Power

Things are bad, and David Frum makes them worse

The ubiquitous commentator has been beating the war drum for nearly two decades.
Power

Things are bad, and David Frum makes them worse

The ubiquitous commentator has been beating the war drum for nearly two decades.

The warhawks who drove the Republicans rightward in the early 2000s likely bear more responsibility for Donald Trump’s ascendancy than all the Russian hackers and “fake news” websites put together, but liberals are more than willing to let them off the hook if they provide limp critiques of their own party as penance. Naturally, many of them are doing just that. The neocons’ strategic retreat from the smoldering wreckage they created was a clever gambit, in many ways reminiscent of a classic insurance scam. Like an insurance scam, it can be wildly successful when carried out with adequate skill and commitment — and no one is more committed than David Frum, the George W. Bush speechwriter who introduced America to the “axis of evil.”

CNN. MSNBC. CNBC. CBS. ABC. Newsweek. The Daily Beast. New York Magazine. Vox. The New Yorker. NPR. The Atlantic. They all either have David Frum as an editor, grant him bylines, or allow him to flap his enormous jowls about Trump and Russia live on the air. In the last year, Frum has appeared 40 times on MSNBC and 10 times on CNN to talk about Trump, a hectic schedule that often leaves him no time to shave. If you count the networks’ websites, where Frum writes vital commentary like “Marijuana use is too risky a choice,” the number of Frum appearances is far higher. The Atlantic made him a senior editor in 2014, and in return, he writes them four or five columns a week about how Trump is an affront to political decency. While Frum is certainly given a platform disproportionate to his skill as a writer, he isn’t terrible on a technical level. He can write a column without including too many mixed metaphors and bizarre anecdotes, a rare skill among center-right commentators. He knows how to provide exactly what his audience wants, whoever they may be at the time. But overall, Frum is nothing more than a mediocre man with bad opinions, which makes it all the more puzzling how much personal history his benefactors are willing to overlook.

David Frum has such a hectic media schedule that it appears he doesn't have time to shave.

David Frum has such a hectic media schedule that it appears he doesn't have time to shave.

Rare Gratitude

After graduating from Harvard Law in 1987 and bouncing around the neoconservative think tank/vanity publication circuit for a decade, Frum finally made his name as the “intellectual heft” of the George W. Bush White House. Bush chief speechwriter Michael Gerson, a fellow fanatical interventionist and veteran of the neoconservative underworld, tapped Frum for the speechwriting team in 2000. His greatest accomplishment was the authorship of Bush’s 2002 State of the Union speech, now known for its most famous phrase, “axis of evil.” The axis was a grouping of three countries — Iraq, Iran and North Korea — that were implicit allies in a plot to destroy America. The supposed ties between the three mostly came down to their mutual love for imaginary “weapons of mass destruction” and non-existent collaboration with al-Qaeda. As Trump threatens war crimes against civilians in Iraq and Syria, sanctions Iran despite its compliance with our nuclear agreement and threatens “fire and fury” for North Korea, Frum must be held accountable for cementing them as boogeymen in the public imagination.

In the last year, Frum has appeared 40 times on MSNBC and 10 times on CNN to talk about Trump.

Frum resigned his post in February 2002 in order to join the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank then working in close association with the Bush administration. With them, he emerged as one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the War on Terror. In 2004, Frum and former adviser to the Bush Department of Defense Richard Perle published a book titled An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror. Its text was as audacious as its title. “An End to Evil will define the conservative point of view on foreign policy for a new generation — and shape the agenda for the 2004 presidential-election year and beyond,” a description of it reads. By this time, the Iraq War was in full swing, and Frum and Perle offered full-throated apologia. Under the assumptions that the war would bring stable democracy to Iraq and that the imaginary WMDs would be located soon enough, they called for similar action against North Korea and Iran. The U.S. had to order airstrikes on North Korean nuclear facilities, they wrote, or else Americans could fall victim to an “imminent nuclear threat.” (“Of course, it is true that we do not know where all these facilities are,” they conceded.) For Iran, they prescribed immediate regime change. In their judgement, a nuclear Iran was “perhaps three years away, in the optimistic view of U.S. intelligence, maybe twelve to eighteen months, by the less sanguine Israeli estimate.” It is now 14 years later, his predictions have been wrong ten times over, and yet Frum maintains the same interventionist line. In 2015, he condemned Obama’s Iran deal in The Atlantic and claimed that any supposed delay in Iran’s nuclear capabilities would be “short and temporary.” Two years later, inspections showed full compliance. When he isn’t sundowning, Trump’s hardline stance on Iran mirrors Frum’s.

