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The GOP After Trump

As David Frum argues in his new book, getting rid of this impostor president will be the beginning, not the end, of Republican reform.
June 20, 2020
The GOP After Trump
TOPSHOT - US President Donald Trump boards Air Force One at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport on May 14, 2019, in Kenner, Louisiana. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) / ALTERNATIVE CROP (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Restoring American Democracy
by David Frum
Harper, 272 pp., $28.99

Few people today remember the story behind the sobriquet “Grand Old Party”—the handy “GOP” nickname for the Republican party, which at first blush seems miscast for a political faction that is considerably younger than its rival in a two-party system. The title was adopted after the Civil War on the heels of a speech delivered in 1875 by John Logan, who had served in the Army as one of Grant’s favorite generals and was then a U.S. senator from Illinois.

Speaking in the dark days of political radicalism and civil strife that followed the Union victory, Logan inveighed against the restoration of white supremacy in the former Confederacy that was reducing the Republican party to a rump. (The Republicans had flared into existence in the middle of the 19th century pledged to fight “the twin relics of barbarism”: slavery and polygamy.) He opened by citing a report from Louisiana of thirty-five hundred people killed in the state since the end of the war for attempting to exercise their political rights. These victims, most of whom were black, were also Republicans. “Is it true that this gallant old party, that this gallant old ship that has sailed through troubled seas before, is going to be stranded now . . . ?” Logan’s phrase was soon revised from “gallant old party” to “grand old party”—perhaps in homage to the Grand Army of the Republic in which so many Republican hearts of the age were touched with fire. And the name stuck.

This largely forgotten story is told in Trumpocalypse, David Frum’s new book that predicts the imminent (though belated) end of the Trump era and sketches the contours of a decent Republican future on the ruins of the indecent present. Frum was a widely published opinion journalist before working for a year as a speechwriter for George W. Bush early in his presidency. Now a senior editor at the Atlantic, Frum detects very little of the old grandeur—and, given its diminishing electoral strength among women, less gallantry—in the party of Trump.

In contrast to so many Republican operatives in government and media who yielded to an illiberal tendency and a demagogic tribune, Frum has remained moored to the ideals that once made the Republican party the bulwark of American self-government. His reputation as a Republican apostate predated the party’s embrace of Trump—which is to say, while he possesses considerable conservative credentials, he has long been something of an outsider, a reformer.

Trumpocalypse, along with Frum’s previous companion volume Trumpocracy, is part of a chorus of conservative dissent against Trump’s willful corruptions of party and principle. Although Frum exposes the malfeasance and creeping authoritarianism of the Trump presidency, what makes his contribution of special interest is that it upholds a vision of “one-nation conservatism” that used to prevail in Republican politics but is now dormant. The palpable hope of this work is that it is not yet extinct.

Trumpocalypse gives readers a guide to understanding the modern GOP in its various forms—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Let’s take these in reverse order.

The Ugly

It’s unsurprising that a campaign that sought and received clandestine assistance from the Russian intelligence services has defiled the presidency and profaned American statecraft in novel ways, grave and petty. President Trump has refused to disclose his tax records, and has collected millions of dollars of payments since entering office, not only from party donors and professional grifters but from foreign governments and entities. A legislative branch that passingly attended to its constitutional duties would never have permitted the chief executive to use his office for his own and his family’s private gain in such disregard of the public interest.

Trump has exploited the awesome powers of the American presidency to conduct an off-the-books foreign policy, subverting the national interest to his own private political interest. It was Trump’s brazen betrayal of pledged allies in Ukraine for no higher purpose than to generate dirt on his political opponent that earned him what Frum dubs “the most emphatically justified impeachment in U.S. history.”

America today is more adrift in the world than at any time in living memory, diminished in the eyes of friend and foe alike. This is a depressing development, and a dangerous one. America’s encounter with the world has traditionally been met with as much weary resignation as heartfelt enthusiasm, but the broad international acceptance of American power has been a conspicuous feature of the postwar era. This invaluable jewel is now in jeopardy.

Admittedly, America’s stature has been fading since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as countries that share our values no longer share our fears or even our interests. But with the advent of the “America First” program of illiberal nationalism and xenophobia, American credibility has faded to the point of erasure. The reason is not far to seek. American power, historically a force for the world’s freedom and prosperity, has been increasingly removed from the vocation of maintaining liberal order. American power has seldom been wielded out of altruism, but foreign nations that once accepted (and often admired) America’s sense of enlightened self-interest have begun to doubt if Trump’s unenlightened hegemon is still superior to the alternatives.

