Mini-Episode: American Response to COVID-19 (with David Frum)

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As President Trump shuts down all immigration as a reaction to COVID-19, Andy calls David Frum, who was by George W. Bush’s side after 9-11. How will globalization, public debate, and democracy itself fare in the context of a pandemic? Frum argues that America’s role in the global community has never been more important. He also has a clear view on the impact of this time on the coming election.

Show Notes 


[00:40] Andy Slavitt: I’m Andy Slavitt with my son Zach. And welcome to In the Bubble. Today we have a conversation with one of the most interesting thinkers, writers and political observers that I know, David Frum. This was a really fascinating conversation as we dove into a little bit of the politics and a lot around the context of how we as Americans should be thinking about Covid-19 and what’s changing in the world. Here’s David.


[01:13] Andy Slavitt: I’m here with David Frum. I’m sure most of you know who David Frum is, but he is a well-known columnist at The Atlantic. He’s also, I think, one of the smartest political observers. For those of you don’t know, David was a speechwriter for George W. Bush and has been, I think, somewhat at the forefront of the anti-Trump Republican movement. But, David, let’s start this way: how does your political bent and world outlook meet the global pandemic? 


[01:44] David Frum: Oh, well, to go at a very high level of abstraction — and maybe this is more than that. This is a heavy lift to start on this podcast. I worry in this pandemic about the rise of national egoism, national selfishness, the breakdown of free trade, the breakdown of the spirit of cooperation of nation with nation. I am a Canadian by origin, I still spend a lot of time there. I have a house in Canada. I owe my family’s peace and security to the American security umbrella. And I want my children and grandchildren someday to have the advantage of living in that world that was made after World War II. And it is really in danger right now. We are all feeling the absence of American leadership. And the United States is not the only offender here. The countries putting the most narrow kind of interests at the front. And that really alarms me. 


[02:42] Andy Slavitt: So why isn’t a global pandemic the perfect justification for nationalism? Why isn’t it the justification to manufacture everything you possibly can here, to not be dependent at all on other countries, to not be dependent at all on trade in China, and just close the doors? Why is that not at least a chip in that direction?

[03:04] David Frum: Why isn’t a raging fire through your neighborhood a perfect justification for every individual having their own family fire department in the basement? Because countries can’t meet these challenges themselves. You can imagine that the United States could do everything itself. It might be expensive. It might be inefficient, but you could imagine that. How does Japan do everything for itself? How does Great Britain do everything for itself? Is that the European Union now? How do smaller countries than that do things for themselves? How do middle-income countries like Mexico, or truly poor countries like the countries of Africa. How do they do things for themselves? And then how do we make these borders work? There’s an example of the way people think just on the day that you and I record this. Speaker Nancy Pelosi made the point that the so-called Trump travel ban on China, which wasn’t a ban, actually, was useless because it didn’t apply to U.S. persons. It didn’t apply to U.S. citizens. It didn’t apply to U.S. permanent residents. And Don Trump Jr. said what Nancy Pelosi wants to keep American citizens out of, you know, from returning from home. And of course, her point was not that we should keep American citizens away from the United States. Her point is that viruses can ride on American citizens and American green card holders just as well as anybody else. 

[04:19] David Frum: And the Trumps think of viruses as tiny little illegal aliens that can be kept out by a high enough border wall. But we live in a world of travel, and that’s a good thing. We live in a world of trade and that’s a good thing. And we live in a world in which, even when we make something in our own country, we make it out of parts that come from other countries. 


[04:39] Andy Slavitt: We are also going through a time when Americans are feeling greater amount of fear than maybe they’ve ever felt before, and a greater sense of self-preservation. And maybe this is one of the first times in many people’s lives that they feel this sort of existential threat, beyond just the globalism versus nationalism. How do you think that influences society and the way people look at the world? What long-lasting changes is that gonna have, good and bad? 


