Monday, February 06, 2017

What's wrong with David Frum's excellent article

Rob Ford with council colleagues - subway announcement 2012 by HiMY SYeD via Wikimedia Commons
by HiMY SYeD via Wikimedia Commons
David Frum recently wrote an excellent article in the Atlantic Monthly on the possible development of an authoritarian populist state under Donald Trump. Read it if you haven't already.

David Frum comes from Toronto, but he left many years ago for the United States. He did not live through Toronto's experience with insurgent populist conservatism. That may or may not have led to what I regard as the most interesting omission in a very good article.

After a robust start Rob Ford's term as mayor racked up an increasing number of failures and reverses. The consequences of these failures proved catastrophic for Mr. Ford personally, but less so for the city. The nature of the mayor's job in Toronto limits the effects of any mayor's worst mistakes, and once Mr. Ford's problems surfaced, his colleagues on council acted to prevent further problems. As well, as I have written before, Mr. Ford's ability as a retail politician rested on his willingness to work with people and solve their problems. Everything I have seen, in the presidential campaign and the first weeks of the Trump administration, suggests to me neither Americans nor their president will be that lucky.

DHS Law Enforcement Personnel Ensures Safety at 2017 Presidential Inauguration By U.S. Department of Homeland Security via Wikimedia Commons
Homeland Security photo
via Wikimedia Commons
Many years ago, in an essay on fantasy, Ursula LeGuin identified bicycling, computer programming, and writing Elizabethan prose among activities that take skill, things you have to know how to do in order to do them. The American people have embarked on an experiment: in the last election by electing a man with no government experience or education for government, they chose to discover by experience whether the contemporary presidency of the United States falls into the (small) list of jobs that do not require knowledge, understanding, or experience. David Frum points out, correctly, the damage a successful Trump presidency will do to American life, if Americans, of all political beliefs, fail to restrain the authoritarian and kleptocratic direction of his policies.

In pointing out the loss to Americans if Donald Trump succeeds, Mr. Frum lays little emphasis on the probability of failure, or on what a really serious failure by Donald Trump might actually mean. Donald Trump has the keys to the world's largest thermonuclear arsenal. Credible reports indicate American nuclear command and control systems make it possible for him to unleash over two hundred megatons on the world in just a few minutes. He commands the largest armed forces on the planet. He also leads a government with the world's largest public debt, and one of the world's biggest net debtor nations. An American president, any American president, does not get to make very many low stakes decisions. Donald Trump came into office showing no understanding this, and even worse, his primary subordinates have sent plenty of signals they do not understand or care what might go wrong.

Protest march against Donald Trump By Fibonacci Blue from Minnesota, USA, via Wikimedia Commons
By Fibonacci Blue, via Wikimedia Commons
David Frum says it plainly: if Americans fail at vigilance, they will lose their democracy, or at least much of what makes American democracy vibrant and precious. He leaves out what Martin Luther King called the "fierce urgency of now". Donald Trump's administration can squander the prosperity an openness of the United States by blunders as easily as they can with subtle malice. Stupidity in government can have effects as dire as conspiracy. American should keep alert to avoid the prospect of a subtle authoritarian regime taking their freedoms a drop at a time, but Republicans and Democrats alike need to consider the possibility of an election four years from now held amid the ashes of a catastrophic military and diplomatic defeat in the seas of South Eastern Asia, or a global economic collapse, or an even worse outcome. Protest, yes. Protest knowing how much even a successful Trump administration could diminish American freedom. Protest, also, knowing the stakes and the risks of failure.

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