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January 31, 2019

Stay Tuned: Winning in the Age of Trump & Twitter (with David Frum)

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DAVID FRUM SHOW NOTES

Interview taped on 1/29/19.

David Frum is a senior editor at the Atlantic, and author of nine books, most recently Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic. He served as a speechwriter and special assistant to the George W. Bush, and served as a senior adviser to Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign.

On this episode of Stay Tuned, Preet and David cover a wide range of topics, including:

–       “Made for social media” moments and Frum’s rules for engagement on Twitter

–       The stability of America’s institutions

–       Trump’s handling of the shutdown and what it revealed about the president’s strengths and weaknesses

–       What should be up for debate in modern society

–       The challenges facing 2020 candidates

Supplement for various references made in the episode:

–       Frum’s twitter account

–       Frum’s website

–       Frum’s articleHoward Schultz May Save the Democratic Party From Itself

–       Frum’s articleHow to Build an Autocracy

–       Frum’s articleWaterloo

–       Frum’s bookTrumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic

–       Frum’s debate with Steve Bannon, The Rise of Populism, at Munk Debates

–        Daniel Boorstin’s bookThe Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America

–       Ian Bremmer’s interview on Stay Tuned

–       Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s social media boot camp for the Democratic Caucus – read about it here.

–       The viral video of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez dancing in college and her response as a Congressman

–       Chief Justice John Roberts’ rebuke of Trump’s attacks on the judiciary

–       A Newsweek article on the ABA ratings of Trump’s judicial nominee

–       The demographics of Trump judicial nominees

–       Mitt Romney’s 47% remark

–       Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” remark

–       The Post-ABC Tracking poll that found voters believed Trump to be more honest than Clinton

–       Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s quintessential political statement, “conscription if necessary…not necessarily conscription”

–       The 1992 Presidential Debate between George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot (the specific moment Frum references starts at 50:10)

–       The Black voter turn-out in the 2008 and 2012 elections

Do you have a question for Preet? Tweet it to @PreetBharara with the hashtag #askpreet, email [email protected], or call 699-247-7338 and leave a voicemail.

Winning in the Age of Trump & Twitter (with David Frum)

Air date: 1/31/19

Preet Bharara:

David Frum, welcome to the show.

David Frum:

What a pleasure to be here.

Preet Bharara:

So as I was telling you before we started it’s long overdue your being on Stay Tuned. I have been borrowing tour thoughts, lines. The first thing I will say is one of the things I enjoy is your Twitter feed. [crosstalk 00:19:03]. We all have a love/hate relationship with Twitter and I often talk with guests who have active Twitter feeds like I do what you think about it. I guess my question is, you’re a fairly erudite guy. You write long commentary. You’re highly educated. You’ve written, I believe nine books.

David Frum:

Yeah.

Preet Bharara:

What the hell is a guy like you doing on Twitter?

David Frum:

It is kind of a sobering reflection that it turns out that of all the literary forms that have ever been invented the one you turn out to be good at is the dumbest.

Preet Bharara:

Yeah.

David Frum:

Twitter is a dangerous tool. It is an opportunity to end your career in a second. I have over the years tried to develop some rules as to how to use it productively and non-self-destructively. Can’t claim I’ve always adhered to these rules.

Preet Bharara:

So what are some of the rules?

David Frum:

One of the most important rules is no arguments about arguments. That is one of the things that happens in the Twitter is you’ll say something and somebody else will say, “Well, you didn’t say a different thing about a different subject.” To be focused on what you’re talking about and what you’re going to do there, and not to get drawn into a lot of arguments.

David Frum:

Second, always keep your cool. Of course you should never drink and drive, but second only to not drinking and driving is not drinking and doing Twitter. Never do it when you’re in a situation of emotional distress of any kind.

David Frum:

Finally, understand that the purpose of Twitter, it’s a flow of information. You should think of it as being like your ticker tape, or your information feed. Follow institutions, Reuters, and institutions like that. Then follow people who really know what they’re talking about. If you do that it can be a source of enormous value.

David Frum:

By the way develop friendships with people all across the world whom you’ve never met, with whom you have an affinity and from whom you can learn.

Preet Bharara:

That’s one of the nice things. I had a Twitter exchange with Mark Hamill, AKA Luke Skywalker. I thought only in the modern universe is that possible, can that happen. Have you ever tweeted in anger?

David Frum:

I have a few times and I’ve always regretted it. The other thing I try to be disciplined about is never trying to get the last word. I think of Twitter as television. The reason you go on television, including shows you might not yourself watch is to talk to the people who are watching. You’re not talking to the host. You’re not really talking to the other guests. You’re talking to people on the other side of the camera. You’re here for them.

David Frum:

One last thing, and this is maybe of use to the wider public is those of us who grew up with television always had a difference between those who grew up before television because we understood there were made for TV moments. Daniel Boorstin wrote a great book in the early ’60s called The Pseudo-event, about the made for TV moment. We learn to be suspicious of made for TV moments. They’re not real, and they’re inherently manipulative.

David Frum:

Now, we’re on the older side and we’re victims often of made for social media moments that are intended to be manipulative. I think of this very much with the Covington Catholic School encounter. This was something [inaudible 00:22:08] up, it blew up. The moment I realized I have no idea what actually happened here. What I can see is this clip is not a … whatever happened here this clip is not an accurate representation of it. So be very, very careful.

David Frum:

A lot of people fel into it because just as our parents didn’t understand that TV wasn’t real, we often have a hard time understanding social media is not real.

Preet Bharara:

Although I wasn’t planning to spend this amount of time on Twitter, but I think it’s actually interesting and important, for all the reasons we’ve mentioned, but also because it’s a huge force in politics. I had Ian Bremmer on the show a couple weeks ago, and he takes the position, it’s not an unusual position that but for Twitter Donald Trump doesn’t get elected. And on the other side of the political spectrum there are lots of folks who are saying how brilliant, at least with respect to social media, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is. So much so that it has been reported and she confirmed it that she was asked to explain to the Democratic Caucus in the House how to use Twitter effectively.