Postwar presidents have understood that a substantial share of responsibility for world order came with the job—until now. Trump never accepted this purpose of American power. Instead, he has openly shunned it, betraying erstwhile U.S. allies (who remembers the Syrian Kurds, the Ukrainians, or, soon, the Afghans?) who were engaged in ferocious power struggles against U.S. adversaries. Trump launched protectionist trade conflicts that undercut American consumers and the global economy on the risible notion that the European trading bloc represents a danger to U.S. national security. He shortchanged the country’s soft power by cutting foreign aid and depleting the senior diplomatic corps. If anyone didn’t recognize it before, many at home and abroad now recognize the peril of (or opportunities for plunder in) a world without American economic, diplomatic, and military leadership.

The Bad

The dereliction of America’s global role has been attended by an alarming conservative turn against democratic practices and institutions at home. Although Republicans used to console themselves that they represented America’s great “silent majority,” that ceased to be true decades ago. As Frum argues, well before Trump declared for president, the Republican party had “dwindled into an extremist faction that had ceased even to try to represent an American majority.” Beholden to the bitter resentments of a culture war and in thrall of libertarian doctrines on economics and immigration, the party had lost touch with the priorities and interests of the American nation.

As president, Trump has doubled down on the cultural chauvinism of the dwindling conservative base, expediting the flight away from the GOP by affluent and educated voters who not so long ago formed the backbone of the Republican party. Meanwhile, the populist economic and immigration agenda that Trump once gestured at—and that won over many downscale voters, primarily non-college-educated independents and disgruntled Democrats, who seldom if ever cast a Republican vote—never materialized. On this rickety foundation of a narrow electoral coalition and a nonexistent policy agenda, Trump managed to bend the Republican party to his will.

With the GOP in his pocket, and protecting his pocket, Trump has traduced the norms and subverted the ethos of republican government. He has castigated the press, even inciting violence against members of the fourth estate by referring to them as “the enemies of the people.” He has heaped contempt on the rule of law, repeatedly expressing his desire to tighten up libel laws. He has issued a rhetorical carte blanche to police departments to rough up suspects in their custody. He has inflamed racial divisions amid social crisis. He has indulged pernicious conspiracy theories that bring ill repute on the cause of liberal democracy.

But the wider Republican habit has itself been profligacy and egregious neglect of the nation’s financial health. The resulting deficits at a time (pre-pandemic) of vigorous economic growth have been an enormous breach of what Edmund Burke called the “partnership . . . between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Modern Republicans have lined up to cater relentlessly to the economic interests and cultural preferences of the baby boomers, even if it means depriving the emerging nation of the economic capital and bourgeois virtues that undergird aspiration and earned achievement.

The long-running populist division between “people” and “the people”—or between “Democrats and Americans,” as the old saw had it—has grown more prominent under Trump’s poisonous tribalism. The stark divergence between the popular vote and the Electoral College in 2016 confirmed the non-majoritarian nature of the Republican coalition, and has fueled ethnic chauvinism on the right. As Trumpists increasingly repel a larger portion of a diverse electorate, the party has maneuvered to retain its share of power by increasingly undemocratic means. Look no further than the pernicious practices of voter suppression and party-drawn districting, which combine to restrict the franchise (or the political weight of the ballot) among would-be voters disinclined to pull the lever for Republican candidates.

The Good

Since it emerged on the American political scene as the party of equal political liberty and of the Union, the Republican Party has stood for high and noble purposes even while promoting various causes. The consistent thread has been an unapologetic defense of American democratic nationhood, rooted in the universal ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the political principles enshrined in the Constitution. This adamant philosophical commitment, if it reasserts itself among Republicans, will continue to be a powerful ballast for America’s constitutional order while encouraging industry and enhancing opportunity for all. But if the old categories of left and right continue to dissolve, a civic nationalism, under whatever partisan guise, will be necessary to securing, preserving, and extending liberty’s blessings.

