David Frum buries the tweet

Rob Lanphier
10 min readFeb 2, 2017


David Frum’s cover story for the upcoming March 2017 issue of The Atlantic titled “How to Build an Autocracy” provides several editorials worth of fantastic insight, but seems to be what the phrase “too long; didn’t read” was invented for. He outlines what we need to fear, and more importantly, what we should stop being hysterical about. When I say he outlines what we need to fear, “outlining” is too strong a word. The piece is a meandering train of thought that lacks tweetable concision.

Frum’s work is important enough to deserve more than a quick pointer saying “go read this, it’s really good”. Even if you’ve read it, there may be insights that get lost after the first read.

The Atlantic seems to be ready to really push this article, and recently published a pithy 3 minute video for the impatient (also on Youtube). They also provide it in audio form, which takes a full hour to listen to. For those of us that frequently prefer or require listening over reading, this is a welcome enhancement.

pithy 3 minute video for the impatient (also on Youtube).

None of what I’ve found so far seems organized enough to keep the points straight in my head. I find Frum’s essay packed with insight, but I need more than a big sloppy bucket of insight. This study guide provides a more organized outline for this article, which will hopefully help other web junkies keep it all straight.

I broke this guide up into several sections that retrofit an outline to Frum’s article:

There’s also few links to other articles not cited by Frum’s original, but which seem related to me.

Trump in 2021

(0:09 in audio)

The article starts with a dystopian vision: Trump’s second inauguration in 2021. A noticeably older and frailer Trump has had a very successful-seeming first term. The economy, spurred by reckless deficit spending, has resulted in a fragile prosperity. Protests happen, but aren’t effective. Voters are grateful enough feeling like they have made progress that they give Trump the benefit of the doubt, and shrug off persistent rumors of malfeasance by the Trump administration.

Future Trump is helped by the 2018 mid-term elections, where Trump congressional opponents are slammed with a large WikiLeaks dump about widespread congressional self-dealing and alleged fraud just before the election. This deepens resigned cynicism about politicians generally. Businesses and media learn to toe the line in order to not make trouble for themselves. Youth fashion drifts away from political engagement, and toward lighter distractions. Critical media is still tolerated, but becomes marginalized as more of a boutique offering for a niche market.

Things haven’t changed much in these 4 years. For some, it’s less change than feared; for others, it’s less change than hoped. The feared mass deportations don’t happen, but more immigrants (legal or not) strive to keep their noses clean to avoid running afoul of the administration. Voting still happens, but gets even harder for demographics not friendly to Trump. People openly joke about the NSA spying on them, and it just becomes common sense that electronic communications aren’t a good place to be critical of the administration. Porn and sexting continue unabated as social mores aren’t really affected, much to the chagrin of the evangelical arm of Trump’s base.

Checks and balances in the 21st century

(6:37 in the audio) (#article-section-5 in the text)

The scenario described will only happen if we let it. It’s not the only possible outcome. Liberty wasn’t always the norm, and liberty won’t necessarily remain the norm without popular support. Frum suggests we’re in a “democratic recession” with many examples throughout the world.

Ideological extremes are out of fashion in the 21st century; subtly repressive kleptocracy is the biggest threat. The U.S. is tamper resistant, but not tamper-proof. We rely heavily on Presidential morality and norms. There have been ominous signs, as past presidents have engaged in sharp-elbowed, partisan power grabs in the face of increasing polarization. But Trump’s self-interested approach is far more extreme

Ambition counters ambition?

(14:10 in audio)(#article-section-9 in the text)
From The Federalist Papers: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” The separation of powers was supposed to keep ambition in check, but same-party diligence has deteriorated. Trump’s lack of fealty to Republican causes makes him dangerous: his loyalty is to his personal interests, not the ideology. If ditching ideology will get him out of a legal mess, he’ll do it. Will Trump betray the Republicans?

Republican leadership hopes to use ignorance of wrongdoing as defense. Frum says that rather than picking a fight with Trump over ethical lapses, they will serve as an “ethical bodyguard”.

Republicans recognize they have a fleeting chance to have a decisive majority, and they owe it to Trump. Trump delivered Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania; states that Paul Ryan wasn’t able to help secure as Mitt Romney’s running mate in the 2012 election.

In 2018, Republican senators up for reelection will fear retribution (e.g. Jeff Flake (AZ) and Ted Cruz (TX))), and won’t do anything to jeopardize their standing in the party. Mitch McConnell, the “results oriented” Senate majority leader, will be primarily focused on keeping his party in the majority. Frum points out “Ambition counters ambition only when conformity doesn’t serve goals better.”

Trump has many weapons in his arsenal

(20:21 in audio)(slightly after #article-section-12 in the text)
Trump has a loyal ally and powerful weapon with Fox. Trump vs Clinton wasn’t an aberration or even the only misogynistic win in 2016. Megyn Kelly seemed to be pushing Fox in a new direction, but Sean Hannity ultimately bullied her out. Kelly landed on her feet, but Fox remains as powerful as ever. Fox maintains a “carrier fleet of supplementary institutions”: think tanks, super PACs, and “former pariahs as Breitbart and Alex Jones”.

Trump’s top priority will be looking out for himself, rather than instituting an authoritarian grip. However, he will inevitably use authoritarianism as a weapon to mitigate personal legal risks.

Frum further points out that the POTUS is really, really powerful. We pride ourselves on being a nation of laws, but we’re more susceptible than we realized when it comes to the personal integrity of the POTUS. A major weapon: the pardon, which provides him ample protection against many limits to his power. Moreover, he has hire/fire authority over the IRS, U.S. Attorneys, the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General.

There are many hedges against this, but many are mere traditions. Moreover, there is political appetite to give the POTUS more power to fire underperforming government officials, and as Chris Christie joked, “Donald likes to fire people.”

