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The most corrupt administration in American history

David Frum in conversation with Łukasz Pawłowski · 17 July 2018

“This is the most corrupt administration in American history. By any measure. The president continues to operate a global company and received payments from people around the world. It is obviously influencing policy in all kinds of ways” says the author of “Trumpocracy. The Corruption of the American Republic”.

 

Łukasz Pawłowski: What is “trumpocracy”? I understand the term describes not so much the way Donald Trump governs but more a system that allowed Trump to get elected in the first place.

David Frum: That is well said. It also describes the system that sustains his power. In every country, there are greedy, corrupted and ambitious people. What democratic political systems are supposed to do is to protect societies from allowing such people to gain political power. That is what has failed, not just in the US.

Why?

In the American context the defining feature of the system – the unwritten rules of the game that regulated the competition between political parties – are now broken down. There are many rules in American democracy which don’t appear in writing, and yet people used to agree this is something you don’t do.

For example?

For example, you don’t work with hostile foreign intelligence service against your opponent.

It’s not proven yet…

Every month the proof accumulates. On July 13, Robert Mueller indicted Russian intelligence officers for hacking Democratic emails – the very emails that candidate Donald Trump asked them to hack in his famous June 2016 “Russia if you’re listening” press conference.

Another rule says that even if the President and Congress are from the same party, the Congress still has a duty to oversee the president – as Jimmy Carter experienced from a Democratic Congress between 1977-81 and Bill Clinton between 1993-95. That’s not written down either. But these rules have been failing us and made trumpocracy possible.

What are the main causes behind this change?

The most important background cause is the end of the Cold War, which moderated competition between the parties because we had a higher goal in mind. The second background cause has been the slowdown of the economic growth, since the year 2000. Another cause is the rising diversity in our societies. Diversity is always associated with a decrease of social trust and the result in the US is that our party competition has come more and more to reflect other and even more profound ways of dividing human beings – by religion, by ethnicity. The parties are no longer second loyalties – they are becoming symbols of people ultimate loyalties which makes cooperation within the society more difficult.

It’s hardly possible to do anything about any of these causes. I guess you wouldn’t like to go back to the Cold War times with the Soviet Union as a permanent threat. So, what do you do? British political philosopher John Gray said that one of the main failures of liberal democrats was their conviction that liberal democracy is the ultimate political system which after the Cold War will spread all around the world. Now we realize that maybe liberalism was just a short peaceful period during history and now we’re getting back to normal chaos and hostilities.

Of course, we do not want to return to the Cold War, but so long as the Cold War lasted other things happened that had positive effects on our political system. The whole point of politics is that whenever you solve a problem, you just open new ones. Progress is moving from problem to problem.

Gray seems to be saying that because liberal democracy successfully solved one set of problems, and that success gave rise to a new set of problems, therefore, the liberal democracy has failed. That’s perverse. Liberal democracy has succeeded many times in the past, and now liberal democracy must succeed again with the new challenges of our time! It’s always an illusion to believe that problems can simply be left behind.

However, unlike in the past, today in the non-Islamic world there are no ideological challenges to liberal democracy. There is no alternative vision of the good in the way socialism and even fascism offered alternative visions of the good.

But the Islamic world is a pretty big part of the world…

Around 1/6 of the mankind. And yet outside the Islamic world, this is not the age of ideology. Putin offers no ideology, just as the Chinese communists offer no ideology. What they offer is gangsterism, corruption, and various kinds of rejections of the liberal project. In a sense that is a source of power for illiberals. Putin’s propaganda can come at liberal democracy from all kinds of contradictory directions because he defenses nothing. In my book, I quoted a very wise observation from someone I met in Hungary while reporting on the Orbán regime there. He said: “The Russians do not need us to trust them, they just need us to distrust each other”. That’s the goal.

It’s not a sign of the failure of liberalism, however, that it confronts different challenges today than it did some time ago. Actually, if it confronted the same challenges it will be a bigger sign of a failure.

Putin offers no ideology, just as the Chinese communists offer no ideology. What they offer is gangsterism, corruption, and various kinds of rejections of the liberal project. In a sense that is a source of power for illiberals.

David Frum

The second cause behind the rise of Trump was the state of the economy. Are you advocating more progressive social policies?

