David Frum is a book author ("Trumpocracy"), staff writer for The Atlantic magazine and one of the most prolific conservative intellectuals in the US. In the first two years of George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002 Frum was the speechwriter, Frum is credited with the invention of the phrase "axis of evil", with which Bush after September 11, 2001 designated enemies of the United States. Although the 59-year-old Frum is officially registered as a Republican in the US Electoral Register, he called in 2016 in a text for the "Atlantic" to vote for the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton. Frum was one of the first conservatives to stand up to Donald Trump. He has remained in his position until today.
This interview took place on the 18th of September when the first revelations about the possible backgrounds of the whistleblower affair that Frum mentions in the course of the conversation appeared. At this time, the possible magnitude of the scandal was much less clear than a few days later.
TIME ONLINE: Mister Frum, if followed on Twitter, is surprised - for a cool analyst of the times, your tweets are often amazingly emotional when it comes to Donald Trump. Why is this US President triggering such violent emotional outbursts?
David Frum: We live in emotional times. I grew up in Canada, and for many decades there was a feeling of being protected by the United States, as you may know from West Germany. This not only shaped my own world view, it has already shaped the worldview of my grandparents and parents. Conditions seemed predictable and stable, prosperity prevailed, and it just seemed to keep growing. At least where peace prevailed, in most northern hemisphere states, people could live a life of relative safety. Then came the intoxicating moment of 1990, and suddenly the future of the whole planet seemed to look like this. Everything would only get better and better and better. The sphere of peace, freedom and prosperity would expand endlessly, and China and India would also be part of it ... This hope disappeared at the beginning of the 21st century. And then the United States slowly became unpredictable.
ZEIT ONLINE: With the election of Donald Trump?
Frum: No. This can be predated on the Iraq war. Or on Obama's discomfort to continue the role of the US as a leading world power. But even the harshest critics of George W. Bush or Barack Obama would not imply that these presidents acted out of personal malevolence. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has something treacherous about it. Such a man should not be president, he should not even have come near the White House. The fact that it did change is an expression of a failure of the US political system. But it's not just a systemic failure. It also has to do with this man. And that just gives the moment just its emotional impact.
ZEIT ONLINE: Modern historiography actually assumed that individual powerful people no longer decisively change the direction of the world. But that there are greater forces of political, social, economic change.
Frum: I did not call my current book Trumpocracy by accident. There are many books about Trump, and their focus is on his person. I, on the other hand, am interested in his system of exercising power. The following is a simple expression of my opinion: Donald Trump is a criminal. The people around him who work for him know this better than anyone else. They still enable the system Trump.
ZEIT ONLINE: Who or what exactly is just failing?
Frum: Especially the US Department of Justice under William Barr. Unfortunately, we have to recognize that our very old constitution is not suited to govern all aspects of our present time. In every other big democracy, criminal justice is separate from the political system. Not in the United States. The Ministry of Justice ultimately decides in which cases investigations are made and in which cases not. The basic assumption has always been that although law enforcement officers are used by politics, these people would perform their duties in an unpolitical manner. The danger, however, was always that they would not adhere to this assumption. This has now become reality.
ZEIT ONLINE: Does that also show how much a political system like that of the US is based on norms that are not written in legal texts? And how quickly these norms can implode?
Frum: After all, yes. Likewise, it has always been assumed that the office of US President is changing the people who hold it. This was also mostly true. George W. Bush liked to say that the Oval Office is architecturally shaped, as an oval, so there are no corners where you can hide as a president. Now it turns out: The Office has not changed Donald Trump. He often looks like a silly, stupid person. But he has the ability to change other people. He finds their weaknesses and exploits them.
ZEIT ONLINE: Trumpocracy , in which you analyzed the Trump system, appeared in October 2018, just before the midterm elections to the US Congress. Since then, countless new Trump scandals have been added. Will the mountain of scandals and Trump's transgressions just keep getting higher - or has something changed qualitatively?
Frum: It has changed a lot of quality, much to the bad. The President has developed a better understanding of how he can use his office. He has become more agile. He's like one of those dinosaurs in Jurassic Park who will eventually understand how to use a door handle. ( laughs ) Trump got better at his job. His behavior has become more extreme. He lies more.