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Library hosts Harrison and Frum on Trumpocalypse and the building of normal

By Sharon Harrison
Publishing two books over the past four years, David Frum says he has spoken and written about Donald Trump almost more than he can bear.

The author, and former speech writer to President George Bush is a part-time County resident, as is Dr. Thomas Harrison, past counsel to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice and adjunct professor at Queen’s University.

Two years ago, almost to the day, the pair came together on the Regent Theatre stage to discuss Frum’s then current title, Trumpocracy. The 2018 sold-out event was a fundraiser for the Picton branch library expansion project. Fast forward two years and Frum has a new offering, Trumpocalypse, published in May 2020, the sequel to Trumpocracy, and his tenth title.

As the coronavirus pandemic prohibits large public gatherings, the Prince Edward County Public Library took the follow-up event online. Around 90 participants joined the online Zoom event, which was also live-streamed through Facebook.

Devon Jones, Chair, Prince Edward County Public Library, notes Frum is a valued supporter of the library system, and she describes the book as, “A look at the potential destruction of democracy in the United States we’re all observing with horror and dismay on a daily basis, even from afar.”

While the conversation touched on climate change, the differences in the political layout between Canada and the US, American exceptionalism, gerrymandering, and the effects of COVID-19, Harrison noted there were some dualities in the book.

“The pandemic brought to the fore both many of the personal problems with Donald Trump, but also some deep problems in the government that Donald Trump has headed,” said Frum.

“One of the things I think we have really learned from watching pandemic response from around the world… is that after the initial shock and surprise and uncertainty that struck in February, March and April, with all of the terrible toll, and while many people made mistakes because they didn’t know what to do, most democratic governments got an adequate grip on the crisis by the end of May, beginning of June,” Frum said.

“They found ways to keep their economies going, even though people were locked out, and found ways to bring down the rate of infection and the rate of disease, some more than others, but that’s the direction everybody went.

“The American failure has by far been the biggest and that’s a personal failure by Donald Trump, but it also indicates in some ways how the American system goes wrong, therein the subject of Trumpocalypse.”

“The book really highlights some dualities, between success and failure, but also between America and amongst Americans, but between America and the rest of the world,” said Harrison. “And then there’s also America, the general population and individual stories.”

Harrison read a paragraph from Trumpocalypse:

“Over the past four years, I have thought and spoken and written about Donald Trump almost more than I can bear. You probably feel the same fatigue; we are all just exhausted with this worthless man. We want things to return to normal, back to a world in which we do not have to waste time rebutting demented conspiracy theories and checking farcical lies every single day. We want a government that operates competently and honestly, headed by a president who behaves with dignity and integrity.”

While Frum says he didn’t know he was going to end up writing a two-part series when he began Trumpocracy, he says that maybe he did, “because they are in dialogue with each other”.

The two titles talk about what this series is about, said Frum.

“The first, Trumpocracy derives from the Greek word ‘rule or power’; it is the study of how did Donald Trump get power and he is likely to use it; Trumpocalypse comes from the Greek word meaning ‘a revelation, or a glimpse of the future’ and it first looks back on how the power was used and then tries to assess the ways in which the system failed. And ways to go forward,” he said.

“Americans are going to have to understand, despite those poignant feelings we share about wanting this to be over, it is not going to be so easy to go back to normal. Normal will have to be built.”

Harrison notes how the book breaks down into two sections, with the first looking at where we are, and the second providing some prescriptive advice about where we are going.

“The book is united in all its sections and parts in all its dualities with one big theme,” explains Harrison. “Trump took advantages of a system that has inherent weaknesses.”

Frum continues as he speaks to ‘American exceptionalism’ or ‘American bestness’.

“American exceptionalism means top nation, but when the concept of American exceptionalism was being developed in the 19th century, it wasn’t a complement,” explained Frum.

“It began as an attempt to explain something that the United States seemed to be on a different path from the other advanced industrial countries. And at different periods in history, the question has been, ‘what is that different path?’”

He said it began as more neutral observation.

“There were things about the United States that were just different from the other developed countries,” says Frum. “At the beginning, one of those things was the United States was a white democracy and most other advanced countries were not. Since World War II we have all more or less been democracies, yet there are real differences. And some of those differences are obviously to America’s enormous advantage.”

He said there is a kind of creativity and dynamism to American life that everybody admires.

“One of the things the different path has meant, because the United States government is a very conservative government in the literal sense of that term, in that it doesn’t adapt as well to the new world: a lot about the United States is dragging 19th century behaviours into the 21st century.”

Frum gave an example that the United States doesn’t have a civil service the way Canada, or Britain, Germany or Australia has a civil service.

“If you are a minister in Ontario or Canada and there is a crisis, you turn to your civil servants and they have developed plans,” he says.

“Maybe there is something routine and predictable about the way democracy works, but the fact is you have this giant planning capability that is waiting for whoever is waiting to win the election, but you are always working with something that already exists.”

He says the United States doesn’t have anything like that and that the equivalent are deputy ministers, and assistants to deputy ministers in the US who are all political appointees chosen for their loyalty to the president.

“That has turned out to be a tremendous liability within this crisis because the plans don’t exist. They are in the drawer, a lot of the drawers vanish into the presidential libraries at the end of the administration, a lot of the people with the expertise vanish into the private sector or wherever they came from,” explains Frum.

