May 21, 2018

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Understanding the unlikely rise of Trump

The 45th president of the United States, arguably the most powerful man in the free world, seems to enjoy nothing more than going on Twitter and stoking the fires of controversy, with little regard for consequences.

It’s just one of the ways Donald Trump has brought chaos to the office of the president and the state of American politics — with potentially permanent and catastrophic results.

David Frum, the Canadian-born, Washington, D.C.-based senior editor at Atlantic magazine, is one of Trump’s most vocal critics — both on social media and now in his ninth and latest book.

Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic was released last month, and is an examination of how the 71-year-old Trump, arguably the least-qualified candidate for president in American history, was able to rise to power.

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The 45th president of the United States, arguably the most powerful man in the free world, seems to enjoy nothing more than going on Twitter and stoking the fires of controversy, with little regard for consequences.

It’s just one of the ways Donald Trump has brought chaos to the office of the president and the state of American politics — with potentially permanent and catastrophic results.

Author David Frum

MICHAEL BENNETT KRESS PHOTO

Author David Frum

David Frum, the Canadian-born, Washington, D.C.-based senior editor at Atlantic magazine, is one of Trump’s most vocal critics — both on social media and now in his ninth and latest book.

Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic was released last month, and is an examination of how the 71-year-old Trump, arguably the least-qualified candidate for president in American history, was able to rise to power.

"The book gave me a chance to start with a clean piece of paper, and to think about all these issues of authoritarian populism in a more orderly way," Frum, 57, explains by phone from Washington in advance of his appearance in Winnipeg on Wednesday at noon at McNally Robinson Booksellers.

Frum also happens to be a staunch Republican, having served as speechwriter for former president George W. Bush (he’s often credited with coming up with the term "axis of evil"). His previous books include Why Romney Lost, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again and What’s Right: The New Conservative Majority and the Remaking of America.

The rise of authoritarian populism — a term that came to prominence to describe the Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan era of small government but sweeping, centralized power — is a subject Frum has explored and written about for years.

"The crisis of democracy is global — this is not an American story," he explains. "It’s a story that applies in Poland and Hungary and South Africa and the Philippines and Turkey... And those countries that have been more lightly touched by it shouldn’t assume they’re immune either. We’ve seen the rise of authoritarian populism in Germany, France, the Netherlands, in Sweden. Canada has been, really, an outlier — but that might not stay the case forever."

Trumpocracy explores the way in which Trump tapped into a predominantly white, male, blue-collar contingent of Americans who felt frustrated by the lack of representation in Washington. It also details the numerous ways in which Trump and those he surrounds himself with (past and present) have torqued the American political system to their benefit, both financially and otherwise.

Writing about political events that are in many ways still unfolding in a book format proved to be nerve-racking experience for Frum.

"I had terrible anxiety — I was really aware of the risks that I was going to get things wrong or leave things out," Frum says. "In the book I’m quite pessimistic about Donald Trump’s prospects of passing a big tax cut, but that happened. You take these inevitable risks. But the risk of waiting is that you may deliver a work that’s not of use to anybody. The time to understand this threat to American democracy is now."

Trumpocracy hit bookstores almost simultaneously with Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, a more sensationalized exposé of life inside the Trump White House. And while Frum calls Wolff’s book "very valuable," he also warns of its tendency to underestimate the president.

"The Wolff book encourages... the view of Trump as a doofus, or dotard, which is really not accurate or helpful. Trump is shrewd, Trump is wily, and understands very well what he needs to do in order to survive."

In addition to the ongoing damage done to American institutions — such as the FBI and the justice system — Frum sees particular harm being done by Trump beyond his country’s borders.

"I think the most irreversible damage is in the area of international affairs. I don’t think the U.S.-South Korea relationship, for example, will ever be again what it was before," he says. "I think the damage to NATO is irreparable. Once your friends in Europe know that America has a president that says ‘maybe I won’t defend NATO partners if I don’t want to’... they won’t forget that. "

Yet, there’s a cautious optimism to Trumpocracy’s final chapter, as Frum outlines the increase being seen in civic engagement from previously uninterested Americans.

"One of the things that has been heartening to me is not only the level of interest, but also the level of commitment and seriousness that I’ve seen," he explains.

"People really care about events in a way that’s very different than they have in the past. That is one of the perverse gifts of Trump."

books@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson.

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