Different countries face different economic challenges. In Europe, it is sometimes very difficult to create jobs, and one reason for that is that people find it too easy to make a living if they don’t work. In the US we find it very easy to create jobs, but it’s to difficult to make a living, even if you do work. The American economic challenge is to make work more rewarding for more people.

Is it not a leftist statement, especially coming from a Republican?

I would like to see a more rationalized government. We need some things that would sound left. I’m in favor of a more comprehensive health insurance programme, to eliminate that source of fear and uncertainty. And there are some things that would sound conservative – we need a consistent approach to free trade. There are also some things which are neither left or right. Many government actions work in favor of powerful interests, and one of the most important is the way we protect intellectual property. Over the last 20 years, we have introduced more and more measures to protect intellectual property. Companies like Microsoft can basically live on rents from work they did a quarter-century ago. That’s made a lot of people very rich.

What do you mean by a more consistent approach towards the free trade? If there is one thing that unites people who voted for Trump it is probably their hostility towards free trade agreements. What’s more, with free trade quite often comes liberalized immigration policies – that’s another factor that it is fueling discontent.

I think free trade and immigration are actually opposites. Let’s say Americans want to buy vegetables in winter and they want to buy them cheaply. One solution to the problem is to let cheap labor from Mexico into California and grow the vegetables there. Another way to achieve the same goal is to let people in Mexico and Central America stay where they are and import the vegetables from them. The movement of people is a way to substitute for the lack of movements of goods.

This is only one side of the coin. If I was an American farmer and if Mexican farmers could compete with me on prices, I would like to be able to “import” cheap labor force in order to compete with them without moving my farm outside of US.

Interest groups are always trying to privatize profits and socialize costs. Immigration is the ultimate example of a scheme to privatize profits. The farmer brings in the cheap labor and that enables him to compete with Mexican farmers. He pays his workers very little money, even less than the minimum wage, and he is happy to keep his costs low. But the children of these migrants need to go to school and according to the US law, they are entitled to free public education. They also need medical care or other forms of state assistance. So the labor isn’t really that cheap, it is only cheap for the employer and the rest of the bill is paid by the state.

We mentioned some of the flaws of the political system that made it possible for Trump to get elected, but what is also striking is how easily he “kidnapped” the Republican party. And here we have at least two major questions. Why is it so easy for those Republicans who opposed Trump at certain stages of the presidential race to go with the flow now and accept what he does? And secondly, what can the Republican Party as an institution do to reverse this course?

The two American parties diverge in many important ways from European parties. Perhaps the most important issue on which they diverge is it the extent to which American parties now sit on top of every other aspect of personal identity. If you just tell me that you are a Republican or a Democrat, I can make very informed guesses about your race, about whether you live in a metropolitan area or somewhere else, about your marital status, whether you go to church, where you stand on the right to bear arms, etc.

At the same time we see this very strong party identity, much stronger than in Europe, the parties as institutions are actually very weak. Political scientists aptly describe the American political system as that of strong partisanship and weak parties.

What do you mean by „weak parties”? That they have no influence over them owns politicians?

Exactly, and this is the answer to your questions. Why once you capture the Republican Party is it so easy for people to go along? Because once Trump became the nominee of the Republican Party he became the central focus of loyalty of white, church attending, non-urban, older Americans. He had to be protected. And the alternative of keeping him out of office by voting for a Democrat was unthinkable for many American Republicans.

Political scientists aptly describe the American political system as that of strong partisanship and weak parties.

David Frum

What can the Republican Party do about Trump now?

There is no Republican Party that could do anything about it. The party does not have an institutional existence. In, for example, the Social Democratic party in Germany there’s a party chairman who is an important person…

And in the US you have a Republican Majority Leaders in the Senate and in the House of Representatives.

They are loyal to themselves, not the party. Like all American politicians, they are fundamentally freelancers. There is nobody whose job would be to think about the long-term interest of the party in a way chairmen of some European parties do.

But there are party institutions. What about the chairman of the Republican National Committee?

They are only concierges fully controlled by the president. The current RNC chairwoman changed her last name because Trump did not like it.

What?!

She is a cousin of Mitt Romney’s and she used both her married name – McDaniel – and her very prominent family name – Romney – together. Trump does not like Romney, so he told her to stop using her maiden name. And now she is known as Ronna McDaniel whereas before she was known as Ronna Romney McDaniel. Those people are just functionaries of the president’s will.