Preet Bharara:

It’s not some random thing. It’s as powerful … Your analogy to TV is a good one, because for decades historians have been trying to figure out the impact of television on races and the famous Nixon/Kennedy debate in ’60 where the conventional wisdom is if you watched it on television you thought that Kennedy won, if you listened to it on the radio you thought that Nixon won. And Twitter seems to be the new form where political careers go to thrive or die.

David Frum:

Well this opening is maybe a way to segue to something from the world of the social into the world of the real. I have a mild dissent from both of those assessments. For Donald Trump, but for Twitter … If he had surrendered it as he said he would on the day he became president or even better for him, on the day he declared for president I think he’d be much more popular today. I think Twitter has been an anchor around his neck.

Preet Bharara:

During the course of the presidency, which is [crosstalk 00:24:02] from the campaign.

David Frum:

Even from the campaign.

Preet Bharara:

Yeah.

David Frum:

Because the economy’s pretty good, and it’s especially been pretty good for the kind of upper-middle, lower-upper income folks who are the bedrock of the Republican Party. In all kinds of comfortable suburbs far away from Washington and New York there are people who are normal republicans not paying a lot of attention to politics who should be able to say, “Times are pretty good. The country is more or less at peace. If I don’t live in New Jersey or Southern California I got a tax cut. I don’t like the guy’s history or record, but he seems all right if he would just keep his mouth shut.”

David Frum:

But instead every day he is on your phone reminding you that he has a seriously deformed personality who might start a nuclear war by mistake.

Preet Bharara:

Would he be as popular with his base without Twitter?

David Frum:

Yeah, because his base are not so online. His core support watch TV. His soft support are online. He hurts himself with his soft support and he’s done nothing for his core support. Trump deludes himself, but Trump is a very poor self-assessor. I think Twitter has been nothing but bad news for him.

David Frum:

For Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez it’s more complicated, because Donald Trump was already one of the most famous people in the world before Twitter was ever invited.

Preet Bharara:

Right.

David Frum:

So she is a newcomer who becomes a star by winning this come from behind internal party victory. Social media helps her. I think the big thing in her stardom was not her Twitter. It was being attacked on Twitter by someone who found this clip that she and her friends did dancing in college.

Preet Bharara:

Oh yeah.

David Frum:

It looked to anybody like the most wholesome … I went to college in the late ’70s and early ’80s and thank god there were not … So somebody takes this moment of happiness, puts it on as if to attack and that I think was her big social media win. You can’t plan that. You can never plan an incompetent and malicious attack on you. You have to understand the potential of these things, but also their limit. One of the things that I think the next two years of the Donald Trump presidency are going to remind us is the laws of political gravity are all there, and we also, those of us who are much more online need to remember that it is still true that Facebook and YouTube, not Twitter are the two most important social media in America. And by the way, the two most important media companies in America.

David Frum:

If you think that the New York Times, and The Atlantic, and the CBS Evening News, and CNN, and even Fox News, and MSNBC are the media and don’t … bear in mind that for most people in this country and for certainly most people who are influenced by the media, the media mean Facebook and YouTube videos.

Preet Bharara:

Yeah. No, that’s exactly true. Let’s move on from the first institutions of American democracy we’ve been discussing, Twitter, to the other institutions of democracy. I think I mentioned at the beginning that I have been pilfering some of your deep thinking for a couple years now. There was the occasion of my firing almost two years ago, and then I got an invitation to go speak at Oxford, and feeling very ignorant of many things, and not having been in the role to talk about anything other than prosecutions as the US Attorney, and asked to speak about the state of American institutions beyond just law enforcement, I started thinking about what I believe to be the state of afraid with respect to the media, with respect to the courts, with respect to Congress, and with respect to the executive branch, and this is early on. This is in May of 2017. Given the alarm bells that a lot of people were sounding because of the way the president was dealing with those institutions.

Preet Bharara:

And I started to write my remarks. I had a view of how strong or weak those institutions were, and generally thought they were pretty strong, other than the law enforcement function which I think is being undermined. I came across a great piece of yours, and I found myself thinking, well David Frum says this a lot better than I do so I’m going to liberally quote from you with attribution. But that was a couple years ago. Can we just go through them for a second?

David Frum:

Sure.

Preet Bharara:

The judiciary, you do a lot of writing, but you’re a trained lawyer and you think about not just politics and government, generally, but also the courts specifically. How are the courts holding up in a world where some people think there’s an onslaught against the independent judiciary, so much so that John Roberts who’s a pretty laconic guy decided he needed to say something about it?

David Frum:

Yeah. I hesitate to speak about any of these things. You’re a practitioner, and when you say you are new to speaking, the mark of a good prosecutor is the less you say the better. You have a whole lifetime of learning not to say things as part of your job, to unsay things. You’ve stepped into this new role and you’ve excelled at it. I hope it’s been comfortable for you.

Preet Bharara:

It’s been okay. It’s been okay. I have good days, and then other kinds of days.

David Frum:

It is like moving from driving in the right hand side of the road to a left hand side of the road [crosstalk 00:28:59].

Preet Bharara:

Yes. With a patch over one eye. And bad music blaring on the radio.

David Frum:

I’m saying the two most robust parts have been the federal judiciary and the legacy media have both done a pretty good job in the Trump years. The legal system as a whole is under enormous pressure. Even the federal judiciary has a problem, which is that Trump has found a weak spot that he’s able to exploit, which is our generation I think … yeah, you’re somewhat younger than I am, but our generation of legal scholars, people on the right hand side of the spectrum generally took a robust view of federal authority. But that’s an honest intellectual position and you can certainly make a case for it. There’s a lot of historical and textual support for it.

David Frum:

If your instinct to uphold the executive … if you have that instinct, and if the peak of your personal career coincides with a person who looks like a criminal and has these national security questions, every instinct you have and every conviction you have becomes a point of vulnerability for the president to exploit. I think that has been something of a problem with the federal judiciary. I don’t think they’ve been corrupted in a way that there has been a shadow cast over the Department of Justice.

