, “did not create the vulnerabilities he exploited.”
Despite sterling conservative credentials — helping Bush coin the phrase “axis of evil”; co-writing “An End to Evil” with Richard Perle (evil being even more loathed than waiting) — Frum was developing a reputation as a Republican dissenter before the election of 2016 put him in full Never Trump mode, when he held his nose and voted for Hillary Clinton. (This was a real sacrifice, considering he deemed Clinton “a suspicious and vindictive personality.”) As a columnist at The Atlantic, Frum has spent the past year excoriating the president and the Republican Party as a toxic mix of hot heads in the White House and lily livers in Congress.
“The worse Trump behaved, the more frantically congressional Republicans worked to protect him,” he writes in “Trumpocracy.” The government has “imported the spirit of thuggery, crookedness and dictatorship into the very core of the American state.” While the populace (or audience) gets swept along by the daily gusts of gossip and palace intrigues, Frum wants to direct our ire at all those mild-mannered functionaries who have allowed “this new regime of deceit and brutishness” to take hold.
Among Frum’s fellow Republicans who read this book, all but the most determined Trump enthusiasts should feel pin pricks of recognition and, depending on how much hypocrisy they can live with, a queasy discomfort. Frum relishes going on the attack, and he castigates members of a Republican establishment who have lain any pretensions to moral rectitude on the altar of a tax cut.
The book seems to have been written in haste, a patchwork of bits and pieces from his Atlantic columns, additional examples of Trumpian malfeasance, and new ways of expressing old outrage. Frum has followed the blogger’s template, clogging his text with block quotes. Rambling disquisitions by Steve Bannon and Trump prove little besides the exceedingly hard time they have getting to a point. Paragraphs of wire stories are reprinted verbatim. Frum’s prescriptions for responding to Trump amount to cut-rate self-help: “Resistance begins by refusing to let him corrupt you personally.”
Frum has the pamphleteer’s flair for the scathing epithet, which can be energizing or enervating, depending on your tolerance for hyperbole. Even sympathetic readers may feel besieged when he works himself up to full throttle. “No single person could possibly plumb the foulnesses of the Trump presidency.” “The Trump White House is a mess of careless slobs.” Trump himself is “the most shameless liar in the history of the presidency.”
On that last note, Levitsky and Ziblatt might not disagree, though in “How Democracies Die” they are more methodical and less fervid in their assessments. The most withering designation they offer for President Trump is — get ready for it — “serial norm breaker.”
Then again, Levitsky and Ziblatt are political scientists, for whom being a serial norm breaker is serious stuff indeed. Norms are what have sustained American democracy “in ways we have come to take for granted.” They identify two in particular: “mutual toleration,” or the understanding among competing parties and politicians that they are legitimate rivals rather than existential enemies; and “forbearance,” or the understanding among politicians that just because they technically have the power to do something doesn’t mean they ought to use it. The erosion of these two norms can lead to a partisan death spiral. The authors argue that Trump has tried to eviscerate both.
“How Democracies Die” is a lucid and essential guide to what can happen here. Levitsky and Ziblatt show how democracies have collapsed elsewhere — not just through violent coups, but more commonly (and insidiously) through a gradual slide into authoritarianism. Autocrats often come to power through democratic elections rather than at the point of a gun. Establishment elites can inadvertently assist would-be despots, as insiders delude themselves into believing they can invite an outsider into power and then pull the puppet strings. As one German aristocrat boasted in 1933: “Within two months, we will have pushed Hitler so far into a corner that he’ll squeal.”
A “profound miscalculation,” is how Levitsky and Ziblatt describe this attempt to share power with the Nazis. When presenting the most distressing historical analogies, the authors’ understatement is so subdued it verges on deadpan. But our current moment is so fraught that “How Democracies Die” is never dull, even if the writing can be. “If partisan animosity prevails over mutual toleration, those in control of congress may prioritize defense of the president over the performance of their constitutional duties.” This might be blanched prose, but it also sounds like a sly subtweet of the Republican Party.
In one of the most original turns in the book, Levitsky and Ziblatt assiduously dismantle the myth of American exceptionalism. Even during the supposed heyday of 20th-century bipartisan cooperation, “the norms sustaining our political system rested, to a considerable degree, on racial exclusion.” Jim Crow was allowed to flourish in a South that was “profoundly undemocratic.” The post-Confederate states had changed their constitutions and laws to deprive African-Americans of the vote, while Democrats and Republicans found common cause in a political system that was largely restricted to white people.
The authors hazard that most of the norm-breaking in the last few decades has been conducted by the Republican Party because, unlike its rival, it “has remained culturally homogeneous.” The Democrats have had to negotiate among varying interests in their ranks; the Republicans have not, allowing them to be more single-minded — and reckless, this book suggests — in their pursuit of power. But Levitsky and Ziblatt oppose those liberals who advise compromising the concerns of ethnic minorities in order to make Democrats more appealing to Trump’s white working-class base: “It would repeat some of our country’s most shameful mistakes.”
Each of these books ends on a characteristic note. Frum has prepared us for a grand finale, full of clashing cymbals and swelling violins: “We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can also be your finest hour as a citizen and an American.” This kind of exhortation is as vague and bombastic as old calls for regime change in Iraq. Levitsky and Ziblatt are drier and more circumspect. There is no democratic paradise, no easy way out. Democracy, when it functions properly, is hard, grinding work. This message may not be as loud and as lurid as what passes for politics these days, but it might be the one we need to hear.