Political commentator and columnist David Brooks wrote in a recent “New York Times” (1) essay lamenting the emergence of Donald Trump that Trumpism, such as it is, represents a paradigm shift in conservative thinking and, by extension, an opportunity to redefine conservatism. The problem, as always with conservatism is that, as the Brooks’ effort clearly demonstrates, conservatives first fail to recognize the shortcomings of their own intellectual constructions and secondly they fail further to recognize the brazen internal contradictions between their major and minor premises and the conclusions they divine therefrom. The result, all too predictably are babbling Brooks of nonsense.
Brooks rightly now describes the current Republican malaise as “groaning under the Reagan Orthodoxy” (2) that somehow went from a Rising Tide America to a Coming Apart America.
Now along comes Trump whom Brooks describes as an “Angel of Destruction”, blowing to “smithereens” the comfortable old bromides. “He represents not only a rejection of the existing Reaganite establishment, but also a rejection of Reaganite foreign policy (he is less globalist) and Reaganite domestic policy (he is friendlier to the state).” Trump, in Brooks’ view is “prompting what Thomas Kuhn, in his theory of scientific revolutions, called a model crisis”. Declaring Trump totally devoid of any ideas or policies, Brooks concludes that Trump “will almost certainly go down to a devastating defeat either in the general election or—God help us—as the worst president in American history.” (3)
But, alas for Brooks at least, every looming political catastrophe bears a silver lining. Now is the chance, he writes, for a “mental purging: casting aside many existing mental categories and presuppositions, to shift your identity from one with a fixed mindset to one in which you are a seeker and open to anything. The second step is probably embedding: going out and seeing America with fresh eyes and listening to American voices with fresh ears….” (4)
Brooks then waxes on about the need to replace the soulless and loveless Trumpist vision with compassion, moving conservative doctrine to a more sociologically compassionate philosophy and away from the fetish conservatives demonstrate for tax cuts, enterprise zones, and the “utility-driven individual”. “Somehow”, Brooks writes, “the Republican Party will have to rediscover a language of loving thy neighbor…. because today’s problems relate to binding a fragmenting society, reweaving family and social connections, relating across the diversity of a globalized world. Homo economicus is a myth and conservatism needs a worldview that is accurate about Human nature.” (5) Indeed, so it does.
Again, to paraphrase Gibbon, if with regard to our conservative brethren “experience is powerless to instruct”, we must at least give Brooks credit here for some well-intentioned, if not long overdue soul-searching. It is not often that we find this kind of courage exhibited so publicly among the chattering class.
But, alas, our friend has miles to go before he sleeps. We can begin with the failure to honestly apprehend our national experience. Referring to the legacy of his patron Saint Ronald Reagan, Brooks openly declares that “We’ve gone from Rising Tide America to Coming Apart America”, from the “Reagan worldview…based on the idea that a rising tide would lift all boats. But that’s clearly no longer true.” (6) It never was.
Brooks, like all of the chattering class, the myriad talking heads that sometimes enlighten but often pollute the airwaves, is a victim of his own self-imposed myopia. He has spent a lifetime caught in the confines of the Washington Beltway and the conservative echo-chamber. The fact is that had he made even a modest effort to expand his horizons and, therefore, his peripheral vision, he would have discovered that the Kennedy, not Reagan, dictum that a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ while administered by a good Liberal-Democratic administration became, in malignant conservative hands, more properly “a rising tide lifts all yachts”.
To discover this, Brother Brooks would not have been required to read the collective works of Karl Marx, or even those of Jeremy Bentham. He would not have been required to consult with pols like Ted Kennedy, or even a Bernie Sanders. He would not have had to search in vain for a conservative stink-tank offering an alternative point of view. All he would have had to do was consult the likes of Kevin Phillips—author of Nixon’s Southern Strategy—and longtime card-carrying Republican who has written extensively about the lingering effects of Reaganomics. Beginning in the late 80’s right after Reagan left office, Phillips began to publish the early returns and by 1993 he declared straightforwardly in his book “Boiling Point” (7), that the middle class had lost ground, if not taken a thrashing, under Reagan—even during the High Tide period of the 80’s when the policies first went into effect. It hasn’t got any better in the ensuing quarter century as administrations both Democratic and Republican have ratified the inspired stupidity of what the host of “Death Valley Days” had wrought. The returns have been in now for over quarter century, we are now nearly two generations into this failed experiment and only now a lonely soul far off on the political wrong begins to give voice to doubt. It has been a long time coming.
What I am suggesting here is that Brooks has not gone nearly far enough in casting aside long held categories and presuppositions, beginning of course with the category that man is entirely a utility-driven economic animal and with the supposition that unfettered capital will ‘raise all boats’. The first is a deeply one-dimensional, if not completely self-serving (from the view of the capitalist elites) proposition and the second has never been demonstrated in the whole of human experience. Indeed, precisely the opposite occurs with nauseating certainty.
Secondly the conclusions divined by late 20th century conservatism are wholly at odds, it should now be painfully apparent with the objective, empirical, measurable reality—as writers like Phillips have so laboriously and conclusively demonstrated. Plainly one simply cannot institute a regime in which a form of Social Darwinism is fostered which does not in the end strain the social, economic and political bonds to the breaking point. A clear contradiction emerges in which the “freedom” of those who through effort and intelligence, or inheritance and sloth, assume such massive advantages as to stifle the aspirations if not the very well-being of the rest of society. Society bifurcates into the Have’s and Have-Not’s. The Middle Class gives ground, as does the ‘political center’. Politics becomes a reflection of the divisions now deep in a society coming apart.
It's the Coming Apart America, in Brooks phrase, that Trumpism represents. In subsequent columns Brooks admonishes us to forge ‘intermediate’ relationships, and make ‘Covenants’ with each other (8). All that is well and good but he is overlooking the necessary first step and that is to recognize the damage that Reagan had wrought and to repudiate it. “Reagan orthodoxy”, wrote Brooks, “…. was right for the 1980’s but has become increasingly obsolete” (9). This represents not even the first step toward honesty. No, David. Reagan Orthodoxy is a purely 19th century construct and was obsolete at conception; that it ill-suited the 1980’s has been demonstrated by your fellow conservative and former Republican Kevin Phillips. No, David, there are reasons why the country and your movement is groaning under the weight of the Reagan Orthodoxy and that is that it never worked.
And now, your movement and your party are finally being abandoned as those who create the wealth through their labor have become painfully aware that they do not share the same interests or the same world-view as those who appropriate the value of that labor and manage it for their own selfish ends.
Trump would be the worst president in American history? That is quite an assertion betraying a pique unbecoming a man revisiting the country with fresh eyes and ears. In any case it may be an abyss too far. It is, for instance, difficult to imagine a President Trump sending troops off to the frontier as states secede from the union, or playing guitar while a major city drowns.
(1). Brooks, David. “The Post-Trump Era” “New York Times” March 25, 2016. Page A23
(7). see Phillips, Kevin. “Boiling Point: Democrats, Republicans, and the Decline of Middle-Class Prosperity”. 1993 Random House, New York. 307 pages
(8). Brooks, David. “How Covenants Make Us” “New York Times” April 5, 2016. Page A23
Brooks, David. “How to Fix Politics” New York Times” April 12, 2016. Page A23
(9). Op Cit