There are moments when I am tempted to start a sub-blog that would comprise commentaries on op-eds David Brooks publishes in the New York Times. Partly this stems from the delicious Schadenfreude that one experiences while watching this leading journalistic light of moderate conservatism try to cope with Donald Trump burning the Republican Party to the ground.
I regard current political developments in the United States as deeply worrisome? Trump isn’t Hitler, but occasionally his brand of patriarchal ethno-populism achieves enough overlap with the rhetoric of early National Socialism to make those of us conversant in the relevant literature sit up and take notice.
It is, therefore, rather pleasant to note the discomfort that these phenomena cause, at least among some people, on the other side of the political spectrum.
I write these lines having just read Brooks’s latest piece on the New York Times opinion page. The experience of reading it will be familiar to anyone who has ever watched David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive: you go along for a while thinking that things are making a certain amount of sense. Then you get to the last half hour and at the end you (or anyone I’ve ever talked to who’s seen it) are asking, “What the hell just happened here?”
Brooks’s piece has the same perplexing quality. He starts with a paean to the conservatism of the 1980s: moralistic and bookish, but (at least in his telling) not nasty and braying as it is today. This was the conservatism of William F. Buckley Jr. and Irving Kristol and James Q. Wilson. They were men who had read a few books and weren’t afraid to let people know they’d understood them. Motivated by conservative social convictions, they view participation in the Republican Party as a sort of afterthought, as “sort of cheesy.” I will say at this point that I remember the conservatism of the 1980s, the era in which I reached political (if not personal) maturity, rather differently. In the era of the late Cold War, there was a strong element of jingoism, of “America, love it or leave it” in the conservative pronouncements of the day. But Brooks is older than I am by a generation, and perhaps he saw a different side of things.
The metamorphosis from that idyllic past to the Trumpism of today’s Republican Party Brooks traces to three factors. The first is the media environment. Brooks claims that conservatism transformed itself from “small magazines” to the rage-driven media productions of Bill O’Reilly, Anne Coulter, Glen Beck, and the rest. Once again, the truth of this narrative has something to do with perspective. Those who recall the 1980s will remember Morton Downey Jr., who spewed cigarette smoke and hard right invective in equal measure. It was meant to be over the top, but it was one of those jokes that people heard with a nudge and a wink.
Be that as it may, Brooks is clearly right that the media environment is much different now. Conservatives had always been put out by what they perceived as the “liberal bias” of prominent newsmen like Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, and Bill Moyers (the last having served for two years as Lyndon Baines Johnson’s press secretary). The rise of Fox News was seen as a way to compete in the media war of (or on) ideas, and the rise of clownish bloviators like Rush Limbaugh et al. was a logical consequence of that process.
Brooks’s second factor is that “conservative opinion-meisters began to value politics over everything else.” Well, how could you blame them? After their twenty years of courting poor white southerners and Reagan’s America, along comes Bill Clinton who cloaks liberal Reaganism with progressive language and a southern twang and manages to expropriate the center of the political spectrum from a Republican establishment that thought it had staked a claim that would last a generation. The substanceless politics of the American right in the Clinton era, with its congressional investigations, Kenneth Starr, and the ludicrous attempt at impeachment was an indication that the Republican Party had conceded defeat in the war of practical political ideas.
Third, and probably closest to something that is actually important, Brooks argues that conservative elites sowed the wind by pushing anti-government rhetoric and is now reaping the whirlwind of unrestrained right-wing populism that refuses to acknowledge their leadership:
“For years, middle- and working-class Americans have been suffering from stagnant wages, meager opportunity, social isolation and household fragmentation. Shrouded in obsolete ideas from the Reagan years, conservatism had nothing to offer these people because it didn’t believe in using government as a tool for social good. Trump demagogy filled the void.”
Well, when you’re right, you’re right. The Republican Party program since the 1960s has been predicated on getting whites in the lower reaches of the income distribution to vote for policies that funneled money to the top. Sadly, the so-called “job creators” who were supposed to be the agents of a more rational (not to say egalitarian) distribution of wealth simply used this money to place increasingly exotic bets on the equities market. For those who then realized that they’d been sold a bill of goods, but who were still unwilling to abandon the affect-laden connection to the capitalist mode of production, the answer was a radicalization of the ethno-nationalist rhetoric. That way Trumpism lies.
So far, so good for Mr. Brooks in his attempts to come to terms with the world in which we find ourselves. But rather than wallowing in despair, Brooks evinces a determination to see Sisyphus as happy. Brooks argues (citing former National Affairs editor Yuval Levin as he is wont to do in moments of stress) that conservative crazy tends to be the province of the old and that the rise of “youngish reformicons” constitutes hope for the future of the Republican Party and of conservatism generally.
At this point, one is reminded of the exchange between Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder in Blazing Saddles. Any of David Brooks’s readers who have made it far enough to come upon this reversal of perspective must be very, very puzzled. Given that the Republicans are on the verge of splitting into a white nationalist mass party and a moderate elitist rump, Brooks’s conclusion is bizarre in the extreme. He’s right that younger conservatives are, “comfortable with ethnic diversity and are weary of the Fox News media-politico complex.” But this doesn’t mean that it’s likely that they’ll grow up to be Russell Kirk-style conservatives. In all likelihood, it means that they’ll grow up to be Democrats.
Maureen Dowd got it exactly right when she wrote in a New York Times column in August that “[t]he Republicans have their candidate: It’s Hillary.” Indeed, one of the truly impressive things about the media stylings of Trump and his flunkies is the degree to which they’ve managed to convince large swaths of the American electorate that Clinton’s moderate Reaganism is less important than her lady parts (or than Benghazi or emails or some other foolishness).
This is the thing that ought to haunt the dreams of people like David Brooks. Clinton’s poll numbers are significantly depressed by the fact that lots of people (prompted by years of overheated media rhetoric and out-and-out sexism) don’t like her personally. But any white male running on the Democratic ticket and espousing the same policies would be absolutely jackhammering Trump, whose bizarre utterances and pattern of sexual abuse of women would have made him politically radioactive in any normal political season.
This, then, is the problem for the Republicans going forward: they’ve set out their ideological position so long on hatred of the opponent grounded in race, or gender, or personality (or some combination thereof) that they no longer have sufficient ideological capital to function as a major political party. What will happen to the enthno-nationalist masses stirred up by Trumpism is difficult to predict with certainty. But it’s hard to imagine that they could be shoe-horned back into a Republican party with millennials who, polls suggest, don’t share their political obsessions and neuroses. This could shake out a lot of ways, but none of them justify the sort of cockeyed optimism that Brooks expresses in the last lines of his piece.
The age of intellectual conservatism (accepting for the moment that such a thing ever existed) is over. Or, rather, it has migrated to the Democratic Party. In this moment when the United States seems to teeter on the brink of something systemically much worse than the unfortunate things that have been going on for the last two decades, one can at least take a little comfort in seeing the distress that the whole affair is causing to those who cynically watched while what would become Trumpism gestated in the heart of the Republican Party. Who knows if they can pick up the pieces, but it seems clear that a new gold age of conservatism is not on the horizon.