David Frum:

They are vulnerable and Trump and his Department of Justice have pressed a lot of those buttons of deference for non-Trumpist reasons and used it for Trumpist purposes.

Preet Bharara:

One of the issues with the judiciary and I try to separate out these issues is in what way is he intimidating judges by calling them out by name and by casting aspersions on them when they don’t rule the way he wants them to? I think they’re pretty robust and strong in that regard.

Preet Bharara:

Then the other separate issue is the remaking of the judiciary both in terms of people’s ideology, how conservative they are, whether they’re way far right, or not, which some people have a problem with, their competence. There have been, I think a higher number of people who have been deemed to be unqualified by the American Bar Association than in any previous administration in modern times. And whether or not there’s any diversity.

Preet Bharara:

I saw recently something like 70 something percent of federal judges being nominated by Trump are men, and then the overwhelming majority, white men. That has an impact as well. But I consider that to be sort of separate from whether or not the judiciary as an institution remains independent. I tend to agree with you that I think it’s doing better than some other institutions, in part because the founders were smart and gave them life tenure. That’s a lot of independence when you have life tenure. All these other folks who get attacked by the president don’t … I’ve always joked that if you’re a federal judge and you get on the wrong side of the president you remain in your job. If you are a US Attorney who gets on the wrong side of the president then you have to get a podcast.

David Frum:

Right.

Preet Bharara:

It’s a little different.

David Frum:

Right. One of the things that Trump is bad at is because he has an unrealistic sense of himself he tends to be a poor … He’s a very shrewd reader of psychic vulnerability. If someone has a weakness anywhere in their personality the president finds it. As he has done with so many people who look so dominating, like Chris Christie. I mean who knew there was that weak point in him, that fissure, and that Trump, whatever it is, if you’ve got it he finds it.

Preet Bharara:

What was the weak point for him, for Christie?

David Frum:

I don’t even know, but his resentment-

Preet Bharara:

[crosstalk 00:32:30].

David Frum:

His resentment of Marco Rubio, his sense of entitlement, his sense of who he was in the scheme of things and who other people were in the scheme of things, that Trump was able to use him and humiliate him as he’s done to so many other people. I don’t mean to single out Chris Christie.

David Frum:

While Trump is very good at finding people’s psychological weak points he’s extremely bad at understanding institutions and institutional power. That’s how he lost this whole shutdown fight was he never understood how powerful the House of Representatives can be when it wants to be, and how if the Speaker of the House has a solid majority behind her, and she’s dealt with dissenters and made her deals and got everybody to back her, and you go up … anybody in the executive branch who’s got a car and driver is going to discover they’re walking to work.

Preet Bharara:

Right.

David Frum:

She controls the money. Trump does not quite … he thinks everything’s a deal, and never understands that sometimes actually the formal rules of the game really matter. That makes him vulnerable [inaudible 00:33:29] federal judiciary. Yeah, you do not call judges names. They don’t care. They might care. [crosstalk 00:33:34]

Preet Bharara:

Everyone cares, but it doesn’t effect how they do their job. I’ve said this before, judges have said to me that there’s a little bit of, not squeamishness, but apprehension which doesn’t mean they’re going to change their mind, but apprehension at the thought of being someone presiding over some case that touches upon a lawsuit against the administration or against a policy that Trump has espoused or some business interest of his, and in the back of your head wondering, well if I ruled the way I think is right to rule and it is adverse to the president’s interests, is everyone in my kid’s school going to learn that there’s an obnoxious tweet about me, by name?

David Frum:

Yeah.

Preet Bharara:

That’s not a lovely feeling. It doesn’t change what they will do, but it’s not a lovely feeling.

David Frum:

And judges don’t get as much security as a lot of people might imagine they do. If you’re a federal judge you do have to wonder might one of these tweets inspire somebody to do something?

Preet Bharara:

You begin to touch on Congress a little bit when you’re discussing the power of the House and the Speaker, when that power is chosen to be exercised. Overall, as we’re going down the litany of institutions, how do you think Congress has conducted itself as a coequal branch of government?

David Frum:

Really, really, really badly. Of all the institutions they’re the one that has behaved maybe the worst. Leaving aside Fox News because they don’t operate by any value system.

Preet Bharara:

And they’re not in the Constitution.

David Frum:

They’re not in the Constitution.

Preet Bharara:

Yet. [crosstalk 00:35:09] There’s an Amendment for you.

David Frum:

There Congress have behaved very badly, and one of the things that really went wrong in the first two years was what happened at the Intelligence Committees and especially the House Intelligence Committee. Now it is always a problem to get the intelligence agencies to talk to Congress. I think a lot of people don’t understand how new congressional oversight of the intelligence services is. From the founding of the FBI, before the first World War, from the founding of the CIA under its various forms during the second World War, these agencies have not even wanted very often to tell the executive what they’re up to. They have never wanted to tell Congress what they’re up to.

Preet Bharara:

That’s true. Yep.

David Frum:

In the ’70s Congress setup oversight committees to oversee the FBI, the CIA, the NSA and other agencies. But even to ask the questions requires information that members of Congress often don’t have. When you talk to people who’ve served on these committees they will confess, previous to the past two years, a lot of the oversight is actually voluntary by the agencies. They tell Congress or the members of these committees the things that members need to know in order to ask intelligent questions and to do their oversight work.

David Frum:

If they decide not to talk, Congress goes blind. They don’t like talking to Congress in the first place because they think Congress blabs. What if you have a period where the House Committee in particular, but also the Senate Committee are overseen by people who aren’t relentlessly politicizing the information, betraying secrets, including sources and method secrets, misusing information for the cheapest kind of political goals? Not only do you disgrace the committee but you harden those agencies in their dislike of congressional oversight.

David Frum:

It’s going to be, I think, hard to teach those agencies to get back into the habit of talking to Congress not just about Trump stuff but about everything.

Preet Bharara:

Is it your view that that’s what happened with Devin Nunes at the [crosstalk 00:36:57] in the House?

David Frum:

Yeah.

Preet Bharara:

I think less so in the Senate.

