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What David Brooks (Still) Doesn’t Understand About America

Among the finest and most thoughtful commentators plying the trade these days is David Brooks of the New York Times, whose columns are always packed with value even when they’re off-base. Case in point is his Tuesday piece [1] suggesting that those bent on thwarting Donald Trump have been going about it all wrong.

Brooks notes that Jeb Bush sought to outlast the New York billionaire, giving him time to destroy himself. Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton went the denunciation route, attacking his character. Paul Ryan tried to use him as a presidential ally with a handy pen for signing legislation. Mitch McConnell endeavored to outmaneuver him by constricting his power and reach.

They all failed. “Trumpist populist nationalism is still a rising force within the G.O.P., not a falling one,” writes Brooks. “The Bob Corkers of the party are leaving while the Roy Moores are ascending. Trump himself is unhindered while everyone else is frozen and scared.”

The result, writes Brooks, is that the Republican Party “is becoming a party permanently associated with bigotry.” Unfortunate turn of phrase. It puts Brooks in the camp of elitist scolds who denigrate their opponents as unworthy of American democracy, not unlike Hillary Clinton with her “basket of deplorables.” In fact, that sentence puts Brooks closer to Hillary Clinton in outlook than he is to the people he should be writing for as a Times columnist who’s designated a “conservative” (at least he was when he was given the column).

But Brooks recoups a bit in suggesting there is in fact a genuine debate going on: “Right now the populists have a story to tell the country about what’s gone wrong. It’s a coherent story, which they tell with great conviction. The regular Republicans have no story, no conviction and no argument. They just hem and haw and get run over.”

And what is that story? Ah, here’s where Brooks falls back into his Hillary mode, with sarcasm and dismissiveness under a veneer of objective description. He writes: “The Trump story is that good honest Americans are being screwed by aliens. Regular Americans are being oppressed by a snobbish elite that rigs the game in its favor. White Americans are being invaded by immigrants who take their wealth and divide their culture. Normal Americans are threatened by an Islamic radicalism that murders their children.”

The impetus for Brooks’ disrespectful hyperbole becomes clear in his next sentence: “This is a tribal story.” He explains: “The tribe needs a strong warrior in a hostile world. We need to build walls to keep out illegals, erect barriers to hold off foreign threats, wage endless war on the globalist elites.”

And this, writes Brooks in his column’s penultimate sentence, is “deeply wrong and un-American.” There he goes again, using words such as “un-American,” designed to cast out of the circle of respectable debate those with whom he disagrees. If these people are un-American, then they have no legitimacy in the American polity.


But how “American” is the Brooks view, encapsulated in the sentence “The whole point of America is that we are not a tribe. We are a universal nation, founded on universal principles, attracting talented people from across the globe, active across the world on behalf of all people who seek democracy and dignity”? Brooks holds up the American territorial frontier as a hallmark of this ethos and of the American identity.

There are two problems with this. First, this conception of what it means to be American has propelled the nation into a lot of folly, heartache, and international treachery. Consider the implications of “founded on universal principles…active across the world on behalf of all people who seek democracy and dignity.” Almost word for word, that’s what was said when the United States invaded Iraq, and how did that turn out? It unleashed a spate of instability and violence in that country that have generated more than 175,000 civilian deaths.

Secondly, Brooks’ description of the essence of the American identity is false. His invocation of America’s frontier—as a proxy also for the country’s “technological, scientific, social and human frontiers”—misses a fundamental reality of the American story. America was in fact a tribal enterprise.

Brooks would have us believe that the United States began as a pristine crusader state on behalf of global democracy and internationalism, a “universal nation” devoted to “diverse hopefulness” as opposed to “fear-driven homogeneity.” No, the people who ventured onto these shores and then pushed westward inexorably were highly conscious not only of their religious provenance but also of their cultural and ethnic heritage. They brutally pushed aside the aboriginal peoples, declined to mix with them, and created societies that mirrored those of the Old Country, even naming their towns and cities after those inhabited by their overseas ancestors.

As more and more people arrived from places removed from the English Motherland and other English-speaking regions (but almost entirely from Europe), those newcomers were abjured to accept the established Anglo-Saxon elite and bend to its mores and sensibilities. In return the elite gave the nation a relatively gentle and more or less disinterested stewardship based on a strong sense of national service inculcated at WASP prep schools and universities such as Yale and Harvard.

No one expressed more forcefully than Theodore Roosevelt this sentiment that newcomers must assimilate into prevailing American culture, for that culture had no intention of adjusting to the newcomers. “We freely extend the hand of welcome and good fellowship to every man,” wrote Roosevelt, “no matter what his creed and birthplace, who comes here honestly intent on becoming a good United States citizen like the rest of us; but we have a right, and it is our duty, to demand that he shall indeed become so, and shall not confuse the issues with which we are struggling by introducing among us Old-World quarrels and prejudices.”

As late as the early postwar period, the elite represented by Roosevelt still dominated many of America’s major national institutions—the big banks, the media, the universities, the foreign policy apparatus. Extensive academic treatment has been given to the ways by which the waning Anglo-Saxon elite of America, still dominating foreign policy at the end of World War II, created the postwar global structure that maintained stability for decades throughout the world.

But there were frictions, of course, as new arrivals began to chafe under America’s ancient elite, and most of it was tribal. When the Irish of Boston reached such numbers that they could upend the old WASP establishment of that city, it was tribal. When American Jews thrilled to the creation of Israel and sought to bend U.S. policy toward today’s special relationship, it was tribal. Ethnic politics is tribal politics, and ethnic politics has become an ever more powerful force within the American polity.

