After the Trumpocalypse: How to Restore American Democracy
On this episode of democracy-ish, Danielle and Toure talk to David Frum: senior editor at The Atlantic, former speechwriter for George W. Bush and the author of 10 books, including the just-released “TRUMPOCALYPSE: Restoring American Democracy.”
Another week, another batch of fresh hell: A new handful of viral videos from Georgia exposes more cops behaving badly.
How can we reform our broken government despite our deep political divides?
What will ever erase the stain Trump has left on America? (It’s not Clorox.)
Our hosts chat with David in the midst of another week of national outrage and calls for police reform –– or something new entirely.
Last Friday in Atlanta, police shot 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks after an altercation in a Wendy’s parking lot in response to complaints that he was sleeping in his car, blocking the drive-thru lane. Rayshard later died in the hospital.
The incident was captured on video from multiple sources, including the officers’ body-cams and dashcam as well as bystanders and the restaurant’s surveillance camera. But we wouldn’t even need all that footage to be outraged: Rayshard was shot three times in the back as he tried to run away.
Unlike many of the recent murders of Black people caught on tape, Atlanta’s response was fairly swift. The police chief resigned. The officer who shot Rayshard was fired, and his partner was placed on administrative leave. Within a week, both were charged with murder.
That’s cold comfort for Rayshard’s family –– and for every person of color in America. Especially in the age of Trump.
In David’s new book, he proposes a number of ways to repair American democracy after all the damage this jackass has caused. Let’s dig in.
Episode Highlights –– Trump’s a Jackass
Crazy train to Georgia
“Deadly force” takes many forms –– chokeholds, for example, but the majority of people killed by police are shot.
“American police forces are very militarized compared to police forces anywhere else,” David says.
In his native Toronto, each police officer has a button on their gun holster, and if they draw the gun at all, they’re required to file a report.
“But that's in the context of a world in which police do not face a heavily armed society,” he adds. “So a big part of this discussion is about how to reduce the prevalence of private firearms. How do we make sure ... there isn't a Glock in the glove compartment of every car [the police] stop?”
Toure acknowledges that cops’ fear of the American citizenry, especially those who are Black and Brown citizens, is “palpable, and so much a part of this moment,” he says, pointing to yet another viral video from Georgia.
Stacy’s sob story
Elsewhere in –– you guessed it –– Georgia, a blonde female police officer named Stacy livestreamed her tearful breakdown in a McDonald’s drive-thru. Apparently, she had to wait so long for her order that she grew suspicious about it: “I'm too nervous to take a meal from McDonald's because I can't see it being made," she says in the video.
The tacit accusation is clear: Everyone’s out to get the police.
“I'm like, oh my god, the victimhood, especially now, is so frightening,” says Toure. “If this woman approached my car at a traffic stop, she's assuming I'm a mass murderer. It's really her fear. And I am paying the price for her fear.”
That’s why Toure doesn’t have high hopes for incremental changes in American law enforcement.
“I don't see how we reform this without completely burning police into the ground and starting over with an entirely different approach to public safety,” he says.
America, armed and dangerous
David is skeptical of a clean-slate strategy.
“We never have the power to make things new. You always start from where you are. Any process of reform has to begin with where we are and what's possible, what's feasible.”
He agrees that many aspects of police officers’ fear are “irrational and bigoted and biased,” he adds. “But there are parts of it that are rational.”
That’s because we are, as a nation, armed to the fucking teeth.
In the cop-versus-teenagers scenario, David suggests that the officer is “fusing together some combination of his own prejudiced feelings and his own awareness that in any group of five Americans over the age of 12, statistically, there are probably two firearms.”
The numbers are staggering: Americans collectively own about 300 million firearms; half our households have at least one. “And they often show up in crazy places like the glove compartments of people's cars,” he adds. “Police confront that. And in other societies they don't.”
Protect and unnerve
Danielle counters David’s argument: “If you are going into a job that you know is dangerous, and you fear for your life, maybe you should be a mail person,” she says. “Because the reality is … statistically, there are more armed white people in this country than there are Black folks.”
And there’s a stark difference between how police treat five Black teenagers and “the Dylann Roofs of the world,” she notes. “Their complexion offers them protection. That’s problematic to me.”
She’s also weary of the widespread deference to police officers: “Oh, their job is so dangerous. Okay. So is a firefighter’s … [but] they put out fires regardless of who the hell's house is on fire.”