Frum, ever the opportunist, was shockingly quick to write a tell-all book about his time in the Bush White House. The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush was published in January 2003. In the book, Frum defends the Bush energy task force’s decision to hold dozens of secret meetings with oil executives, a move that no doubt paved the way for Trump to nominate ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson for secretary of state. (Bush himself pushed hard for the nomination.) On Bush’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, Frum wrote that it “imposed onerous burdens on the American economy” and “exempted Mexicans, Indians, Chinese, and other industrializing countries.” Trump used nearly identical language after withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, referring to the “economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country” and demanding further concessions from China and India in particular. When Bush shocked the diplomatic establishment in early 2001 by pledging to protect Taiwan in the event of an attack by mainland China, Frum wrote that he showed “imagination backed by courage.” When Trump accidentally acknowledged Taiwan’s sovereignty last December, a gaffe eerily similar in timing and tenor to Bush’s, Frum called him a patsy of Vladimir Putin. What would Frum do differently were he given the ear of the president? Not much, according to his White House memoir: “In Bush’s first six months in office, he had executed the most ambitious reorientation of America’s grand strategy since Nixon’s time — away from China and toward Russia.”

Frum wrote that he once made the mistake of using the word “damn” in a meeting.

Frum’s magnum opus, the 2002 State of the Union address, has more than a few elements in common with with Trump’s much-maligned speech in Warsaw last month. “The civilized world faces unprecedented dangers,” Bush read from the podium. “Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?” Trump asked. Both speeches singled out Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism and a threat to the “civilized world” while either failing to mention Saudi Arabia or praising it as an ally. Both used women’s rights as a cudgel against the developing world amid Republican efforts to limit women’s rights at home. The day after Trump’s address, David Frum had the nerve to castigate his unintended protegé in The Atlantic, but not for preaching a colonialist narrative about civilized and uncivilized peoples that echoed Cecil Rhodes. Frum actually liked the speech, writing that “As presidential speeches go, Trump’s address in Warsaw was fair.” He continued: “[The Atlantic’s] Peter Beinart heard in Trump’s speech some nasty religious and ethnic exclusion. Yet the most troubling thing about the speech was the falsehood at its core; the problem is not with the speech, but with the speaker.” According to Frum, ethnonationalist rhetoric about “what we've inherited from our ancestors” and how the West must “celebrate our ancient heroes” is fine and dandy. We just need to get someone more respectable to say it.

If the policies Frum backed at the peak of his influence are so close to those of the current administration, why does he hold Trump in such contempt? The descriptions of Bush in The Right Man suggest a similar motive as other #NeverTrump conservatives — a non-negotiable commitment to good manners. Frum’s recollections show a particular reverence for Bush’s demeanor. Bush brought a certain evangelical stoicism to the Oval Office, as Frum painstakingly pointed out. No one in the administration drank, smoked, cursed or referred to Bush as anything other than “the president.” Frum wrote that he once made the mistake of using the word “damn” in a meeting, at which point the entire room went silent and shot him icy glares. On the dress code: “Women could wear brighter colors — but never higher than the knee.” Don’t tell Mike Pence! Frum even compared the Bush White House to The West Wing — a sacred text for “You, sir, Mr. Trump, are a disgrace to the office, sir!” types — but found President Jed Bartlet far less refined. “I seldom heard a voice raised in anger,” he wrote, “and never witnessed a single one of those finger-jabbing confrontations you see in movies.” They may have authorized a war that seems likely to outlive everyone involved in its creation, but at least they did it while using their indoor voice.

The incestuous nature of the neoconservative establishment guarantees that Frum will always have work, but much of his current mainstream exposure is given to him voluntarily by liberals. Why do MSNBC and CNN consider him such a valuable voice? His commentary, when not designed to provoke World War III, is establishment dogma. Anyone wearing a lanyard in DC could tell Lawrence O’Donnell or Chris Matthews that Trump is a buffoon who threatens the stability of NATO, and they probably didn’t fire the starting gun for wars that killed half a million people either. Frum is a token and his presence is intended to reassure liberals that conservatives hate Trump too. Well, they don’t, which is why he won the primary and why Frum has never been invited to a panel on Fox News. It’s debatable whether any amount of utility is worth letting heinous war crimes go unpunished, but this isn’t Wernher von Braun sending man to the moon — it’s an unshaven clod mumbling things we already know to fill minutes in the 24-hour news cycle. It’s time we stopped being so forgiving.

Alex Nichols is a contributing writer at The Outline.