David Frum:

Yeah. In my book about the Trump Presidency I have a chapter called Autoimmune Disorders, because I think one of the gravest things that Trump is doing is he creates challenges for governmental institutions that they respond to in ways that also do violence to the [inaudible 00:37:19]. People at senior levels of the military shouldn’t be leaking the president’s personal conversations with them. The leaks are really bad.

Preet Bharara:

They’ve gotten better. I feel like [crosstalk 00:37:30] a year and a half ago they were, to coin a phrase, fast and furious. And some combination of those people leaving and a crackdown on cellphones and other things in the White House has maybe lessened that.

David Frum:

Yeah. But we know that the president is talking all the time about quitting NATO. That was a week that came about just this past month, and probably originated with someone very close to James Mattis.

Preet Bharara:

You think in an effort to put that out there so that there would be the appropriate backlash-

David Frum:

To kill it.

Preet Bharara:

Yeah.

David Frum:

Yeah, to kill it. It’s a public spirited leak. It’s a patriotic leak. It’s a leak that has the effect of reconfirming our commitment to NATO. It is a good thing when a president is in the Oval Office and says, “Here’s this thing the United States government has done for the last 100 years. Why are we doing this? Can I hear some explanation? Why shouldn’t we change this ancient, ancient policy just because everyone’s done it for the past 100 or 80 years? That doesn’t make it sacred.” That’s a good conversation. That’s why we have presidents is to jolt agencies and organizations into thinking, “Why do we do that?”

David Frum:

Then what we hope happens is that people come in, and you have a proper process, and they say, “Mr. President, Madame President, this is why we do it.” Oh okay, those are pretty good reasons. Or not. Why are we in NATO is not a crazy conversation to have if you know the president is not contaminated by a foreign power.

Preet Bharara:

You say in your book Trumpocracy at great length some version of, Trump is not necessarily, and tell me if I have this muddled, that Trump is not the cause of things, but a symptom of things and you, unlike a lot of people, take some time and effort to sort of characterize things that are going on in the country that have caused people to want a leader like Donald Trump who would shake things up and who would listen to them. Because I have agreed with some of the premises that Donald Trump has put forward during the campaign. I do think people have been forgotten. I do think there’s a swamp. I do think a lot of the system is rigged. Those are all correct assessments of the system and a lot of people, whether you’ve been left behind or not, believe that to be true.

Preet Bharara:

My dispute is how you go about dealing with it and making it better. The underlying issues are there. You have this, I’m told that this I on your home page, DavidFrum.com, and so I want you to talk about this a little bit, those who seem to despise half of America will never be trusted to govern any of it. What’d you mean by that? [crosstalk 00:39:53]. What do you think the state of affairs is in the country that led to us being here?

David Frum:

That quote comes from the final chapter of a book I published in 2012 after that election called Why Romney Lost. I should say here, I remain a republican by … it becomes pretty notional at this point, I haven’t cast a republican vote in a while, but that still feels like my home. And I had a lot of personal admiration for Mitt Romney. I thought he would’ve made a fine, fine president. I became very disturbed by the course of that campaign. I think Romney had the elder Bush [inaudible 00:40:26] like, you guys get me elected and I’ll be a good president. How I get there doesn’t matter. I’ll make whatever deals I have to in order to get there and be a good president.

David Frum:

That culminated with the 47% remark.

Preet Bharara:

Remind people what that comment was.

David Frum:

Romney was talking about how, I forget what the data is now, but at that time about half of Americans paid no federal personal income tax. Many Americans pay many other taxes, including the payroll tax, they pay excise taxes of course on their gasoline or alcohol, if they drink alcohol, cigarettes, if they smoke cigarettes. Of course they pay state and local taxes. It’s not true that half the country pays no taxes. But half the country approximately paid no federal personal income tax.

David Frum:

It became a talking point that these people were the takers who were leaching off the makers. Romney was a person of extraordinary compassion and generosity and a lot of empathetic insight into the ordinary person. But this point which had been said over and over again, Romney was talking to a bunch of rich people in somebody’s living room in Florida and someone, I think the bartender videoed him making this point about how for the 47% that is the people who are not paying the income tax they’re going to vote for the democrat for rational reasons. He seems to be writing off half the country.

David Frum:

I think that’s not exactly what he meant, and anyway it’s a false number. But it referred to this, that if you talk that way you [inaudible 00:41:49] president of all of American. Among the many things that are so wrong with Donald Trump he’s just given up on that project. He always talks about, well I’m popular with my base.

Preet Bharara:

Yeah.

David Frum:

Well congratulations. Every politician is popular with the base. That’s why it’s called the base.

Preet Bharara:

McCain used to say, when he addressed the press, “It’s good to talk to you, my base.”

David Frum:

You need to be present even to the people who are never going to vote for you. You can’t please everybody, of course. And of course you have a political coalition to manage. But once you get to that lofty office with that vast point of view you need to be thinking about everybody.

Preet Bharara:

How do you compare that remark and what it says about this issue of division in writing off a large segment of the population to, again, probably overstated and overblown, overheard statement by Hillary Clinton about the deplorables? Are they similar? And how do you compare them to each other?

David Frum:

They’re similar in their impact. These statements always have power when they’re in the context of other things that people are hearing. They were both equally devastating for the candidate. You hear the Hillary Clinton comment about deplorables, and she said half of Trump supporters are deplorable. I think what she was trying to say was half of, rule of thumb, half of what is driving him is racial animosity and half of what is driving him is economic discontent. That was the point she was trying to make, I think.

David Frum:

But we are living in a period in which there’s a kind of elite cultural backlash against the people who seemed to have power and privilege in the country a generation ago. People use white male as an epithet all the time as a way of dis-invalidating or disqualifying. I’m a white male, I shrug it off. I have a pretty good life, and indeed I do have a lot of unearned privileges. I’m always mindful of them.

David Frum:

If you’re one of the white males whose life expectancy has been declining over the past generation, who’s earning less money than his father was at his age, finds himself in a part of the country where jobs are scarce, but whose house is so worthless and facing rent so high that he can’t move to a place where jobs are more available, and which still would actually probably make a standard of living worse off after he computed all the things he had to pay for. And people are telling you all the time about you have it so great, you’re going to go bananas when you hear that. When it comes out of the mouth of a politician that’s going to feel like a very personal attack.

