Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Politics Of: David Frum's Patriots

David Frum is a former Bush speech writer, a (former) conservative commentator, and the second most disliked guy on the right by right-wing bloggers!

He has written his first fiction book Patriots and it's great. Let's take a look! There will be spoilers when we discuss the politics.

The Book
Patriots takes place in an alternate reality just one door down from ours. Instead of the Republicans and the Democrats it's the Constitutionalist and the Nationalists. Instead of the Tea Party there are salt-of-the-earth type Trucker protestors. Instead of Barack Obama, there's the out-going, just-lost, one-term failed president the black Monroe Williams.

The protagonist is reluctant scion to a fortune in mustard Walter Schotzke who, at 28, has never amounted to anything and gets bullied into a senatorial aide job in Washington by his aging grandmother who is aided and abetted by his girlfriend Valerie (who, it seems, is both pretty single-mindedly dedicated to landing him as a husband and, perhaps, also sees him as a fixer-upper who she can whip into shape).

Landing in the political office of the respected Senator Hazen, he by both luck (which could be bad luck), and fortune winds up being at or near the center of a political whirlwind. Incoming Constitutionalist president General Pulaski is a hero from the still-ongoing narco-war with Mexico and has his hands full with the crashing and burning economy his predecessor left behind. There are forces within the Constitutionalist movement--and on the Patriots TV channel--the only TV news source that matters and more than skews right-wing--who have interests in political mayhem.

Schotzke isn't any kind of true believer--but the more he sees, the more he realizes the "game" is both serious and ... degenerate. He takes us on a tour of Washington's underbelly and is our (naive) eyes and ears as Frum, who may not be the most consumate insider ever to write a book but sure does seem to know what he's talking about, opens up a world where the worst kinds of people are full of passionate intensity and the best are almost nowhere to be found.

Patriots is a fast paced read: Frum writes in an accessible style and doesn't ever get bogged down with too much explanation. He navigates some complicated waters easily and keeps the narrative light and humorous. Make no mistake: this is a satire and while it does not stray from being fun nor sucker-punch us with tragedy it is as well targeted as one of those JDAM missiles.

If you identify with the Tea Party or loved Sarah Palin you may find some of yourself in Frum's crosshairs. If you can make it through it, though, there's a good deal to learn in there ... and it kept me glued to it right up to the end.

Let's do the politics!

The Politics of Patriots
When I kindled the book I told myself: if he has a president with a personal hit-squad who assassinates his enemies I'm going to feel pretty stupid: I've spent more than a few posts railing against easy, tasty conspiracy theories like that. If Frum writes that into his book I'm going to have to reconsider who I mock.

The good news: no one dies--as far as I remember. There is no hit squad. The president is a military guy who amazingly doesn't have a cadre of ultra-loyal remorseless killers to turn to when he doesn't like someone: like everyone else who has money and power he has to use those tools instead of invisible CIA bullets.

What's Missing From This Picture?
I find it common in political dramas to either go full cynic (Ides of March) or else present some picture of how the writer wishes things were. In Sorkin's The Newsroom we see a bunch of "conservatives" who are compassionate, believe in global warming, are articulate, don't think much of the more bone-headed aspects of the Tea Party, and so on. These are all things Sorkin undoubtedly wishes were true. In ABC's TV Political Drama Scandal we get a 'Republican' administration that has a gay chief of staff--is advocating for gay rights--and passes The Dream Act (okay, we can assume it's Rubio's version--but still). Whether this is how the creator wishes things were--or just what she thinks will sell, I don't know--but I know that she made the (liberal) president more sympathetic than the hard-right vice president.

Do I think that's going on in Patriots? I thought about that a lot as I read through it--and I think the question you always ought to ask yourself when looking for the big picture is not "what's there"--but "what's missing."

What's missing in Patriots is Mitt Romney. The incoming Constitutionalist president is General George Pulaski. He's a bonafide war hero. He brings to the white house a military staff so thoroughly stocked that insiders joke that the East Wing (where the military guys hang out) has become the West Wing (where the president hangs out)--it's an inside joke by an insider (clever). The president's people are plain-spoken, loyal, and courageous.

