David Frum at ComNet18
David Frum, former George W. Bush speechwriter and Senior Editor of The Atlantic, talks with Lara Setrakian of News Deeply at ComNet18. (Introduced by Lauren Strayer of The Democracy Fund). Frum spoke about the current state of our politics and communications, civic responsibility, and where we go from here.
Lara Setrakian: We’re going to have a calm and thoughtful conversation about US politics. The decibels will remain roughly at this level unless the Q and A goes bonkers, but we’ll find out. I love ComNet and I’m so happy to be here with David Frum for this very important conversation. Someone I admire a great deal for many, many reasons. Prolific analyst and just has shared his insights at critical moments in American life. Also, someone I have disagreed with on a number of levels. You were part of the Bush White House during the run up to the Iraq war, credited with authoring the axis of evil speech, the 2002 State of the Union address, and not that this was on you, but in another era where journalists were under a lot of pressure and many of them succumbed to be boosters for the Iraq war policy rather than critical thinkers in the run up to that war.
And so, in preparing for this session, I really had to reflect on all of that and where I landed was really in reframing you in my mind, as someone far bigger than one policy or one view, or one era, one chapter. As you know, I have also talked about, I have tremendous respect for your late mother, who was one of the most legendary Canadian journalists of our time. And I feel really grateful that we get to talk today about where we are, where we’re going and how we communicate with our fellow citizens. So for me, the preparation for this was an experimental taste of what it means to look past deep disagreement for just a conversation. And so now how do we do that at the national level?
It’s October 2018 and we are sandwiched between the bitter confrontation around the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the mid-term congressional elections. So I want just start with, where are we? And how do you see the past six weeks influencing the next six months.
David Frum: Well, thank you I’m glad to be with you. I’m so glad to be in this stage. Although, I do feel that I should stand up, cast aside this conversation and burst into a round of Memories from Cats. It seems to call for that. But you put your finger on a sentence that I find myself thinking about a lot these days. And that is the sentence with which Abraham Lincoln opened his great house divided speech in 1858. “If we could know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do and how to do it.” So, I think we need to take that view, both past and future. I have, as I’m sure you have and many people have. I have lived through the past two plus years waking up in the morning with a tremendous feeling of dread and wrongness. I’m so glad The Man in the High Castle is back on the air. I think that’s the one show that does justice to the state of feeling of you are in the dark, dystopian timeline.
I have in the past few weeks though, begun to have a different set of emotions. They have become more and more to the fore. And that is, strangely, a feeling of gratitude. Because as dark as these times have been in a lot of ways, they have also been inspiring. I think one of the Roman writers, and I forget which one, said, “Be grateful to live at a time when your country needs you.” And that’s my first gratitude is I have a sense that this is a moment when we are needed as maybe at other times we have not been, what was more optional. And to live at a time like that, to be able to contribute something to the stream of your country’s history, that’s a great thing.
I have been grateful too because I think there are things in this time … I call them the perverse gifts of Trump. There are things that he has inadvertently given the country. A gift of wider sympathy as Lauren was saying with the Democracy Fund’s work. Things have happened to many of the Americans who have not participated institution his great global economy. They need attention. And I’m grateful too to see how much more civic engagement is. Everyone … I’m sure this is your experience, everyone in journalism knows that we are not only being read more, but read differently, more intensely. And that is something for which I’m grateful.
We’re very mean to each other, at least in this upper sphere and the recorded broadcast sphere. Is that the new normal? Are we locked into a certain incivility at this point?
When we say we, you mean politicians, journalists, cultural elites?
I mean our profession. The pundits or whatever. We’re contentious and adversarial to an extent that is unproductive and people feel like they’re watching this shouting match with very little substance rather than a civic debate that gets somewhere.
Well, some of that is an artificial production of the decisions of cable TV programmers. Which are, I think actually, kind of hard to defend. If you were ever to look at the numbers that these shows get … I actually just wonder, given how few people watch cable, why don’t you do something good? Do something good. At 11AM on a weekday morning there are probably 125,000 people watching CNN many of them because they are recovering from a ski accident and can’t reach the channel changer. Have a two hour conversation on the origins of the 2008 financial crisis. Probably, you will not get fewer than 125,000. There’s this idea that what people want to watch is violent conflict on cable. And the numbers don’t bear it out.
You were kind enough to refer to my late mother. My late mother, she had a career in radio and then in television, in Canada. A much smaller country for those of you who are not keeping up with Canadian affairs. And her show, in the 1980s, which was like the Double Header, the equivalent of Nightline, got an audience, approximately the same size as most of the shows in the MSNBC, CNN, evening lineup today. Just because there’s that much less on, on television. And given that the audiences are smaller, be experimental. So I blame the bookers a little bit for this. I often think of a line that David Cameron, the British Prime Minister used in his 2010 speech to the Conservative Party conference. “Politics should not be so different from the rest of life where people with different views find ways reasonably to get along with one another for common ends.”
