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David Frum: 'How Donald Trump Could Build An Autocracy In The U.S.'


David Frum is sipping coffee in our studios this morning. He's a conservative writer, once an aide to President George W. Bush and a consistent critic of the new Republican president. He's joining us on this morning after President Trump fired the acting attorney general of the United States.

Mr. Frum, welcome to the program.

DAVID FRUM: Hey. Thank you so much.

INSKEEP: OK. Sally Yates, Democratic hold over at the Justice Department said she wasn't sure the order was lawful, and she wasn't going to defend it in court. The president said it is lawful and fired her. Is the president within his authority here?

FRUM: The president is certainly within his authority. But let us study carefully what this incident reveals which is that the administration took no legal advice at all before admitting this executive order.

INSKEEP: They held it very closely.

FRUM: Yeah. Well, normally you don't do such a close hold that you don't check with the Office of Legal Counsel. It doesn't seem like they got anyone to sign off on it to point out some obvious difficulties. And that's one reason that this order - a lot of elements of which are defensible by the way - the order is such a chaos.

INSKEEP: And we should mention the president has asserted that he did get the sign-off of the Office of Legal Counsel which is part of the Justice Department, but clearly not the acting attorney general. And it's not entirely clear from the Justice Department what happened there and other Cabinet members. There is a legal scholar who writes in The Washington Post that if Sally Yates found the order wrong, she just should have resigned, rather than make the president fire her. Should she have?

FRUM: If you feel strongly about it, you can't blame her for making the statement while she felt she could. But as I said, this is not so much on her as it is on an - this is a new administration. They haven't staffed up yet. Check with the lawyers and avoid legal problems. And they would ask basic questions like does this law apply or order apply to green card holders or not which is something that left tens of thousands of travelers around the planet in limbo - permanent residents of the United States - in limbo while the administration made its - made up its mind. By the way, among those excluded by this order - Canadian Cabinet minister, the head of the German-American Friendship Group in the German Bundestag - I mean, this had impact that nobody could have attended and maybe a little care would have prevented.

INSKEEP: Pretty dramatic several days. We're talking with David Frum. He writes for The Atlantic, and he has a cover story coming out which paints a very dark vision of a possible near future. The headline is "How To Build An Autocracy" which sounds pretty creepy. What are you talking about?

FRUM: We live in an age of de-democratization. The number of democracies in the world has been going backwards since 2005, and even many existing democracies including in Europe have been becoming less democratic...

INSKEEP: They have the form of a democracy...

FRUM: They have elections, but they don't have the rule of law. Hungary is an example of this. Poland is becoming another. And there would be real reason to fear that it could happen in France if the wrong people win the election that is expected in 2017. The United States, I argue, is not immune, and I based on these examples from other developed or near developed countries - I show how the United States could go wrong.

When we talk about authoritarianism, we conjure up out-of-date visions from the 1930s. But we are no more likely to do authoritarian government the way they did in the 1930s then we're likely to address or talk or do any of our other business in the way they did it in the 1930s. What I describe here is a process of corruption that needs to change the rules for its own self-protection and that gradually one by one working with a Congress that is held hostage by the agenda it wants to pass gradually undercuts American legal norms.

INSKEEP: You describe ways that the president not in some violent overthrow, but gradually over time could undermine the media, undermine the rule of law. And you just said Congress would go along with it. Why would Congress go along with something like that?

FRUM: Normally what happens in a new presidency is the president has a big agenda, and Congress is full of people with human weaknesses. And so the president indulges the human weaknesses of members of Congress in order to pass his agenda. This time it's the other way around. Donald Trump does not have much of an agenda. Congress burns with this intense Republican agenda and so does Congress that has to put up with the human weaknesses of the president in order to get a signature on the things it desperately wants to pass.

INSKEEP: You end up painting a vision of, you know, 2021 or so that there's still the form of democracy but not really democracy at all, not really free elections, a lot fewer people voting, a lot less free media. I just want you to address here, though, before you go, David Frum, there are many people listening now who voted for Donald Trump. I heard from a Trump voter not very long ago who said I just don't think he's the monster people keep saying, these people who trust the new president. What do you say to them when you express fears like this?

FRUM: I don't think that disasters have to be spectacular. They can be a slow corrosion, and we go step by step through the article showing how you would do it, how you would use the anti-trust laws, for example, to pressure companies like Washington Post which was owned by Amazon which faces an anti-trust investigation. Let me give you one concrete example before I go.

Before the election, Twitter suspended a lot of ultra right-wing racialist accounts. Immediately after Donald Trump's election, those accounts were all reinstated, and that was the result. It's pretty obvious if you are listening closely to people in that group of fear of what Donald Trump would do to Twitter through anti-trust and other actions. They were nervous, and they restored those accounts. And so they are back, and you will see in area after area, media under pressure, businesses under pressure not to criticize the president lest he reduce their stock value with an angry tweet.

INSKEEP: David Frum's new article coming out soon is called "How To Build An Autocracy." David, thanks very much for coming by, really appreciate it.

FRUM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.