Q&A: David Frum, conservative commentator and former George W. Bush speechwriter, on why Trump is dangerous
This year, Toronto-born neoconservative commentator David Frum did what he previously wouldn’t have imagined possible: he cast a vote for Hillary Clinton—and, at the Atlantic, where he’s a senior editor, he publicly encouraged his fellow conservatives to do the same. Frum, a former George W. Bush speechwriter with both Canadian and American citizenship, says Election 2016 was as much about the collapse of the Democratic vote as it was about the victory of Donald Trump. We spoke with him about why Clinton’s strategy wasn’t effective, and worst-case scenarios for a world where a single indelicate word from Trump could send entire nations into paroxysms.
Four years ago, you published a book called Why Romney Lost. Can you provide a sneak peek of what I assume will be your followup, Why Trump Won?
What happened in this election was less that Trump won than that the Democratic vote collapsed. That’s a central fact here. Trump got two million fewer votes than Romney in 2012. Hillary Clinton’s collapse is what probably most needs to be explained.
How would you explain it?
What did Hillary Clinton offer? She said, I have an exciting proposition for you: how about the first female president of the United States, who is now a candidate for office only because of her opportunistic marriage? How about that as an exciting feminist victory? And then she said: I don’t have a message. I was on the wrong side, from my party’s point of view, of the most divisive issue in my party’s recent history: the Iraq war. And from the public’s point of view, I’m on the wrong side of the most divisive issue in mainstream politics, which is the financial crisis and its aftermath. I don’t have any message for middle-class people and my number-one commitment for my first hundred days is a huge immigration amnesty and a permanent increase in the level of immigration.
So you don’t think “Stronger Together” was a message?
What does that mean?
No really. What does it mean?
I think, to me, her message was sort of about being the antidote to the divisiveness and negativity that Trump was preaching. It was about an optimistic and inclusive outlook for the future.
I just timed you. That took 15 seconds to articulate. In that time, you completely concede the initiative to the other guy. It’s a terrible message. And then her central message, “I’m With Her,” is one of pure personal entitlement. That has always been Hillary Clinton’s problem. America, you owe me this for putting up with Bill Clinton’s infidelities. Trump’s speech at the convention had many bad moments, but it had one brilliant moment. That was when he said, “Her message is, ‘I’m with her.’ My message is, ‘I’m with you.’” Superb.
This election cycle included a lot of talk about the isms: racism, elitism, classism, sexism. Which do you think was the greatest contributing factor to the outcome?
Incompetence-ism. I don’t think racism explains why a white nominee in 2016 got seven million votes fewer than a black nominee in 2012.
It just seems that one of the things that really mobilized Trump supporters were his comments about Muslim-Americans, Mexican immigrants—
When you look at Trump voters, just logically, a lot of them must have voted for Obama. They didn’t become more racist in four years. Since the mid-1990s, governments have been allowing migrations much larger than public opinion agrees with. That’s the Brexit story, and that’s a big part of what happened with the Democratic vote in the States. Liberals say the only people who will reduce immigration to a level that society can cope with are fascists and that anyone who wants to restrict immigration is a fascist. But then the voters will say, who are these fascists you speak of and can I get their phone numbers? If you tell them only the fascists will do it, they’ll vote fascist.
But not Canada.
That’s right. The story of the past decade is really of Canadian exceptionalism, not American exceptionalism.
And yet, in spite of all of this, you supported Clinton.
Well, my vote for Clinton was not a vote for Clinton. I didn’t agree with her on very much. I didn’t think she would make a very successful president. That said, I thought she would be a normal, legal, constitutional president. And I’m very worried that Donald Trump will not be those things. I think the Russian interference in the American election is so astounding that the mind can barely process it. I think the Russians might actually live to regret it. I don’t think it was their plan to actually elect Donald Trump. I think they just wanted to sew illegitimacy.
In a piece in the Atlantic, you encouraged other Republicans to vote for Clinton. And now America has a president who brags about his lust for vengeance, who doesn’t respect rules, and who is known for acting impulsively. Not to be too dramatic, but, with this guy’s finger on the button, how worried should we be?
I think we should really be worried in all kinds of ways. One of the early alarms we’re seeing is Angela Merkel issuing a statement in which she said that Germany looked forward to cooperating with the United States on the basis of a series of liberal values. Germany has a strong commitment to liberal values because of their tragic past. The United States is the guarantor of liberalism in Germany. If the liberalism of Trump’s America is in question, then Germans who question whether they should be aligned with the West get a huge enhancement, and that’s a huge danger. Our parents and grandparents spent three quarters of a century working very hard to ensure that the strongest power on the European continent is bolted into a friendship and alliance with countries like the United States, Britain and Canada. And that’s just one danger. There are many more.
Worst-case scenario is that Donald Trump’s casting of doubt on the NATO guarantee emboldens the Russians to act more harshly. And that the Germans then decide that the United States is no longer a reliable or desirable partner.
The other day, president Obama and president-elect Trump had a private meeting. What do you think they discussed?
I’m sure it was very, very correct. But that’s sort of a minimum expectation. Trump has this idea that you can do or say something, and then, if you say the opposite thing five minutes later, the thing you said before is gone.
So, like him saying yesterday that Obama is a “good man” after their meeting?
Right. He thinks all of the things he said before vanish. It’s as if they’d never been. That’s not true. For a president, there is no difference between words and action. What the president says is also an action.