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Politics & Policy

David Frum Proves My Point

At the Atlantic, David Frum has responded to my piece on Jennifer Rubin. I say “responded,” because he hasn’t refuted what I wrote so much as he has chosen to confirm it, and to then make excuses for those who have succumbed to the bad behavior I described. 

How bankrupt is the course he counsels? Consider that, in the course of his confirmation, Frum quite literally knocks me for refusing to jump to conclusions. He writes:

Where news is too ominous to be ignored—the firing of former FBI Director James Comey, the accumulating evidence of collusion with Russia—Cooke has urged conservatives to withhold judgment. They should be “skeptical but not hysterical” about the firing of Comey. In the Russia matter, conservatives should bide their time and keep their mouths shut. “If you aren’t sure that there is a big scandal looming, you’re likely to be circumspect and happy to watch it play out as a process.”

I’ll quote from the post to which Frum is referring at length, lest anybody be unsure of what I wrote, and of how cynically Frum is bending it:

I had an interesting conversation last night with a fellow critic of President Trump’s. He was irritated that I had insisted that those watching the Comey situation remain “skeptical but not hysterical.” Now, he said, is “the time to be hysterical.”

I’ve been trying to understand why he was so vexed, and I think I’ve worked it out: He has assumed — and built into his thinking — that there is a huge Russia scandal in the background of all this. And I haven’t. I certainly think it’s possible that this goes deeper, and I remain as mistrustful toward this administration as I ever was. But I’m not going to credit theories about Watergate-level conspiracies without evidence, and my friend is. That’s the line that divides us.

That being so, his approach makes sense. If, like my friend, you are convinced that Trump is guilty and that we are just waiting for the smoking gun, you will work backwards from that point and conclude that Trump is obviously getting in the way of the investigation, and that this is obviously Watergate. If you aren’t sure that there is a big scandal looming, you’re likely to be circumspect and happy to watch it play out as a process.

For Frum, my approach — which we might call due diligence, or “skepticism” — is a problem, and his rejection of it a virtue. How terrible, he suggests, to “withhold judgment.” 

Frum then casts my skepticism as reflective of my alleged belief that “every day should be treated as a blank slate,” and backs up this charge by linking to a post in which I do not even come close to saying such a thing. Here, having vehemently opposed Trump’s candidacy, is what I actually wrote about my approach going forward:

During primary season, I tried to convince my readers that Donald Trump was a terrible choice for a nominee. During the general election I gave my honest and unfiltered view of the proceedings, which was that I could neither back nor vote for either of the major nominees, and that I expected Hillary Clinton to win. Now that the election is over, I am going to treat Donald Trump as I would any other political figure: skeptically, fairly, and with the presumption that men are not angels. To the bottom of my boots, I hope that Trump will overcome his many flaws and do a competent and honorable job. If he doesn’t, I shall say so. If he does, I shall admit it. For a year and a half now, I have opposed Donald Trump for his character, for his politics, and for his instincts. If my fears on these fronts are realized, I shall bring out the bayonets. Ayn Rand doesn’t enter into it.

There is no mention here of “blank slates,” and nor would there be. As I noted more than once in the same post, I opposed Trump in large part because of his lack of character, and I did not believe that had changed. I knew who Trump was when I wrote those words, and I know who he is now.

Frum then contrasts this false characterization of my approach with a false characterization of Jen Rubin’s:

Rubin’s crime is that rather than waking up every morning fresh for each day’s calling of balls and strikes, she carries into her work the memory of the day before. She sees patterns where Cooke sees only incidents. She speaks out even when Cooke deems it prudent to hold his tongue.

This, too, is false. Rubin’s “crime” is not having a memory, but the opposite. Rubin’s “crime” is that she is capricious and inconsistent, and has allowed her distrust of the president to infect all aspects of her thinking. Rubin’s “crime” is permitting her intellect and her beliefs to be held hostage by an extremely silly man. As for me, I have never suggested for a moment that one should, Groundhog Day–style, “reset” one’s brain every morning. Rather, I have suggested that it would be foolish for anyone to regard Trump’s general unfitness as a warrant to indict the man on every specific – or, worse, as an excuse for intellectual totalitarianism.

It still is. 

It is instructive, I think, that Frum cannot even make his incidental case against my piece without resorting to repeated mischaracterization. Pace Frum, I did not criticize Rubin for “taking her opposition to Trump too far,” but for that opposition’s being “mindless” and knee-jerk. Pace Frum, I did not “advise” to start “conscientiously seeking opportunities to praise Trump where he could”; I advised against behaving as if one is in a cult — or, as Frum rather oddly puts it while describing his own position, against “holding the faith.”

I must confess to find Frum’s parting shot somewhat amusing. He writes:

The vast majority of those in the conservative world who do not admire Trump—and who cannot safely divert their feelings into anti-anti-Trump fulminations against the detested liberal media—are carefully treading his own prudent path, not Rubin’s hazardous one.

This is a variation on a jab with which Frum will presumably be familiar: That anybody who dissents from the group is a coward, probably in pursuit of a cocktail-party invitation. Here, as elsewhere, it is pathetic and it is cheap. But it is also extremely funny. There is nothing “hazardous” about Rubin’s approach. On the contrary: It is entirely safe. Everyone knows what “team” Jenifer Rubin is on, just as they know what “team” David Frum is on. We all know, in advance, what Rubin will write, as we know in advance what Frum will write. She — and he — now have in-built networks, and, judging by the number of Frum’s Twitter followers, they are thriving in them. The lonely position to take is the other one: The one that takes its adherents all over the place in skeptical pursuit of the truth. Want to talk about “fear of an audience” as Frum so blithely does? Try upsetting everyoneall the time. Try being the “Trump hater” to the Right, but the “Trump enabler” to the Left. Contrary to Frum’s insinuation, this is not a lucrative approach, nor an easy one. But it’s the right one for anyone who wishes to keep his soul.



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