Nobody is in a position to review David Frum's new novel. Patriots either takes a chainsaw to all that you hold dear, or delivers the resulting carnage to you on a plate -- the head of St. John the Baptist -- as you dance vengefully. You are either going to hate it for all the wrong reasons, or love it for all the wrong reasons.
I am especially disqualified from writing a credible review. Logrolling, relative to my opinion, would be an honourable activity. I went to high school with Frum, and his wife is my editor here at the Huffington Post. Moreover, the novel is designed to make me feel good, to massage me ideologically. During the dark years of the George Walker Bush administration, my politics diverged substantially from Frum's: he was on the bus, whereas I was under it, howling.
Hence, this is not a book review -- it is an act of drooling voyeurism. Patriots is what anthropologists call a "thick description": a deep, firsthand account of the fascinating primitives who occupy the feral extremes of the Republican party. As a speechwriter for the second president Bush, Frum had a privileged perspective: He was Margaret Meade among the savages, and he has returned with this document. After a long shower, he has detailed their hunting and gathering habits, their costumes and mythology, and -- most importantly -- their mating rituals.
When discussing the political class, only two forms of accomplishment look anything like action: "getting fucked" (having sex) and "getting fucked" (having a knife slid between your ribs). Note how the vocabulary overlaps somewhat? As a result, this novel is often impressively raunchy.
The knifesmanship almost never involves actual knives. Walter Schotzke, the novel's antihero, is taught this early on: "Words are the ordnance of political warfare." Hence, a Washington novel requires copious sex, or there would be no physical action whatsoever -- unless you set your narrative in a gym.
We experience an act of raunchy fellatio on the very first page. An ominous sign. Has David Frum parted ways with the righteous? With the censorious? With those family-values clarions, often thrice-divorced? Oh yes, parted he has. The abyss grows page by page. It is an abyss made especially poignant by the burnt bridges hanging limply from either side.
In particular, any tiny thread, any filament of hope that Frum might ever again be welcome at a certain rightwing think tank -- let us call it, for no particular reason, the American Enterprise Institute -- has gone the way that threads do when you dangle them in front of a blowtorch.
Anthropologically, this is where the book is most valuable: in its portrait of that particular institution, of that tank in which thought is said to take place. This novel is published two years after David Frum was fired from one -- come to think of it, the American Enterprise Institute -- and his former employer is thinly disguised. In fact, not disguised. In fact, frozen naked in a spotlight with every wart incandescent.
The Constitutionalist Institute in Patriots has a certain structure which returns again and again in the novel as the shape of the conservative movement itself. The loudest voices at the institute are thuddingly unsubtle: they combine in a thick effluence of propaganda, aimed mostly at preserving the patriotic rich from the insult of taxation. The building also houses the quiet Founders' Floor, however, where sober thinkers still focus on solemn pursuits: Vladimir Starkovich, for instance, is working on the third volume of his definitive history of the Russian Revolution. Unfortunately, institutional funding for worthy scholarship has all but dried up.
Starkovich is at least trying to finish volume three. We also meet Jasper Philpott, who may or may not be the real-life Charles Murray -- after all, lots of people have written a famous book about welfare and poverty, then a mid-90s bestseller about "the role of IQ in individual success." The charismatic Philpott was once a talented thinker; that was before the Institute left him academically sterile. He is never going to finish the second volume of his most recent project, an entertaining but unambitious popular history, tepidly esteemed.
The institute seems to specialize in this: thwarted intellectual achievement; Frum was in fact fired from his think tank for the crime of thinking.
By the time the novel is over, funding for contemplation of any sort has completely evaporated, and the Founders' Floor has been appropriated by an especially vile demagogue. This shyster, the Big Lie personified, swift-boats in with his new second-in-command: the Machiavellian harridan meticulously established as the single most vulgar creature in the Frum cosmos.
All of this is introduced to us through the eyes of Walter Schotzke, a likably louche trustafarian who -- because he lacks intellectual and moral bearings -- is about to be swallowed whole by the populist right.
It is being written, however, by David Frum, who has emerged Jonah-like from a similar experience, with the kind of attitude towards a whale that anyone would have if they had spent quality time in its lower intestine.
Historical movements are always thrown into starkest relief by their apostates. Communism was forced to clarity by a group of ex-Trotskyites: the original neoconservatives. In the same way, what passes for conservatism today has been dissected most acutely by a steady march of the very smart and highly disenchanted: David Brock, then Andrew Sullivan, and now David Frum.
