Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic
by David Frum
Atlantic senior editor David Frum's new book is about more than just the appalling spectacle of the Trump candidacy and presidential administration. In Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, Frum declares a national crisis and cites Trump more as a warning symptom than the full manifestation of a disease. He's an existential threat to the American Republic, according to Frum, because he's daily attacking the sometimes unspoken and often unwritten tenets of that republic. “If (when?) his enablers withdraw from Donald Trump, he will be left isolated and helpless, a dead tooth in the gums of the US government,” he writes. “Yet the opportunity he discovered and the danger he presented will not end with Donald Trump's career. The vulnerabilities Trump exploited will remain vulnerabilities still.”
Those vulnerabilities tend to boil down to the dangers of not foreseeing what a racist, sexist, fascist, lying moron might do if some unlikely combination of circumstances put him in the Oval Office. There have by now been many books dealing with the 2016 election, and there will be enormously more books soon about the fledgling Trump administration. None is likely to approach even remotely the stratospheric sales of Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, but almost all are likely to share the gist of what Frum writes here: that Trump's vileness might be all but unprecedented in American presidential history (only two or three rival candidates come to mind) but the vileness itself isn't unique to him – it indicates a wider rot, as Frum writes:
Trump campaigned as a nationalist, on the slogan “Make America Great Again.” But he never spoke to or for the whole nation. The nation was too big, and he was too small. He excelled instead at discerning the grievances and angers that set American apart from American – and especially the grievances and angers of those who, like himself, felt entitled to dominate the apex of American society and now found themselves somehow occupying a place beneath their expectations.
As with most books of this kind, Frum veers between characterizing Trump as a boorish idiot and characterizing him as a canny social engineer, someone can 'excel at discerning' things. In reality Trump is simply the former, a boorish idiot; he discerns nothing. And because the writers of this type of book failed to predict or even contemplate the electoral victory of such an obvious, embarrassing boorish idiot, it tends to be easier for them to discount the baldness of it even in retrospect. By making him a mastermind of some kind, even an unknowing one, these writers elevate Trump in the very act of attempting to denigrate him. He tempts his chroniclers to exactly the kind of empty bombast he himself issues on a daily basis, and even as smart a writer as Frum isn't always immune:
A nation that teaches its children to abhor bullying discovered it had installed the noisiest bully in the country to the highest office in the land. Trump surrounded himself with a staff cringing and obsequious to him – and overbearing toward everybody else. As the country got to know this gang, Americans unwrapped a third gift of Trump: a renewal of their disgust for those who join power to cruelty.
Despite its eloquence, this is very easy writing. Trumpocracy is a cry of rage against the very idea of a President Donald Trump, but it's mostly, understandably, directed at Frum's fellow Trump-haters, which gives it an unseemly whiff of opportunism. Frum conscientiously supplies periodic notes of hope throughout his narrative of Trump's many outrages and offenses in the last two years – he stresses that the illness Trump has introduced into the American body politic is curable. But despite the book's best efforts, the lasting impression is unavoidable: it's likely to be a long, long illness.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.