David Brooks is a scorned lover. This refers not to the circumstances surrounding his divorce from his wife of twenty-seven years, finalized in 2014 while he was writing The Road to Character. No, Brooks has instead been scorned by his life’s true love: conservatism. “I fell in love with conservatism in my 20s,” Brooks writes in his latest elegy for the American right in the Atlantic, “What passes for ‘conservatism’ now, however, is nearly the opposite of the Burkean conservatism I encountered then.... The rich philosophical perspective that dazzled me then has been reduced to Fox News and voter suppression.”
Brooks describes an American conservatism that achieved its ideal form in the roughly half century between Barry Goldwater and Mitt Romney. This era of fusionism was a “vibrant, forward-looking conservatism.” The oxymoron between the adjective and the noun of this political program is apparently not a sign of doomed incoherence, but rather of a “fractiousness [that] seemed to work.” Indeed, a progressive ethos colors Brooks’ conservatism throughout. For Brooks, “Perpetual dynamism and creative destruction are big parts of the American tradition that conservatism defends.” During his Golden Age of American conservatism, “You don’t see people trying to revert to some past glory. Rather, they are attracted to innovation and novelty, smitten with the excitement of new technologies.”
What Donald Trump ushered in—or, put more accurately, the discontent within the country that Donald Trump seized—was certainly not a vibrant, forward-looking ‘conservatism.’ It was a response to the failures of that very program.
To his credit, Brooks himself identifies the discontent that made Trump possible:
By 2016, [national] confidence was in tatters. Communities were falling apart, families were breaking up, America was fragmenting. Whole regions had been left behind, and many elite institutions had shifted sharply left and driven conservatives from their ranks. Social media had instigated a brutal war of all against all, social trust was cratering, and the leadership class was growing more isolated, imperious, and condescending. “Morning in America” had given way to “American carnage” and a sense of perpetual threat.
All of this is true—but communities didn’t fall apart on their own. Family breakdown didn’t occur in a vacuum. These are results of a sick culture, one that has been rotting for years, and the policies that enabled its decay. Brooks recognizes the imperative of a conservatism worthy of rebuilding the culture: “Conservatism resonated with me because it recognized that culture is more important than the state in driving history,” he writes, before quoting Edmund Burke: “Manners are of more importance than laws.”
So the question becomes: What does a healthy culture look like? In the most telling passage of his Atlantic essay, we see that Brooks would answer that question very differently than would the conservatives he decries:
Because Trumpians live in a state of perpetual war, they need to continually invent existential foes—critical race theory, nongendered bathrooms, out-of-control immigration. They need to treat half the country, metropolitan America, as a moral cancer, and view the cultural and demographic changes of the past 50 years as an alien invasion.
Critical race theory threatens to create a generation of citizens irreparably divided along racial lines and fundamentally hostile to their country’s history and tradition. Nongendered bathrooms deny the basic truth of masculinity and femininity and will only accelerate the crisis of family formation and stability. Immigration is indeed out of control, and is quickly transforming the distinct culture of the United States into something unrecognizable to past generations, rendering Americans homeless in their own land. These are not “invented” foes. They disproportionately affect those outside metropolitan America, who can’t afford private schools or gated communities. And they are, in fact, existential.
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Edmund Burke is right that manners are important. But so is truth. When our political class can no longer distinguish between citizen and non-citizen, male and female, a more muscular defense of truth is needed. And as this new right transcends its Trumpian origins, its prospects for uniting manners, truth, and muscularity increase. This is a project that is alive and well. And it’s certainly worth defending.
Ultimately, it seems Brooks’ elegy for the American right suggests more about his membership in that isolated, imperious, and condescending leadership class than it does about any “death” of conservatism. Conservatism is as vibrant as it has been in decades. It is no longer wedded to an outdated policy program, and is instead finally having debates about which foreign, economic, and immigration policies will best serve the interests of the American people.
Brooks, again to his credit, certainly senses the inadequacies of the postwar right’s economic program. “The purpose of the right became maximum individual freedom, and especially economic freedom, Brooks writes, “without much of a view of what that freedom was for.” But when it comes to those pesky cultural issues, the ones far less en vogue among the denizens of the Upper East Side than are critiques of corporate tax rates, Brooks is a member of his class in good standing. It’s no surprise he feels more at home in “the more promising soil of the moderate wing of the Democratic Party.” Culture does indeed matter most, and the culture we seek to conserve is not the same.