Less than one hour ago, as of this writing, David Frum, Senior Editor of The Atlantic, tweeted, “It’s as if a hostile foreign power has seized the US government and is by remote control steering it toward the maximum possible catastrophe.”
Also, on Frum’s Twitter home page we read a very modest disclaimer: “On Twitter, I speak only for myself.”
After reading Frum’s in-every-respect-monumental article, “How to Build an Autocracy,” I am sure I can say, “No, Mr. Frum, you speak for millions of Americans and you do so magnificently.”
Preceded by the chilling and prophetic words “The preconditions are present in the U.S. today. Here’s the playbook Donald Trump could use to set the country down a path toward illiberalism,” Frum goes on to express in a most powerful and comprehensive manner (more than 8,000 poignant words) the anguish, anger and desperation so many Americans are feeling.
A couple of authors and readers have already quoted and commented on the brilliance and significance of Frum’s message. However, nothing short of reading the entire article should do for those who — along with this writer — want to truly understand how “liberty is actually threatened in a modern bureaucratic state: not by diktat and violence, but by the slow, demoralizing process of corruption and deceit” and how we must defend that liberty, “not with amateur firearms, but with an unwearying insistence upon the honesty, integrity, and professionalism of American institutions and those who lead them.”
While reading the entire piece is a MUST, here are just a few of what I believe are the most powerful messages.
Referring to how some countries have “slid or are sliding away from democracy” towards kleptocracy and authoritarianism, ever so subtly, “often not even very dramatic,” and although we have a very robust democracy, Frum warns:
We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you and me. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can also be your finest hour as a citizen and an American.
Frum points out that “supreme among the vulnerabilities” of the American system is “reliance on the personal qualities of the man or woman who wields the awesome powers of the presidency.” Frum suggests that, while a “British prime minister can lose power in minutes if he or she forfeits the confidence of the majority in Parliament…the president of the United States, on the other hand, is restrained first and foremost by his own ethics and public spirit.” Frum then asks, “What happens if somebody comes to the high office lacking those qualities?”
Here are some of the answers to that question:
“Construction of an apparatus of impunity and revenge will begin haphazardly and opportunistically. But it will accelerate. It will have to…
“A president determined to thwart the law in order to protect himself and those in his circle has many means to do so…
“The power of the pardon, deployed to defend not only family but also those who would protect the president’s interests, dealings, and indiscretions, is one such means. The powers of appointment and removal are another…
“Trump is poised to mingle business and government with an audacity and on a scale more reminiscent of a leader in a post-Soviet republic than anything ever before seen in the United States…
“It is essential to recognize that Trump will use his position not only to enrich himself; he will enrich plenty of other people too, both the powerful and—sometimes, for public consumption—the relatively powerless.
“Trump will try hard during his presidency to create an atmosphere of personal munificence, in which graft does not matter, because rules and institutions do not matter. He will want to associate economic benefit with personal favor. He will create personal constituencies, and implicate other people in his corruption. That, over time, is what truly subverts the institutions of democracy and the rule of law. If the public cannot be induced to care, the power of the investigators serving at Trump’s pleasure will be diminished all the more.
“Civil unrest will not be a problem for the Trump presidency. It will be a resource. Trump will likely want not to repress it, but to publicize it…The more offensively the protesters behave, the more pleased Trump will be…
“Calculated outrage is an old political trick, but nobody in the history of American politics has deployed it as aggressively, as repeatedly, or with such success as Donald Trump…
“By filling the media space with bizarre inventions and brazen denials, purveyors of fake news hope to mobilize potential supporters with righteous wrath—and to demoralize potential opponents by nurturing the idea that everybody lies and nothing matters…
“[Trump] and his team are serving notice that a new era in government-media relations is coming, an era in which all criticism is by definition oppositional—and all critics are to be treated as enemies.
“…there’s also something incongruous and even absurd about applying the sinister label of fascist to Donald Trump. He is so pathetically needy, so shamelessly self-interested, so fitful and distracted. Fascism fetishizes hardihood, sacrifice, and struggle—concepts not often associated with Trump.
“A would-be kleptocrat is better served by spreading cynicism than by deceiving followers.
“By all early indications, the Trump presidency will corrode public integrity and the rule of law—and also do untold damage to American global leadership, the Western alliance, and democratic norms around the world. The damage has already begun, and it will not be soon or easily undone. Yet exactly how much damage is allowed to be done is an open question—the most important near-term question in American politics. It is also an intensely personal one, for its answer will be determined by the answer to another question: What will you do? And you? And you?
“The duty to resist should weigh most heavily upon those of us who—because of ideology or partisan affiliation or some other reason—are most predisposed to favor President Trump and his agenda. The years ahead will be years of temptation as well as danger: temptation to seize a rare political opportunity to cram through an agenda that the American majority would normally reject. Who knows when that chance will recur?
“Trump and his team count on one thing above all others: public indifference…
“What happens in the next four years will depend heavily on whether Trump is right or wrong about how little Americans care about their democracy and the habits and conventions that sustain it. If they surprise him, they can restrain him.
Those citizens who fantasize about defying tyranny from within fortified compounds have never understood how liberty is actually threatened in a modern bureaucratic state: not by diktat and violence, but by the slow, demoralizing process of corruption and deceit. And the way that liberty must be defended is not with amateur firearms, but with an unwearying insistence upon the honesty, integrity, and professionalism of American institutions and those who lead them. We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you and me. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can also be your finest hour as a citizen and an American.
David Frum is a senior editor at The Atlantic and the chairman of Policy Exchange. In 2001–02, he was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush
lead photo, credit Jenny Ondioline
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