Q&A: David Frum on Trump’s pandemic response and what it means for the U.S. election

Q&A: David Frum on Trump’s pandemic response and what it means for the U.S. election

“He is the worst human being ever to occupy the office, and that includes slave owners”

You worked as a speechwriter for George W. Bush after 9/11. What can you tell us about what things look like behind the scenes at the White House during an international crisis?
There is generally an understanding that a president’s job includes inspiration and compassion. Bush was controversial, but he recognized that. When innocent Muslims were being attacked, Bush visited a mosque and delivered an address on tolerance. The president can’t do it all, but he can start the conversation. That’s the job. And any of Trump’s predecessors would have done that admirably.

By way of contrast, how would you characterize Trump’s response?
He is doing everything in his power to change the subject, to blame someone else. What’s wild is that the Obama administration literally left behind instructions for how to handle a pandemic, but they left them in the one place Trump would never look: a book.

What were you thinking of Trump’s chances of a November victory before Covid-19, and what do you think now?  
Before, I would have said he was probably going to lose. Now, because of the economic downturn, I think he’s careening toward an epic defeat. The hole is so deep that even if economic recovery begins soon, there won’t be time to get us out of it by November.

What should Joe Biden be doing? 
Usually, the challenger needs to be front and centre with a strong offensive; this time around, he just needs to get out of the way. I realize that Trump’s polling numbers are high, but by November we will have a better sense of exactly how much harm has been done. The virus is not Trump’s fault, but being unprepared for it is, and so is failing to contain it. Voters know this.

How would you compare Canada’s pandemic response to that of the U.S.?
I think Canada’s economic rescue plan has been well considered. The Liberals’ original proposal to bypass Parliament was a mistake, and I’m glad that was abandoned. The test of a political system isn’t “Will the government never have a stupid idea?” All governments have stupid ideas. The test is “How quickly can the system correct itself?” In Canada, that happened within 72 hours.

You wrote your new book, Trumpocalypse, before the outbreak. I guess the title still fits?
It does. I was able to rewrite the first chapter, but nothing else changed. We use the word to mean catastrophe, but apocalypse literally means “unveiling”—to transition from one stage to the next. In the book, I suggest we’re moving from an era of injustice to one of greater justice, much like how after the Cold War, Europe and Asia became undivided, and we saw the possibility of a co-operative new way. Trumpocalypse asks: how do you build more resistance to the kind of authoritarian nationalism that has befallen America in the 2010s, and can the 2020s and 2030s be better?

You’re living in D.C. Have you considered coming home?  
The reality is you can’t escape a pandemic. I have a home in Prince Edward County, and I spend about three months of the year there. For now, I have work
to do and I have to do it here, but I’m looking forward to being there when things settle down.

At the risk of asking the obvious, is Trump the worst president in American history?
He is the worst human being ever to occupy the office, and that includes slave owners. John Tyler was a traitor who betrayed his country, but at least he
was an affectionate father. Andrew Jackson was a virulent racist, but he was essentially brave. There was a question going around on Twitter recently asking which past president would you most like to have in charge today. A lot of people said Lincoln or Roosevelt. The real measure of Trump’s failure is that we don’t need the greatest president in history. We just need someone who does the bloody homework.

Have you spent time with Trump?  
My wife, Danielle, has. Conrad Black threw a birthday party for Barbara Amiel in New York in 2006, and my wife was seated beside Trump. She thought he was hilarious and entertaining and gossipy. But if you had asked her, “Should that guy be mayor?” she would have said, “Obviously not.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.