[05:04] David Frum: I was trained as a lawyer with my amateur interest as history. And I always think however bad problems are now, be grateful you have today’s problems and not yesterday’s problems. Because today’s problems are never as bad and your ability to meet those problems is much, much greater. I’ve woken up every morning since Election Day 2016 with a feeling of dread in my stomach. In some ways I have less of a feeling of dread than I used to, because now I know what it was that I was dreading all this time, it’s here. And I can take measure of it and I can work with other people to do something about it. Being scared, it’s an inevitable response. It’s not a good guide to decision making. Look, in my lifetime — I’m getting pretty old now, so I’ve lived through a lot of moments of fear. I lived through the moments after 9/11. I lived through many of the nuclear scares of the Cold War, 1982, ‘83, when the world came much closer than most Americans understood to the brink of nuclear war because the Soviets misunderstood American intentions. 


[06:07] David Frum: I have a painting that my late father bought in 1963, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was a painting he had long wanted by a modernist artist and he couldn’t afford it. And when the Cuban Missile Crisis struck or emerged, he went to the art gallery and he bought the painting on credit because he thought one of two things is gonna happen. Either this is the end of the world, in which case I will never have to make good on that promise to pay for the painting, or it’s not, and then I will be so relieved that it’s not the end of the world that I will gratefully find some way to pay for the painting. And I’ve still got the painting. There have been tough moments before, and none of them compare to what the people went through in the Depression and the Second World War, that people went through in the First World War. And this pandemic is nothing compared to the terrible pandemic of 1918, 1919. So we should compare ourselves to the past to seek strength, and to remind ourselves that other people proved equal to worse challenges. We should prove equal to this one and then respond intelligently and effectively, humanely, not stupidly, destructively.


[07:14] Andy Slavitt: I find that logic is really not just something that hangs together, but it is something that gives you strength and perspective. For one of our first episodes, we featured some of the speeches from Churchill in 1940 when London was under siege. There was no possible way he could have possibly thought it was logical to convince people that they were going to see the other side of that. And yet we know that he did. And, you know, it’s hard because we are a generation that is, you know, I’m 53 years old, we’ve never really been asked to sacrifice much, if anything, in our lives. We have an ability to walk into a store and get whatever we want when we want it. Whatever brand we want. We’ve got a natural distrust of government. We were sort of founded on those principles. We love our freedoms and our liberties. Those characteristics, which are things that on some days make us strong, are an interesting set of characteristics to run into an infectious disease, where collective action and looking out for your neighbors is really the only way to mitigate the spread. Whereas China, of course, or a country like China has the ability to mandate things differently. How do you think about our democracy in this context? 


[08:23] David Frum: I think pandemic disease vindicates democracy. Always. The response looks sloppy. The reason it looks sloppy is because we’re allowed to see the response. Authoritarian regimes are built on lie. And the more authoritarian regime, the more lie. And they don’t just lie to the outside world. They lie to themselves. I think there’s a lot of evidence that what went wrong in China in the beginning of their response to the problems in Wuhan, whenever it did, November, early December, whenever it did, was the national leaders did not know what was truly happening in Wuhan, because the local leaders were lying to them. And there was no free press to force a confrontation with the truth. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville described this wonderful image of how as your boat pulls into New York Harbor, it’s as if you hear this giant clamor from the streets of the city. And he didn’t just mean wheels on cobblestones. What he meant was Americans, they were always yelling at each other. There was so much talking. And so much of it then as now, was unwise and polarizing and abusive. But out of that process, you find truth. And just think, if the press were a little less free, if the federal system were less robust, if the states had less — how would President Trump have handled this crisis had he been allowed really to have his way? He would have covered it up until the death toll was in the hundreds of thousands. 