We don't see a lot of Pulaski but we do see him:

  1. Start by working with Nationalist (reaching across the aisle) which instantly turns his base against him
  2. We see him try to get out of Mexico and decide to end the deadly narco war and balance the budget by proposing to legalize marijuana (which turns the base against him)
  3. We see him stand up for immigrants when he refuses to declare everyone of Mexican descent a potential traitor (which turns the base against him).
  4. We notably don't see him back down ... until it's clear he can't fight a war, fix the economy, and fight his base. In other words: he seems to be a man of principal and character.
We also do not see any Nationalist heroes. Their party is in a strong minority so maybe that's an excuse--but the other heroic politicians we see are in-the-twilight-of-their-careers Constitutionalists. 

With Romney missing and no role-model Nationalists (except maybe the main character's girlfriend might be one) I think we have a negative image of our answer: I'm going to suspect that Frum (a) really wishes there were conservative men of character running for office and (b) that he's not real thrilled with what the Democrats have served up (at least for the  most part) and (c) doesn't believe Romney is likely to be much of a moral role model or a uniter.

This is easy: I follow his twitter feed so I'd be surprised if I'm totally wrong--but nevertheless: the politics of Patriots is all about the Republican decline. It doesn't waste any time kicking the Democrats.

Money And Influence
The currency of Patriots is, well, currency--and favors that get you currency (or votes). There is a bundler who wields tremendous power because he can bring corporate sponsors to the president. There is a billionaire donor who even the "political badasses" virtually tremble when they meet (although the guy does decide to ask for way more money than he originally planned to).

Everything that happens happens in Patriots happens because of the gravitational forces of money and influence. That's the pool-cue stroke ... conviction is just the English on the ball. It's possible the heroic senator Hazen (the book's only real, clear political hero) isn't venal ... and maybe the president isn't. Just about every other politician is.

In the Patriots-verse you only get to be yourself if you're ready to retire.

This Means War
Walter is told, by an operator, that words are ordinance. We get to see the (awful) Glenn Beck stand-in manipulate his millions of adoring fans. We read press-releases crafted for maximal damage. We see numbers lie--and we see outright lies using numbers. At one point the book seems to tilt crazily towards American civil war. I wondered if Frum would do it: end the book in the ashes of America.

He didn't: if satisfying anti-climax isn't an oxymoron then that's what Patriots has. The tension spirals up as paid agitators, the Fox-like news channel, and radical Constitutionalists push things to almost the breaking point--but then, when it's suddenly over ... it's over. There is no civil war.

This feels real. 

That's how reality pans out in my experience too. One minute you're picking a song on the jukebox and the next minute: indefinite blackness. You don't get your showdown.

On the other hand, the politics of Patriots tells us that everything is war--that people making the moves might be fueled by money but they're driven by anger. The cast of characters on the Constitutionalist side are all rabidly angry--some subtly. Some overtly. Some manipulatively. Some offhandedly. But they're all angry.

This feels real too.

A Final Note About The End And Structure
This doesn't have much to do with politics but I wanted to note a few things that I liked about the writing (including the use of "butterscotch" to describe the color of leather chairs perfectly in one sentence).

When we meet Walter's girlfriend she seems to be blatantly trying to land him as a rich husband. We know it, he knows it. He's amazed at how good she is at it. I thought: "Okay--so at some point he loses all his money and then gets to find out if she still loves him ... " Didn't happen. I liked that.

At one point I figured Walter might "have had enough" and take a stand--possibly heroically. Didn't happen ... he quit and got kind of bullied into going back. That felt real. I liked that (okay, by the end, he's maybe thinking about making a real difference--but he's grown up a lot since then and it isn't in one heroic Stand-On-A-Chair-And-Speechify moment).

There's a great scene where one of the operators asks the billionaire for a few million dollars and gets a promise of 3MM. Then the check doesn't arrive. Then ... well, unless I missed something it just never arrived. I've seen deals go down like that. It felt real.

I liked the all around happy ending too. Politics is cynical enough ... Patriots doubly so. I felt like it earned it.

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