David Frum:

I don’t think that’s what Hillary Clinton meant, but one of the things that makes politics such a grinding difficult business is your accountable not for what you meant but for what people hear.

Preet Bharara:

Right. But a good politician will predict what the reaction to some statement is going to be. If you predict well, which is not to say people should censor themselves and become robot … This is the conundrum, right? Politicians who do too much of what I just described, they might do, which is to test out in a back room with consultants if I say something this way is it going to be taken the wrong way? Is it going to be used against me? Is it going to be twisted, taken out of context? Which may be a wise thing to do on one hand, as we’ve been discussing, but on the other hand it makes you sound like a totally rehearsed mechanical, inauthentic loser, which is also something people don’t like anymore.

Preet Bharara:

I actually have some empathy for politicians and how they have to thread the needle. On the one hand be authentic, on the other hand in this climate and time where people are out to destroy what you say and use your words against you, how do you thread that needle?

David Frum:

Oh, I have total not only empathy, but respect for them. I think it’s one of the most under-respected jobs in our society. They’re the people who are specialists in the gaining of democratic consent for governmental projects.

David Frum:

All governments rest on consent of greater of lesser parts of the population. And a democratic government rests on consent from more of the population and gaining that consent is really difficult. And for most of them the rewards are very meager. They do it for spiritual and emotional reasons that are a little hard for people who don’t do that kind of work to understand.

David Frum:

And the communication part of it is so difficult. Here’s that thing about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump that I was struck by. About a month before the election, and I cite this in Trumpocracy, there’s a survey that asks people, maybe two weeks out, it’s very close to the election, to rate Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on a bunch of vectors. This was not a good survey for Donald Trump. On most of the vectors, cases about people like you, competent, intelligent, Hillary Clinton did better than him in almost every vector. But there was one vector, the one where Donald Trump most decisively won, was the vector honest.

David Frum:

Now you think, how can that be? He’s the biggest liar ever. Yes, that’s true. But what I think that what people meant by that was when Hillary Clinton talked she talked like a politician. Politicians try to avoid lying be equivocating. Are you for or against this highway project that half the people in town like and half the people in town don’t like?

Preet Bharara:

No. Right before I came into the studio I was watching cable television, I don’t even remember the name of the politician but there’s the question on the negotiation over the border wall, the anchor was asking a very reasonable question to a democratic I think committee chair, and said, “Is money for a wall on the table?” The Congress person kept saying, “Here’s what I’m saying,” and then wouldn’t answer the question.

Preet Bharara:

Of course that person knew, wouldn’t answer the question, and didn’t say it.

David Frum:

They sounded dishonest. Whereas Donald Trump who’s capable of lying, he always answers forthrightly, so he seems honest. My favorite of all political quotations, one of my favorites is from a Canadian politician whom most listeners of this podcast will have never heard of named Mackenzie King. He was Prime Minister during World War II. There was a huge battle in Canada over conscription, the draft. I won’t go into the details. Mackenzie King, who’s the longest serving politician in Canadian history, longest serving Prime Minister, was finally put in a place where he could not avoid the question, and he answered, “Conscription, if necessary, but not necessarily conscription.”

Preet Bharara:

Did he say that in French or English?

David Frum:

In those days you could say it in one official language. That’s talking like a politician.

Preet Bharara:

Yeah.

David Frum:

What he’s trying to say is, I guarantee this is my absolute last alternative, but I can’t promise I will never do it. That’s what he’s saying.

Preet Bharara:

There is a lesson, it seems odd, given the circumstances, given my views on policy and other kinds of rhetoric that comes out of the president’s mouth, that there are lessons to be learned and skills to be gained on the part of a smart politician who otherwise is decent and honorable and doesn’t lie.

Preet Bharara:

I watched those debates, the republican debates when you had 16 people on the stage, and I think Donald Trump had a great moment when he spoke something that no other republican would speak, and it actually happened to be true. I don’t remember the exact circumstances and who was making the point, but I think it was Jeb Bush, somebody was bragging about how safe his brother, George Bush kept America, and how there were no major terror attacks. He just … I guess something slipped his mind. He meant after a certain point in time in September of 2001. But made some flat statement about how great his brother was on national security.

Preet Bharara:

And Donald Trump again, I forget in what words he said it, but he’s like basically, “You’ve got to be freaking kidding me. 9/11 happened on his watch.” It’s an obvious point and it’s true, unlike a lot of other things he said. You know what? It made my ears prick up because no one else would say something like that, even though it’s absolutely true. People just ignoring the elephant in the room.

David Frum:

Look, when Donald Trump first appeared on the scene as a declared candidate, as he’s been on the scene forever, as a declared candidate in the summer of 2015, I thought he could do some good for the republican world. I assumed it was inconceivable that he would win the nomination, never mind be president. Obviously that was impossible. I thought he could do some good. What you just said is an example of it. Iraq, 9/11, this was, to use the language of Freudian psychology, this was trauma in the republican party. And it had been repressed. In the Freudian scheme, when you have a trauma and you repress it, the trauma manifests itself as neurosis.

David Frum:

A lot of the things that happened in the republican world after the crisis of 2008 seemed to me to originate in … the party had never had a conversation with itself about Iraq and about 9/11, what was right, what was wrong. What did we learn? How are we going to make sure that the things that were mistakes don’t happen again? How do we build on things we did that we believe were right? How do we defend the things that we think were right while accepting criticism for the things that we acknowledge were wrong? How do you do any of that? What are the things that we got right?

David Frum:

That’s the kind of conversation that healthy political organizations can have with themselves. They just sort of lay there like a dead body on the carpet that nobody could acknowledge, and the body began to smell.

Preet Bharara:

Are you going to continue this metaphor for much longer?