[09:45] Andy Slavitt: Really excellent point. Let’s talk a little bit about the inner workings of Washington in moments like this. And I’m not sure everybody understands as well as you and I both do the difference between a political appointee and a career government service person. Someone like a Dr. Birx or an Anthony Fauci, who work really, generally speaking, across all administrations. With Anthony Foushee having served under four or five different presidents of different political stripes. And career civil servants have a different type of relationship and a different set of issues to deal with under this president than others. And if we watch Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci carefully, we can see this interesting balance that they’re trying to deal with as professional scientists and as part of this government. Can you help people understand what that feels like and how they ought to be handling these types of situations?


[10:39] David Frum: Well, in the United States government, the top approximately 3,000 people serve — and the technical phrase is “at the pleasure of the president” — meaning they can be fired at any time for any reason. And the next tranche of people down are covered by the American civil service system, meaning it’s much harder to fire them. They can be punished in various ways. They can be denied promotions. They can be sidelined and they can certainly be publicly humiliated. It’s happened to Nancy Messonnier, who headed the respiratory diseases unit in the Centers for Disease Control. But they cannot easily be fired. And so they are in a different position relative to the president from the other people. But here’s something — and I mention again, my Canadian identity — one of the things I’m struck with is compared to other democracies, the United States doesn’t really have civil service. Because what would be the top layers of the civil service in any other country, in Canada, in Britain, in Germany, in the United States, those aren’t political appointees. And in a way that people in every other advanced democracy would find quite weird. I mean, one of the persistent issues in the Trump administration has been the way President Trump has tried to use the criminal law.


[11:56] David Frum: The American federal law enforcement system, prosecutions are handled by people who work in the 94 U.S. attorney’s offices. The 93 people who had those 94 offices are appointed by the president. And they are appointed for political reasons. And they serve as long as the president does. And there’s some feeling that the president shouldn’t fire them for nakedly political reasons. There was an issue in the Bush administration where Bush fired some of the U.S. attorneys because they were not doing things exactly the way he wanted. There’s a feeling, but there’s no real limit on the president’s power to fire those people for any reason. And they, in turn, report to a person called the assistant attorney general for the criminal division, who’s the chief prosecutor of the United States, who again serves at the pleasure of the president. That doesn’t happen in Germany and Canada, Australia and Great Britain, who then reports to a deputy attorney general who is a political person, and then that does — in Canada and Australia and Britain, the attorney general would be a political person, but nobody else. 


[12:51] David Frum: What this means in a pandemic is that the people who have long-term interests are usually not in decision-making positions. I mean, Dr. Fauci, because of his particular length of tenure, because of his particular prestige, because he became famous already during the AIDS crisis and was well known, it’s hard for President Trump to do to him what he would like to do and what he did do to Nancy Messonnier. But if this had all happened two years later, after Dr. Fauci retired and the next doctor felt he had the job, President Trump would sideline him, no problem. And although Dr Fauci is hard to fire, Fauci also has much more limited authority than that kind of person in other democracies does so. So just as this crisis has revealed the strength of the democratic idea, it has exposed a lot of weaknesses in the way America is governed as compared to other democracies. 


[14:37] Lana Slavitt: We are very grateful for the support of our listeners. So far, over 100 of you have already signed up to support In the Bubble on Patreon. Thank you. If you’re enjoying In the Bubble, please consider pitching in to help the show continue to grow. You can sign up as a member for as little as five dollars per month at Your support will cover the costs of production, and any remaining profit for Andy and Zach will get donated to Covid relief efforts.

[15:13] Andy Slavitt: There’s some interesting data which suggests, I think in a very positive way, that Americans largely have been unified in their view and in their response. That even when governors in states are saying they’re going to “open up,” American families, even those in financial hardship, are not moved just by those words. That in fact, they are unwilling to start sharing popsicles just because the governor of Georgia says things are gonna go back to normal. Unclear that that’ll last forever and certainly will cause tensions. David, you were in the White House at another moment of national unity, even greater national unity, after 9/11 and felt like in the least from where I sit, it felt like we squandered it. You can reflect on that, of course, if you don’t agree. But as you think about this type of moment and this type of moment of national unity that is occurring in many ways despite our political leadership, how do you capture that? How do you turn that into something good? 


