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

His "universal nation" idea has gotten us into trouble before.
David Brooks

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 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, is due out from Simon & Schuster in November.



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