The courts vs Trump

(27:18 in audio)(slightly after #article-section-15 in the text)
A proponent of “checks and balances” would be tempted to say “but the courts!”. However, much of the restraints are mere traditions established by former presidents.

The courts have had very limited effect on many officials; even bribes hard to prosecute (e.g. Bob McDonnell). Moreover, many of the laws that apply to Donald Trump himself don’t apply to his family, including the Emoluments Clause. He’s gleefully exploited that loophole already.

Abusing his power to make people love him

(32:30 in audio)(slightly after #article-section-18 in the text)

Trump will not just take everything for himself directly. He’ll be generous, and use it to implicate others in his graft. He’ll create an aura of “personal munificence”, like what he did with Carrier, which was called “victory for little people” by one of the employees.

He’ll also stoke fear, completely unsupported by the facts. Trump voters believe that crime is worse, despite crime being substantially lower.

Calculated outrage

(audio at 36:31)(#article-section-21 in the text)
Trump is a master of polarization. Civil unrest is the perfect fuel for the “conservative entertainment-outrage complex”

We expect as citizens that our voices can be heard, including by means of peaceful protest. Trump actively goads protesters to burn flags and challenge police. Civil unrest will not be a problem for the Trump presidency. It will be a resource. Immigration protesters marching with Mexican flags, Black Lives Matter demonstrators bearing anti-police slogans; these are the images of the opposition that Donald Trump will wish his supporters to see. (video)

“Everybody lies and nothing matters” will be the motto. Spreading cynicism can work better than trying to fool everybody. A recent example is Trump’s view of the California popular vote. Rather than substantiate his assertion, he uses the bully pulpit as source of “fact”. He’ll whip people up into a frenzy, and use the mob to intimidate his opposition in the media. Trump loves the attention; just wants to assert power over truth itself.

21st century authoritarianism

(audio at 46:09)(starting “The lurid mass movements…” in the text)

The mass movements of the 20th century like Fascism and Communism have left us an outdated image of what modern authoritarianism might look like. We’re not going to assemble in parade-ground formations. Politicians won’t stand erect at the microphone orating for hours. Intimidation will go where the people are. Not on the sidewalks, but in digital space. And authoritarian leaders won’t lecture. They will tweet. (video)

20th century fascism is like “cranking a gramophone, or dancing the turkey trot”.

Frum cites “How Democracies Fall Apart; Why Populism Is a Pathway to Autocracy”, written by Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz for Foreign Affairs magazine in December 2016.

“Populist-fueled democratic backsliding is difficult to counter,” wrote [the authors]. “Because it is subtle and incremental, there is no single moment that triggers widespread resistance or creates a focal point around which an opposition can coalesce … Piecemeal democratic erosion, therefore, typically provokes only fragmented resistance.” Their observation was rooted in the experiences of countries ranging from the Philippines to Hungary. It could apply here too.

In the dystopian vision, Trump will lead by example. People will witness Trump taking billions, and skim millions for themselves. The danger we face is Trump establishing graft as the new norm.

Is Donald Trump a fascist? Frum says it’s complicated. The strongarming and corruption at this scale is deeply troubling and shares elements with old-fashioned fascism as we fear it. However, fascism glorifies toughness and self-reliance, whereas Donald is a needy, whiny person, so there’s something “incongruous and even absurd about applying the sinister label of fascist to Donald Trump”.

Trump could inflict permanent damage to the United States as a world leader. Frum points out that optimism and opportunism may breed complacency. We’ve long had the ethos of a country that celebrates the rule of law, and that the rules matter more than the outcomes.

We hope that conservatives don’t want to be complicit in the destruction of our values. The right framing will be important to convincing them to intervene. Frum provides an answer for that:

Perhaps the words of a founding father of modern conservatism, Barry Goldwater, offer guidance. “If I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents’ ‘interests,’ ” Goldwater wrote in The Conscience of a Conservative, “I shall reply that I was informed their main interest is liberty and that in that cause I am doing the very best I can.” These words should be kept in mind by those conservatives who think a tax cut or health-care reform a sufficient reward for enabling the slow rot of constitutional government.

Taking action

(53:00 in audio)(starting “Trump and his team count on one thing…” in the text)
Is Trump right when he says “Nobody cares”? Will voters will tolerate or even celebrate corruption that helps them? Trump seems to be banking on public indifference.

Trump and his team believe that they can achieve all that I just described for one main reason: public indifference. “Nobody cares!”, Trump likes to say. If this were happening in Honduras, we would know what to call it. It is happening here instead. So we are baffled.(video)

Frum implores everyone to publicly insist on ethics at the end:

Those citizens who fantasize about defying tyranny from within fortified compounds have never understood how liberty is actually threatened in a modern bureaucratic state: not by diktat and violence, but by the slow, demoralizing process of corruption and deceit. And the way that liberty must be defended is not with amateur firearms, but with an unwearying insistence upon the honesty, integrity, and professionalism of American institutions and those who lead them. We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you and me. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can also be your finest hour as a citizen and an American.

An epilogue

The intro to this post lacks the deference to David Frum and his excellent work that both deserve, not to mention the editorial staff at The Atlantic and whatever role they played in the article’s production. This summary glosses over a lot, and I’m sure loses a lot of important nuance that Frum provides. Plus there’s probably a lot I just got wrong. Just as reading the Wikipedia article about Thomas Payne’s Common Sense is not a good substitute for reading Thomas Payne’s Common Sense, this writeup isn’t intended to replace Frum’s excellent work. If you have the time, go read Frum’s article. And I’ll likely edit this guide after I publish it; see https://github.com/robla/wonk/wiki for more (especially if you just want to offer a correction)