Or what Sean Gibbons pointed me to, a line from a Stokes song. What was it? “We’re not enemies. We just don’t agree. We just disagree,” from This Is It. It’s not just the bookers. These are editorial, high-level editorial decision making paradigms that we maybe locked in. We talked about it, environment in which you communicate. There’s nothing moving that.
Well, here’s the background to all this. And I think this is why the past decade has maybe felt different. America is a country of strong partisanship but weak parties. So we don’t have really good mechanisms in this country for making tough choices, making rational decisions about how to allocate scarce resources. In the past, the United States hasn’t needed that because this is such an astonishingly rich country that it could be quite wasteful. It didn’t have to make rational decisions about resource… You’d buy everything. You’d buy both the guns and the butter. Both the defense build up and the healthcare package. If the numbers didn’t quite add up, well, you’d put it on the deficit and borrow from the future which will surely be richer than today. What happened in 2008, was, I think the choices became more extreme, the pressures became more intense and we lost confidence in the future. And suddenly, the job of allocation became much more zero sum. Everybody had a feeling that if you get something it comes from, if I get something it comes from you. And we are going to have to settle this and settle it now.
Now, more prosperity may mollify some of this, but one of the things that we might take usefully from the experience of the past 10 years is to understand, it’s not so zero sum, but maybe we should imagine a world in which our resources are more constrained and we’re not borrowing so much from the future. Because we’re not just borrowing from the future economically. We’re borrowing from the future ecologically, environmentally. We are burning materials that were put in the ground over hundreds of millions of years. We’re releasing them over the span of single years. And that as part of our budgeting, we’re going to have to think also about how do you recapture stuff that was in the air, that used to be in the ground and get it back down into the ground where it safely belongs, at least safely from the point of view if you’re a human being and not a tyrannosaurus, because they liked it warmer.
But those trade offs require a productive debate. And I don’t see that now. So, we’re in this era where we do have to defend the fourth estate from external attack, but I don’t see yet, a self-awareness from within our profession, that will mature our decision making and get us to that point of productive debate, with a civic baseline we can actually build on. That’s my big fear for our profession, but there’s so much talk about it. You are a critic of the president. Your book is called Trumpocracy. What are the characteristics of Trumpocracy?
That’s such an important question because … I think we are … It’s often tempting to reduce this to the personality of the president. Every day something happens that just would be regarded as so unacceptable if any other human being over the age of three did it. And not great in a three year old actually, not super charming. I like three year olds but they need some limits. But, the question is, look, of course there are people like this. Of course there are people like this. The institutions of politics in a democratic country exist to keep people like this away from power. And those institutions have failed. So Trumpocracy is not a study of a person, it’s a study of that person’s power. How was it gained? And how is it used? Every day there are people who have choices. People around the president have choices about how to deal with him. And they make choices that sometimes they think are somewhat public spirited, but usually are very self interested.
I think of that famous op-ed in the New York Times and of course I don’t know who wrote it. But what I was struck by, was its tremendous vanity and its tremendous lack of wisdom. There were some patriotic motives there, for sure, but at some point you have to say, “You know what, this is not working. You think you are preventing bad things from happening,” but we’re plunging into a planetary trade war. That’s why the stock market was so upset today. We are running a budget deficit right now, relative to the American economy …
So this is a time of relative prosperity and it’s a time of relative peace. We are not having many combat casualties. It’s been rather grimly pointed out that actually you’re more likely to be killed by gunfire in an American high school than you are on a battlefield anywhere in the world. Which is good news for the soldiers, bad news for our high schoolers. But in this time of prosperity and relative peace, we are running a budget deficit bigger than that which George H. W. Bush ran during the first gulf war, and about the same as that which George W. Bush ran in the most violent moments of the second Iraq war. And it’s getting worse. And if there’s a recession we are likely to find ourselves running a deficit as big as that which Barack Obama encountered in the throes of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
And all of that is borrowing from …
From the future. And all of that is to buy what?
And China and creditors.
Well it’s to buy from creditors around the planet.
It’s a liability in all sorts of ways. So, other than the president’s colorful commentary, what is dragging down civility? And how do we restore it?
Well, I think the most important cause is this sense that politics, there’s less to go around, and that … I think there’s a particular problem that has to do with the aging of the baby boomers. We’re arriving at a period, this is the main audience for serious journalism. They’re arriving at a time when they’re on the verge of retirement or they’ve just retired. They are not as well off as they imagined they would have been at the peak of their earning years, 15, 20 years ago. And this is not just an American problem. This is happening everywhere in the developed world. There are contests between people who have well established claims on the state and people who have new claims, and both don’t feel they have enough to go around. If you think of the American system of government as a system of fiscal trades, who does well? The older, the rural, and the richer. And who does badly? The younger, the urban, and the poor. And when both groups feel there isn’t enough to satisfy my basic requirements, the contest between them gets dark.
