Tag Archives: David Frum

Their War Is With Modernity

The Guardian recently reviewed David Frum’s forthcoming book, “Trumpocalypse.” Frum, as most of you will recall, was the speechwriter who penned George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” accusation; whatever lingering concerns I may have had about his judgment, however, have waned, thanks to his work as a “Never Trumper.”

In “Trumpocalypse,” Frum makes the case that Trump has gutted the rule of law and institutionalized “white ethnic chauvinism.” The article notes that Frum’s journey is emblematic of an ongoing political realignment, in which the GOP has increasingly embraced white rural voters and steadily lost college graduates and suburbanites.

One of the points Frum emphasizes has reinforced my own belief that America–and for that matter, the rest of the world to varying degrees–is undergoing a paradigm shift.

The concept of paradigm shift originated with Thomas Kuhn, an American physicist and philosopher, to explain why people working within a particular worldview or scientific framework cannot understand explanations of works produced under a preceding or different framework. Fundamental changes in basic concepts make genuine communication impossible.

Frum’s book quotes the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan for the proposition that it is “culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society,” and he identifies specific aspects of the culture Trump’s base believes it is defending–especially, as he says,  the belief that by supporting Trump, they are defending a “distinct way of life”, one challenged by modernity.

I think this is the key to understanding what is otherwise inexplicable: how any rational individual could look at the operation of Trump’s administration, with its massive corruption and overwhelming incompetence, and still support him.

Support for Trump is how people who are profoundly threatened by modernity say “Stop the world, I want to get off.”

That reaction against modernity, which is characterized by increasing secularism, explains why religious fundamentalists make up so large a part of Trump’s base. Secularism, in this sense, isn’t necessarily the absence of religious belief, but it is the absence of a certain type of religious belief. It refers to the ability of science to explain phenomena that biblical literalists attribute to God (remember when Bill O’Reilly defended religious belief by saying “the tide goes in, the tide goes out–who knows why?” We do know why.)

In my 2007 book “God and Country: America in Red and Blue,” I examined differences between religious folks I dubbed “Puritans” and those I identified as “modernist.” Among other things, Puritans tended to believe that Christianity requires capitalism–that in a sense, God was Adam Smith’s “Hidden Hand”– and that poverty was evidence of moral defect.

Modernity is also undermining economic fundamentalism. Rutger Bregman was the  historian who told the zillionaires at Davos a couple of years ago that they would be more effective at fighting poverty if they paid their taxes. Time had an interview with him, focused on his new book, “Humankind.” Bregman argues that the core beliefs about human nature that justify exploitative capitalism are simply wrong, and that we are coming to recognize that fact.

The old fashioned “realist” position has been to assume that civilization is only a thin veneer, and that the moment there’s a crisis we reveal our true selves, and it turns out that we’re all selfish animals.

Bregman disagrees, asserting that, over thousands of years, people have actually evolved to be far more collaborative and kind. He also points out a central lesson of the pandemic: as governments make lists of so-called vital professions, those lists don’t include hedge fund managers or captains of industry. It’s the (underpaid) garbage collectors and the teachers and the nurses who turn out to be people we can’t live without.

Our assumptions about human nature matter, because those assumptions guide the design of our institutions, and the design of our institutions encourages behavior that is consistent with the assumptions.

One of the big differences between religious and economic fundamentalists on the one hand, and modernists on the other, is the inability of the fundamentalists to tolerate ambiguity. As both Frum and Bregman make clear, however, modernity absolutely requires the ability to reject “either/or” “black/white” versions of reality.

As Bregman says,

I don’t live in that binary world. Sometimes markets work best, sometimes the state has the best solution. During the Enlightenment, there were brilliant thinkers who realized that, if you assume most people are naturally selfish and you construct the market around that, sometimes it can actually work for the common good. I just think that in many cases, it went too far. What many economists forget is that this view of humanity, the so-called “homo economicus,” can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Or, as Frum notes, “politics can change a culture and save it from itself”.

That’s the politics of change–the politics that Trump’s base hysterically rejects.

 

 

 

 

In Which I Agree With National Review

When a conservative is right, s/he’s right.

And over at the National Review, Kevin Williamson is right. His article, titled: Take a Bow, Species, rejected the constant drumbeat of what is wrong with America and the world in favor of a focus on what’s right. Here are some reasons for optimism that he lists:

* Polio has basically been eradicated from the globe

* Measles and rubella will be next

* The global rate of “extreme poverty,” currently defined as subsistence on less than the equivalent of $1.90 a day, is now the condition of less than 10 percent of the human race. Take a look at how the World Bank recently plotted that change:

* The overall rate of violent crime in the U.S. has fallen by about half in recent decades.

* U.S. manufacturing output per worker trebled from 1975 to 2005, and our total manufacturing output continues to climb.

* General-price inflation, the bane of the U.S. economy for some decades, is hardly to be seen.