David Frum:

And Donald Trump was willing to talk about. Once he said it it was an obviously crazy proposition to nominate Jeb Bush for president because you had to … there’s not a way you could do it and not talk about Iraq. Lots of people with vast amounts of money, who presumably are not fools, convinced themselves that you could nominate Jeb Bush for president and go through a whole cycle without ever talking about Iraq. How could you think such a thing? And yet people did.

Preet Bharara:

They did. One of the things I respect about you is an inclination fast vanishing from public life, and that is an openness to debate and put yourself in a vulnerable position in front of a lot of people with someone who you really disagree with and who’s views you don’t actually want to find footing in the public. You do this unabashedly in a lot of different circumstances.

Preet Bharara:

But the one I want to talk about, and then have you explain a little bit your thinking on, and what it felt like personally was you agreed to debate Steve Bannon, who many people would say is the architect of Donald Trump’s victory. But not only that, but a leading advocate of sort of the theory of populism in the world. He, as you have said, is a significant figure. He helped change the course of American history by electing Donald Trump, and he’s advising a number of people in the Europe as well. There’s a famous lecture series in Toronto, correct?

David Frum:

Yeah.

Preet Bharara:

Called the Munk Debate. And you agreed to debate him and then all hell broke loose. What happened?

David Frum:

The Munk Debate has its debates in a concert hall in downtown Toronto. It holds about 3000 people. There’s a big gap in Canadian society about this event. So much so that there were not only very large scale protests, but actual protests that turned, by Canadian standards, somewhat violent. A policeman was attacked and injured.

Preet Bharara:

[crosstalk 00:52:28] the very fact of the debate, the fact [crosstalk 00:52:30] would have a platform on a stage.

David Frum:

Right. Right. There was much less attention to the fact that I was there.

Preet Bharara:

[crosstalk 00:52:36]. You seem like a nice guy.

David Frum:

It’s like the plane crash, also among the killed.

Preet Bharara:

Yeah.

David Frum:

Then there was a technical glitch, which is the counting system broke. They didn’t know that. What they put up was as if it were the number that had just voted who won the debate. One of the answers to one of the questions, one of the questions that were posed before the debate, and it was one that seemed to indicate mistakenly that Steve Bannon had won the debate because it was a different question that had been asked before the debate.

Preet Bharara:

Not only that, but that he’d crushed you because of how many minds he had changed, even though it didn’t … I think you’ve written, “Even though in the room at the time it didn’t seem like his views were gaining a lot of purchase.”

David Frum:

You’re on a stage, you speak on a stage you know what’s happening in the room. But what I was concerned about was the impact on this, because, and this goes to the question of why I’d done this thing … So I’m not one of those people who believes the more speech the better. Let’s debate everything. Let’s debate whether women should be men’s slaves. I don’t think we need to debate that. Or, is slavery good? I don’t think you debate it because that’s …

David Frum:

There’s some questions-

Preet Bharara:

You don’t want to give the … It’s not possible to say all debate is good, because there are some views that are so discredited that to give a form or a platform to someone who has a racist view, or a horribly misogynistic view is to elevate that point of view.

David Frum:

sometimes there are points of view that are so different where you realize there isn’t an appeal to reason here. I’ll go back to Bannon in a minute, but the question was sometimes asked, “Would you debate Hitler?” One of the reasons to study history is so that you have other analogies at hand [crosstalk 00:54:15] analogy.

Preet Bharara:

Is that really the question? I thought the question was always, “Would you kill baby Hitler?” But I guess debating Hitler is another one, in certain circles.

David Frum:

What year are we talking about? There come points where there are differences that are adjudicated by violence. If I were a German liberal in 1926 during the Weimar Republic, yeah I would, because I’d be trying to mobilize public opinion. Then there comes the point where assassination is your only tool. And then finally there comes a gigantic war [inaudible 00:54:41] all the earth as the only tool.

David Frum:

The reason I wanted to debate Bannon, and it wasn’t just that, I was very keen to do it, was the timing of the debate was very important. The debate took place on the Friday before the Tuesday vote in the midterms. It took place in Toronto City, that is the most important city in a country that had been a special target of Donald Trumps animus.

David Frum:

And people who believed in the liberal democratic world order, free trade, NATO, basically we’ve been losing since 2014. I thought that what I could do here was on the Friday before the Tuesday when I was certain the waters were about to change, put down a marker, this is the high tide of the Confederacy my friend. It’s over for you guys. From here on you’re losing all the way.

David Frum:

The topic of the debate was not, is Trumpism good? The topic of the debate was, I’m going to forget the exact wording, but it was a predictive question. Does the figure belong to populous? I thought it was useful to put down a marker at that place, at that time to say, the future does not belong to populism. You start losing and you start losing Tuesday and you will now never stop losing.

David Frum:

My purpose was not to exactly change minds, but to give heart to people who I knew had shared my view, but who were more pessimistic at that point about what the future would hold. I wanted to give people encouragement. I knew this was going to be on YouTube over that weekend before the vote. This was a way to send a message that would inspire people and make them believe that change was possible. The belief in the efficacy change is hugely important getting people actually to do change.

Preet Bharara:

What is your advice to people who don’t get invited to be on a stage with 2800 participants in Toronto or New York or Los Angeles or somewhere else? But all these debates that are happening in homes, in schools, and in communities around the country where people have a point of view and we’re just gearing up for the 2020 election which I want to ask you about as well, and they have people in their communities who disagree with them, and there’s some people who say, “If you want to maintain harmony at the Thanksgiving table, for example, you stay away from politics.” But I think there’s an argument to be made that it’s so important people should engage, not with invective, and not by yelling, and not with violence, but based on your own professional public square debating experience.

Preet Bharara:

What advice do you have for ordinary people who you think want to persuade other people to their point of view in a way that works?

David Frum:

That’s a great question. There are people who’ll give you tricks, how you crush your opponent. Here’s the way I would think about it. One of the most skilled politicians of our lifetime, Bill Clinton, let me start with this story about him. In 1992 he’s running against George H.W. Bush, the incumbent president, and Ross Perot, and there were three debates. One of them was a town hall format. This is literally the “I feel your pain” moment, although he never said those words.

