The Real Lessons From the Debate Between David Frum and Steve Bannon

Last November 2 the Toronto-based group Munk Debates organized a well-publicized debate between David Frum and Steve Bannon titled “Be it resolved, the future of western politics is populist not liberal…” [2] Frankly, I didn’t care about the debate so I will not refer to its content because both debaters at this point in time don’t have anything new to contribute in my view. Also, the Munk Debates are just an elitist show of intellectual entertainment for a select privileged group of people, or in Frum’s exclusivist words, for “the learned, the preeminent, and the notorious.”

However, I read very carefully the article by David Frum in The Atlantic, “The Real Lesson of My Debate With Steve Bannon.” [1] Not having attended the debate I was curious about what he had to say about it.

I found out that apparently he “lost” the debate, or, as he put it, “bungled it” to Bannon by some questionable voting system that the organizers had set up. That outcome must have been quite a surprise to usually self-confident Frum who saw it necessary to write about what he had learned; and he did write about …sour grapes in both a self-effacing and unrepentant way.

My reading about the debate did teach me some lessons, and they come from two specific issues that I question in Frum’s article.

First, he dismisses the relevance of the protests about validating someone with the reputation of Trump strategist Steve Bannon by bringing him to the debate. I was one that signed a petition against his coming to Toronto, and I would have been protesting if I were there.

Frum wrote that “never before…had [the Munks Debates] ignited the fierce controversy that exploded around the scheduled debate between Bannon and me”, but he doesn’t consider the reasons why.

He goes on to write that people wanted to “shut down the debate by force and threat. They tried to block the entrance to the debate venue, then harassed attendees as they sought to enter.” The disruption delayed “the start time by 45 minutes”, which, he concludes, must have contributed to losing the debate.

But he does not stop there. He writes five paragraphs making his point against the attempt to cancel the event. In his words, “Forceful interruption of public events is almost always wrong. If I see you reading a book that I dislike, I have no right to grab it from you. In a free society, there can be no equivalent of the Saudi religious police…”

I will ignore the offensive analogy between my protest and the actions of the “Saudi religious police.” But I cannot ignore the oversimplification and the inane analogy of stopping someone from reading a book.

Protesting someone like Bannon is only part of the issue – albeit an important part. The other part that Mr. Frum cannot even conceive is that in his “free society” there are those who have large financial resources like Munk Debates that can afford to bring the Frum-Bannon pair to discuss their side of the worldview, and there are those like the “protesters” that cannot put up an exclusive show to promote the other side of the worldview.

In the fantasy free society that Frum imagines he lives in maybe he does not want to “grab” the book he dislikes from his opponents. But in the “free society” we really live in, his opponents don’t even have the resources to publish the book that will get his reaction. Frum must also be used to the idea that if protesters cannot afford to rent a “symphony hall” for a debate, they will use the public streets or any other free venue.

The second issue that I question about Frum’s pretentious article is something that is glaring for its absence; and I doubt that he would have addressed it in the debate. That is the fact that he does not even recognize his own contribution he made during his career to the populist ideology that he now blames on Steve Bannon and the current U.S. administration.

During his career, not just as a conservative but also like one who sold the worst brand of it as a speechwriter that excused all actions of former U.S. president George W. Bush, Frum provided his thinking and the words that created the extreme conservative ideology that has degenerated in the thinking of the current U.S. presidency that he so vehemently criticizes. He even quotes W. Bush once, “today’s ‘populists’ will follow their predecessors into what President George W. Bush so aptly called ‘history’s graveyard of discarded lies.’” Of course we know he is quoting himself.

Frum correctly declares that he spent his “life as a conservative” but he tries hard to re-define himself as a milder “liberal in the broad sense” wielding a “liberal project” in opposition to the “populist politics” that he uses as “the polite term for the politics of Donald Trump and the many Little Trumps in power or competing for power across our Earth”. I can only wonder whom he has in mind.

Sounding like his own eulogy, Frum grandiosely romanticizes that he “sought to conserve the free societies that began to be built in the 18th century.” But he betrays his real political position by putting together in the same sentence the “challenges to those free societies” from Communists and Marxists, Islamists and now populists. That is his way of scoring a point on his debate contender.

Frum is credited with coining the expression “Axis of Evil” in reference to Iran, Iraq and “North Korea”, extensively repeated by W. Bush during his administration, of which we are reminded by the new expression “Troika of Tyranny” recently used by U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton in the current Trump administration in reference to Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

More than an ideologue, I consider David Frum like a political technician. He is good at his technical skill with words to be used by others, just like an electrician who uses his/her skill to facilitate the task of the executioners. Just to turn around and accuse the executioner.

Finally, Frum cannot get away from his legacy, and he should use the title of his book “How We Got Here” published in 2000 with a question mark at the end as a personal question for today. I don’t think he will find the answer unless he learns to take some responsibility. But he has not learned that lesson.


[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/11/bannon-frum-munk-debate-what-really-happened/574867/

[2] https://www.munkdebates.com/The-Debates/The-Rise-of-Populism