David Brooks is freaking out: Why the voice of the conservative establishment is finally panicking

The NYT columnist has been going through the five stages of grief in full public view. What's next?

Published January 27, 2016 10:15PM (EST)

David Brooks   (AP/Nam Y. Huh)
David Brooks (AP/Nam Y. Huh)

David Brooks is in a dark place. The New York Times opinion columnist most famous for being the sort of mild, elitist, milquetoast pundit who parlays anodyne snobbery and Washington insider status into $4 million worth of “vast spaces for entertaining” has been notoriously going through some sort of mid-life crisis online for months now. Whatever the turmoil in his personal life that may have led him to start penning columns that sound as if they were written by the spoiled offspring of Marcel Proust and Frank Bascombe, there can be no doubt that the state of his beloved Republican Party’s primary has contributed to his despair.

His latest scream into the abyss that Donald Trump has the GOP dangling over is, so far, the apotheosis of this trend (at least until he files a column written in all caps -- which we can expect no later than the beginning of April if Trump or Cruz somehow wraps up the nomination early). But before I get to that, let’s take a quick look at Brooks’s sharp descent into madness.

On August 4, less than two months after Trump announced his candidacy, Brooks wrote a column titled “Donald Trump’s Allure: Ego as Ideology.” The piece’s tone was one of dispassionate analysis and condescending amusement. There is some generic musing on the American public’s mindset in times of both prosperity and turmoil, a citation from a decades-old study of a working-class white neighborhood by a sociologist, and a hand-waving dismissal of Trump’s staying power because “his populism is pretty standard” and he has taken some liberal positions in the past.

You see, Brooks seems to be reassuring himself as much as his readers, the conservative mind is a rational one, and soon enough it will come to its senses and forget this Trump foolishness.

A month later, Brooks was still not panicking. On September 8 he published a column titled “The Anti-Party Men: Trump, Carson, Sanders and Corbyn.” In it, he flatly dismissed the possibility that Trump, Ben Carson, or Bernie Sanders is electable to the presidency, while disparaging the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, who had just become the leader of Britain’s Labour Party. These four men all have a “cult of personality” surrounding them that has fueled their popularity, abetted by the decaying of civic institutions. Still, Brooks is pretty sure that voters will eventually come back to the traditional candidates who can build coalitions and govern.

But by the end of October, enough doubt about Trump’s allegedly inevitable collapse had crept into Brooks’s mind that he felt compelled to write “A Sensible Version of Donald Trump.” Picking up from a throwaway paragraph at the end of his last Trump-themed column, this piece is the equivalent of the “bargaining” stage on the Kubler-Ross model. In it, Brooks imagines (and writes in the first person) a speech by a politician running for president who will not lecture his opponents about their moronic positions and "low energy" like some sort of philistine reality TV show host.

No, this avatar is instead a calm, social policy-oriented technocrat talking about some of the conservative policy prescriptions that soothe the anxieties of David Brooks. This candidate talks about school choice and expanding the influence of churches in their communities. He lectures his supporters about their predilection for making poor moral choices like having children out of wedlock. There is not even the thought of a nod to the economic and social pressures on the working poor that often leaves individuals with nothing but terrible choices.

This candidate, in other words, is David Brooks if he ever felt like doing anything besides riding the Acela between his $4 million house and a television studio.

Less than six weeks later, Brooks was in full-on denial. His December 4 column, “No, Donald Trump Won’t Win,” reads like the dream journal of a man clinging to the last shard of his rationality with all his fading strength. After starting off comparing Trump to a snazzy rug he saw while shopping for new carpet, Brooks goes into some generic babble about how the voters might flirt with the pretty, shiny object. But “the voting booth focuses the mind,” forcing the voter to confront the stark consequences of voting for the dazzling, seizure-inducing beauty of a fancy rug over the simple, durable, beige wall-to-wall carpet that can withstand years of abuse from pets, children, and your drunk aunt spilling her eggnog on it at the holidays. Surely this will happen with the GOP’s primary voters, or else David Brooks has wasted his life.

Then, by last week, Brooks was in a panic. His January 19 column, “Time for a Republican Conspiracy!” excoriates his party for failing to stand up to the Trump-Cruz juggernauts. He finally recognizes what has been obvious to others for years: That GOP voters are not really as anti-government as they appear. He misses the ever-present corollary, which is that conservative voters favor government when its benefits go to them, not to those lazy welfare moochers that every GOP candidate for over 40 years has brandished to scare people into voting Republican. Which is a little like missing the shark in "Jaws" even after it has thrown itself over the gunwales and eaten Quint.

Do something! Do anything! Brooks pleads with the party. But don’t give up and cede the nomination to the vile hucksters who combine to attract over 50 percent of your voters!

Which leads us to this Tuesday’s piece, titled “Stay Sane, America! Please!” It starts off with a vision of David Brooks’s version of hell, where either Trump, Cruz, or Bernie Sanders has ascended the steps of the U.S. Capitol to take the presidential oath of office:

“I am going to spend every single day between now and then [Inauguration Day] believing that neither Donald Trump nor Ted Cruz nor Bernie Sanders will be standing on that podium. One of them could win the election, take the oath, give the speech and be riding down Pennsylvania Avenue. I will still refuse to believe it.”

As the kids say, lighten up, Francis. That’s approximately 358 days of sweating over the Apocalypse, and that’s a lot of strain on a 54-year-old heart.

Brooks spends the rest of the column coming up with six reasons why maybe there is still hope that someone will rescue him from his waking nightmare. Primary campaigns aren’t settled in February, Trump and Sanders could have turnout problems, America has never elected a president so “maximally extreme from the political center,” which would be a surprise to all the members of his party who have spent seven years complaining that Barack Obama has turned the country into a centralized socialist hellhole.

Brooks ends his column by going all in on a hope sweeping the Republican establishment that has recently been noted elsewhere. Namely, that Marco Rubio will ride in on a white horse (from his current position 30 points behind Trump in the national polling averages – and dropping) to save America. Or at least the GOP. Or at least David Brooks.

One is tempted to laugh at the sight of a man who has spent his entire public career lecturing the masses for their poor morals, their sloth and laziness and indolence towards their social betters like David Brooks, suddenly freaking out because the masses have caught onto the game and are now marching on his mansion to squat in the parlor and track dirt all over his beautiful new rugs. Cheer up, Mr. Brooks. If your terrible vision of Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders taking the oath of office comes to pass, maybe your native country will offer you asylum.

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