[16:14] David Frum: So I was in the Bush administration on 9/11. I was one of those people who ran out of the executive office building on the day, very powerful and humiliating memory for me. But I remember a cartoon that appeared in, of all places, The New Yorker just after 9/11. It showed two academic types talking, and one said the other, I agree with you that we need to avoid overkill, but not at the risk of underkill. And at the time, I thought that was quite a good joke. In retrospect, it’s pretty clear we overreacted to 9/11 with a lot of deleterious consequences. And I think one of the things that is hard in a crisis like this is to keep your head and fear is a bad counselor when what you need to do is keep your head. I think there’s something tremendously powerful about emotional unity, solidarity, caring for one another. I am not a big believer in national unity in the form of intellectual uniformity, because it’s always hard to know what to do. One of things that is so destructive about this debate, for example, about opening up, we are not going to wait until it is completely safe to open up. At some point we’re going to reopen the economy before it is completely safe. We’re just going to have to do that. And the question is, where on the spectrum toward safety do you open up the economy? At what point do you say, you know, if we waited another month, we might avoid a certain number of deaths, but we would have a much greater quantum of economic suffering.

[17:41] David Frum: When do you, how do you make that decision? And it is not obvious. And different people have different views. And it’s the kind of thing that needs to be debated in both at the highest levels of government and end in a federal system because different states have different perspectives. That kind of discussion is helpful and necessary. Now, you can’t have it when people show up at the State House carrying firearms to make their point. Once you’ve brought a gun to the debate, you’re out of the debate. You are simply an enemy of the state and you need to be arrested. You show up with a weapon, I’m not listening. The bad behavior of the people who are calling for opening up, and the extremism and the paranoia and the wacky things they say, has meant that the people once said, well, we should just keep locked down for the maximum possible length of time, they have the argument too much their own way. And then there’s a kind of emotional enforcement. It’s not going to be easy to have that hard discussion when we’re going to need to have it. When? June, July, certainly by September. 


[18:34] Andy Slavitt: So here’s my view and I agree in the main with your point about having the debate. What I would say, though, is I really wish there was such a thing as a choice, as a choice between the economy and public health, as a willingness to decide when we “open,” because I don’t think that any of the people who are used to making those decisions, the “we” in this situation, actually get to make that choice. The economy opens up, as you know, when consumers start to buy things again, when employers start to hire people again, when employers start to invest again. And those things, as much as I think the president would like to snap his fingers and make those things happen, and I believe if he could have, he would have, those things won’t happen until people believe that there is a long-term sustainable solution to the public health crisis. And so getting people back to normal life, we have to do as a function as much of sociology as anything else. People are cut off from their support systems. Summer is gonna be nice weather. People are gonna miss some of the things that they do. They’re going to want to congregate again. And then there’s this agency problem, where young people are largely unaffected by this and largely wanting to go out. So those are going to be forces that I think will happen regardless. But I don’t think it holds that there is a choice which says let’s just turn on the economy again as if we’re turning the key in the knob.


[19:56] David Frum: No. It’s not. And it’s not, as you say, it’s not a single button. But there are different considerations in different parts of the American economy. So, yeah, I don’t see an early return to music festivals. I don’t see an early return to people taking long-distance air trips for pleasure. 


[20:16] Andy Slavitt: But doesn’t that also mean that you don’t see a return to oil prices? So the demand for cars and energy and airplanes, all of those things aren’t things we can just choose to make better.

[20:30] David Frum: Now, I think you’re going too fast. So let me go with the other extreme of this. We’re facing shortages in food supply chains. 


[20:37] Andy Slavitt: We’re facing distribution issues, not shortages.