In an age of inequality, deep inequality.
Well, one of the things that has happened, one of the effects of deep inequality, is America’s very richest people are much richer than they were even 10 years ago. Nevermind 30 years ago. And with that huge increase in wealth, goes also a haunting suspicion that somebody might try to take it away from them. They well know, they feel insecure about it. That may seem strange to others, who say they seem so powerful, but the people inside that world do not feel powerful. They feel threatened. And they feel that even if they can’t entirely justify what they have, they’d rather keep it than not have it. So you got this extraordinary stream of vitriol. When President Obama was still leading the country, it was quite a routine thing to hear, not Fox News blowhards, but leaders of major hedge funds, compare the president to Nazi Germany because he would make comments about the concentration of wealth. They felt under attack. They felt threatened. And they had the means to do something about it.
We’re in room full of communicators. Some of them with nonprofits, some with institutional philanthropies. In an era where there is so little trust in government, in media, in institutions, in many institutions, what role do you think foundations and nonprofits play in this sort of building of the future, and a rebuilding of trust?
It would be presumptuous of me to tell professionals their business. But one of the things, at previous periods of uncertainty in the country that we have seen … A century ago in the progressive era when the United States was coping with huge concentrations of wealth, industrialization, urban pollution, industrial accidents on a scale that are just absolutely appalling by our modern standards. At places like the University of Wisconsin, and then spreading out from there, the new Brookings Institution. Modern-minded people began thinking, “Can we just measure the situation of our country?” We didn’t used to know, there didn’t used to be a thing called the unemployment rate. There didn’t used to be a thing called the gross national product. Those things are creations. And we didn’t used to know, even finding out how long people lived, that took work that was done at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. So, what these institutions can do, is begin to identify the answer to the question, Lincoln’s question. If we could know where we are. And they can do begin to do projections to answer his second question. “And whither we are tending.” And then maybe leave it to the citizens to answer his latter two questions, we could better judge what to do and how to do it.
Untainted self awareness.
Information you can use. A pool of reliable facts. One of the questions I get asked a lot when I talk about the media … Someone for Patrick Moynihan’s office used to say, “Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.” But we have pushed back the frontiers of human rights in the United States. And we now all feel we are entitled to our own facts. And this is … If you think this is just affecting your aunt and uncle who watch Fox News, it’s not true, you can see it on the left hand side of the spectrum every day. There’s some piece of false information that begins to circulate around the liberal Twitter-sphere and probably you’ve encountered that. We’re vulnerable to this. Confirmation bias and groupthink.
It is a powerful thing if there are places in society where you could say, “I need an answer to a specific factual question, what is it?” To the question itself, it’s that the American healthcare system is the greatest in the world. Well, that’s a value judgment, and you can’t answer that question. But you can answer questions like, how long do Americans live compared to other people. Are they living more or less long? Are they having more or less active lives than they did? And much of that information is collected by government but the most valuable parts are collected by people like the Wood Johnson Foundation, the Kaiser Family Foundation. They generate the information that people use to make responsible, well-informed decisions.
And once they have it, how do they break through in such a noisy environment? What’s your best advice for how they get heard?
This comes to the limits of what you can do outside politics. There’s a reason politics exist. And Americans tend not to like politics and not to trust politicians, but politicians and politics do indispensable work. What is a politician good at? What do they do? Okay, no jokes.
I think of their core expertise, is they are experts in the gaining of democratic consent. 300 million people, lots of opinions. How do you assemble, reduce those opinions to a number small enough that coordinated action becomes possible. And we used to rely on the party system. And the party system would reduce the infinite number of things that a federal or state government could do to a narrow range, build a coalition on behalf a certain number of those policies and then gain consent to implement that program while quietly, behind the scenes, negotiating with the other party. That we’re going to set some limits to what we’re going to try to do, so that you’re never pushed to the wall. And we’re going to have one eye always on the fact that it’s going to be your turn next time and that you’ll also observe limits. And this practice is something that we depend on the parties to do. The parties are much weaker than they used to be and we’ve taken away from them a lot of their instrumentality. So we took away a lot of them in the name of reform.
Many of you may know the great story about Abner Mikva, who was a long time Democratic career guy and then went on to a very distinguished career as a federal judge. And he opens his memoir with this story. That he’s a young person, he’s a teenager, very interested in politics. He lives in the city of Chicago, finds his way to the local Democratic clubhouse, knocks on the door and volunteers. “I want to get involved in politics.” And the guy inside the office, who’s just what you expect. Open neck shirt, suspenders, bowler hat, cigar, says to him, says to Abner Mikva, “Who sent you?”. And Mikva replies, “Nobody sent me. I just walked in the door by myself.” And the man behind the desk said, “We don’t nobody, nobody sent.”
