David Frum and Finest Hours

The fact that I now follow David Frum on Twitter, little more than a year after writing an entire post of condescending sighing about one of his articles, has demanded a bit of reflection.

Granted, we live in a time of strange portents. Still, I wondered whether or not I was too unfair. Frum is now one of a small number of prominent Republican critics of the Trump presidency, and seems to be doing a fine job of it. Certainly I appreciate that. But does it suggest that I was unfair to judge him so harshly before, especially as it seems like only integrity can motivate his current defiance of partisanship?

I don’t know. I can’t really see much fault in my assessment of his November 2015 article. Re-reading my post, meanwhile, I find that I did characterize him as a consistent and sincere critic of party dogma, overall, and allowed that even the article in question began with an unusually thoughtful basic idea (for either major party).

So, perhaps I wasn’t entirely unfair; if it was still a bit unbalanced for my only mention of the man to be in so negative a context, I can correct that now. Though massively long, Frum’s recent essay “How to Build an Autocracy” is lucid, somewhat frightening and perhaps just a little bit inspiring.

From a practical standpoint, I was particularly interested by a conservative Republican’s version of the “resistance checklist” which has appeared so often from the left these past few months:

  • Get into the habit of telephoning your senators and House member at their local offices, especially if you live in a red state.
  • Press your senators to ensure that prosecutors and judges are chosen for their independence—and that their independence is protected.
  • Support laws to require the Treasury to release presidential tax returns if the president fails to do so voluntarily.
  • Urge new laws to clarify that the Emoluments Clause applies to the president’s immediate family, and that it refers not merely to direct gifts from governments but to payments from government-affiliated enterprises as well.
  • Demand an independent investigation by qualified professionals of the role of foreign intelligence services in the 2016 election—and the contacts, if any, between those services and American citizens.
  • Express your support and sympathy for journalists attacked by social-media trolls, especially women in journalism, so often the preferred targets.
  • Honor civil servants who are fired or forced to resign because they defied improper orders.
  • Keep close watch for signs of the rise of a culture of official impunity, in which friends and supporters of power-holders are allowed to flout rules that bind everyone else.

All seems valid to me. I was particularly interested in his suggestions that in the 21st century, the significant action “in the streets” is often on “the information superhighway” instead: “If you’re seeking to domineer and bully, you want your storm troopers to go online, where the more important traffic is…” This is almost a defense of slacktivism; I don’t plan to quit showing up in person but maybe my time obsessing on Twitter e.g. isn’t entirely wasted.

In another way, his message to other conservatives was inspiring just because one feels a faint hope that even a few will say this, and maybe more will at least keep it in mind:

The duty to resist should weigh most heavily upon those of us who—because of ideology or partisan affiliation or some other reason—are most predisposed to favor President Trump and his agenda. The years ahead will be years of temptation as well as danger: temptation to seize a rare political opportunity to cram through an agenda that the American majority would normally reject. Who knows when that chance will recur?

Then there was his timely reminder of what I have long considered a fundamental flaw in the defense-of-liberty argument for gun ownership: “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.”

This leads into his conclusion, which is terrifying and stirring at once:

…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.

I wish that it weren’t up to me, but I’m bound to agree. It’s something at least to have an ally who is apparently bringing all of his best instincts to the challenge. Maybe I can rise above my own run of the mill self, as well.

Update: One week later, Frum sees a mediocre jobs report departing in no way from the years-long trend of the Obama administration, and he basically tells Twitter that it’s all over and populist authoritarianism will sweep aside all before it. So, two steps forward, 1.8 steps back.

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