[20:39] David Frum: We’re facing potential shortages of pork and chicken. And not because there aren’t enough pigs and chickens, but because the meatpacking plants are closed. At some point, the meatpackers are going to have to make investments to change the way meat is processed so that workers stand farther apart from one another. And that will have to happen. And those plants will not be perfectly safe, but they will be safer. And at that point, the meat business begins to resume. And when the meat business resumes, the meat has to be moved by trucks and the trucking business — and so primary and secondary sectors, food processing industry, those things are going to come back to life before services do. And we’re going to have some difficult choices to make that will happen partly spontaneously, but partly it’s going to require some government regulation. Because the meat packers are going to say to the government, you tell us, since we can’t guarantee perfect safety, you tell us how safe is safe. Is it four feet apart? Is it five feet apart? Is it six feet apart? Is it eight feet apart? You tell us, you tell us about, you know, what kind of mass the workers have to wear.

[21:37] Andy Slavitt: And can I get liability for shipping tainted pork?


[21:40] David Frum: Yes. And can I get liability if the pork is not tainted, but the trucker somehow makes the metal case in which all the different shrink wrap pieces of pork are carried. You tell us about the liability — this is one of the things he’s going to face., the next president — is I think we’re going to see willy-nilly a new era of regulation, and not in an anti-business way, but as part of the support structure to revive business, that business is going to want to know what are the rules?


[22:09] Andy Slavitt: So how is all this going to impact the election? 


[22:11] David Frum: Oh, I think the election’s over. I think we’re now arguing about do the Republicans also lose the Senate? Do they lose North Carolina and Georgia as well as the states they’re going to lose? So I looked this up the other day, the highest unemployment for a reelected president was Barack Obama in 2012, followed very narrowly by Ronald Reagan in 1984. And in both cases, those presidents had unemployment slightly over 7 percent. But in both cases, there had been dramatic reductions in unemployment in the 12 months before voting day. When the Ronald Reagan ad so brilliantly said, “t’s morning in America,” the reason that slogans is pro — everyone understood it was not high noon in America. 1984 was not 1988. But 1.3 million jobs had been created in the previous twelve months. So if you are one of the seven point whatever it was unemployed in 1984, give it another six weeks, there’s a job for you. 2012 was not as dramatic as 1984, but 1984 you had to go 12 months, in 2012, you’ve had a good two and a half years. Not as dramatic as that as ‘83, ‘84, but still pretty good in both cases. So President Obama was not reelected with the landslide that Ronald Reagan got in 1984, but he was reelected. So what is the unemployment rate going to be in November? It’s rising too fast to count, but it’s probably closer to 20 percent right now than it is to15. Maybe it’ll be down if we’re really lucky and things really get going, it might be down to 12. Yeah, it’s dramatic progress in the sense that the hemorrhaging patient is no longer hemorrhaging, but the patient is a long way from being well. So I think, you know, I think President Trump is just — and and then he’s not able to give a coherent explanation of his actions and he’s not able to even to pretend to perform empathy.


[23:54] Andy Slavitt: Can you imagine that you would sit here in May, or just about May, and say that the election’s over? In January, before this, what was your view on the election? 


[24:04] David Frum: I thought Trump was probably going to lose. The demographics where he needed to sort of break even, which were college-educated white women. And so he just was doing too badly with each of those key groups, Latino men, those kinds of those groups. 


[24:19] Andy Slavitt: So if you’re President Trump, whether you’re an adviser to his election committee or whether you’re focusing on how does he politically respond to the pandemic. If it feels like he is in a political hole that’s very difficult to climb out of, how does that impact his behavior? How does that impact the response to the pandemic? What can we expect to see in the fall leading up to November? 


[24:42] David Frum: I think we’ll be looking around the U.S. federal government with the question, is it nailed down? And if it’s not nailed down, he’s going to try to find some way — I mean, I think he’s overwhelmed right now. The fact that his own business is heading toward insolvency. So he’s going to be looking for ways to make money. He’s going to be worried about his post-presidential legal liability, both civil and criminal, both federal and state. He’s going be taking advice on whether he can pardon himself or not. And he’s going to be looking for ways to pardon himself, or at least immunize himself against state prosecutions. He’s going to be worried about his children. He’s gonna have a lot of worries that are not classic presidential political words. 