Politics used to be about an exchange of favors. It used to be about patronage and pork barrel. And I think our grandparents, were for the most part, offended by that, and set up to clean up the system. And they took away a lot of the tools with which politics worked. And probably for the better. But what it means now, is the people who are in politics are there for ideas. Which can be both very noble, but also very hard to deal with. Because if what you want is a bridge in your town, and if what I want is a road in my town, that is a very reconcilable difference. Maybe you get the bridge this year and I wait two years and I get the road. Maybe it’s the other way around. We can work things out. If what you want is gay marriage and what I want is no gay marriage, that’s very hard to reconcile. And as politics has become more abstract and principled, it has also become less susceptible to compromise.
So your advice is … No, that was the very philosophical, but be more, channel the …
My advice is we need to accept the fact that the parties aren’t going to do the work they used to do and we need to find new mechanisms to build consent. Put this in a way that maybe, is going to do a more difficult teaching for some of the people in this room. One of the questions I get asked about a lot, is about the influence of money in politics. And especially, it’s usually summed up under the heading of Citizens United, but people turn it usually over a much broader range of concerns than those dealt with narrowly just in that one case. And look, questions of money, and class, and power, obviously very important. But here’s the thing to think about. Before 1974, before Watergate, there were almost no rules on money in American politics. The only rule that really mattered before ’74 was that corporations could not give directly to a political campaign. Beyond that, do what you want. And there’s no disclosure. You could make a political donation before 1974, in cash, in a paper bag. We know astonishingly little about how American cogs were financed before 1974.
And yet in this wild west atmosphere where almost anything went, most people look back and say money mattered less before 1974, than it has mattered since 1974 in a world in which it’s harder to give money. And money is more monitored. What happened? Why didn’t the millionaires and billionaires of 1947 buy politicians the way it feels like they do when they were in a less permissive world? And the answer is because the things you needed to get done in politics couldn’t be done with money. If you needed to get voters to the polls, that was done on the Democratic side by the unions and on the Republican side by the mainstream Protestant churches in the north. If you needed people to go knocking on doors, that was done by volunteers who believed in the party and were sort of hoping for a job after the election if their party won. So when you get rid of patronage hiring, those people stop door knocking.
Now, I’m not saying we bring back patronage hiring, but we need to understand that the reason money has become so important is not just because there’s more money. It’s that because a lot of the institutions that used to do politics, before the reforms are gone. The unions are gone, they’re not coming back. The mainstream Protestant churches in the north are not coming back, and door knockers who are partly inspired by the party, but also with a view to a job after the election, they’re not coming back.
So, systemic pathways for consensus and network building, is what you’re describing. To get super, super tactical, people in this room want direction, because I think it’s really valuable guidance you’d have for folks here. Either they’re producing that knowledge. They’re the Pughs and the folks, or they’re involved in nonprofits that are exposed to facts on the ground in America that we’re not hearing about on MSNBC and CNN. And so, where do you find the most productive place for those conversations? Is it Twitter? Is it Instagram? Is it somewhere else? Where do we go for a nationwide conversation that they can turn to and input into.
I’m sorry to have interrupted.
No, that’s all right.
But I was reacting to something you said, because I realize we may be on a path here where you maybe right, but I’m not going to agree with it. Which is, I don’t think consensus is good. I think what is good is meaningful structured responsible choice. The job of democratic politics is not to bring everybody to one mind. That would be a bad thing to do even if we could do it. The job is, to make sure there is meaningful, effective, responsible political competition within rules. Where we understand what can be done and what can’t be done. If you heard today that Facebook and Google were all going to work together for the common good, you’d get a little nervous. I don’t think they’re going to be after the common good. We want those giant entities to be vigorously competing, with the hope that they will make us feel more powerful. That’s the same way I feel about politics.
So, the job … And maybe this is a place where this kind of work can be more meaningful. The job is not to get everybody to think the same way about the issues of the day. There are a lot of issues where you have to say, this is a contentious issue, there’s no clearly right answer. It’s not obvious whether we should have more immigrants or fewer, whether we should have more of them being highly skilled, more of them being low skilled. It’s not obvious whether we should have a bigger government that provides more services at a higher cost. What you want is that, not a conversation, what you want is a competition, but where people agree, we don’t tell lies, we don’t threaten to put our opponents in prison, we don’t use outright corruption, we don’t prevent people with different views from participating in the political process, we don’t purge the voter rolls to stop people who don’t agree with us from voting. The things we don’t do. Now, having established that, tape up your fists, go at it. Make it clear. Make the choice meaningful.
And where do you see the productive conversation? You’re super active on social platforms. Where do you see the meaningful, substantive conversation possible, if not already happening?
Well, different people have different roles in the political system. Television remains, by far the most important source of information for most Americans, especially for the Americans who are most likely to vote. Facebook is creeping up as the next most important. And everything else follows far after that. At The Atlantic, we have this super well-informed audience. We are helping them to enrich their world view, but we’re not providing them their world view. And we’re certainly not giving them advice on what to think about the issues of the day. These are very sophisticated people. But different institutions have different roles. One of the things that is really ominous about what is happening right now, is President Trump… I want to give you a very classic example of this. This is just something I was working on today.