Illustration by: Wacław Marat

Illustration by: Wacław Marat

This year a record number of Republican congressmen and senators decided not to run for re-election, including the House majority leader Paul Ryan. Why do they prefer to stand down rather than stand up and fight politically against at least some of the president’s actions?

They anticipate defeats and want to secure their lobbying jobs early. They want to be lobbyists and it’s much better to be the first person looking for this job than the 35th or so.

Does it not contradict the claims you make in the book? If you anticipate trumpists and Trump to lose, does it not mean that the system is healthy and can defend itself?

Some Republicans anticipate not that Trump loses, but that the party loses control over the House of Representatives. And then they have their self-interest concerns. You announce that you’re stepping down and you begin the job search for your next position now.

What was striking to me when I read biographies of Trump is that they make it clear: he did not become who he is yesterday or in the year 2015 when he announced his candidacy. Over his long career in business, Trump violated so many laws – for example when he hired illegal Polish immigrants to work on the Trump Tower, when he discriminated against African Americans in his buildings, when he did not pay construction companies he hired, etc. And yet he was never really punished for that. Institutions, one by one, failed to prevent him from continuing with what he was doing. His career and presidency seem to be a sign of a failure of not only the political establishment but also state institutions.

This is a very profound point. Let me add one more observation. Within the business world, Donald Trump has been a notorious figure. In 1990 he basically went bankrupt in all but name and thereafter he was really not a businessman anymore. No-one wanted to lend money to him so he did not develop buildings. He found his second career as a TV star in a show called “The Apprentice” which was hugely successful. He played there a character of a very tough, successful, confident businessman who held people to account. In a world in which no-one lost his job for 9/11, in a world in which almost everyone involved in a housing bust got away with at least mistakes and in some cases more than that – every week he repeated his famous phrase “You’re fired”. In a country where powerful people are never really fired no matter what they do, he would fire somebody every week. And he said that in front of an audience of many millions.

But that was a TV show!

Most of the time Americans can understand that people who play doctors are not actually doctors, but the premise of this show was that he really was a successful and powerful businessman whose name you can actually see on buildings around you. For millions and millions of people, the show blurred the division between reality and fantasy.

In a country where powerful people are never really fired no matter what they do, Trump would fire somebody every week. And he said that in front of an audience of many millions.

David Frum

One can quite often hear that Donald Trump’s presidency is not as bad as it seems. Despite all his rhetoric, Trump did not do that much to revolutionize American foreign policy. For example, during the last NATO summit he was very critical of the allies’ underspending on defense, but at the end, he said the US remains committed to the Alliance. He might be praising Putin on some occasions but the American sanctions against Russia are in place. He advocates isolationism but military spending has actually increased. He threatens to pull out of free-trade agreements and introduced some tariffs but the American economy is still doing fine. And on top of that, he may even achieve a breakthrough in peace talks with North Korea.

There’s no question that the state of the economy is good. But you have to bear in mind that the American economy is a 16 billion dollar enterprise which means that due to its size it is slow to react to stimuli. Bill Clinton had an incredibly prosperous second term because of the investments that were made in the 1980’s. The advent of the Internet was a process – a combination of many investments made over the previous 20 years.

Trump’s is right now benefiting from the trends in the American economy which are a product of the recovery from the 2008 recession. It took a while for the recovery to gather steam but by 2015, the American economy was expanding quite strongly. Trump came to office in the third year of that strong expansion. Congratulations, we’ll see how long it lasts.

And what about other issues I mentioned?

In other terms, it is actually much worse than people think. This is the most corrupt administration in American history. By any measure. The president continues to operate a global company and received payments from people around the world. It is obviously influencing policy in all kinds of ways.

Can he succeed in North Korea?

The situation in Korea is a trap. People like me have been saying this for a while. South Koreans are trying to move him off the path of a pre-emptive war which is good. So they sold him the idea that meeting with Kim Jong-un would be a big win for Trump, counting on him not to know that all his recent predecessors have been offered the same meeting and all said no. They all said it’s the end of the process, not its beginning.

Trump’s own secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said that the goal in North Korea is a complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization. If Trump gets that, that will be a success. But so far all he got was a couple of smiling photographs with one of the most murderous dictators on the planet. That’s a success for the dictator, not for Trump. It is really no accomplishment to persuade somebody to take a meeting with the President of the United States.