[25:17] Andy Slavitt: So you don’t think he’s gonna be trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat? I did it before, no one thought that I could win in 2016. I’m going to show them. And this is how I’m gonna do it. 


[25:25] David Frum: He may be thinking about that, but what would that rabbit be? You know, in the context of a strong economy, a summit with the Iranians, people would care. In the context of this economy, a summit with the Iranians, they’re not going to care. A trade deal with China, they’re not going to care. And his instinct for rabbit-pulling actually has been destructive because what he keeps looking for are miracle cures. And he comes, and his advisors come, from a political culture, from a segment of American politics, where the way people earn their living is by selling fake medicine to credulous old people. The conservative world is based on the sale of supplements that at best do you no harm. And at worst does do you harm. So he’s getting advice from people. So he’s recommending all these crazy medicines. He’s going to be looking for that miracle cure.


[26:11] Andy Slavitt: So last question. Let’s stipulate that this has been a horrible, sad, and it will continue to be horrible and sad period of American life. But in that context, what’s the best or happiest thing that’s happened to you that’s brought you joy over the last six weeks that have been related to being in this situation?

[26:32] David Frum: I have an unusually fortunate life, and so it would probably be, you know — I travel a lot, so weeks of having more time with my wife is a great joy to me. I have two of my three children in the house with me and we have a lot of advantages and I’m very conscious of that. The thing that I think is more generalizable is in my urban, but not dense, neighborhood in northwest D.C., when you go out in the evenings to walk the dogs, you see kids living the life that kids used to live before the automobile. The streets are empty. People are on their front lawns waving to their neighbors and they’re doing this — this is a very well educated area, people know the rules and they’re behaving with the appropriate precautions. Brothers and sisters, you know, playing hoop in the driveway. And the sense of time and space and the absence of the automobile and the absence of the clock, it does hearken back to a different world. I do think that sense of being liberated from the tyranny of busy-ness. And one of the things that I will try to remember when I’m on the other side of this is just when I feel busy, do I have to be this busy? And wasn’t it nicer when you were just communing with the people you love most? 


[27:46] Andy Slavitt: Are there things you felt like you took for granted before that you now realize, oh, I just took it for granted, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. 


[27:55] David Frum: Even if they have a perfect vaccine, it’s gonna be a lot harder to get me on an airplane to go somewhere after this. 


[28:01] Andy Slavitt: Well, your wife just may actually push you onto the airplane. 


[28:04] David Frum: A friend of mine told me this — I’m sure this was in fun when he said to his wife — you know, it’s lovely being home, being confined with the person you like best in the world. And she replied, must be nice. 


[28:17] Andy Slavitt: Well, David, thank you so much. I think that that is a nice, cheerful and realistic note to end on. I think that even people going through very, very hard things, I hope are able to find new joys and remind themselves of the things that we took for granted. But now our real pleasure is life.


[28:35] David Frum: Thank you.


[28:38] Andy Slavitt: Thanks to David for that great conversation. We have another episode of In the Bubble coming up this week. I think you’re going to love it. So stay tuned.


[28:51] Andy Slavitt: In the Bubble is a production of Lemonada Media. Niccole Galteland is our producer and Ivan Kuraev is our editor. Music is by Dan Molad and Oliver Hill. Zach Slavtii is our co-producer and my co-host. You can find out more about our show on social media @LemonadaMedia. And you can find me on social media at @ASlavitt on Twitter, @AndySlavitt on Instagram. If you liked what you heard today, tell your family and friends, but tell them at a distance. For now, stay safe. Share some joy. We’ll get through this together. And #StayHome.


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