I was watching today an interview that Donald Trump gave to Dr. Oz in September of 2016.
Hard hitting …
Well, now this is-
I wonder what they talked about. Biologically.
They talked about healthcare and Donald Trump told Dr. Oz that he was going to bring in a healthcare system that would have more choices, so many choices you couldn’t believe it. It would be better care than anybody gets and way less expensive. Okay, so Dr. OZ is someone who tells audiences that you can cure cancer with raspberry juice. So… But here’s the important… And these are, if you go through all the things that Donald Trump said about healthcare during the campaign, the most flagrant and outrageous lies were those he told Dr. Oz on that show in September 2016.
So who watches Dr. Oz? Well, I couldn’t find the demographics for the Oz show in particular. I can tell you something about who watches daytime TV. 85% of them lack a college degree. The majority of them have family incomes under $30,000, and they’re 3/4 women. So Donald Trump, a real master of the TV medium, knew that. And he knew that this was a poorly informed, probably much sicker than average, more in need of health services than anything other group institution in the population. They’re predominantly women, so healthcare is going to be, for them and their families, they’re going to be very concerned about it. And he went, and he knew they wouldn’t check, and they had no social capacity to check. And he went on and he promised them everything. And because they’re used to… And maybe there’s something kind of sad… On the one hand, you can see there’s something kind of… If you’re going to believe that raspberry juice can cause cancer, that’s bad, but maybe you have to believe that if you don’t have access to the kind of medical technology that probably most of the people in this room have access to. Then you need to believe that, because otherwise someone you love may be doomed.
Before I keep going, how many burning questions for David are there already? Okay. I’ll come back. But I’ll keep going, meanwhile. So you’ve touched on part of what makes President Trump such an effective communicator to his target audience. What are the other things that really helps him break through and that made him so effective?
Well, here’s one that I came across in researching the book, Trumpocracy. I am now going to forget who did the survey. I think it was Gallup. About three weeks out from the 2016 election, they asked this question. Who is more honest? Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton? And by a considerable margin, Americans said Donald Trump. Now, it should be said, this was not generally a good poll for Donald Trump. If you asked the question, cares about people like you, informed about the… Hillary Clinton clocked him in every vector, except honesty. So, you think, “Okay, that’s odd.” Because it’s sort of a judgment call who cares more about people like you than Donald Trump, but it’s pretty obvious that Donald Trump does lie more than Hillary Clinton does. So, what were they saying? I think one of the things… When you use polls a lot, and I use them a lot, you have to be really clear that the question you think you were hearing and the question that the pollster asked is not necessarily the question that the respondent heard.
You know the phrase, talking like a politician. What does that mean? Well, what that means is to equivocate. Politicians don’t like to lie if they can avoid it. So they go through both doors at the same time. They leave both options open. “Secretary Clinton, are you in favor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership or not? Yes or no?” “Well, I think there are many important challenges here. It affects many different groups in the country. I see tremendous opportunities but I want to make sure that it also takes care of our least vulnerable and so that is why I have simultaneously voted for it, but also introduced…” Okay. Donald Trump would take the temperature of the room, do they want yes or no. And he would say yes or no, according to whether they wanted it. And tomorrow he would say the opposite and it wouldn’t bother him at all. But whatever else he did, he did not equivocate. He did not talk like a politician. He might say something that is completely fantasy. He might contradict himself. He might say something that’s outright untrue. But he said it decisively. He sounded authentic. He sounded truthful and he sounded different from all the other politicians, who in order to avoid lying, equivocate.
My personal curiosity. Indulge myself with one question. You’re a lifelong journalist, but during your time in government, you were clearly part of a new conservative Republican wing that was considered far right for its time. Are you thinking… Do you see yourself as a centrist now? And what is the center now? Are you the center? You personally but do you, is this…
Here on the west coast, I’d better be centered. You raise many different questions there and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do justice to all of them. I am a very conservative person. I am very… Ambrose Bierce the great satirist, used to say, “A conservative is someone who prefers to adhere to present evils as opposed to a liberal, who would like to try new ones.” I see myself as a conservative. One of the things that Donald Trump has forced all of us to consider, what are we conserving, when we conserve. And you’re conserving institutions that are a couple of hundred years old and ways of governing that are a century old and social gains that are 50 years old that occurred in the context of ideas that, in Europe they would call liberal. That’s the American origin.
So, when I think about my own … I mean, it’s not so interesting my own political development. But I think that one of the things … Here’s one of the things I do strongly believe, is that politics is like an exam in which they are constantly changing the questions. And the answers of yesterday become obsolete very radically. Political truth is not like theological truth. God is eternal, God loves us, God always loves us. But what we should do now, in today’s economic conditions, that’s not something that is eternal, that’s provisional. And as human life has gotten longer and longer … This is the anniversary of 1968. President Trump, I think, was 21 years old in 1968 and he’s still engaged in an argument about 1968. Now try to imagine someone who’s 21 during the Civil War being president during the first World War. And finding the Civil War still more real, not as a memory, not as something that happened to his parents or grandparents, but something that he participated in half a century later.
