David Brooks has once again proven to be entirely out of touch with the general political conversation in America. By general I mean the conversations happening during lunch breaks, the conversations through cigarette smoke or over beers, the conversations that accompany barbeque or a bar’s neon lights, the settings of political conversation all over middle America, a place even he admits he has ignored for far too long. In a recent article titled “If Not Trump, What?”, Brooks reveals, without due shame, his realization that he has been entirely disconnected from whatever circumstances have attracted republicans, and much of blue-collar America, to Donald Trump. Elitists be not afraid, however, since he avoids learning any enduring lessons in the process or tackling any real ideas, aside from their shallowest definitions.
Nearly right out of the gate Brooks undermines his reconciliation with the reality of Trump’s popularity. Still clinging to his beltway higher-knowledge, bestowed by moneyed think tanks and donor-funded ideologues, Brooks declares the Trump ascendancy to the position of nominee as a “Joe McCarthy moment” and that “People will be judged by where they stood at this time.” The man is ready to admit defeat, but the purist witch-hunt is apparently still afoot. Unable to throw his lot in with the rabble who gave Trump more votes than any other candidate, Brooks continues to content himself with standing sanctimoniously by as they eat and drink their own damnation. A man of often correct predictions, which I say with extreme sarcasm, then claims that “Those who walked with Trump will be tainted forever after the degradation of standards and general election slaughter.” Step right up ladies and gentlemen because Brooks is handing out scarlet letters.
After his initial moral self-license, Brooks argues that we should “all of us . . . take the long view”, since the populist insurgency “Has reminded us how much pain there is in this country.” I find it pretty obvious that if one must be shocked into seeing the pain in their own country, then they are doing a colossally miserable job at being a part of it. This is even more obvious when he goes on to say “A record number of Americans believe the American dream is out of reach.” If Brooks had taken a step outside his bubble-world, then he would realize the direness. Take the credit card away from any middle to low income American and see if they can afford repairs on their car or emergency expenses or anything beyond getting by. The results may surprise someone like him. The average American is living on borrowed resources, just like the nation itself, and nobody with a modicum of fiscal responsibility here outside the beltway feels especially good about that.
At this point, Brooks clambers into the confessional booth and admits that he has been numb to much of America’s pain since he “Slipped into a bad pattern, spending large hunks of my life in the bourgeois strata . . . with people with similar status and demographics to my own.” He laments his unwillingness to pull himself from that mindset and then goes on to declare: “But this column is going to try to do that over the next months and years.” I apologize if I don’t give Mr. Brooks the benefit of the doubt but by opening his article with a stalwart opposition to the rise of Trump, the very entity many people outside his bubble have demanded, his chances don’t look so good. Infiltrating a group while decrying the figurehead does not point to any kind of success. It seems to me that seeking common ground with Trump voters while also denying Trump any sort of legitimacy is a failed enterprise. If I were to hazard a guess, then it is because people like Brooks consider themselves fundamentally better than the Trumps of the world thus meeting them on their own terms is utterly unnecessary. By extension I cannot see how Brooks would realistically be willing to step down off his throne to actually engage the people who cling to Trump, not because of his refinement or civility, but the hand he is actually willing to offer them, a hand urgently desired, something Brooks is only just now seeing for the first time.
Brooks goes to drift into the realm of insanity. “We’ll probably need a new national story. Up until now, America’s story has been some version of the rags-to-riches story, the lone individual who rises from the bottom through pluck and work. But that story isn’t working for people anymore.” Dave reveals his utter contempt and arrogant underestimation for the average American in these lines. Let me clue you in on something Brooks, if you had worked for a day in your life at an actual job, or had any connection at all to the blue collar American tradition, then you would know that the rags to riches story is not a narrative. It has been the reality for a long time. I come from a blue collar family. My father built himself up from nothing to the point that he could buy a house and provide for a family without a college education, without massive amounts of debt and without even a credit card. In today’s America this scenario is nearly unheard of, and not because some narrative is not working. The rug has been pulled out from under blue-collar America, and claiming it is a problem of “national story” is just the sort of a thing a person with no connection to reality would say. It’s all stories and fables for Brooks because he’s avoided the real thing for so long. Even his diagnoses of the problem are based off of some fake untethered confabulation of life in America in the bottom fifty percent. Brooks prescribing panaceas for working class America is as hopeless as an economist trying to solve a recession for the hobbits in Middle Earth.
Sadly, this is not the worst of it. Brooks descends even deeper into his maddened well of ignorance and absurdity. Now that his neo-liberal pipe dream has been rejected by a large segment of voters in his party, he decides to throw a tantrum and throw the baby out with the bathwater before burning the house down and driving a bulldozer over the smoldering rubble:
The traditional masculine ideal isn’t working anymore. It leads to high dropout rates, high incarceration rates, low labor force participation rates. This is an economy that rewards emotional connection and verbal expressiveness. Everywhere you see men imprisoned by the old reticent, stoical ideal.
From my position as a blue-collar wrench turner, all I see is a shocking lack of the hardworking even-handed stoical ideal in society and the workplace. The people who keep their heads down and avoid unnecessary politics and social entanglement keep their jobs, the rest enter a downward spiral of stress and self-destruction. The only reason why people are not rewarded for patience and hard work and give up on it is not because some cosmic worm has turned but because the rewards are less and less. If Brooks had taken one step outside his bubble in the last few years then he would know that people are not working because most jobs available are part-time, pay poorly, and offer no opportunity for advancement. I cannot count the number of times I have spoken to people who want to work more but are unable to find something steady or cobble together enough part-time gigs to provide for themselves. The stoic ideal of the dignified working-man or woman has not gone anywhere. It isn’t being rewarded anymore. Like any academic who moonlights in the close examination of their own colon, Brooks is going after a societal reaction, a symptom and not the problem itself.
He closes out the piece with vague grasps at nationalistic communal experiences that can heal everyone and allow him to take a deep breath and collapse on his couch in the evening with a glass of wine and the assurance that he doesn’t have to worry about the pesky everyday folks shattering his perceptions about his fantasy-land beltway-inspired flyover America. And why shouldn’t he feel accomplished? This editorial, like many of his lately, show just how comfortable his existential crises are. He has addressed Trump supporters without addressing Trump on his own terms, bypassed the real problems of stagnant economy and lack of real growth with meta-societal psychobabble prognostications, written off the very real pain of American workers as a problem of narrative and determined that his soul-searching needed to mend his perspective can come from some daydream tour of American angst cooked up by the other commentators he references constantly as if they are any less clueless as he is. My advice to Brooks is to keep writing fiction and stop worrying about reality. A great fantasy writer can build a world so real in their imagination that they can explore the minutia and create something that feels at times very real. He should keep it up, since he shows great potential, and those of us here on planet earth certainly won’t miss him.