“To recreate the knowledge base of government requires a real effort by every president, and if you have a president who is not making any effort, that knowledge base tends to deteriorate; Donald Trump actively attacked the knowledge base, but it was bound to deteriorate even if he hadn’t actively attacked it.”

Harrison raised the point of why 2020 is a particularly important election in terms of gerrymandering and Frum admits anything can happen in the upcoming US election.

“But the balance of probabilities is the democrats do very well up and down the ballot in 2020, not just the presidency, but the state legislators too, and that’s driven both by the magnitude of what’s already happened and some other bad things that are coming.”

He talks about the American equivalent of the economic COVID-19 aid that for many people, expired on July 31 with no early plan to pass anything new and a school year that may not be able to start in August/September.

“What a devastating thing that is for families, for parents, and for many children who are going to find the inherent inequalities that are always present in the educational system become so much more extreme in a situation like this,” explains Frum. “And many younger people, especially middle school years, are going to lose the year or a chunk of the year and then decide not to continue with their high school education when they turn 16 and can drop out.”

Donald Trump’s harm to America’s standing of the world is likely to be one of his most enduring legacies in the US and the world, Frum observes.

“Most of the problems at home, you can see a path to addressing them over the next few years; the international problems are more acute, probably because they are happening in a time when China and such countries are growing so quickly and the democratic countries’ share of the world is inevitably shrinking.”

He talks about the planet’s economic output and how it has changed over a short period of time.

“When I worked in the Bush administration which is not even 20 years ago, the American economy was between three and six times bigger than the Chinese economy, and today the Chinese economy is very nearly equal to the US,” Frum states.

“The balance of power around the world has changed.”

“America’s ability to put together alliances and coalitions matters more than ever and that is what Donald Trump has done so much damage to.”

“You talk about this in terms of America’s capacity to act to demonstrate leadership in a practical way, about the challenges we face ahead. Economic challenges, but also other big issues, including climate change.” said Harrison.

Frum noted the very first world leader to speak about climate change was Margaret Thatcher, one the rare world leaders educated as a scientist.

“When the evidence of this danger was being gathered for the first time in the early 1980s, she was fascinated by it,” he said.

Trump is a consistent pattern, said Harrison quoting Frum: “Noisy threats, preoccupation with image, maximum goals, minimal alliances, no apparent strategic plan, no authorization from congress and adverse public opinion. This has been pretty consistent through the Trump presidency.”

Harrison also talks statistics, noting how America is viewed around the world.

“Thirty-seven per cent of Canadians right now have a favourable view of the US (the worst it’s been in 40 years), and 70 per cent disapprove of Donald Trump.”

Harrison said there was hope and looking toward the future for a new beginning, with ideas Frum has, such as adapting a modern voting rights act, depoliticize law enforcement, eliminate the filibuster, and so on.

Frum said the United States has very large social and economic problems.

“It has small political problems that you have to solve first in order to get to the others; the need to make congress work better, for example,” said Frum. “The biggest political problem the US has is the republicans have lost confidence that they can compete effectively in fair democratic competition. It has never been perfect, but the senate has never been as disconnected from population in America history as it is today.”

He notes how Donald Trump got 63 million votes in 2016.

“There has been a lot of wrong done, but for the future it would be better to try to learn from it, then to revenge it.”

Harrison discusses the most enjoyable aspects of the book.

“For me, in both books, is the way you almost seamlessly integrate current analysis and events and development with the historical record going back to Lincoln and Reagan and Carter and talking about those and how they provide cautionary tales or examples that we should learn from today.”

Frum answered a few submitted questions, including one that asked ‘What if Trump refuses to leave, or throws doubt on the election?’

“Once there is a clear legal statement that Donald Trump has lost, it is literally impossible for him to stay on as president after an adverse result in the electoral college,” answered Frum.

‘What harm can Trump do?’

“He can create havoc and confusion in the period between the vote, you can throw the transition process into chaos,” said Frum.

Frum talks about how the Bush to Obama transition in 2008 was the best and smoothest, respectful transition in American history.

“A lot of the extraordinary good you see between the Bush and Obama families to this day dates from that remarkable transition.”

Frum also highlights the importance of vice-presidents, should Joe Biden be the successful candidate in November.

Joe Biden will be by far the oldest person ever elected, if he is elected president; he will be 77-years-old on election day, 78 on inauguration day.

“Not just the oldest, but the oldest taking office in the middle of a pandemic that is especially lethal to older people,” says Frum. “He has to calculate, not just that the person he picks is going to be an enormous power in democratic politics in the 2020s; he has to understand that the person he picks may be president fairly soon, either because Biden is sick or something worse, and so as a governing pick, it is hugely consequential. And unfortunately, the people who make these decisions tend to think about politics, but this is a case where they need to think about government.”

While Frum is working on a new writing project, he has no further Trump books in the plan.

“No more Trump, I hope to goodness,” he laughs.

Click here to watch the video of David Frum in Conversation with Dr. Thomas Harrison through the PEC Library’s Facebook page 

The Prince Edward County Public Library has copies of David Frum’s books Trumpocalypse and Trumpocracy available for loan. For more information, visit peclibrary.org.

David Frum has signed 35 copies of his New York Times best-selling book, Trumpocalypse, which are available for purchase at Books and Company in Picton.

To donate to the Picton library expansion project, visit peclibrary.org/expansion.

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