So we are at risk of carrying around obsolete arguments and visions of the country. I think that the biggest challenge as we get older is to continue to learn from the way the world is now. And to my way of thinking, to be a patriot is to love your country as it is. And if what you love is some memory or fantasy of how your country used to be and you can damn your country of today because it’s not the country as it was, you’re a collector. You’re not a patriot. You’re a fantasist. You’re not a patriot.
We have to acknowledge that we’re communicating in a climate where some of the quaint notions being conserved are judging people on the color of their skin, and demonizing them for it. And, I mean, anti-Semitism. Things that we thought were done. They’re not done apparently. Anyway, that’s just …
Okay. You raise there a very interesting … I’m Jewish. I try to be serious about it. For those of you who are Jewish, one of the things that is so hard … Jews have always believed any kind of bigotry, Jews have to prick up their ears, because sooner or later they’re coming for us. And we may not be first. We may not be second, but we’re inevitably on the list. What if it happened that you lived in a country in which anti-Semitism was so rare, and you were dealing with people who authentically said, “You know what, Jews are fine. We have no quarrel with Jews at all. Other people we don’t like.’
But you know that feeling that you have to feel, “Well, we have to be involved in this because sooner or later they’re not coming for us.” “We’re not coming for you.” Do you still stay interested? I think there is … And Donald Trump, I’m sure, has many disobliging stereotypes about Jews, but I don’t think there is any … The way that he has malice against other groups, he has malice against women, he has malice against many other groups. I don’t think he’s got a particular malicious beyond a little bit of unfavorable stereotyping. And so the question is, can you still care about what he’s doing to other people, when you don’t feel under the gun. That’s a very novel experience.
For what he’s unleashing among others who aren’t him.
That’s a very novel experience.
Do you feel unwelcome in the Republican Party?
Right now, yeah, but as I keep saying I don’t accept the jurisdiction of the membership committee. I remain a registered Republican and a number of my friends have quit. I understand why, but I take a long historical … Institutions you’ve participated in, they go through bad chapters. My friends who are Catholic are dealing right now with this tremendous sex scandal. They don’t leave the Catholic church, they fight for a better Catholic church. There have been a lot of periods in American history where the country was doing things … I mentioned the anniversary of 1968. Assassinations, riots. You don’t stop being an American because your country is showing a dark face at that time. What you do, is when something you care about is in trouble, that’s when you’re most needed. And I don’t think it does the country any good at all to have a two party system, only one party committed to democratic ways of doing things you need to. So I’m staying and I’m like the bad house guest. I keep getting hints that the train’s leaving, and I just keep ignoring them and saying, “What’s for breakfast?”.
Lara Setrakian: Burning questions for David? We’ve got one down here we can start with. The mic’s coming down. And just introduce yourself before you go.
Richard: My name is Richard. Thank you Mr. Frum for being with us. Still to continue on what you were just saying, the polls tell us that 40% of the Americans are still solidly with the president, whatever he’s been doing. And 80 plus percent of the Republicans passionately love him. How do you communicate to these people, who whatever he seems to be doing and saying, still likes him?
Well, I think many Republicans and the president himself are kidding themselves if they look at that numbers. Because that’s not the number I pay attention to. Yeah, Donald Trump has a 40% approval rating, right now. The economy is super strong, but when you say, “Do you strongly support the president?”, that’s under 20%. And if you say, “Do you strongly oppose the president?”, that’s over 40%. He’s got a two to one ratio of people who strongly oppose him over people who strongly support him. Let me out it this way. For any other president, if you had a year in which military casualties were as few as they were in 2018, and the job picture was as robust as it has been in 2018, that president would expect to be in the high 50s. Now maybe in a different era, when we were less polarized, you might get into the 60s. Today that’s harder. But you’d expect to be at 58% with these facts. To be at 40, that just tells you how much you’ve alienated the country. And if the economy is softening, the president is rapidly going to discover that 40%, that’s not a hard 40%. It’s a hard 20%, but not a hard 40%.
And that number that Donald Trump keep pointing out. “I’m more popular with Republicans than Ronald Reagan was.” that’s true, except, when Ronald Reagan was president, one third of this country was Republican and today one quarter of this country is Republican. So trump is getting more and more out of less and less. But the last thing to say about that is no other president, literally none that I can remember, ever talked about how popular he was with his own party. My mother really likes me. Take that. Now, you wanted to extend the coalition. And both for reasons of public spirit, that you wanted to be president of all of America and also for reasons of survival. Your own party can’t elect and reelect you. Only your party plus, plus, plus.
Lara Setrakian: So what do you think happens in the midterms? How does this play out?