Brooks is not wrong when he says that much of the Trump constituency is driven by tribal impulses. But he is wrong to say that these sensibilities are un-American and the result of bigotry. Tribalism is a part of the American story, and Brooks can’t shame it away. That he wants to is encapsulated in this paragraph:

Today, the main enemy is not aliens; it’s division—between rich and poor, white and black, educated and less educated, right and left. Where there is division there are fences. Mobility is retarded and the frontier is destroyed. Trumpist populists want to widen the divisions and rearrange the fences. They want to turn us into an old, settled and fearful nation.

Aha, the true Brooks herein steps forward. It is the Trump constituency that is responsible for all the divisions between rich and poor, white and black, educated and less educated, right and left. He doesn’t quite call these people deplorable, but he comes close. If they would just stand down and give up their tribal ways, we could get back to being the America of our past and our heritage—a “universal nation” drawing unlimited immigrants to our shores in the service of a national mission to spread “democracy and dignity” around the world. Sounds like a return to George W. Bush.

This is policy folly based upon a myth of America. The divisions Brooks laments with such invidious intent won’t vanish until the fears and concerns of Trump voters are addressed in ways that can alleviate, at least to some extent, those grievances. That’s a reality that David Brooks, for all his clever locutions, can’t wish away.

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His next book, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century [2], is due out from Simon & Schuster in November.

57 Comments (Open | Close)

57 Comments To "What David Brooks (Still) Doesn’t Understand About America"

#1 Comment By Mark VA On October 7, 2017 @ 7:53 am

How about a compromise: “America is in the process of becoming a universal tribe”?

If we, or more likely our future generations, succeeded in making this universal tribal Unum viable, America can be a hope to the rest of the fellow tribalists of our small planet;

A few miscellaneous thoughts:

The breakup of the Republican and Democratic parties, resulting in new Trump and Sanders tribes, was long overdue. The previous two party system ossified into an anachronism, and became a distinction without a difference. I hope the two new tribes will find how much they have in common, for the benefit of American workers;

A lot of good can be said about the old WASP elites, once they are separated from the belief in their Nordic superiority. They did help establish a well functioning political, economic, and educational system, and did posses enough introspection to correct their tribal ways. They too emphasized the American Unum, as we should today (I say this as an Eastern European immigrant);

I believe the present dislocations will endanger American polity, if the new tribes don’t reflect and act on their commonality. If they do, they will help revitalize countless lives.

#2 Comment By VikingLS On October 7, 2017 @ 7:57 am

“It might look that way … if you ignore the legal/illegal distinction. I’m not aware of anybody who wants to throw legal immigrants out, and just what will happen with illegals isn’t yet clear.”

I am married to a legal immigrant who is pretty pro-Trump and many of the people that have been the most supportive of us are also Trump supporters.

LesB is just invoking the image of the scary Trump supporters for rhetorical effect.

“To the TAC management and board: I’m shocked! ”

@Kurt Gayle unfortunately I am not. TAC is probably not going last much longer.

#3 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 7, 2017 @ 3:03 pm

“I went to unz.com, the website of the former publisher or TAC, Ron Unz, and found this October 3rd article by Philip entitled “How I Got Fired.”

I appreciated the reference — provided. The article as have been most of his articles, informative, data driven and devastating.

I felt very uneasy reading it. Especially reading comments suggesting that anyone who criticizes Israel should be punished —

#4 Comment By Bob Roberts On October 8, 2017 @ 2:15 am

Elitecomminc.: The articles at the Unz site range from the worthwhile (e.g., a recent look at speech laws in France) to the loony (e.g., 9/11 revisionism). Steve Sailer writes a blog with daily contributions that are a delight to anyone who finds the New York Times exasperating. I’ll leave it to you to judge where Giraldi’s lands. But unfortunately the Comments sections are utterly out of control, and a number of little minds with too much time on their hands use them to squabble amongst themselves, most frequently over the Jewish menace.

#5 Comment By bob roberts On October 8, 2017 @ 4:40 am

To EliteComminc.: The writers at Unz run the gamut. Steve Sailer’s daily retorts to the New York Times and other PC outlets are intelligent and delightful. There was an excellent discussion of French speech laws recently. But some other writers are beyond the pale. And the Comments sections are abysmal, full of squabbles and unhinged anti-Jewish remarks.

#6 Comment By bt On October 9, 2017 @ 4:43 pm

Brooks is a guy who writes well, but is frequently deceptive and often wrong.

His favorite prose strategy is “name-calling”. Set up the straw man, slap a bad label like “Un-American” on it, and there it is. The bad guys are wrong; David Brooks knows what America needs right now – which is to usually to do whatever thing that the Republican party wants to do at that moment – but which David Brooks will pretends is some moderate compromise approach deeply steeped in our wonderful Americanism that he so well understands.

But in fact, Compromise for David Brooks typically means that the Democrats should go along with whatever the Republicans want to do.

If you are David Brooks you do this over and over and over, year after year. It never really changes and it always has a buyer.

#7 Comment By bt On October 9, 2017 @ 8:49 pm

A Trump voter grievance as stated:

“US transnational oligopolies have pursued mega-profits both by relocation of industrial production from the US to low-wage developing countries, and by large-scale immigration of both unskilled and skilled workers to the US. “


It’s quite true. But the fundamental error in judgment that these Trump voters have made and are making is thinking that voting for Republicans will somehow cure this kind of problem.

The GOP will never put a stop to this, because this is how they want things to be. And there will always be disingenuous apologists for hire like David Brooks tut tut tut-ing about however could this have happened to our beloved Republic – even thought they’ve been enabling the rotten scam for their entire careers.

It takes a lot of flag-waving, gay-bashing and race-baiting to get working class people to consistently vote for the political party that is screwing them day in, day out. It’s a stunning achievement really.