To put it another way, nobody’s ever written a protest song called “Fuck the Fire Department.”
But police tend to protect only people who look like them.
“Until we can move away from the historical context of policing, which is based in the slave-catcher mentality, we're never going to be able to build something new or different or innovative. We can't change the psyche of the people who are going after this job in the first place.”
Offense isn’t the best defense
David asks Toure what he means by (metaphorically) burning down the police.
“The overwhelming majority of police calls don't require violence, don't require guns. We need to have an entirely different system,” he says. “Right now we have a system in which crime generalists run around with a warrior mentality addressing a wide array of situations and addressing many of them poorly.”
Danielle and Toure discussed this in detail last week: Instead of John or Jane Q. Anycop, trained specialists could respond to specific situations like domestic violence, mental health issues or the aftermath of a robbery –– “not with a gun, but with an incredible amount of expertise,” Toure says.
“There may be a small group of people with firearms who are able to deal with a current, violent situation. But for the most part, we are over-policing.”
To make matters worse, cops aren’t incentivized even to create public safety. They're incentivized to make arrests, he adds.
“That creates an offensive force. We don't need an offensive force in most of America.”
At the root of this evil, says Toure, is the broken windows theory –– “the smallest infraction can lead to stopping something much larger. It criminalizes every citizen.”
David, who turns 60 later this month, sees that theory as a vestige of a previous era.
“As you move through life, you increasingly find yourself living in a different country than the one in which you were educated to live,” he says. “Americans don't believe this, but your chance of being a victim of a crime is lower today than at any time in the organized history of the United States.”
Toure pipes in: “We’re at the lowest level of homicide in 100 years.”
That’s true, says David. But when he was young, NYC saw 2,000 homicides annually. Now, it averages 250.
It can be difficult for older folks to adjust to today’s reality, and their misperceptions affect every area of public life. The makeup of Congress is overwhelmingly aged 50-plus (and 48% of senators are over 65).
Our country is governed by people from “the previous generation, and the generation before that, who cannot absorb the ways things are different,” David says.
Revival of the ‘American conscience’
So how does David propose we restore American democracy?
He begins with a caveat: “I am not an optimist by temperament. But … through the Trump years, I’ve become an optimist by conviction. The America we believe in –– it's underneath the rust and the dirt. It's there.”
One of the most important legacies of the Trump presidency –– and what he hopes is the only one –– is that we’re in the midst of one of the “periodic revivals of the American conscience that glows at intervals, every generation or so,” David says.
He thinks we’re in the midst of a collective wake-up call –– and the alarm is coming from the White House.
“Life is full of petty cruelties, and it's easy to just take them as part of life, especially if you're on the fairweather side of those cruelties,” he says.
Whether it’s men who don’t understand what women experience, older folks who can’t see the burdens of the young, the affluent who ignore the plight of the working classes, and so on: “Black/white, native born/ immigrant –– every day, Trump takes something that’s a petty cruelty and puts it on the jumbotron in the middle of Times Square,” David explains.
Temperance and suffrage
Our current moment reminds David of the temperance and women’s suffrage movements a century ago –– which didn’t (at least initially) have political agendas.
“There's no #MeToo law anybody’s going to pass,” he says. “These are cultural changes. And I think you see them all over the place arising from [Trump]. There's this impulse to do things better. The 2020s may not be a period of enormous party political movement. It may be much more a period of cultural and social movement, powered above all by the departure of the Baby Boom generation from active political life.”
He says that as someone who was born in 1968. (Okay boomer… lol.)
Trump’s ‘support’ is fake news
Danielle does believe that most Americans are repulsed by Trump’s behavior. But she’s confused and disturbed by the large percentage of voters “who will follow this man off of a cliff,” she says.
“They are literally signing waivers in Oklahoma that say if they fall ill from the Coronavirus –– because [Trump] doesn't want them to wear masks, because he thinks they're creepy –– that they can’t sue.”
How does David explain that? He starts with the real math.
“It’s a bit of Trump brainwashing he's implanted even in his opponents,” he says.
Die-hard MAGAts represent, at most, a third of the country. The rest of Trump’s “supporters” are “status quo” voters who think: “Things look pretty good ... I don't like the way he talks,, but can't argue with success.”