I think this is one of those things where, after reading today’s news we need to all take a pause-
The Kanye thing? Which-
Not the Kanye thing. No, the second, there have been a series of really startling events in the stock market. And interest rates are rising and I think a lot of people are feeling an economic chill. This summer we saw consumer prices begin to rise at about 3%. And dor workers who are non-supervisory, which is the majority of American workers, after inflation, they’re earning less than they were a year ago. So, when you saw what happens, I think … I am not sure that the economy that we have in our memory from the past six months is the economy that a lot of people are experiencing and thinking about.
I think one other thing to bear in mind is that I think many people took the lesson of 2016 to be that Republicans do better than the polls suggest they will. I think the lesson of 2016 is that when the pollsters tell you, here’s the most probable outcome and then here are two or three other less probable outcomes, don’t assume that the probably outcome is the certain outcome. When they say there is a 60% chance that Hillary Clinton is going to win, things that have 40% chances happen four times out of ten. 40 times out of a 100. 400 times out of a 1000. We can do the math forever. I think it’s quite possible we see an outlier event.
And I think a lot of pundits in Washington have convinced themselves that the Kavanaugh nomination was a huge boost to the Republicans. It’s possible that it may make a difference in some senate races, but if the challenge that Democrats always have is that the bigger but less intense and well organized party, and the question is how do Democrats supply intensity to their voters. Especially because their voters are so often concentrated in few areas, the Kavanaugh nomination is going to be a powerful intensifier for Democrats. So even if the Republicans pick up this North Dakota Senate seat, that they have seats at risk in New Jersey and California. States hit hard by the Trump tax plan. And Republicans in particular were hit hard with the Trump tax plan. I would not be surprised if they lose all but one of their seats in New Jersey and if they lose the majority of their seats, the seats they still have in California.
Lara Setrakian: Burning questions? We’ll go here and then this sort of crescent.
Jeff Kline: Hi. I’m Jeff Kline with the Hispanic Communications Network. How do we know … When I was, in 1968, we were all going to go to Vietnam, so we actually paid attention. We brought the voting age down to 18. How do we motivate, to me, two big groups that aren’t voting. One are Latinos that actually don’t vote at the rates they could and the other is youth. How are we going to motivate them? Whatever your perspective, whether for, to participate in the system to vote.
Well, you talk about those as if they are two categories and they’re really only one. And one of the things … We often talk about what millennials do, as if millennials are the same ethnic balance as the rest of the population. A lot of the things that affect the way millennials behave, are driven by the way Latinos behave. It’s just that Latinos are much more numerous around the under 30s than they are among the over 40s. And so, their behaviors matter more. And if Latinos don’t vote, don’t be surprised if young people who are so disproportionately Latino, also don’t vote.
I think I found … And this may reflect all of our experiences in life. What are the things that make you vote? Having an address. To make the investment and learning the politics, the name of your member of Congress. You’re less likely to do that if you’re not planning on being in that congressional district three months from now. So, as young people settle, they become more committed to the political system. And so when you think about, how do you get them to vote, it’s not just … The answer is not from inside the political system, it’s from outside. If young people were marrying earlier, rather than later, if they were acquiring a permanent abode earlier rather than later, but we’ve got a population that … If I remember these numbers right, that … I’m now going to forget them. As of age 30, it was, in the 1960s the overwhelming majority, I think about 80% were married or partnered by age 30. And today only about half. And certainly the proportion of people under 30 who are living without a romantic partner of any kind is at the highest since record keeping began. And they’re more likely to live with their parents than they were at any time since the end of the agricultural era.
So, the way you get young people to vote is to get them to do the things that produce voters. Have an address, settle down, be married. And that then derives from both economic and cultural things. Maybe marriage is driven by culture to some degree, but certainly settling down and having an address, that’s driven by economic possibilities. That’s not a super helpful answer because it isn’t a magic formula. It tells you that you’re sort of on a spiral where a lot of the problems in the society reinforce each other. But if you can get back onto a more virtuous cycle, those things will also reinforce each other as well.
Noel: Hi. I’m Noel and I’m with Stand Together. Thank you so much for being here today. I wanted to ask you about, to tell us a little bit about how you would suggest talking about issues, because so many of us work on issues where a balanced opinion is necessary, the details are really nuanced. So, it’s very tough to communicate the nuances and complexities of these issues in a short bite. And to your point earlier, the political speak of straddling the line is not as sexy as the more decisive one sentence answer that Donald Trump speaks on. I’d love to hear about how you would recommend we take on promoting that balanced thoughtful opinion.