David Frum:

One of the questioners was an older woman, obviously extremely nervous about being on TV for probably the only time in her life, and seemingly not very well educated. She asked in a very nervous sounding voice, “I would like to ask each of the candidates how you personally have been affected by the deficit.”

David Frum:

The elder Bus flubs it. Ross Perot says something characteristically insane. And Bill Clinton, with that hug body of his, steps towards her, sort of exuding warmth through his body, says, “I’ll answer your question, but before that I have a question for you. How have you personally been affected by the deficit?” She began to answer. As she answered it became clear that either because she was mixed up or because she had never known the difference in the first place, she didn’t mean the deficit. She meant the recession, that was also happening that year.

David Frum:

Once Bill Clinton got to the question behind the question he was able just to knock the ball out of the park.

Preet Bharara:

Because he was listening. He listened.

David Frum:

He was listening.

Preet Bharara:

He’s got a lot of flaws and a lot of issues that people can raise with him, but the reason he was the most successful democrat in a generation was that he listened to people. And he did so in a way that people believed they were being listened to, right?

David Frum:

Right. But he also understood … for most people the language of politics is not their first language. And behind it there are profounder questions, personal questions of dignity and respect. That’s what they’re really talking about in this strange world where things aren’t natural to them.

David Frum:

I think one of the things you need to do is reach behind, assuming the person … there are people who often take political views just because they’re jerks and enjoy being jerks. Toxic people, the only thing to do with them is get them out of your life. If you’ve got an uncle who just likes being obnoxious because he thinks it’s fun to tease and demean, get rid of the … You don’t have to invite every uncle to Thanksgiving. You really don’t. Just don’t invite him.

David Frum:

If there’s someone who you think is basically a decent and worthwhile person, but has views that you think are mistaken or uniformed, think back to the occasions when you in your life have been wrong. How have you been reached when you’ve been wrong? What has worked on you? It’s always the appeal to the best in you, the person finds something in you that you are proud of.

Preet Bharara:

Right. I think part of the problem is if I were dealing with such a person I would not talk in the declarative way. First I would ask a lot of questions. I’m actually curious when someone has a view that I think is completely off the mark and nuts, my first reaction is maybe, but I keep that internal, is like wow, that’s nuts. But my second reaction is like, why do you have this nutso opinion that I don’t agree with? What is it about that view, or that position, or that policy that you find good? Then that’s how you find out, for that particular person, is it based on fear? Is it based on a lack of knowledge about a particular point in that policy? Is it because they have prejudice? Is it because someone told them something otherwise? Is it a long held view in the family and so they just inherited the view? There are all different reasons why people hold their views.

Preet Bharara:

In some ways you can’t, despite my asking the broad question, you can’t have a monolithic one size fits all approach to persuading people which is why in that example of Bill Clinton he was very particular to that woman. [crosstalk 01:00:43] persuade people one at a time I guess.

Preet Bharara:

This leads me to the question, looking forward, if you are a democratic candidate for president, and there is the huge number of people who believe they’re not respected by the anti-Trump folks, and by definition the democratic candidate, all of them will be, and you want to avoid the Hillary Clinton deplorable debacle, what is the way in which you reach out? Not only to the democratic base, although that will be where people are attacking, because it’s a primary of course. What’s that way, you think, given this conversation and your thinking about it, that they speak to folks who voted for Trump but get them to change their mind and vote for the new person?

David Frum:

I’m not a democrat, and it’s not my first language, to go back to that language of politics, and I also think the politicians’ task is a little different from our task as members of our communities and cities. We have to deal with all kinds of people. The task for the democratic candidate for president is not to reach Trump’s strongest supporters. The task is to reach Trump’s weakest supporters. They are the most important people in the electorate. The people who didn’t like Trump much, but thought he was better than the alternative. If people love him they’re going to vote for him. He’s [crosstalk 01:01:54].

Preet Bharara:

[crosstalk 01:01:55] about those people, because [crosstalk 01:01:55]-

David Frum:

Maybe there is, but it’s not worth it. I mean-

Preet Bharara:

It was true of Obama supporters, probably true of Clinton supporters. Any national politician who has gotten elected has a core support. Even Nixon did up until the end.

David Frum:

Yeah. You’re not going to get 100% of the vote, and it’s improper to try because the only way you get 100 is by being … this is the problem with the Howard Schultz candidacy, Howard Schultz says, “MY goal here is to end the division.” You never end division. Division is good. Democracies need division. The whole point of elections is to refine the … it’s like the work of the lawyer, you refine the pleadings so that the finder of fact and the finder of law can make their adjudication based on a refined pleading. That’s what politicians do.

David Frum:

Every politician needs to be satisfied with a lot less than 100%. The job for the democratic candidate, and this is a very job, is first mobilize the core of the democratic constituency. One of the reasons Hillary Clinton is not president was Barack Obama energized black America. Black America’s always voted in percentage terms very heavily for democrats, but the question is, are they motivated and excited and believe in the worthwhileness of the vote to come out?

David Frum:

So in 2008 black America came out in enormous numbers. The reason Romney thought he was going to win the 2012 election was he could chart that in every other demographic group Obama support had gone down. He believed that Obama had already hit the peak possible turnout in black America. The reason Obama won was despite dropping in almost every other demographic category he exceeded his own record in 2012. 2012 is the only election in American history where black Americans were more likely to show up to vote than white Americans were.

David Frum:

So we’ve got this incredible performance that’s concentrated especially among older people. And they stayed home in 2016. Maybe they were discouraged by voter suppression. But as we saw they showed up in 2018. Mobilizing and motivating the core groups in the democratic coalition, that’s the first step.

David Frum:

The second thing is to reach to the soft Trump supporters, the people, “Oh, I don’t like him but Hillary Clinton seems worse,” and to reassure them. I think one of the things, this is the good thing about the Howard Schultz candidacy, and I wrote it for The Atlantic a couple days ago-

Preet Bharara:

Yeah, I was going to talk about that before we go.