Of course, you aren’t likely to hear about any of that from Republican candidates running for office in 2016. Unlike Ronald Reagan, none of them is remotely a “happy warrior.” Instead, they all seem obsessed with the belief that a country headed by Barack Obama must be in extremis.

This striking mismatch between the GOP’s gloom and doom worldview and our considerably more nuanced reality was addressed in a recent post at Political Animal that quoted a warning from another conservative Republican, W’s former speechwriter David Frum.

I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters – but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination…If Republicans succeed – if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.

Yep.

When folks on the Right are right, they’re right.

Truth to Power

When David Frum was a speechwriter for George W. Bush, I didn’t think much of him.  His most memorable phrase–the “axis of evil”–fed into the bipolar worldview of W’s administration, and was distinctly unhelpful.

Since he left politics for journalism, however, he has been nothing short of admirable.

Frum has joined the small but growing group of frustrated Republicans like Bruce Bartlett,  Norman Ornstein and Andrew Sullivan who have been willing to say aloud the things that so many of my own companions from a long-gone GOP share privately. He has been willing, as the saying goes, to speak Truth to Power.

A recent column about Fox News is an example, and well worth clicking through to read in its entirety.

Frum notes the research showing that Fox viewers know less than people who don’t watch any news at all, but he says that criticizing Fox for its manifest inaccuracies is to miss the point. Fox isn’t in the news business.

Before Fox, news programmers had struggled with the question of what their product was. Did it include health information, and if so, how much? Weather? Financial information? Human interest? Political opinion? Ailes built his new channel upon a very different question: who is my product for?

The largest generation in American history, the baby boomers, were reaching deep middle age by the mid-1990s. They were beginning to share an experience familiar to all who pass age 50: living in a country very different from the one they had been born into.

Fox offered them a new virtual environment in which they could feel more at home than they did in the outside world. Fox was carefully designed to look like a TV show from the 1970s: no holograms, no urban hipster studios, lots of primary colors.

In other respects too, Fox offered a path back to a vanishing past. Here was a place in which men were firmly in charge, and in which women were valued most for their physical attractiveness. Here was a place in which ethnic minorities appeared only in secondary roles — and then, with brave exceptions, only to affirm the rightness of the opinions of the white males in the primary roles.

Fox, Frum tells us, is intentionally geared to the anxiety-filled old white men who are having great difficulty dealing with the uncertainties of a rapidly changing world–a world where they no longer enjoy unquestioned privileged status.

Like talk radio before it, but even more intensely, Fox offered information programmed not as a stream of randomly connected facts, but as a means of self-definition and a refuge from a hostile external reality. Fox is a news medium that functions as a social medium.

Ailes began by identifying his target audience, and shaping his “news” to their tastes. As a business strategy, it was brilliant. Unfortunately, the collateral damage has been extensive–both to the American political system, and more recently (and ironically) to the Republican party.

What’s that old story about riding the tiger?

 

Why Trust Erodes

A couple of days ago, I linked to an essay by David Frum, in which he encouraged “reform” of the current conservative movement, and professed to see some signs of that reform emerging. I hope he’s right, because this country desperately needs two responsible, reality-based political parties.

As Jonathan Chait put it recently:  “The radicalism of the current Republican Party – its ideological extremism, disdain for empiricism, the inability to share or modulate power – is, to me, the central problem in American life. In the long run, the resolution to nearly every policy problem depends on the GOP refashioning itself as a normal, non-pathological party.”

For specific examples of what Chait is referencing, see this post on “The Wonk Gap.”

In today’s world, governments must fashion policy in areas so complex that average voters simply cannot be expected to understand the underlying challenges or the proposed interventions; we increasingly need the expertise of the relevant specialists–policy wonks. And we need to be able to trust that those specialists are telling us the truth as they see it. When the experts are willing to place partisanship above honesty, when people who presumably know what they’re talking about are delivering fundamentally inconsistent messages, citizens either withdraw from the political arena or they choose to believe the experts who are telling them what they want to hear.

In either case, governance suffers.

 

Wisdom From David Frum

Bob and I are in Nottingham, visiting with our granddaughter Sarah and her partner. It has been delightful–but would be better if Bob didn’t have an increasingly awful cold and hacking cough. We’ll do a first-hand exploration of the British health-care system this morning; flying home with an untreated upper respiratory infection probably isn’t the best idea.

I’ll try to report more on Nottingham tomorrow, but blogging may be spotty until we get back to Indy on Thursday. Meanwhile, I urge you to click through and read this essay from David Frum. As most of you know, Frum was a speechwriter for George W. Bush; since his service in that administration, however, he has been making a lot of sense, with the result that he’s been labeled a RINO by the ideologically extreme members of the GOP.

Frum is a thoughtful and genuine conservative voice, and he deserves to be heard. Whether the movement is too far gone and too rigid to listen is an open question.