This constitutional conservatism is the theme stressed throughout Trumpocalypse, and for good reason: It has been jettisoned by almost every Republican in federal office in the process of acquiescing to Trump’s endless mischief. But the purpose of American conservatism, rightly understood, is to demonstrate that the philosophy of natural right that laid the groundwork for the American republic is only compatible with limited government. It is such a conception of the state serving society, and not the other way around, that would have forestalled official complicity with a crooked leader like Trump. It also allows for the characteristics that once defined the American system: “enterprise and individuality, markets and freedom, confidence in American moral purpose and American world leadership,” as Frum tersely puts it.

If today’s Republicans ever wish to be known, to others and to themselves, by their fidelity to those values, they will have their work cut out for them. Just as they will not be able to avoid awkward questions about how they abided Trump’s foul antics and cruelties, they will not be able to revert to business as usual. The flaccid consensus that reigned before Trump in favor of libertarian initiatives—recall the GOP’s call to end the Medicare guarantee for people under the age of 55, its support for upper-income tax cuts, and opposition to universal health coverage—was not responsive to contemporary challenges. It needs to be left behind.

In its place, a decent conservatism’s mandate in the years ahead will be to champion the cohesion and broad prosperity of the nation. A reformed GOP must vindicate the national interest by furnishing a healthy dose of relief to workers buffeted by the pincer forces of globalization and technological progress while helping to halt the advance of isolation and alienation in American life.

This won’t be easy. Thanks to a profusion of what social scientists call “deaths of despair,” the overall life expectancy of Americans has declined in recent years—the first sustained drop since the period from 1915 to 1918, when the First World War and a global flu pandemic killed untold millions. Frum also emphasizes the growing separation (and concomitant mistrust) between the sexes. About 60 percent of Americans under age 35 live without a spouse or partner, and an individual in this cohort is more likely to live with a parent than a partner (an outcome not seen since the 19th century). Even one-third of middle-aged Americans, aged 35 to 54, live without a partner. The dwindling vitality of marriage and family life poses grave challenges to the stability of society. The growing American detachment from the forms of human flourishing and civic health—beginning with the family, but sprawling outward to include civic associations, fraternal bodies, religious communities, commercial enterprises, activist groups and, yes, political parties—must be rejuvenated.

There will also need to be a broader reckoning on the right with the America of tomorrow. Much has been written about the dangers of a Republican electoral strategy based on maximizing the turnout of older voters who happen to be predominantly nonurban and white. Frum handles this subject deftly, reminding readers that on current trends, by 2040, 70 percent of the American population will live in fifteen states while 30 percent of the population will live in thirty-five states. The political ramifications of this growing divide are enormous and ominous. The dispersed (and disproportionately white, nonurban, older) 30 percent will control a commanding 70 seats in the U.S. Senate, which will almost certainly be employed to harden economic trends that feature a lack of mobility from the bottom, stagnating working-class wages, and a growing plutocratic class.

To check and reverse this breakdown of democracy, Frum proposes a number of structural reforms, from abolishing the filibuster to granting statehood to the District of Columbia, that will restore some clout to majorities and ensure fairer competition in elections to decide those majorities. A more equitable system of representation would demand that Republicans become the kind of party Frum aspires to see: “an ethnically diverse, culturally modern post-Boomer generation party of markets and enterprise for the twenty-first century.” In these times of diminishing opportunity and hardening isolation, such a party cannot form too quickly.

For Republicans Trumpocalypse sounds a reveille: to man the ramparts facing inwards against an imposter who never had any business as a county chairman, much less the presidential nominee, of this gallant old party. For those who still need to hear it, it will probably be of no avail. But Frum dedicates the book to those Republicans who have already heard it, who for four miserable years have held fast to principle over power. He borrows a verse from an old Methodist hymn: “When all were false, I found thee true.” It’s a fitting compliment paid to those happy few conservatives who grasped the responsibility and obligation of a party whose “grandeur derived not from its antiquity, but from its association with equal rights and human freedom.” That association, as Frum observes, has unquestionably been “sullied and betrayed by the Trump presidency.”

The damage done—both to the Republican party and to the republic at large—by a single presidential term will undoubtedly take a long time to repair. But does the sheer scale and scope of damage render the Republican party beyond repair? If the president is nominated and elected to a second term, perhaps so. But with his prospects of re-election waning, what if he is repudiated by a decisive margin? After so long and hazardous a journey, is the old craft really going to be stranded now? Surely a party with such a noble mission has earned the benefit of some doubt.

Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer. Follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.