Walter Schotzke is not David Frum. He is at best a clueless, imperfectly-educated version of the author: what Frum might have become, had he chosen boozy indolence over Yale -- in the novel, shorthand for "boozy indolence" is "Brown." The rightwing movement in America likes to create ex nihilo, and Schotzke is the kind of lovable zero ripe for this kind of creationism.
Crucially, Schotzke -- like the Constitutionalist Institute -- has only the dimmest knowledge of his origins. He understands this when he first steps into the office of Senator Philip B. Hazen, perhaps the only unalloyed mensch in the novel. The room is decorated with "an old oil portrait of Roger Williams, the founder of the Rhode Island colony." A wooden display case contains "an ancient edition of Roger Williams's book on Indian languages," as well as "the senator's father's Jewish prayer shawl."
Schotzke is humbled: "This, I thought, was the room of a man who knew where he came from." The key to the novel is here. Behind the politically nuanced sexual encounters and the virtuosic juggling of chainsaws, it is, finally, a book about knowing where you come from.
Patriots can be read as a paean to incrementalism: moving forward glacially, inch by inch, never cut off from the past. It favors progress, but is a withering indictment of historical ignorance and extremism. In particular it deplores those two attributes when they merge in a single person, or institution, or political party.
"Vicious" and "elegiac" are not words you generally associate with the same book, but they are in fact a hallmark of comedies written by conservatives: the master here is Evelyn Waugh.
A hint of Walter's redemption comes at the end, when he has the Schotzke Family Foundation subsidize the archival research of Vladimir Starkovich: the scholar rendered fundless on the Founders' Floor. This is a merging -- both real and symbolic -- of where Schotzke came from personally (money) and the wellspring of actual conservatism (history).
Important scholarship will continue, but -- the reader notes gleefully -- only because it does not depend financially upon a conservative think tank. Schotzke does this on the advice of Senator Hazen, but the very fact that he is guiding himself according to the senator's principles is hopeful. Men like Hazen matter: They are the flesh of the body politic. The Schotzke family fortune was made in mustard, and Walter himself will always be at best a condiment.
How does this leave us, in our dignified, giddy effort to figure out just where David Frum has landed, after the arc traced by his think tank's ejection seat?
Well, the closing quotation -- a favorite of Senator Hazen's -- comes from Anthony Trollope's novel, Phineas Finn. Trollope was, in his own words, a "conservative-liberal." To complicate this oxymoron, he considered himself an "advanced" one. Americans will consider this definition the height of incoherence, nonsense on steroids. David Frum is formerly Canadian, however, so this is a familiar paradox: he hails from a nation intimate for half a century with a federal party called "The Progressive Conservatives."
A true paleoconservative -- and they are in fact rare -- rejects the notion of progress altogether: it is considered historically naive. Leo Strauss, for instance, thought Edmund Burke insufficiently conservative, because the cautious Irishman ultimately favored a very slightly optimistic reading of history.
That these tragic thinkers are not very common is a blessing: they are the sort of people who reject, for instance, female suffrage. The Republican party houses a few, but they are smart enough to keep their heads down.
An advanced Trollopian conservative-liberal -- graceful term -- believes in progress, but distrusts rapid progress, and in particular revolution.
The quotation from Phineas Finn is telling: it seems to celebrate revolution, but if we read carefully we find an argument in favor of slowness. "It is no loss of time [...] to have taken the first great step" towards societal improvement. The gesture will be denounced as revolutionary; then gradually it will be accepted as sensible; and in retrospect it will be deemed historically necessary.
This is hardly a robust endorsement of radical change. It extols heroic baby steps, falsely considered revolutionary at the time.
I think it would be a mistake to imagine that David Frum has abandoned the idea of a conservative reconfiguration of society. I wish he would, frankly, but I can happily live with this: his return to the very conservative notion that this reshaping has to be slow, sane, and respectful of the institutional past.
Not many Republicans will like Patriots. I have already stumbled across a rancid review on The Daily Caller. This site would be -- in the words of SourceWatch -- "a conservative/Republican news spin organization founded by conservative reporter Tucker Carlson and former Dick Cheney aide Neil Patel."
It is amusing (and truly petty of me) to observe that white supremacists do not love it much either: I found an even nastier take on Stormfront, the neo-Nazi website.
These lovely people are in no better position than I am to judge the novel, and my evaluation is, as I have suggested, highly suspect. Even to myself.
Genuine conservatives, however, if they can bring themselves to read the book closely, will have a hard time rejecting the thesis: a conservative think tank severed from its Founders' Floor -- whatever it may say about itself -- is no longer conservative, and no longer thinks.