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The Human Right

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If the name David Frum is at all familiar to British ears, it is generally closely accompanied by "the man who coined the phrase 'Axis of Evil'". This may be enough for some readers to dismiss anything he has to say as the work of a crypto-fascist, imperialist running dog, but they do so at their peril.

Once a fierce ideological warrior, Frum has, since the late '00s, been increasingly alarmed and appalled at the extremist direction taken by the modern Republican party. In blogposts, essays and columns, he bears lonely witness for a better kind of American conservatism; this piece is probably the most complete account of his current views. His ideal conservative movement would be environmentally aware, tolerant of minorities, technocratic more than ideological. Above all, it would respond to the actual needs of the American people, which leads me to the subject of this review.

Patriots, Frum's debut novel, purports to be an unsparing exposé of modern American politics - and, indeed, it is. In methodical and devastating fashion, the author dissects each and every dyspeptic, jaundiced organ of the body politic, or more specifically the right-wing parts of same. The book's true and lasting impact, however, may lie elsewhere. Frum, an unabashed free-marketeer and longtime Republican footsoldier, has written a novel of class warfare.

Do I exaggerate? Very little, I think. Consider the following extracts, all taken from the same brief chapter:

But step inside, help yourself to a glass of champagne from a waiter, then walk toward the wall of glass at the back of the marble-floored reception room: first you stared out toward the frozen rocky Potomac River and across to the cliffs of the Maryland shore. Then the eye was drawn downward, toward the rest of the house: three stories of living space cantilevered from the cliff face.

The guest list sparkled as brightly as the vermeil electric candlestick sconces.

As the waiters removed the gold-rimmed plates, Forrest rose to his feet to propose his own toast - not in diet Coke, but in the latest of the evening's succession of costly wines.

On and on it goes throughout, with every opulent detail of this barely-fictional universe described in pornographic detail amid a flurry of designer brand names. Meanwhile, there is a constant, distant-but-menacing backdrop of economic deprivation and misery in America at large. The streets are crowded with the homeless and desperate, but to the novel's privileged characters, these people barely register as an annoyance. Something clearly has to give, which is where our protagonist and narrator comes in.

Walter Schotzke is the aimless scion to a celebrated mustard dynasty, quietly drifting through his twenties with no career, no animating principles and no plan save waiting for his inheritance. Having exhausted the patience of his domineering grandmother and doting girlfriend, young Walter finds himself parachuted into a job in the office of a Senator, a friend of the family.

His arrival in Washington comes at a propitious time - for him, anyway. The nation's first black president has just lost re-election to a popular, Eisenhower-esque former general and war hero. On assuming office, the new president declares his determination to solve the nation's many problems by working across party lines. This outrages the hardline conservatives in his own party, who immediately stage a mutiny. Through a complex series of events, Walter becomes an integral part of this conspiracy, largely against his own (negligible) will.

Patriots takes place in a universe closely adjacent to our own. The two parties have different names, the economic crisis has different, if vaguely-defined, causes and no real-life figures appear. Perhaps most significantly, America is trapped in a military quagmire - in Mexico, not the Middle East. Frum, a man forlornly resigned to having "former speechwriter for George W. Bush" as a semi-official first name, may have made the latter change to keep his own baggage out of the reader's mind.

In any case, the conceit works, with anti-Mexican paranoia becoming a substitute for the anti-Muslim demagoguery that is the bread and butter of so much discourse on the American right. When a military scandal brings the loyalty of Mexican-American soldiers into question, the "Constitutionalist" mutineers seize on the opportunity. An angry populist movement is brought into existence to apply pressure on the White House, cheered on by rabble-rousing radio hosts, Patriot (aka Fox) News and other thinly-disguised mainstays of the conservative movement. As Walter bears witness to and participates in these machinations, his conscience begins to rebel.

Here, the class-warfare angle becomes crucial. Frum draws the rank-and-file of the Tea Party analogue (the "Trucker Protests") with a great deal of sympathy, as people struggling through hard times, angry, confused and manipulated by elites. It is the latter for whom he reserves his deepest contempt. The central point here is unmistakable: these are people with nothing at stake. As one of the book's antagonists puts it:

Monroe Williams was the greatest thing ever to happen to talk radio. Galvanized our audience. Winning this election has put them to sleep. Now I can wake them up again.

In other words: it's a mortgage to you, to me it's just business. Frum depicts a world where the exercise of power takes place entirely in a gilded bubble of penthouses and champagne receptions, a place where "recession" is a completely abstract concept. I was reminded of the scenes in Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall where Eva Braun desperately organises wild bacchanals in the Führerbunker as Berlin collapses around her ears.

To be clear, these are not Nazis and the Red Army is not yet at the gates. Nevertheless, the extremes of social stratification and elite indifference depicted here would not disgrace a Marxist pamphlet - I mean that as a compliment - and the author's righteous anger crackles through every page. If you want to know how the United States government ended up spending most of 2011 arguing fruitlessly over the budget deficit while millions of Americans continued to lose jobs, money and hope, look no further.

American society and politics are a legitimately fascinating topic in themselves, but what specific appeal does the novel hold for the British reader? Well, as is so often the case, the United States is here a distorted mirror for our own political malaise. Our leaders may not be as obscenely plutocratic as their transatlantic counterparts, but nor do they inhabit the same world as most of their voters. Cameron and his circle are overwhelmingly Old Etonians. Miliband is the son of a famous Marxist intellectual. Nick Clegg attended Westminster School. Think of Patriots as the canary down the mineshaft: this is what happens when the concerns of the majority are edged out of politics altogether.

All this might give you the impression that this is a dour and self-serious political tract. Nothing could be further from the truth. The novel is animated by a wry, understated wit and a rich sense of absurdity, the latter probably a necessity to stave off the author's despair in the reality he is depicting. Obsessive Washington-watchers like me will also have fun spotting the real-life figures whose fictional counterparts are subjected to brutal demolition jobs. I didn't think my opinion of the late and little-lamented Andrew Breitbart could be any lower than it already was. I was wrong.

Inevitably for a first novel, there are imperfections. The author has set himself a prohibitively difficult balancing act: Walter Schotzke must simultaneously be a clueless young wastrel carried along on the tide AND the vehicle for Frum's acid, well-informed satirical observations. Occasionally this results in the narrator displaying an incongruent self-awareness, as though temporarily possessed by the soul of, say, a jaded, fifty-something Canadian-American pundit.

I would also have appreciated a deeper examination of racial issues, which are to America as class is to us, though I appreciate a novel can only focus on so many things at once. In fact, there is one very subtle and telling moment that says more than any ten-thousand-word polemic on the subject ever could. At the luxurious gathering depicted in the extracts above, the host, in a flourish of anti-immigrant chauvinism, informs his guests that every member of the serving staff that evening is a natural-born American. The narrator confirms this visually, while glancing over a secondary detail: every single server is black.

As Patriots drew to its surprisingly optimistic conclusion, I was reminded of George Orwell's comment on Dickens; that his work displayed "generous anger". As those of us who have followed his writing in recent years can testify, that description fits David Frum elegantly. This book is the work of that rare thing: a member of the elite with full awareness of his own privilege, desperately trying to shake some sense into his peers. For the sake of reason, we must hope he succeeds.

An earlier version of this review was posted at Amazon.com.