Yeah. Well, there are limits to what you can do because of the tax laws. You’re a 501C3s, most of you. And so there are limits to things you can say or do. But having made this point about Donald Trump and the equivocation, let me offer a counterbalance to that, that may be hopeful. One of the amazing things about the human species, as magnified, especially by the camera, is even when they don’t understand what you’re saying, they can see who you are. And I think one of things … I think this is one of the reasons that Donald Trump is caught in an undertow that is so much more damaging to him than the raw polls, or than his supporters …
It’s very vexing to you that he will write an op ed in USA Today and fill it full of things that are brazenly untrue. And it’s probably true that very few voters could take up a red pen and go through that USA Today article and say, “This statement is false. This statement is false,” even though so many of them are. But what they can do, is they can see, this is not a person of integrity. And that knowledge has spread. It didn’t hurt him as much in the election of 2016 because they also made up their mind that Hillary Clinton was not a person if integrity and because they sort of hoped that he would be a person without integrity for them. It’s like Better Call Saul. If you’ve got a really good lawyer, you don’t care if he’s a good dad. And they figured out that he’s not working for them. And that all the character flaws that they saw, that they thought would be at least, well, “he’ll do it for us,” … I think he’s caught in an undertow that people …
This is the thing we need to know. We’ve lived institution his modern world with mass communication for what? Barely a hundred years. And even the availability of text to the literate, that’s a pretty new phenomenon, compared to human evolution. But we lived for thousands of years in small bands, where it became very important to know the person beside you could be trusted not to run away when the mastodon charged. And that knowledge of who can be trusted that’s really a powerful force in us. It causes some of our bad qualities. We did used to live in small bands, so we’re very suspicious of people who are outsiders or different, xenophobia and racism, that’s part of our character, that’s wired into us too. And Donald Trump exploits that, but I think people, lots of people have his measure.
So when you think, “How do I talk?”, depending on your audience, sometimes what you need to do is to communicate the nuances. But sometimes you just need, and I think that’s right now the message that people need to hear most. You need to tell them just this. “Kindness isn’t weakness. Decency is real. In the long run people will do the right thing.” And the things that Lincoln kept saying. You can fool people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of them all of the time. And so when you’re communicating with them, just to say, just try to be, if you can find some way to connect to that spirit of goodness that is dormant, but present, you ignite a lot of things.
Lara Setrakian: We had one more question over here. Don’t want to leave you out.
Blake: Thanks for coming. I’m Blake. I’m here from DC with National Children’s Alliance. I want to go back to where you said that we need a political culture where some things are off limits. Presumably if something’s off limits there has to be a consequence to breaking that. So how do we instill in voters an idea that when someone has lied, when someone has committed an act of voter suppression, that it’s more important to punish that individual politician than it is to strive for that very desirable social program that they may want?
When I was talking about putting the competition within limits, this is a set of rules that are going to be enforced not by the voters, but by the players. In any competition, hockey, the game I know best, there’s an idea of what you can do, what’s a clean check and what’s a dirty blow. And that’s probably invisible to many of the people watching the game, but the players know, and they have mechanisms for enforcing it. The thing that I’m worried about is not that the voters don’t enforce these rules, but the political professionals don’t. And that what should happen is people say, “That’s fine, that you are behaving in this way, while you’re running for county commissioner.
But now you’re looking at higher office and we need to make sure that you’ve tidied up your financial affairs, that you haven’t abused your spouse. And that is something that the parties are supposed to do.
And right now the parties are in a state of very zero sum competition. I think what’ll happen … I think what is going to happen, if I venture a prediction, is the near term future for the Republican Party, which has been the main violator of the norms of American politics, thee near term is going bote pretty rough. And they’re going to be in the minority. And one of the things that happens when you’re in the minority, you suddenly discover why the rules are there. The rules are there always to protect the minority and the experience of being in the minority rededicates you to the importance of having rules of the game. When Mitch McConnell says, “What’s the rule for conserving, is whatever the Senate majority leader feels like,” that’s a very attractive rule so long as you’re certain you’re going to be Senate majority leader. Once you’re Senate minority leader, that doesn’t look like such a good way to do business.
Lara Setrakian: Are you more optimistic or more fearful for where we’re going as a country?
That’s not a way I think. For this reason. That when you’re asked those questions about the future, they treat the future as a thing that already exists. And they say, “Look at that thing that already exists and what do you see?”. And I am radically impressed by the unpredictability and contingency of the future and especially the future from here. We’re making the future. So I prefer to think about, not about your vision, your assessment but your actions. Maybe the advice would be, even if you want to think like a pessimist, act like an optimist. But retain the confidence that what happens next is up to us, it’s in our hands. And so we don’t need to have an opinion about the future, we need to have a project for the future. We need to have a commitment to the future. And it’s been so much harder for so many others. Sometimes people will compliment people in politics or public life and say, “That was a courageous thing to do,” compared to what other people have had to do, compared to stepping out of a landing craft at D-Day, pretty no. No. We are asked so little compared to what our parents and grandparents were asked. It would be a scandal and a shame not to do it.
I think we’re out of time.
Thank you so much for your whole body of work and for being with us here today. One more round of applause for David.
Thank you all. We never did get to sing Memories.