The Current

David Frum was once 'Trump-curious' but now says his presidency is like America's gum disease

In a wide-ranging conversation, David Frum tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti that he believes U.S. democracy is being slowly undermined, and that those installed to keep Trump's power in check have become his greatest enablers.
In his new book, David Frum argues that Donald Trump's presidency is undermining U.S. democracy. (Michael Bennett Kress/Harper Collins)

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Donald Trump's presidency is corroding American democracy like "gum disease," according to a former speechwriter for George W. Bush.

"With Donald Trump, it's not a sudden seizure, not a heart attack, it's gum disease," says David Frum, who is now a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine.

"You can die from gum disease, but you don't die right away. Your body just corrodes and it begins to emit toxins, and the toxins get into the bloodstream and those toxins eventually affect the heart and you can die."

In a wide-ranging conversation, Frum tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti that he believes U.S. democracy is being slowly undermined, and that those installed to keep Trump's power in check have become his greatest enablers.

David Frum | The National Interview

6 years ago
Duration 9:39
Is Donald Trump a threat to democracy? It’s a big question as Trump’s presidency passes the one-year mark. Conservative commentator and editor of the Atlantic magazine David Frum tells Rosemary Barton that Trump’s legacy may be his threat to democracy.

In his new book, Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, Frum writes that "the thing to fear from the Trump presidency is not the bold overthrow of the Constitution, but the stealthy paralysis of governance. Not the defiance of law, but an accumulating subversion of norms. Not the deployment of state power to intimidate dissidents, but the incitement of private violence to radicalize supporters."

David Frum in conversation with The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. (The Current)

ANNA MARIA TREMONTII'm looking at that phrase again the other day, and I'm reading: OK paralysis of government — underway. Private violence — Charlottesville. Is this by design?
DAVID FRUM: It's by instinct. Trump is not strategic but he is brilliantly intuitive. He knows and he follows the course of least resistance. When Donald Trump was first elected a lot of alarmist people would compare what happened to Germany in the 1930s. And when I started this I was trying to explain: this is wrong. You don't take the most extreme case of democratic breakdown in the entire history of the world, with the most horrible consequences afterwards and say 'Right. It's going to be like that.' That's the outlier. There are a lot of stops on the trainline of bad before you get to Hitler station.

Frum says this slow undermining of democracy gives people in the government the sense that they still have time to stick up for American principles. He thinks otherwise.

"When the crisis comes, a lot of Republicans in the Senate say, 'look if Donald Trump tries to arrest anybody, I'll be there to stop it,'"says Frum. "We need you a long time before then. We need you to work on those gums and to notice things are just festering. Don't wait for the dramatic hour to be a hero. If it does come to that it will be too late."

Frum warns that Trump opponents hoping that 2018 will be the year that Republicans turn on their president will sorely be mistaken.

DAVID FRUM: As the economy strengthens, I hypothesize that one of the stories of 2018 is that Donald Trump's poll numbers are at last going to begin to go up. He will be stronger in 2018 than he has been in 2017. And if the Republicans take losses in the mid-term elections in 2018... Donald Trump will then be maybe the only game in town. They will be more loyal to him.

As the Republican Party weakens within America, Donald Trump gets stronger within the Republican Party.

Frum is one of the most vocal of the Republicans who have devoted themselves to exposing what they see as the anti-democratic instincts and policies of  President Trump, as well as the Republican party itself for enabling and abetting President Trump's accumulation of power.

"Trumpocracy is Donald Trump as a system of power," says Frum. "The whole system of the United States was supposedly designed to keep people like Donald Trump away from power and if they somehow slipped into power, control them while there.  That system is failing. Trumpocracy is the mode of government that's grown up in the failure of the American system."

Anna Maria Tremonti: I want to ask you a little bit more about that, because you do say enabling the bad people in the Trump orbit are the weak people. So who are we talking about here?

DAVID FRUM: I'm going to tell a story that actually sums this up. H.R. McMaster is the national security adviser, a three-star general, hero of Iraq and Afghanistan, author of an excellent book about the military in the Vietnam War, a real soldier and intellectual, a man of integrity — one of the most admired soldiers of his generation. It was a huge relief to friends of America around the world when H.R. McMaster replaced Michael Flynn, who was compromised by the Russians and the Turks. McMaster made it his top goal to get President Trump finally to say an unequivocal defence of NATO. He booked a trip to NATO in April of 2017. He arranged speaking event where Donald Trump would stand literally in front of the monument to Article 5, a twisted girder from the World Trade Center, and would speak words to defend nature. And just so there would be no mistake, McMaster wrote the words himself. So the president would say exactly the right thing. On the plane over, McMaster briefs reporters, and especially The New York Times, this is what the president will say and this will close forever the uncertainty about whether Trump is committed to NATO. Trump got the speech, came to that section, and whether because he has ideological commitments, whether the Russians have something on him, or whether he just balks at being told what to do, he refused to read the key words. The reporters naturally asked McMaster: 'what happened, you told us this would be in the speech,' and MacMaster — an honorable soldier, full of patriotism — what choice did he have? He said, I don't know what you're talking about. The president said exactly what we wanted him to say, exactly what we expected him to say, nobody could listen that speech and hear anything other than defence of Article 5.

ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: So in other words even the people who are least likely to enable him end up enabling him?

DAVID FRUM: Exactly.

David Frum argues that as the Republican party gets weaker within America, Donald Trump will get more powerful within the Republican party. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

Frum says that in the beginning he himself was 'Trump-curious'. The Republican party, he argues, was not offering voters what they wanted, and he believed Trump's disruption could do some good.

DAVID FRUM: He promised not to touch Medicare, he promised to protect social security, he talked about the dislocations of immigration. He was the first Republican to talk a lot about the opioid epidemic. Then I waited for some response… somebody to say the way I'm going to beat Jeb Bush is by taking Donald Trump's issues and using them to put together a different kind of Republican platform and then we'll have, you know, a normal kind of battle and we'll have a normal kind of nominee, and maybe a normal kind of presidency. I didn't anticipate ever that he would actually win the nomination. That seemed like a joke out of the Simpsons. But he did.

He says that those who most strongly objected to Trump at the start of the campaign — the Never Trumpers — went on to become his biggest boosters.

"Once he won the power, he won the nomination, and then the presidency, the power of negative partisanship took over," he says. "That's why those Never Trump people were reconciled."

Negative partisanship is a term coined in the last decade, when rising numbers of Americans were disavowing both the Republican and Democratic parties and identifying as independents.

DAVID FRUM: If you ask the question: Which party do you hate? It turned out there were no independents. That every American hates one party much more strongly than he or she hates the other party. This is negative partisanship. I may be a weak Republican but I'm a strong anti-Democrat or vice versa. Once you've got the party apparatus, you can then say 'OK, maybe you don't like me but Hillary Clinton is literally Satan. And when he said literally Satan, he meant literally Satan. And since she's literally Satan, obviously it's better to have Donald Trump than Satan.

Listen to the full audio near the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.