In our current contagion — biological and political viruses, rampant — a terrible question, unimaginable since the Civil War, has emerged: Are we in danger of a crisis that will shatter our brilliant experiment in self-government? And, if so, what can we do about it? The Atlantic writer David Frum is well situated to consider these questions and in Trumpocalypse — a dreadful title for a serious book — he gives it his best shot. Mr Frum is a former neoconservative, a long-time pillar of the Republican Party’s intellectual elite who was shocked to learn in 2016 that the Republican Party no longer had an intellectual elite. “I came of age inside the conservative movement of the 20th century,” he writes in a new, post-coronavirus introduction. “In the 21st, that movement has delivered much more harm than good, from the Iraq war to the financial crisis to the Trump presidency.” Donald Trump’s victory was devastating for people like Mr Frum. The more enlightened of them went back to first things and wondered what had gone wrong. By tacitly supporting Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy, had they been accomplices to the racial tribalisation of American politics? By coddling anti-science evangelicals, had they taken the wrong side on issues ranging from “creationism” to climate change? By pushing for a bellicose crusade — yes, “crusade” is the proper word — in the Middle East, had they destroyed America’s credibility in the world? By denigrating almost every aspect of the federal government, had they helped destroy the public trust? These are the questions that impelled the writing of Trumpocalypse. Trumpocalypse is divided into two parts. The first is a brutal takedown of Donald Trump. “President Donald J Trump did not start the pandemic of course,” he writes in the new introduction. “But at every step of the way, Trump has acted as if guided by one rule: ‘How can I make this trauma worse?’”
Trump’s tribal appeal has exacerbated a structural defect in our Constitution, the overrepresentation of rural America, a region slipping farther away culturally and economically from dynamic urban centres. There is a strong chance that if Trump wins in 2020, he will do so, again, with a minority of the popular vote, but a majority of the Electoral College. Is it possible, Mr Frum wonders, that this will be the new American electoral reality? If so, the Constitution itself will look “ever less credible.” And as the United States becomes an increasingly polychromatic nation, Republicans may begin to argue that “with the country composed of the wrong kind of majorities demographically, it cannot be governed by majority rule electorally.” Happily, Mr Frum remains a small-c conservative, not a radical. The solutions he proposes in the second half of Trumpocalypse are bold but not wild-eyed. His boldest proposal involves policy, not governmental structure, and it goes back to the notion that too many Americans — Trump supporters, mostly — see government benefits going to the “wrong” people. He proposes a political trade: a severe tightening of immigration rules in return for the passage of much-needed social and climate legislation — a comprehensive national health care system, a carbon tax (that would include products imported from polluters like China and India). “If Democrats want to perpetuate their health care reforms, they must do a better job of solidifying a sense of national belonging.
If Republicans want to safeguard the border, they must offer a better deal to those living on that border’s American side.”