David Frum:

… is he’s reminding democrats, do not turn 2020 into a contest of who is the most progressive person in your party. That’s tempting, because Trump looks weak and you think, why not go for the gusto? Why not nominate the person we really like? It’s also a way for democrats to channel some of the dissatisfaction some of the more left wing democrats have with President Obama that they’ve never been able to articulate. While the weight and thrust of the democratic vote is going to come from the core constituencies who are mobilized in 2020 in a way they weren’t in 2016, the thing that locks this thing in, that makes it certain rather than uncertain is picking up people in suburbs, especially women who have more to lose than maybe the typical democrat does, economically, culturally, socially, and reassuring them that this, allow the countries going to shift a little bit to the left now it’s not going to do so in such a scary way that you have to adhere to Trump in self-defense.

Preet Bharara:

Howard Schultz you mentioned a couple times in the former Starbucks CEO who’s said he might run for president as an independent. You wrote in your piece, in the Atlantic, “The Starbucks founder, Howard Schultz is the Twitter villain of the hour,” and I will admit that I contributed to that. And I, myself, based on the hypothesis that, the theory that if he runs as an independent he will siphon votes from the democrat, and if you believe as many people do, including conservatives, that it’s important that Donald Trump be defeated in 2020, isn’t it reasonable for people to be upset that Howard Schultz is running?

Preet Bharara:

It’d be one thing if he ran in the democratic primary on this message of reasonableness and not tacking too far to the left, that’s his right, and obviously he says in response to that, you can’t win a democratic primary that way. But isn’t it reasonable for a particular group of voters that they spurn the Schultz candidacy?

David Frum:

If this were 15 months from now, we’re getting to the time of the conventions, and Schultz is still persisting with his vanity project, then I would totally agree with you.

Preet Bharara:

So what’s the point now? He should test the waters and make the point?

David Frum:

Nope. The value that he’s doing, the service that he’s doing is like Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders are competing to see who can outflank to the left. There’s this constant series of to the left flanking motions. There’s a criticism of Kamala Harris, she’s got an obstacle to overcome because she was a former prosecutor. Like [crosstalk 01:06:21].

Preet Bharara:

God forbid. [crosstalk 01:06:22] horrors.

David Frum:

Right? Whereas in a republican primary it would be a good thing if you’d been a public defender. That’s one of the things I tell my republican friends who are interested in public service, go be a public defender for a while, broaden your resume that way. For a democrat it’s a good thing to have been on the other side, to be with law enforcement. There’s this contest going on. The reason that so many progressives were freaked out is they think, we just have to win the contest to be the most progressive, and then we can leverage whoever’s the most progressive into controlling the democratic party, and then leverage Donald Trump’s unpopularity to do a kind of buyout of power that we could never otherwise have earned.

David Frum:

Schultz is advent. He’s probably not going to last that long, but he’s a … The reaction that people are having is to say, “Wait a minute, there are a lot of soft Trump voters who are not loving this performance with Warren, and Kamala Harris, and Bernie Sanders.” The Schultz entries remind you, you know what democrats, only a little less than a fifth of the country is progressive. That’s a lot of people, and-

Preet Bharara:

Where does that stat come from?

David Frum:

The rule of thumb is when you ask people, do you regard yourself as … That’s a great question. Do people know what they mean when they say liberal?

Preet Bharara:

Right.

David Frum:

But when you ask [crosstalk 01:07:39]-

Preet Bharara:

It could be like the deficit again.

David Frum:

Right. But when you ask the question, are you conservative, are you moderate, are you liberal, the liberal or progressive number bounces around. When liberals are doing badly, in the middle ’90s, in the high teens, and right now they’re doing well so they’re in the low twenties. The conservative number is usually around a third, and the moderate number is usually around 40-ish percent. Those numbers are pretty … Right now the moderate number had been shrinking and the liberal number has been rising, the conservative number holding, more or less firm.

David Frum:

It’s a good rule of thumb. A third of the country thinks of itself as conservative, a fifth of the country thinks of itself as liberal. So the disadvantage that conservatives have is when you’re a third of the country you can believe you’re a majority. When you’re a fifth of the country you cannot believe that. You have to know you’re a minority. That’s why the democratic party is always a more ramshackle coalition than the republican.

Preet Bharara:

Do you have a prediction of who the democratic nominee will be?

David Frum:

I don’t, because I think when your are into this kind of bumper car race with so many candidates that very small events can have very big consequences. I don’t have a tactile sense of how democratic primary voters think, so it’s not something I can easily [crosstalk 01:08:46].

Preet Bharara:

And then change that, I’m not sure how they think. I didn’t follow these things so closely, I was relatively young in 1992, but there’s a difference between democrats thinking we want to have a certain kind of future, we want to have a certain kind of person embody our values versus thinking the most important thing is victory. When the most important thing is victory, I’m not saying that this is good or bad, and I feel like this was a little bit true in 1992, when the most important thing is victory people will compromise and not have a full purity test. I don’t know if we’re at that point or not.

David Frum:

There’s a third way to think, and I would hope this is the way democratic voters think, and this may require more self-control than people have, but what I would hope is that they would think, you know what? This is an opportunity, if you’re prepared to gamble, for the democrats to achieve a lot of priorities they probably couldn’t otherwise achieve. But it’s also a calling. The country’s broken in a lot of ways. It’s more corrupt, it’s more dysfunctional. Its good name has been besmirched. Maybe what this moment calls for is not the opportunity to take advantage of the unpopularity of the incumbent, to advance a lot of priorities you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to advance, but actually to fix the country. That means thinking big, looking for a large spirited person.

David Frum:

I disagreed with just about everything President Obama did, but when he stepped onto the public stage in 2004 you could see you were dealing with an enormous personality, a real figure of American history. As a human being that he was going to rank with the largest names that Americans remember. Whether he got every call right or not.

David Frum:

I hope democratic primary voters will be looking to that, looking for who is the person here where not just they’re saying what I like, but even when they say what I don’t like I hear some human greatness in that person.

Preet Bharara:

David Frum, thank you so much for being on the show.

David Frum:

Thank you very much. What an honor.

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Stay Tuned: Winning in the Age of Trump & Twitter (with David Frum)

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