David notes that the “right-track/wrong track” numbers on the economy and the state of America in general has been higher in 2017 through 2019 than in any year since 1998.
But that trend was short-lived, he adds, “because Trump’s protectionist trade policies caught up with him, and the economy began to get soft in the second half of 2019. We were probably heading for economic trouble anyway.”
And his 2016 win was razor-thin
In spite of (or due to?) those Trumped-up stats, David predicts that Trump will lose in November.
“I don't think we get 60-40 blowouts anymore, because of negative polarization,” he says. But remember … last time, he got less of the vote than Al Gore, John Kerry or Mitt Romney. And barely –– half a point –– more than Michael Dukakis.”
Of course, Trump won because he “used it very efficiently,” says David. (Thank Fuck you, Electoral College).
The size of Trump’s “base” (like his crowds, his height and … no, ew) is “a lie that he tells,” David adds.
Republicans have sewn up the white vote since the mid-1960s –– a confluence of demographics and cultural forces.
Today, rural America is largely white, and mostly cut off from the cultural change we see on the coasts.
We’re living in an era of “moral and cultural group-on group-conflict,” David says. “As America has become more diverse, whites have become a more self-conscious group.”
Fifty years ago, the biggest political divisions in the country were between whites –– “Catholics versus Protestants,” he adds. “But as whites have become a more diminished group, they've acquired a group solidarity.”
Divided, but detoxed
That’s why, David says, we’ll see a divided America for years to come.
“Different groups are going to vote in different ways, because of cultural and perceived interest,” he says. “But we need to take the toxicity out –– and change the rules about what's legitimate in competition.”
That’s where the ideas he posits in TRUMPOCALYPSE come in.
“As a conservative type of reformer, and a reformer type of conservative, I’m interested in things that are feasible. Not miracles, but things that can actually pass the House and Senate, get a presidential signature and make a difference.”
Balancing the ‘lopsided body’ of the Senate
The number one reform on David’s list? The filibuster.
Mitch McConnell’s power comes from the fact that the majority of our population is concentrated in about 15 states, he says.
“The Senate, which is always a lopsided body, is becoming ever more so.”
The filibuster isn’t part of the Constitution. It’s a political tool that gained traction in the 1970s and is now considered the norm. A filibuster-proof majority means that the Senate needs at least 60 votes to pass everything. Which means it’s impossible for the current Dem minority to pass anything.
But Toure is wary of abolishing the filibuster: “The likelihood of Dems of having over 50 senators is extraordinarily low,” he says. “The likelihood, one day, of Republicans getting 55 or even 58 senators is very high.”
David counters that right away.
“The world with the filibuster is a world where the Democrats govern never. The world without the filibuster is a world where Democrats govern somewhat less than half the time.”
That’s because, he says, while Republicans are always likely to maintain a majority above 50, “the likelihood for Democrats of getting over 60 is zero.”
Another star on the flag?
David argues that once the filibuster is gone, it might be possible to do something really big: Make most of Washington, D.C., a state.
“The Constitution says there has to be a federal district, and it can’t be larger than 10 square miles. But it doesn't set a minimum size,” he says. “So you can shrink the federal district to the area around the White House and the Capitol.”
That would make most residential areas in D.C. into a small, urban state that “would balance the increasing concentration of Senate power in rural hands that has taken place over the past 20 years,” David adds.
The population of Washington, D.C., includes more people than Wyoming or Vermont. And demographic projections suggest that D.C. citizens will outnumber those in North Dakota, Alaska and South Dakota within the next 20 years.
Plus, if the environs of D.C. were to become a state, it would be among the richest in the nation –– with a fighting chance to elect more non-white senators.
Tequila and quaaludes: Never again
Even after writing two anti-Trump books, David doesn’t like thinking about the president and the damage he’s caused to America.
“But I want never to lose the feeling of the wrongness of it,” he says. “The next President will go around the world vowing to the people of Earth: Never again will the country mix tequila and quaaludes. We swear to you.”
But the reality is: “We're always going to be the country that did this,” David adds.
That’s a good place to sign off in classic democracy-ish fashion: Pray about it.
Get your weekly rundown of the presidential election from a Black progressive point of view on democracy-ish. Consider Danielle Moodie and Toure as your tour guides, flight attendants and/or therapists as we move through this dumpster fire of an election cycle — together!